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Iran: Youth Movement Has Untapped Potential

  • Bill Samii --> Students believe Khatami let them down "The Power of Youth" --> /specials/youth/ is an ongoing RFE/RL project that will look at how youth movements are born, mature, and make the transition to the postrevolutionary setting or endure under repression.

After a July 1999 raid by police, plainclothes security personnel, and vigilantes on the Tehran University campus led to a week of violent unrest in Tehran, Tabriz, and other Iranian cities, some observers speculated the end is nigh for the theocratic regime. Almost every occurrence of student unrest since then has been greeted eagerly by foreigners with political agendas and by Iranian exiles who anticipate the arrival of democracy in their country. At first glance, such anticipation is not misplaced. Students in many third world or developing countries have a reputation for political activism, and with some 1.2 million Iranians studying in universities and approximately two-thirds of the population under the age of 30, young people are a sizable and potentially potent force. However, the Iranian student movement is not a unified entity determined to replace the regime with a democratic and secular government, and furthermore, its current level of activism is low.

Early Days Of Student Activism

The student movement in post-revolutionary Iran has gone through several phases, according to professor Ali Akbar Mahdi ("The Student Movement in the Islamic Republic of Iran," Journal of Iranian Research and Analysis, vol. 15, no. 2 [November 1999]) and professor Mehrdad Mashayekhi ("The Revival of the Student Movement in Post-Revolutionary Iran," The International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, vol. 15, no. 2 [Winter 2001]).

In 1979, students were extensions of revolutionary groups and Iran's campuses were hotbeds of political activity. The most remarkable student action at that time was the takeover of the U.S. Embassy by the Muslim Students Following the Imam's Line and the subsequent 444-day hostage crisis.

The universities were shut down in June 1980 after regime efforts to purge and Islamicize them were met with resistance from secular and leftist students and teachers.

The universities reopened in 1982; prospective faculty had to pass an ideological exam, and prospective students had to show commitment to Islamic values and have a recommendation from their local mosque or a local religious leader. Quotas were created for members of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, the paramilitary Basij, and the government, as well as veterans and their family members, and they faced lower academic standards.

Simultaneously, new Islamic associations, such as the University Jihad and the Student Basij, were created to monitor on-campus political tendencies. The segregation of men and women and the snooping of students on each other contributed to on-campus tensions.

Emerging Unity

The universities serve as good places for political organization and mobilization. People can meet there in relative safety, and the campus environment provides means of communication and informal social networks. There are almost 90 state universities and approximately 120 Islamic Azad Universities, Mashayekhi notes.

What is currently the most well-known student organization, the Office for Strengthening Unity (Daftar-i Tahkim-i Vahdat, DTV), emerged after a September 1979 meeting of Islamic Student Associations. As of late 1999, Mahdi writes, the DTV had 50 voting member associations from state universities and 30 nonvoting ones from the Islamic Azad University system. The associations in this latter group are closely controlled by the state.

Encouraged by top state officials worried about the increasing radicalism of the DTV, a student named Heshmatollah Tabarzadi joined the organization. His actions within the DTV council led to the creation of two factions -- a leftist one and Tabarzadi's more conservative faction, which became active in 1983. In 1987 Tabarzadi broke with the DTV completely and created the Islamic Union of Associations of University Students and Higher Education Centers (aka the Tabarzadi Group).

Iran's new supreme leader and president (Ayatollahs Ali Khamenei and Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, respectively) tried to reduce the number of radical individuals in the state apparatus and to stabilize the political system in the early 1990s. The Tabarzadi Group reacted in 1994, Mahdi writes, by making unspecified accusations against Hashemi-Rafsanjani's family and the Oppressed and Disabled Foundation, a powerful parastatal economic entity. This was unwise, as the foundation owned the Tabarzadi Group's office and evicted the group. The Office of the Supreme Leader terminated its connection with Tabarzadi, and he was banned from editing his organization's publication for five years.

Wind In The Sails

The number of students who returned to the universities after they reopened in 1982 was only 117,148 -- less than before the revolution. But the numbers began to climb, Mahdi writes, and by May 1997 there were approximately 1.15 million people in universities and institutions of higher education. Many students were alienated and disillusioned, because they faced high inflation and poor job prospects. The exodus of educated Iranians to other countries -- the brain drain -- is a direct consequence of unemployment and hopelessness, according to Mashayekhi.

These sentiments, which were shared by males and females, coincided with the political activism of reformist and centrist political organizations -- including the DTV -- that were unhappy with current state policies. The DTV originally backed former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Musavi in the 1997 presidential election, but he refused to run and instead they supported Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, the eventual victor. Tabarzadi, meanwhile, encouraged the creation of three new student organizations, and by 1999 he was a Khatami supporter.

Conservative legislators reacted to the students' support for Khatami by passing a bill in October 1998 to establish a Basij unit in every university.

The Regime Cracks Down

Students expected President Khatami to support them after regime elements cracked down on demonstrators and their supporters in July 1999 by making mass arrests, holding secret trials, and later televising the "confessions" of alleged ringleaders. To the students' chagrin Khatami did not come to their defense, although his support for the official position may have averted more bloodshed.

The students demanded the dismissal of the national police chief and an accounting of the high-level officials they believed were behind the bloodshed. What they received instead was a show trial in which a handful of police officers were found guilty of misconduct. Contributing to the students' disillusionment with Khatami and the mainstream reformist organizations was admonitions of patience and promotion of a policy called "active calm" or "dynamic tranquility" in the run-up to February 2000 parliamentary elections. Youthful frustration with the "active calm" policy was clear during the summer of 2000 and especially after August violence at a student gathering in Khoramabad.
"The country's political structure has been designed in such a way that, as long as the appointed segments do not wish it, the elected segments cannot impose their view." -- Ali Afshari

In early 2002 the DTV underwent a serious rupture. The majority wing wanted to withdraw from mainstream politics, whereas the minority wing preferred to continue its support for Khatami. In early 2003, furthermore, majority wing member Said Razavi Faqih said the organization should change its name to the Office for Fostering Democracy. This situation persisted until May 2004, when members of the two factions held lengthy discussions that were followed by voting for members of a new Central Council. The individuals elected to leadership positions, "Sharq" daily reported on 6 June, were veterans of the student movement "who are well past their student years and student characteristics."

The students have given Khatami a rough reception since they perceived that he let them down in 1999. Participants in Student Day events every December have gotten increasingly unruly, and when President Khatami spoke at a Student Day event in 2004 he was heckled the entire time. Moreover, their participation in elections has dropped, and the DTV is urging people not to vote in the 17 June 2005 presidential election in the hope that this will be interpreted as a vote against the system.

DTV central council member Ali Afshari said on 7 March that participating in the election would only legitimize the authoritarian system, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported. He explained that elections should advance democracy, and merely participating in them will not achieve this. Afshari went on to say that the eight years of the Khatami presidency have demonstrated that "the country's political structure has been designed in such a way that, as long as the appointed segments do not wish it, the elected segments cannot impose their view." "This is why I believe," Afshari continued, "before taking part in any elections, the current structure has to be reformed." DTV's Afshari dismissed the "election carnival" and opined that the only reason so many people are being mentioned as prospective presidential candidates is to ensure a high turnout, ILNA reported.

Disappointment in the political leadership and recognition of the system's flaws are not the only reasons for student apathy. The university entrance exams are very competitive, and those who earn a place are reluctant to risk it for abstract political principles. It is safer to conform and keep quiet. Repression is another disincentive. Student leaders are occasionally detained by security elements and held in unknown locations and, although most are released, some are held for lengthy periods. Indeed, some of the participants in the 1999 unrest are still in jail. This leaves the students without leaders, and it intimidates them.

Too Important To Ignore

Iranian leaders will not write off the student movement yet due to their efforts to emphasize unity, because students are traditionally and potentially politically active and represent a large number in a country with a voting age of 15. In short, young Iranians are not ignored because they represent the country's future.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addressed the Islamic Society of University Students in Tehran on 14 March. He told his audience that students are the country's hope for a better future, state radio reported. He described an ideal society in which the youth play an effective role, and he said the students could achieve more if they worked harder, planned better, and relied on God. Khamenei encouraged them to be active in the elections, warned of plots by the "world arrogance" (his term for the United States), and urged young people to avoid party political competition.

Khamenei also expressed concern about young Iranians' morals. "Some perverted entertainment is imported purposefully into our society with the aim of luring our youth. ...And very often those who smuggle such material are the evil Zionists. They are the source of corruption of the young people, particularly in Islamic countries. And now, they are specifically targeting the Iranian youth because they are afraid of Iran's future."

Khamenei made a similar speech to high school students on 14 March, IRNA reported. He concluded by encouraging those who will be eligible to vote for the first time on 17 June to do so.