Farewell to Khatami
Interview with student activist Saeed Razavi-Faqih
By Kaveh Ehsani
July 30, 2003
Saeed Razavi-Faqih is a student at Tarbiat-Modarres University
in Tehran and a member of the steering council of the main national
student organization, the Office for the Consolidation of Unity
(OCU). Razavi-Faqih has played a key role in the leadership of
Iranian student protests in December 2002 and previously. Kaveh
Ehsani, a contributing editor to the Middle East Report) spoke
with him by telephone on July 8, 2003, the day before the anniversary
of major demonstrations in 1999, which were forcibly repressed
by the regime.
Many expected that rallies commemorating the 1999
events would rock Tehran again, especially after a dramatic series
of student protests over tuition hikes in the month of June. Reports
from Iran conflict as to the size of demonstrations on July 9,
but analysts concur that they were much smaller than anticipated.
A crackdown by the regime was likely one reason. Razavi-Faqih,
for instance, was arrested on July 10 and remains in detention.
This interview first appeared on the
web site of Middle East Report, to which I am a contributing editor.
What was the source of the June 2003 disturbances
around the universities in Tehran and other cities?
The June clashes around the universities should
be seen as linked to similar events that occurred in the late fall
of 2002, when
the death sentence against Prof. Hashem Aghajari [on charges of
blasphemy] led to an unprecedented explosion of spontaneous student
protests across the country that lasted for more than two weeks
in December. Aghajari's sentence was reduced, but he was
kept in jail.
By the time the February 2003 elections for local
councils took place, a noticeable shift in attitude had taken place.
For the first time in the past six years, the student organizations
refused to nominate candidates or to actively campaign in the elections.
The main reason for this apathy was that rank-and-file university
students no longer believed that reforms or elections could bring
about the political changes they desire.
Mohammad Khatami, the
elected president, is not effective, and the parliament has not
been able to implement its reformist agenda. So by the time the
universities were engulfed yet again in a wave of national protests
this June, the students were no longer willing to accept that working
within the framework of the reformist movement would satisfy their
Were the June protests different from the student
protests over the Aghajari trial in 2002?
Yes, there were some significant differences. Last
fall, ordinary people showed a lot of sympathy for students, but
would not get
directly involved in the demonstrations themselves. This time around,
popular participation was much more significant. Often student
organizers lost control of the protests.
The police managed to
bring the area surrounding the student dormitories under control,
but then the protests spread elsewhere in the city, to faraway
neighborhoods like Narmak or Tehran-Pars where no students live.
Now we have a situation where, following a small spark, the general
public turned against a rigid system that is unwilling to bow
to popular demands.
In July 1999, the students were provoked
into confrontation by thugs loyal to regime conservatives. Did
happen this time
There is evidence of that, and we suspect an attempt
to set a trap for student leaders, political activists and parliamentary
deputies. We need to be alert to neutralize this conspiracy. The
mood among students is highly explosive, and any collective action
can be derailed easily into uncontrolled radicalism.
is that it is the other side that ultimately benefits from this
situation. We must be vigilant and avoid getting into a situation
that is out of our control. Our initial plans to turn the commemoration
of the July 9, 1999 events into a large and peaceful event were
dealt a serious blow.
Do you believe that the recent clashes signal
a new political situation?
What we have realized is that
the majority of students no longer want to maintain any dialogue
with the regime. Previously, the
students distinguished between the reformers in government, whom
the students helped to elect to office and with whom they shared
many concerns, and the hardliners, whom they had not elected and
who were intent on maintaining their authoritarian grip on power.
But the events of the past months, and especially
these past few weeks [as supra-parliamentary conservative bodies
legislation enhancing Khatami's powers], have deeply changed
this attitude. Students believe that some of the government reformers
are sincere in their commitment to change, but are simply powerless
to deliver on their promises. Their presence in the government
only prolongs the life of a system that is incapable of reform.
Following the recent attacks on students by vigilantes
and thugs, the students wrote a frankly worded letter to Khatami,
him either to stop these violations and punish the culprits, or
to resign and avoid legitimizing this regime. This is an important
new step for the student movement, because prior to this point
the student movement acted within the system, as a part of the
Following these recent events, the student movement
has disassociated itself from the regime altogether. Some of us
even do not want to stay within the existing framework of the Office
for Consolidation of Unity (OCU) [an Islamic students' association,
and one of the few autonomous political organizations allowed to
operate in universities], because it is an official institution
sanctioned by the regime.
I think these recent confrontations contained
a serious warning from the people to the government of the Islamic
Republic. It was really significant that, for the first time,
ordinary people started really to get involved on the side of the
Masses of ordinary people were present well into the early hours
of the morning around the student residences of the University
of Tehran. This presence of ordinary people, hanging around peacefully,
and often with their families, lasted for a whole week.
Why did you give Khatami an ultimatum?
student movement feels it has no longer any ties to the elected
institutions and reformers. Students have trusted the reformers
in successive elections and we have kept our part of the bargain.
Our letter to Khatami was a farewell and a last ultimatum before
cutting all ties. As for the other non-elected parts of the regime,
we don't have anything to say to them.
What is the next step
for the student movement?
It is not clear yet. Civil disobedience,
strikes, and peaceful protests in various locations...all these
measures are being considered. The student movement is not prone
to violence, although
anger and frustration may lead to isolated incidents of violent
reaction by students. We realize that violence will destroy our
hard-won gains of the past few years. That is why we are moving
toward connecting our movement to the demands of other social
groups, like workers and even families.
What is clear, though,
we no longer feel there is any use in continuing a dialogue
with the regime, even with the elected reformers. In realizing
the student movement has shown itself one more time to be a
step ahead of the rest of society.
The precondition for entering into
alliances with other social groups is a certain degree of discipline
and organization. Do you
think the student movement has such a discipline and organization?
is true that the institutions of civil society in the Islamic Republic
are dysfunctional. The press, political parties, trade
unions -- no autonomous organization has been spared the pressure
and restraints of the regime. The OCU is no exception. The result
has been a serious organizational and institutional vacuum. We
are weak in terms of theory, and of political and organizational
But I am hopeful that through the political experiences
the students have been gaining in recent years, and especially
over the past few months, a consolidation of opinions and a willingness
to collaborate together has been emerging. What the student movement
has come to realize in recent years is that it is incapable of
changing the situation by itself. The student movement needs
to collaborate and align itself with other social actors, and even
with the urban environment surrounding the universities.
of society do you desire? What is your ultimate goal?
a minimum, we want to ensure civil and social rights and liberties,
and we want a democracy. But the students have lost
any illusion that working for reforms within the system can bring
this about. We believe now that the core of this regime is fundamentally
authoritarian, and that it will continue to block all attempts
to make ours a more flexible system which respects citizens' rights.
This despotic core should be attacked.
Over recent months, an increasing number of supporters of the
reform movement have been arguing that the only means of overcoming
this deadlock is to call for a change of the constitution.
Back in May 2003, we held an informal referendum
at the campus of the Bu Ali Sina University in Hamedan, where the
asked to cast a vote for one of three constitutions that have been
drafted under the Islamic Republic. This was a clever tactic on
our part, because all three constitutions had been approved by
Ayatollah Khomeini himself at one time or another, so nobody could
accuse us of plotting to overthrow the regime.
These three documents
were the 1979 provisional constitution of the Revolutionary Council,
the 1979 constitution of the Assembly of Experts, and the present
constitution, which was drafted in 1989. We spent a week doing
intensive public education work, holding workshops and printing
leaflets, to clarify the distinctions between the three texts.
When we held a vote, 95 percent of the respondents
voted for the first option, primarily because there is no position
faqih [the state guardianship of a senior cleric] in that
version of the constitution.
We do need a new constitution,
one that assures
a just distribution of power and safeguards against despotism
abuse. But we should avoid getting obsessed about what name
give the new political system, and focus instead on its content.
Obviously, under the present conditions the regime will not
allow any constitutional revision or referendum, unless it is
forced to. Someone who is pretending to be asleep will only wake
with a good slap!
So what are the prospects that the student
movement can organize a wider social coalition aimed at applying
By themselves, students cannot lead a social
movement. We have distinct strengths: we have an extensive network
of student associations
in every town where there is a university campus. All the local
branches have delegates in the OCU, so we are constantly in touch
with the general mood and demands of the student population, nationwide.
Nevertheless, there are limits to what the students
can do by themselves. What we can do is be effective in a wider
collective front. Look
at the reform movement of the Second of Khordad. The OCU was one
of three legs that Khatami's reform movement stood on, the
other two being the Participation Front and the Mojahedin-e Enqelab
Organization. The same is true today. A new coalition has to emerge
and gain the trust of the population, and the student movement
can play an important role within that coalition.
I see signs of
the emergence of this coalition in the recent flurry of open
letters to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei protesting the current situation.
Those who have signed these letters range from the extra-parliamentary
opposition that supports the reform movement to those elected
who have consistently defended the rights of those opposing the
regime. My hope is that the student movement consolidates its
own place within this emerging coalition, without allowing itself
be manipulated or used by anyone.
What is the place of secular forces
in this process?
Secular and religious forces in Iran have
been plagued by a rift that should be transcended. I think the
student movement has
taken the first initiative in bridging this divide. The proposal
I made recently to set up a "General Movement for the Consolidation
of Democracy" (in lieu of the current OCU) was a concrete
step in that direction. I am certain that in the future we will
continue to propose more concrete steps toward this rapprochement.
have Bush Administration statements affected the situation in Iran?
US positions have seriously complicated the position of the reform
movement in Iran. Some reformers are highly sensitive
to the issue of the territorial integrity of the country. The aggressive
US postures encouraging internal disturbances and courting separatist
figures [among Iran's Azeri minority] will stir a strong
reaction among liberal and nationalist-religious forces, who find
themselves walking a tightrope between two right-wing threats --
hardliners at home and the Bush administration abroad.
unpredictability of the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration,
the US may at any moment commit one of two strategic errors.
A US military attack or a threat against the country's territorial
and national integrity will create a strong nationalist reaction.
One thing is certain: Iranians will not forgive the US if this
were to happen.
The second error the Bush administration may
is to prioritize its own short-term interests and sacrifice
the reform movement and the future of democracy in Iran by making
a deal with the hardliners, in exchange for certain significant
This would also cause a deep negative reaction among Iranians
and bring about a serious backlash.
Then what should the US do with
regard to Iran?
The best thing the US can do is to avoid
what they did over the past few weeks. Rhetorical provocations
coming out of Washington
about "regime change," the saber-rattling over nuclear
reactors and the depiction of student protests as a revolution
in the making all played into the hands of the conservatives. After
all these cacophonous provocations, when the crunch came and the
student protests were repressed, Secretary of State Colin Powell
declared that the US would not get involved in the domestic affairs
Perhaps it is naïve to expect more from the
Bush Administration. But we can at least expect the American public,
the press, intellectuals and fellow students in the US to defend
the democratic struggle and human rights in Iran. We expect them
to support the democratic reforms in Iran.
The Congress can and
should come out and defend its fellow Iranian parliamentarians
in their attempts to pass democratic laws, instead of adding
fuel to the fire by passing provocative resolutions about "regime
change." Such declarations of solidarity on the part of American
public and elected figures do not carry the stigma of the US
meddling in the internal affairs of Iran. Nor will the Iranian
public and democrats feel used and left to face repression on
Recently the Iranian monarchists have been
very active in claiming that in a free referendum the Iranian
their return to power.
Iranians have a peculiar and crafty
sense of humor. Given their disillusionment with the Islamic Republic,
Iranians will rhetorically
declare their sympathy for any other alternative. But when it comes
down to it, choices like the monarchy are not taken seriously at
all. For the students, at least, a monarchist alternative is taken
as an insult. We live in a republic, where at least nominally people
can choose who will rule them. Why should they go back to a monarchy,
even a constitutional one, where a hereditary sultan is set to
rule over them as subjects?
We tried that scenario in 1906 and
it did not stop the constitutional monarchy from being abused
and turned into a dictatorship. Iran is a complex society with
of problems. Iranians -- not only the students -- will ask themselves
if any political force presenting itself as an alternative for
leading the country if these pretenders have the ability to govern
the country or not. Do they have the necessary cadres, competence
and popular support?
More importantly, are they familiar with
the deeply complicated history and the plethora of issues facing
country or not? I think the popular support that both the democratic
and reformist opposition inside and outside the country, as
well as the reformers in the government, have enjoyed has been
to the fact that they are not bent on exacting revenge [upon
Their priority is to establish democracy and improve the country's
Is there any popular sentiment supporting
direct US intervention aimed at overthrowing the regime?
I said, Iranians do have a subversive sense of humor! People
say things like that to counter the pressure they are under.
But how will they act when it comes down to it? Will they support
occupation of the country? How will they treat the occupying
soldiers? Look, to change the situation in Iran, the continuous
pressure of international opinion, and its support of the existing
and growing democratic and reformist movement in Iran is sufficient.
Direct intervention will be very costly and destructive for all
How do the Iranian public and the student
movement view the occupation of Iraq?
I have to say that
people have a lot of sympathy for Iraqis, and see the occupation
as ultimately a positive thing. Iranians
were deeply happy about the fall of Saddam Hussein. The hardliner-controlled
TV constantly attacks the occupation of Iraq, but because the
population absolutely distrusts Iranian TV they end up believing
of whatever it says. One even hears rumors spreading that are
completely false, like the rumor that US soldiers acted very
bravely and heroically
to stop the plunder of museums and resources in Iraq. This
sympathy is understandable.
We had a debate among students, and
were citing the example of Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim
[leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution
in Iraq], who
was exiled from Iraq for 20 years, but now has gone back
is quite active and can say anything he wants publicly, even against
US. People see this as a sign of democratic behavior on the
part of the US, and believe that overthrowing the Baathist
in Iraq, or even previous US interventions in Kosovo, and
against the Taliban, were positive accomplishments. Having
this, Iranians will not welcome a US military intervention
in Iran itself.
What have been the effects of satellite broadcasts
from abroad upon recent events? Do these media contribute to
cause in Iran?
I have to confess that there is a
big gap between the content of satellite TV and radio broadcasts
and the needs
of the vast majority of Iranians. Most of these stations
are based in the US or operate from there. By the virtue
continued muzzling of the press in Iran, and the total control
radio and television networks by hardliners, these foreign
satellite broadcasters enjoy a monopoly of providing alternative
and programming for the public. As a result, they do have
But neither the content nor the way they cover the
news accurately reflects what is taking place here, nor do they
demands with any real insight. We really suffer from a
serious gap in that regard, as aside from a few surviving newspapers
and some Internet sites, we have nothing to satisfy the
class. Recent restrictions on Internet providers and political
sites have limited even that source of information and
analysis and debate.
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