A week removed from the Student Day protests, some media still claim the pace of change in Iran indicates weakness on the part of student protesters. But could it be a sign of political maturity?
[The author has used an alias to protect her identity.]
Earlier this year, I squeezed into a crowded room at my college residence, where the air hummed with expectation. It was not long after the Gaza war, and we were awaiting an address by the Israeli ambassador to the U.K. Predictably, it was an evening replete with knotty conversations in which Iran’s contentious role in the Middle East figured largely.
As one who stubbornly refused to consign the region to the realm of causes lost, I was keen to know: Should Ahmadinejad be defeated in the upcoming Iranian elections, did His Excellency see any possibility for peaceful, democratic transformation in Iran—and by consequence, in regional dynamics? The answer, to my astonishment, was a resounding no. For Iran’s contemporary youth were, according to the ambassador, “too weak to do anything.” The words (redolent of the image, popular in many policy-making circles and media outlets, of supine and materialistic young Iranians) made my blood boil. While I was aware of a marked divide between the Iranian youth of past and present, to suggest that they were incapable of effecting political change seemed too cynical, too crude a verdict to reach with such confidence.
In Iran and its far-flung diaspora, there are few whose lives have not fallen—however indirectly—into the orbit of the nation’s pulsating student movement. My own father’s involvement with a leftist political organization whilst a student in Europe in the nineteen seventies earned him a spot on a blacklist of Iranian youth who watched the Revolution they had helped build close in around them.
Such behavior is not without precedent in Iran; in fact, it is part of a broad cycle of educational expansion, political upheaval, and repression that began in the mid-eighteen hundreds. It was in 1851 that growing concern over Iran’s underdevelopment vis-à-vis the West prompted the establishment of Dar al Fonun, one of the nation’s first institutions of higher education. Each year, the technical college’s brightest graduates were sent to Europe (particularly France) to continue their studies. There, they were groomed to staff Iran’s newly created government ministries. Their return was accompanied by an influx of new ideas, a major impetus for the Constitutional Revolution of 1906. Its reforms sought to constrain the power of the monarch Mohammad Ali Shah by establishing Iran’s first parliament. It wasn’t long, though, before this democratic experiment began to crumble. The Shah arrested and executed its chief architects, capitalizing on the chaos surrounding the 1907 agreement between the British and Russians to divide Iran into “spheres of influence.”
My father’s homecoming meant that I, too, could see Iran,
the country that lurked in the background
of my placid Canadian life.
Nevertheless, students continued to act as a vanguard for change in the decades that followed. During the era preceding the 1979 revolution, the student movement became an unrivaled and far-reaching political force. It was student activists who planted the idea of a general strike that would paralyze the Shah’s regime, and it was student activists who initiated massive sit-ins and demonstrations in 1977, ushering in the period of explosiveness that ultimately toppled the Shah. Abroad, the Confederation of Iranian Students National Union (CISNU), a partnership between students in Tehran, Europe, and North America, helped transform political dissatisfaction in Iran into revolutionary momentum. CISNU ensured that major western publications such as Le Monde, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the London Times, and the Guardian ran damning articles detailing allegations of human rights abuses inside Iran; it held talks with government officials like President Ahmad Ben Bella of Algeria, who then pledged to support the students’ struggle against the Shah; and most importantly, it supported the struggles of clandestine political groups inside Iran.
Ideological commitment was fierce and reprisal, meted out for it by the Shah—and later Khomeini—was even fiercer. By 1980, my father and many like him were confronted with a savage choice: return to Iran and risk imprisonment, even execution, or scrape together a new life abroad. My father chose the latter, moving to the United States and then to Canada.
It was twenty-two years before my father returned to his birthplace. By that time, the ideological fervor of the Islamic Republic’s first decade had begun to subside, and my father had finally obtained an exemption for the compulsory military service he had never completed. His homecoming meant that I, too, could see the country that lurked in the background of my placid Canadian life. It was the first summer of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, which had already managed to mire itself in both domestic and international controversy by cracking down on civil liberties and spouting bombastic foreign policy rhetoric. Rounding off this glum status quo was the sickening squeeze of economic decline.
Nonetheless, I was struck with the relative normalcy with which every day life continued. The stark violence of my father’s era seemed to have dissipated into a petty cruelty that nitpicked at young people’s style of jeans as much as their politics. Moral police still loped through streets and shopping centers attempting (with limited success) to ensure outward conformity with Islamic dress, but in cafés, campuses, and people’s homes, debate and dissent were in ample supply.
The young Iranians powering today’s student movement have faced a unique set of challenges.
My friend Amir, now studying in the UK, vividly remembers one such space, a dingy, unnamed café occupying the most decrepit corner of his state-run university in Tehran. Its proprietor was the aptly named Agha Yegan (literal translation: Mr. Unique), a short, swarthy man whose white hair stuck out in all directions like an angry porcupine—fitting for a man known for his prickly demeanor. Mr. Yegan travelled two hours by bus every day to glower through a pair of thick glasses and a cloud of cigarette smoke over his small kingdom, which doubled as the epicenter of a vibrant and politically engaged student body. “Even though my university was just for engineering students, the conversation was almost always about philosophy, politics, or art,” recalls Amir. State universities like Amir’s are free, meaning that Mr. Yegan played host to Iranians from all walks of life. And in doing so, his dank café was transformed into a stage where all the contradictions of the Islamic Republic unfolded. “I call that little dodgy building that stunk of cigarettes a workshop for life,” Amir told me.
Of course, the young Iranians powering today’s student movement have faced a unique set of challenges. After the 1979 Revolution, Khomeini instigated a “Cultural Revolution,” which included a two-year closure of Iranian universities whilst curricula and textbooks were redesigned in accordance with putative Islamic principles. Campus organizations like Daftar-e Takhim-e Vahdat (Office for the Consolidation of Unity) were established to further “Islamicize” Iranian universities, and entrance quotas were instituted to give preference to young members of the radical basij militia. The aim was to transform campuses from the hotbeds of dissent that had animated a revolution into tightly controlled bastions of government support.
But Islamist student groups like Takhim-e Vahdat refused to parrot government officials. According to Ali Afshari, one of Takhim-e Vahdat’s prominent leaders, now exiled in the U.S., it began, in the nineteen nineties, to advocate the more liberal agenda of Iran’s reformist movement, which sought to strengthen the rule of law, invigorate civil society, and protect civil liberties. Student support was integral to the victory of reformist President Mohammad Khatami in 1997. Takhim-e Vahdat campaigned aggressively on Khatami’s behalf; ultimately Khatami received an estimated 91 percent of votes cast by college students. Students also protested the efforts of conservative hardliners to freeze Khatami’s “Tehran Spring.” The closure of the reformist newspaper Salaam, for example, stirred peaceful demonstrations at the University of Tehran by students advocating freedom of speech. Their activities were met with harsh retribution, made infamous by the 18 Tir (July 8th) raid on university residences that resulted in 300 injuries, 400 arrests, and four deaths, the most deliberate attack on students in the Islamic Republic since the nineteen eighties. Though tens of thousands of students rallied against the attacks, Khatami’s leadership faltered and the perpetrators went largely unpunished. The student movement, despite its legacy as a political heavyweight, appeared to face isolation and defeat.
Perhaps it was this seemingly bleak scenario that informed the Israeli ambassador’s impression of Iranian youth. But conversations with friends and family suggest to me a more nuanced reality. Though more staid than its ideologically fiery predecessor, today’s student movement is no less important. In fact, in the wake of the June 12th election charade, the student movement may be better poised than ever to contribute to meaningful democratic transformation in Iran.
In many ways, the Islamic Republic is a victim of its own success. Khomeini’s vision of social justice for the oppressed, coupled with the need to rebuild Iran’s economy in the wake of its devastating war with Iraq, compelled the central government to invest heavily in public services, including education. Once the purview of the upper middle class elite, universities have become increasingly accessible for lower class and rural Iranians. Indeed, the nineteen nineties saw university attendance increase eightfold and its social base diversify immensely. Iran’s population is young, highly educated, and unlikely to be duped by clumsy power grabs. And in a country where the divisions between urban and rural, rich and poor, religious and secular are seared with acrimony, the existence of socially diverse and intellectually vibrant spaces like Mr. Yegan’s café are an important step toward creating a truly participatory political culture.
Even more important than this demographic shift is the biting sense of betrayal that the recent election has precipitated in many Iranians. As someone who has expended considerable energy defending the Islamic Republic to fellow westerners (for whom Iran tends to be at best an abstruse unknown and at worst a messianic, North Korea-esque tinderbox), I felt a hissing sense of deflation after Ahmadinejad’s almost laughable victory. I can only imagine how much more acutely this was felt inside Iran; as Amir puts it, “I was one of those people who believed that the Islamic Republic in its current form had potential to move toward democracy. But we have given them enough time and enough chances.”
Unlike the Khatami era, when many citizens were reticent to jeopardize their newfound personal freedoms by participating in wide-scale civil disobedience, there is now far-reaching consensus that Ahmadinejad must not succeed in imposing his dogmatic political agenda on Iranian society. Hence, today’s student activism will not operate in a vacuum but will exist in the context of massive disaffection at both the elite and popular level.
I am not concerned for Iranian students’ commitment to social justice or their capacity for action, but for what it might cost them.
Evidence already suggests that the contemporary student movement in Iran is prepared to make full use of its political potential. Within the first week of its opening in late September, the Islamic Students Association of Amir Kabir University posted a statement on their website condemning post-election attacks on university residences and declaring that “the will for change is now epidemic and students… are full of passion and hope.” Then, on September 28th, Radio Zamaaneh, a Persian language radio station based in Holland, reported that more than a thousand students at the University of Tehran protested the presence of Minister of Science Kamran Daneshjoo at the university’s opening ceremonies. Several weeks later, the opposition website Mowj camp posted a video that showed a speech given by Ahmadinejad’s former minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance during which he was interrupted by students shouting pro-opposition slogans (the Minister was also pelted with a shoe). Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi’s Facebook page also displayed videos of over two thousand students at Azad University as they staged a demonstration against Ahmadinejad’s coup d’etat as well as the brutal reprisal against student activists by the Basij militia in the post-election crackdown.
The days leading up to November 4th, a “Student Day” originally conceived to laud the role of students in the infamous hostage taking crisis, were marked by an intensified activism that reached its zenith with an audacious and taboo-shattering soliloquy by university student and national mathematics Olympiad Mahmood Vahid-Nia. Vahid-Nia directly confronted Ayatollah Khamenei about his role in the post-election crackdown at a question and answer session held at Sharif University, and broadcast live on state TV. This spectacular event even appeared on Khamenei’s personal website, though Vahid-Nia’s subsequent arrest did not.
It is thus not a surprise that Iran’s ruling establishment sought at all costs to smother opposition supporters bent on co-opting the annual November 4th protests to vent their own grievances. Iranian bloggers like Agha Bahman and Pedestrian painstakingly recorded the unfurling drama; Tehran’s streets were flooded with armed militia men, cell phone communication was dismantled in the city center, and metro stations near rumored opposition gathering points were closed. On the surface, the government’s efforts succeeded. Throngs of pro-government demonstrators paraded across the screen of state TV, whilst grainy camera-phone videos posted to YouTube showed opposition supporters in scattered and sputtering protest. But this is no indication that the Green Movement is wilting. According to the Associated Press, much of the pro-government contingent was bused in from rural areas, whilst opposition forces took to the streets despite mafia-esque intimidation. Moreover, the videos circulating the internet of students tearing down and trampling a picture of Ayatollah Khamenei confirm a seismic shift in Iranian politics. The office of the Supreme Leader is no longer sacrosanct; the last red line has been ripped from the seams of the Islamic Republic.
The latest National Student Day, which took place on December 7th, reaffirmed that the opposition movement has survived despite the threat of violence and arrest. The demonstrations were, according to several sources including the BBC and the Los Angeles Times, the largest since those in June and took place not just in Iran’s major metropolises of Tehran, Esfahan, and Shiraz but bubbled up in smaller cities around the country. Of significance here is the hundreds of students who marched in towns such as Kerman and Hamedan that, until now, have been relatively devoid of protest—and did so without the organization of the official “leaders” of the Green Movement. In fact, the opposition’s prominent figures (with the possible exception of Mousavi’s wife, who was driven from a campus protest by female members of the Basij according to the Iranian website Gooya News) did not attend the December 7th demonstration. This reality points to the grassroots nature of the movement, whose momentum is not directed from above but is derived from the political demands and activism of everyday Iranians—and students in particular.
It is too early to say whether students in Iran will ignite another revolution. To date, the student movement has displayed a predilection for reform, and though the demand for far-reaching change is the most virulent in the Islamic Republic’s history, change may come at a slower pace than hoped for by some. In many corners, this may indicate weakness on the part of Iranian students. But couldn’t it be a sign of political maturity? My father remembers the 1979 Revolution racing toward swift and heady change like the fabled hare. When the dust settled, it was Khomeini’s vision of an Islamic Republic that had emerged victorious. If transformation in Iran takes time, it is because the coalition and consensus building necessary for sustainable democratic evolution do, too.
If I could somehow return to that evening where I stared at the Israeli ambassador in mute indignation, I would say this: It is unrealistic to expect political change and those who enable it to look the same as they did thirty years ago. Nonetheless, I am not concerned for Iranian students’ commitment to social justice or their capacity for action, but for what it might cost them. Because what is emerging in the wake of an election heist of proportions predicted by few and protested by many is an overt and unabashed willingness to use violence as a means of political control. In the post-election crackdown, Ahmadinejad and his henchmen have sought to virulently stifle damning student dissent by conducting raids on university residences, arresting student leaders, and suspending “suspicious” students from university. Tehran’s chief of police has declared that 204 Iranians have been arrested as a result of the December 7th protests alone.
For a government teetering precariously over a deeply unsatisfied populace, even Mr. Yegan’s café represents an unacceptable threat. And so, his little kingdom was dismantled, its prickly king dethroned and shuffled off to more benign territories, a modern café serving gourmet coffee and elaborate desserts erected. But although Mr. Yegan’s subjects have been temporarily displaced, they have not been dazzled by the glint of the new empire forced upon them. “This café isn’t half as popular as Mr. Yegan’s,” says Amir, “even if it sells fancy chocolates.”