by Rasmus Christian Elling
I have a new piece on the recent martyr burials in Amir Kabir University, the student activist milieu and election politics in Iran. It is featured on MERIP Online here.
by Rasmus Christian Elling
I have a new piece on the recent martyr burials in Amir Kabir University, the student activist milieu and election politics in Iran. It is featured on MERIP Online here.
by Rasmus Christian Elling.
This morning, armed forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran buried war victims inside the campus of Amir Kabir University in Tehran. The so-called unknown martyrs were buried amidst tumult and despite protests from student activists. Another symbolic and violent battle between regime-loyal and pro-democratic forces is being fought right now.
The idea of burying martyrs inside Tehran’s universities has a history. Ever since the idea was floated some six years ago, when Ahmadinejad was Tehran’s mayor, it has been a hotly contested topic. Pro-democratic students have protested against the plans because they see it as an instrument for the regime’s oppressive policy: a) it is a way to impose on the university milieu and student life a militant ideology that praises shahâdat (the martyr death), war and military values associated with the Revolutionary Guards and the eulogizing of the eight-year war with Iraq; b) it is a practical way for authorities to clamp down on student gatherings and demonstrations since it is stipulated that the area surrounding martyr graves be treated with utmost respect – indeed, it is prohibited to gather in large numbers in such areas for any other purpose than mourning (which certainly rules out political or cultural meetings); and thus, c) it is a part of a strategy to suppress dissident voices within Iran’s lively university environment. It is one of many tactics in the conservatives’ battle to ‘re-Islamize’ and regain control with Iran’s universities – universities that have struggled to persevere as the vigorous centers of political debate, dissident activities and alternative youth they became during the early days of Khatami’s reformist presidency in the late 1990s.
Thus, the issue of martyr burials has become a battleground between the regime and the pro-democratic forces. Anticipating student protests, the authorities planned today’s burial in advance. A couple of weeks ago, authorities started rounding up key members of the dissident Islamic Students Association (Anjoman-e eslâmi-ye dâneshjuyân) in Amir Kabir Polytechnic University, Tehran – an university known for its vibrant and diverse pro-democratic activist milieu. And yesterday, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene‘i prepared the ground by issuing a public message hailing the martyrs and stating that the youth of today is indebted to these anonymous war heroes to be buried in their campus yard. Thus, the highest political authority blessed today’s aggressive action.
Amir Kabir University’s Student Newsletter website, autnews.us, has reported on the events (here and here). They explain that the atmosphere had been tense through the last couple of days when a parade of chest-beating mourners delivered the martyr coffins this morning. Before the parade, security forces, Basiji campus police, Revolutionary Guards, plain clothed intelligence officers, armed vigilantes known as Ansâr-e hezbollâh (a violent Islamist organization under the unofficial sway of the Supreme Leader) and even the fire brigade gathered inside and around the university compounds. Authorities denied those key activists who had not already been arrested entry to campus but other students – allegedly as many as 1,500 – created a barrier, preventing for some time the parade from executing the burial ceremonies.
The regime forces violently attacked protestors. Students reported that the security forces and vigilantes used clubs, tear gas sprays, iron knuckles, knives and other weapons in order to wound the protesting students. At least 25 have been arrested and 9 hospitalized with knife wounds and other injuries so far, and the fighting continues while this is being written. One student commented on the Amir Kabir website that he/she had never before seen so many security and intelligence forces in action. In a reference to a leader of thugs that was paid by the Shah to disrupt mass gatherings in opposition to the Shah’s regime in the 1950s – Sha‘ban ‘Bi-mokh’ Ja‘fari (‘The Brainless’) – the student wrote
“Really, the Brainless Sha‘bans of the Islamic Republic cannot even be compared to the Brainless Sha‘bans of the Shah!”.
Or, as formulated in another student slogan repeated on the website: “Ansâr commits the crime, the Leader supports it”.
According the Amir Kabir Newsletter, students carried placards and yelled slogans such as “University is not a graveyard”, “Death to Dictatorship”, “Run off, Ansâr”, “Incompetent Basijis, Carrying the Koran on a Spear” and so on. These harsh slogans reveal the profound animosity amongst students against the militant ideology of the regime. Amir Kabir Newsletter reported earlier today:
“… the situation in university is horrible. While protesting students of the university are being beaten up and wounded, the coffins of the so-called nameless martyrs have been placed in a corner, left in a disgusting fashion along the graves while clerics are signing mourning hymns …”
The latest news – posted on Amir Kabir’s website around 8 PM Tehran time – is that the security forces have surrounded university and is now arresting all student protestors trying to exit campus.
Indeed, the Iranian state and its forces have once again brought death into universities with the intent of stifling discontent and strangling freedom of speech and thought. However, the Iranian student movement might come alive again from such brainless actions as that carried out this morning by the state. One student, identifying him/herself as ‘Patriot’ wrote:
“Right in front of me, they kicked and carried off a couple of the kids in a red van. I swear by [Imam] Ali, from now on, I count the minutes until the fall of this regime and I will do anything. Long Live Freedom, Death to Dictatorship”.
State-run and state-affiliated news agencies such as ISNA, Fârs and Mehr have all reported that yesterday’s martyr burial ceremonies were a success. Fârs wrote:
“The immaculate bodies of five unknown martyrs of the eight years of Holy Defense were [moved from] Tehran University and buried in Amir Kabir University with the attendance of a mass of students and people who are in love with the school of self-sacrifice and martyrdom”
In his speech at the burial, Hojjatoleslam Ali-Reza Panahian said that ever since the Islamic Revolution, the enemies had been wishing for the revolution to go astray but that
“after 30 years [since the Islamic Revolution], we are witnesses to the fact that the Holy Order of the Islamic Republic, by the blessing of martyr blood, has the first word to say in the world [i.e., is a major power].”
Panahian clearly referred to the protesters in this quote:
“One should not call the martyrs’ tomb a graveyard since the martyr is not dead and should not be seen as one of the dead”.
He also referred to the fact that many scholars had asked in their wills to be buried in universities. The Fârs report continued:
“In this spiritual ceremony, a number of students – who can be counted with fingers, and who are connected to the illegal group of ‘Allâmeh [Daftar-e tahkim-e vahdat] – tried to create unrest and obstruct the martyr burial ceremonies by provoking their leaders; however a large group of value-driven students directed them out of the central space of Amir Kabir University and into a corner of campus, and thus prevented their rioting.”
Fârs also stated that these “troublemakers” had thrown bottles at “the students” (i.e., those who attended the burial ceremony) and tried to abuse the events for political aims. Fars also reported that the “value-driven” students numbered “thousands” and that they had responded to protesters with slogans such as “The Martyrs are Alive, Allâho Akbar”, “The Blood in Our Veins is a Gift for the Supreme Leader” and “Martyrs, Martyrs; We are Indebted to Your Blood for Our Freedom Today”. Fârs claimed that the “radicals” wounded a number of “students”, but that those attending the ceremony kept their calm and thus prevented the “conspiracy” from unfolding.
The Ahmadinejad-affiliated Rajânews brought the same report but with another intro and headline: “Daftar-e tahkim’s militia’s attack on the martyr burial ceremony”. Here, it was stated that the protesters were the ones who attacked, not the other way around; and that the protesters only numbered “50 persons”.
Needless to say, these reports are in conflict with the reports by Amir Kabir University Student Newsletter, AKUNews. This site reported today that “more than 70 students” have been arrested – but that allegedly more than 40 of them have already been released. The students have also uploaded two videos here and here and series of pictures here and here and here. From these videos and pictures it seems pretty clear that we are talking about a lot more than 50 protesters. However, from the other side of the showdown, IRNA has brought these pictures. AKUNews has also reported that security forces have stormed the homes of key present and former members of The Islamic Student Association at Amir Kabir University today, arresting four.
A scholar wrote me this interesting comment:
“All nations honor their martyrs especially the unknown soldiers and Iran is not an exception. Maybe the regime is wrong in burying martyrs inside universities, but this is such a sensitive issue in Iran that the so-called “pro-democracy” movement should leave it alone. A tomb of unknowns in a university has never stopped any nations from achieving democracy. This shows how distant some reformists are from the reality in Iran.”
This is also an issue that has been discussed in the comments by another reader.
The issue of whether “the reformists” are distant from the reality of many ordinary Iranians is very interesting. As I have elaborated on in my earlier writings on the topic, I think this is correct: the intellectual discourse of how to build a civil society and rule of law was simply too complex for many Iranians to bother about. What most ordinary Iranians do think about are skyrocketing prices on everything, unemployment, inflation, crime etc. This is also why the reformists lost the presidential elections in 2005. It will be interesting to see if the “reformists” are able to re-invent themselves before the coming elections – otherwise, Ahmadinejad’s victory is certain.
However, I am not sure whether it is correct to call those who protested against the martyr burials yesterday reformists. We simply do not have enough information to make such a claim. Indeed, many pro-democratic student activists (and I recognize that this is a dubious term) have distanced themselves from the reformist discourse and politics over the last decade – and many new students have entered universities who might not be that fond of Khatami and his entourage.
What we do know is that these students were protesting against the burials not as a sign of disrespect against the martyrs, but as a sign of protest against the state: a state that dictates controversial measures despite the protests of students (remember that this is not just one tomb in one university; it is similar orchestrated maneuvers in several universities over the last year or so); a state that has clamped down on pro-democratic student activities in a harsh and systematic way for over a decade; and a state that will not allow free speech in universities.
Nonetheless, the scholar mentioned above has an interesting point: that these protests might not benefit the students’ cause in a broader perspective. The Iran-Iraq War was, by all accounts, the most traumatic event in recent Iranian history. The mental scars left behind by the war cut across classes, geography and political affiliations, and Iranians are very sensitive to the issue of war victims and martyrs. There is a deep feeling of frustration over injustice and Western hypocrisy amongst many Iranians, most of whom have lost a family member or friend during the war. It might be, as the scholar mentioned above, implies, that the students have now created a negative image of themselves – and of the “reformists”, with whom many will inevitably (but not always correctly) identify them with.
However, let us not forget that we have not heard any of the reformists groups and major leaders express their support for the students. Until now, Khatami, Mir-Hossein Musavi, etc. have all been silent. As usual, the students are left to fight their battles themselves.
by Rasmus Christian Elling.
Ever since Student Day, December 6, pressure on Iranian student activists and organizations has increased. The main pro-democratic student body – the Daftar-e tahkim-e vahdat, or Office to Strengthen Unity (DTV) – has been outlawed, key student activists have been arrested and the regime media is preparing the ground for further clampdown. With a presidential election on the horizon, the situation for student activists is worsened day by day.
On January 21, Ahmadinejad’s Minister of Science, Mohammad-Mahdi Zahedi, declared that it was illegal to have any contact with the (genuine) DTV (also known as the ‘Allameh faction, which separated itself in 2002 from a pro-regime splinter group, also known as the Shiraz faction). The Minister added that “this faction” had already been “declared illegal” four years ago and that its members would not be allowed to function under the name of DTV. This means that if the students are to continue their activities, they will need to apply for registration under a new name – something government officials appointed by Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader will surely and easily reject. Indeed, pro-democratic students applying for a license to open a new organization have been rejected several times in the past, even during Khatami’s tenure. No doubt they would also be rejected today. Without a legally licensed organizational framework, the student activists will be effectively outlawed and even easier prey for authorities cracking down on oppositional voices amongst Iran’s two million university students.
However, as mentioned, this is not the first time pro-regime entities have tried to ‘coup’ DTV. After a clash with pro-reformist students in 2002, conformist students split with the main group. Soon, this splinter organization was taken over by ultra-conservative students who declared themselves ‘the real’ and ‘legal DTV’, and started to issue communiqués in DTV’s name. The pro-democratic forces continued their activities in the Islamic Students Associations and as the ‘Allameh faction’ of DTV. However, this time, authorities can hit DTV hard and completely disband the organization: indeed, there is practically no one to stop them.
In a lengthy interview, former DTV leader Abdollah Mo‘meni argued that the authorities are trying to “eliminate the authentic student movement”, just as Ahmadinejad’s government has suppressed other parts of civil society in recent years. According to Mo‘meni, the pro-regime faction of DTV only constitutes 3,5% of the organization’s members, yet they receive significant financial and logistical help from the Ministry of Research. To Mo‘meni, there is no doubt that the political rulers of Iran are trying to “steal the good name” of DTV to improve their image.
In yesterday’s Kayhân – seen as a mouthpiece of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene‘i – a lengthy ‘report’ described in details how some student journals and newsletters are “poisoning university atmosphere” by criticizing the government and its instrumental use of Islam, its lacking respect for human rights and its oppressive policies against universities. Worst of all, reported Kayhân, were those students who questioned or even insulted the Supreme Leader.
It can have severe consequences to be accused of disrespecting the Leader. Thus, we can expect that the clampdown will be intensified over the coming weeks and months as we approach the presidential elections. It now seems 99% sure that Mohammad Khatami (and not Abdollah Nuri or Mir-Hossein Musavi) will run for the ‘reformist’ faction. He will need all the support he can get – especially that of the student movement: after all, it was due to groups such as the DTV that Khatami won in 1997. Khatami will simply not be able to win the June 2009 elections without the support of Iran’s young generation. It remains to be seen if Khatami understands that it is now time to stand up for the students. Otherwise, they will surely not stand up for him.
by Rasmus Christian Elling.
In connection with my piece on Saturday on the Iranian student movement, here are some updates on what’s happened so far in connection with Student Day:
According to an eye witness report, around 3-4,000 students demonstrated in Tehran University. When security forces and plain clothed officers tried to prevent hundreds of students from other universities from entering campus, fighting ensued and one of the main gates was forced open. Students shouting ‘Death to dictatorship!’ apparently attacked university intelligence offices after which security forces entered campus. University authorities prevented a full-scale attack and the students proceeded with speeches in which they expressed support for the women rights movement, the labor movement and ethnic minority activists. Key speakers were prevented from entering university.
After the speeches, students continued demonstrating, allegedly shouting ‘Seyyed ‘Ali Pinochet, Iran will not become Chile!’ (a reference to ‘Ali Khamene‘i, Iran’s Supreme Leader). The state-affiliated news agency Fârs reported that ‘extremist’ students tried to create unrest in the streets but that security forces ‘kept their cool’ and prevented chaos. Amir Kabir University Newsletter reports that several students were severely injured during battles with security forces – however, there are no reports of arrests yet. There are also reports of student demonstrations in other places such as Kermanshah and Mazandaran and tomorrow in Shiraz.
What in my opinion was really surprising today was the issue of ethnic minorities. First of all, the Kurdish students at Tehran University chose to have their own demonstration – apparently in protest against the main student organization’s ‘nationalist behavior’. This is interesting since DTV recently has supported ethnic minority rights. Secondly, it was reported that when an Azeri student spoke in defense of Azeri cultural rights, a group of ‘pan-Iranists’ – that is, radical Persian chauvinists who are opposed to ethno-nationalist sentiments among Iran’s non-Persian groups – tried to silence him. One can see this as a positive sign: i.e. that ethnic groups are finally being allowed to speak and be heard, and that the issue of ethnicity is no longer a taboo. However, the apparent tension between ‘pan-Iranists’ and ethno-political proponents, even amongst the students, could also point to a broader, more worrying tendency in Iranian identity politics.
BBC reported that Ayatollah Khamene‘i did not attend yesterday’s Students Day at The Science and Industry University in Tehran as planned. No official reason was given but it is probable that the tense atmosphere in Iranian universities right now is behind the decision. Apparently, Iran’s Minister of Science has declared that ‘counter-revolutionaries’ are trying to exploit Students Day. Members of a government-loyal ‘student group’ have argued that ‘liberals and those who reject the Imam [Khomeini]’ should not be allowed to mark Student Day. It also seems that today’s meeting in which Khatami was scheduled to talk has been cancelled.
Students from Amir Kabir University in Tehran have reported that ‘more than 1,800’ students joined protests against the ‘security atmosphere’ imposed by authorities here. In particular, the students objected to the installment of ‘security gates’ around university, which they think. In Hamadan, ’thousands’ of students joined an illegal demonstration to mark Students Day. Security forces fired tear gas into the crowd while the students were singing a song. It seems the authorities excused this attack by saying that signing was inappropriate since yesterday also marked the martyrdom of a Shiite Imam.
In Tehran University, pro-government students marked Students Day in their own fashion and staged a rally against, among other things, ‘Imperialism’. Fârs News Agency claimed that ‘1,000 students’ had joined this demonstration and shouted slogans such as ‘Death to America’, ‘Death to Israel’ and ‘Students are aware, they are tired of Obama’.
It is reported that authorities have taken extreme security measures in Tehran University as pro-democratic students have called for a demonstration today under the banner “The Cry of Freedom”.
by Rasmus Christian Elling.
Today, it is Ruz-e dâneshju or ‘Student Day’ in Iran: it is time to reassess the status of and situation for the Iranian student movement.
Revolution, reformism, repression, revival
Since ‘modern’ universities were established in Iran in the 1920s and 30s, they have been key centers of political dissidence, arenas for ideological battles and homes to alternative voices. Universities played central roles in the revolutionary movement that ousted the Shah in the late 1970s and in the reformist movement that brought Khatami to power in 1997. Indeed, during the so-called ‘Tehran Spring’ of 1997-99, it seemed as if a democratic student movement was ready to burst out of university and revolutionize Iranian society.
However, the severe clampdown on students – and in particular, the violent attack on Tehran University dormitories in July 1999 that resulted in widespread riots throughout Iran – curtailed this movement. The repression eventually seemed close to completely wipe out the Iranian student movement through juridical and extra-juridical measures, violence and threats. The state apparatus placed legal obstacles on student groups and partially seized their organizations, harassed and intimidated their spokespersons, and closed down their facilities and newsletters.
However, instead of disintegrating, the key organizations of the movement – the so-called Islamic Student Societies (anjoman-hâ-ye eslâmi-ye dâneshjuyân) and their umbrella organization, The Office to Consolidate Unity (daftar-e tahkim-e vahdat, hereafter DTV) – underwent a painful divorce from the parliamentary reform movement, its institutions and its head, Khatami. DTV succeeded in distancing itself from the waning image of the reformists and has since struggled to transform itself into a platform for a wide variety of grass roots and civil society groups. The aim of DTV today is to reach out beyond the walls of universities and into Iranian society.
While the process of bridging the intellectual and theoretical discourse of a student movement with general discontent in other layers of society has been quite difficult, the greatest challenge came with the election of the neo-conservative hard-liner Ahmadinejad in 2005.
Since this election, government has sought to ‘re-Islamize’ and control universities by discharging critical professors and appointing loyal managers, by segregating facilities in certain universities, by installing CCTV surveillance and by burying ‘martyrs’ of the Iran-Iraq War right on university campuses and thus imposing the militant ideology on students. Student activists all over Iran have faced official and unofficial reprimands, abductions to secret interrogation facilities, mock trials, torture, incommunicado detention and heavy sentences that span from exclusion from university and forced transfer to other universities to fines and jail sentences. Individual students are even given ‘stars’ depending on his/her level of political activity in a ludicrous evaluation scheme aimed at intimidating and punishing student activists.
However, the difficulties facing the student movement are not just political. Students are also confronted with a wide array of problems including the fierce competition for enrollment in prestigious universities, the dwindling quality of teaching and research in Iranian universities, the severe problem of brain drain, social problems such as drug addiction and suicide as well as issues related to everyday student life such as appalling conditions in dormitories, lack of pastime facilities and, of course, the prospect of post-graduation unemployment.
Yet despite all these obstacles and challenges, there is still good reason to argue that student activism is alive and kicking in Iran today. Indeed, students have staged small but vocal demonstrations and sit-ins, and some have even attacked Ahmadinejad’s policies directly. Recently, it seems students have become particularly active. Tensions have been felt as far away as Sistan-Baluchestan on Iran’s southeastern border, where students have clashed with security forces. In the provincial capital Hamadan, students have reported a wave of intimidation and threats by local authorities that are concerned with student activities.
Student Day 2008
Thus, the Iranian student activists are to mark Student Day today – a tradition that dates back to 1953 when 3 students from Tehran University were killed by the Shah’s security forces. This year, students have not limited themselves to Student Day itself but have indeed declared December 2 to 9 a ‘Students Week’. The last month or so, Iranian media have claimed that students are secretly preparing unrest and mayhem around Students Day. A Basiji student group has claimed that ‘violence-seeking’ individuals are ‘planning riots’ on Khajeh Nasir University in Tehran. And on the conservative website Tâbnâk, journalists reported that ‘some domestic extremist groups’ have been planning to provoke unrest, including melli-mazhhabi proponents (Religious-Nationalist, i.e. the domestic opposition of moderate ‘Islamo-nationalists’), who have allegedly called for a student-led riot like that of July 1999. The journalists even claimed that students from ethnic minorities studying in Tehran are planning disturbances to further their ethno-nationalist aims and that DTV has been in contact with opposition activists in exile. DTV denied this report and criticized it together with a series of accusations and rumors published by state-run dailies and news agencies.
With the severe security measures installed by the neo-con government and its cohorts in the Revolutionary Guards, the Basij militias and the police forces in mind, it is difficult to see how students could indeed create such unrest. ”Students are under attack from all sides by the government and the fundamentalist media”, Bahare Hedayat from DTV’s public relations bureau stated recently. Hedayat, who has been imprisoned for her activities several times, argued that “the stored-up concerns and discontent amongst students over the last three years” were the result of “the clampdown by authorities outside the universities” on student activists and “the erroneous [university] management of officials selected by the Ministry of Science”.
According to Hedayat, ‘unrest’ is simply a negative term hyped by media controlled by ruling forces who are afraid of student activism: “The sick minds who cannot tolerate even a student protest gathering in university, are referring to peaceful meetings and protests within the milieu of the university as ‘unrest’”, she stated. Even ISNA – the Iranian Students News Agency, which was founded to reflect the voices of students – has “been turned into a platform for anti-student organizations”, Hedayat argued.
Student activists, in particular those at Amir Kabir Technical University, have reported that pro-government groups, Basiji students and university authorities are coordinating a counter-strike in case of student unrest on or after Student Day. These reports surfaced while DTV a week ago published its call for marking Student Day. In a thinly veiled attack on Ahmadinejad’s government, DTV stated: “[O]nce again, we will rise and sound the call of protest against oppressors who are busy stripping Iran and the Iranians of their national resources, honor and integrity, and whose erroneous policies have resulted in pervasive corruption, widespread poverty, disregard for civic rights, destruction of Iranians’ prestige all over the world, international sanctions, unemployment, and thousands of other problems”. DTV has called for a demonstration in Tehran University tomorrow and Khatami has said that enshâ‘allâh, he will come to speak. Four years ago, students heckled Khatami when he came to Tehran University on Student Day. It could become an interesting moment when Khatami and the students come face to face.
The students and ‘the reformists’
With the 2009 presidential elections looming on the horizon, the so-called ‘reformists’ seems to be looking to the student movement, hoping it could again play a significant role. Indeed, the ‘reformists’ would benefit from a re-activation of the huge potential among Iran’s two million university students. Yet, significant change is needed: since Khatami’s ‘lame duck years’ as president, and in particular, his reluctant and belated response to the state clampdown on students in 1999 and subsequently, the activist milieu has been marked by a profound skepticism towards the ‘reformists’. Indeed, the spokeswoman of the DTV stated that “reformists should know that the students are watching their behaviors and will not forget”. In other words, reformists will certainly have to redefine their ambitions and strategy in order to attract the much-needed votes of Iranian students. It seems the students, despite previous boycotts, have not yet rejected the idea of participating in the elections – so it might pay off for reformists.
However, when evaluating the ‘potentials’ of the student movement, one should keep in mind that since they ‘divorced’ from the parliamentary reformist faction, DTV and its local cells have focused on social, cultural and civil society activities – indeed, DTV declared in 2005 that it would henceforth function as a ‘Civil Society Watch’. In an interview with Roozonline.com two days ago, DTV secretary, Mehdi Arabshahi, stated that the new DTV would not repeat the fault of earlier generations in this organization: that is, to act as a political party and to play the role of opposition within the boundaries of the political system. Thus, we should not expect the students to act as a sort of ‘youth division’ of any political faction, including the reformist, in the future. Indeed, stated Arabshahi, the new DTV would not repeat the old mistake of seeing elections as “a remedy for all the nation’s troubles”.
Yet, at the same time, Arabshahi would not rule out the possibility that the election of a new government could bring about better conditions for social movements. Hedayat, the spokeswoman mentioned earlier, also explained in a separate interview that the situation had changed dramatically since the DTV boycott of the presidential elections in 2005: now, said Hedayat, a fresh analysis was needed. In other words, DTV might not boycott elections. Whatever the DTV chooses to do, Hedayat stated that the organization would strive to have its demands and issues reflected during the elections.
DTV and the student movement in general has been criticized for not participating in the 2005 elections and thereby having contributed to the loss of votes for the reformists and thus, indirectly paving the way for a neo-con victory. However, student activist spokespersons stand by their old decision. The former DTV figurehead, ‘Abdollah Mo‘meni, who is now spokesman for DTV’s alumni division, Advâr-e tahkim, stated in an interview that he would defend the decision and that the failure of reformists to mobilize voters could not be reduced to the role of students. Indeed, said Mo‘meni, the reformists had much graver problems than DTV’s election boycott: the fact that they couldn’t even agree on a single candidate to represent them, that they had made their constituencies disillusioned and that they participated willingly in a ‘commando-election’ – these were more likely the reasons for their failure.
In other words, the reformists will have to ‘deliver’ if they want to have any hope of regaining the confidence of the young generation: they will need a strong and charismatic leader, a clear and resolute program and they will need to address the key issues championed by social movements, the women rights movement and the student movement.
A student movement?
So, the question remains: can we speak of an Iranian student movement today? ‘Ali-Reza Raja‘i, a melli-mazhhabi, recently argued that “the activist atmosphere has been restricted to some extent. However, it is perfectly clear that if there is an opening of the political environment, [the student] movement will take on more visible forms”. In other words, Raja‘i thinks that the student movement right now is not a movement per se, but rather a potential movement waiting for a window of opportunity to become active again and develop into a broad-based movement.
However, the wounds inflicted over the years upon the student movement, and indeed the tormented history of democratic struggle in Iran, has left many pessimistic. Indeed, there is a widespread feeling that it will take more than a new government and more than a student movement to change Iran. “Democratic struggle is eating itself from within”, wrote the renown dissident Taqi Rahmani recently: without an active civil society and without organizations representing, for example, professional, labor or ethnic minority interests, any democratic movement is doomed to failure, Rahmani argued. This is why Iranians are prone to be disillusioned when they see that their votes have not brought about a miracle. This is why the Iranian voters are tired and weary: the constant impediments and numerous obstacles placed in front of democratic movements by the rich and powerful elites throughout history. Only by creating a strong and vibrant civil society can Iran move towards democracy.
While DTV has yet to announce its position vis-à-vis the presidential elections, it is clear that people like Raja‘i are warning the students not to boycott the elections. Indeed, Raja‘i and his ilk – the tolerated ‘opposition’, ‘the reformists’ and ‘the moderates’ – still believe that it is possible to reform and change Iranian politics and society through elections. Even though DTV earlier seemed to reject the possibility of the Islamic Republic reforming in a democratic direction, they have, as stated, not rejected a possible participation in next year’s elections. It remains to be seen what the student activist milieu would do if Khatami – or another key reformist figure – was to run for president again; and it remains to be seen what measures the neo-conservative government and its supporters in the clerical and paramilitary elites would take to obstruct the reformists. No matter what happens, it is too early to rule out a revival of the Iranian student movement.