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Iran: Students Grab Spotlight With Challenge To President

  • Golnaz Esfandiari --> Ahmadinejad critics protest at Tehran University on October 8 (RFE/RL) October 14, 2007 (Radio Farda) -- A group of Iranian students demonstrated this week against Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who was at Tehran University to deliver a speech marking the opening of the academic year.

Student activists in Iran have faced growing government pressure in the past two years, including threats, detentions, and jail terms.

But the October 8 protest appears to signal limited success in silencing dissent at Iranian universities.

Iran's largest pro-reform student group, the Office to Foster Unity ("Daftare Tahkim Vahdat"), claimed in a recent statement that 550 student activists have been sent to disciplinary committees, 43 student groups shut down, more than 130 student publications closed, and 70 members of the Office to Foster Unity jailed during Mahmud Ahmadinejad's two-year presidency.

Student Challenge

Ahmadinejad generally enjoys being in the spotlight. But the president kept a low profile around his speech at Tehran University, and students protesting against him grabbed media attention.

Some angry students shouted, "Death to the dictator," while others called Ahmadinejad a fascist and told him there was no room for him at the university.

Ahead of the speech, pro-reform student activists had challenged Ahmadinejad to meet them and answer their questions. They sought the meeting after Ahmadinejad spoke at a question-and-answer session at Columbia University in New York, where he faced tough questioning.

The Office to Foster Unity issued a list of 20 questions and called for a prompt and detailed response from Ahmadinejad. The list included questions about the detention of student activists, discrimination against women, and foreign policies issues like Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust, which the Office to Foster Unity says has damaged Iran.

The student group criticized a perceived clampdown on dissent at Iranian universities, asking Ahmadinejad "what freedom of speech means" to him and where it is possible to see the president's recent claim in New York that freedom of speech is "incomparable" in Iran.

The letter pointed to Ahmadinejad's invitation to U.S. President George W. Bush to give a speech in Iran and asked "how...the U.S. president [can] be allowed to give a speech at Iranian universities while critical Iranian scholars and students are banned from expressing their opinions."

Questions included a request for an explanation of the president's "constant traveling and generosity to South American countries" and another accusing Ahmadinejad's purportedly "wrong" policies of causing price increases. The group called on Ahmadinejad to meet with at least one of their representatives to discuss issues of concern.

Tense Time

The Iranian president avoided the student demands, and reports suggested that he delivered his speech to a small group of his supporters.

Some members of the Basij volunteer militia chanted slogans in support of Ahmadinejad and scuffles were reported between Basiji members and Ahmadinejad critics.

Iranian state media accused opposition groups of trying to create tension at the university with the help of U.S. and British media, adding that their plan had failed.

Mohammad Hashemi, an Office to Foster Unity leader, told Radio Farda that the protest was a response to a nationwide crackdown on universities and student activists.

Police guard a gate at Tehran University in the face of protests on October 8

"Those who are familiar with the university atmosphere in Iran know it is quite odd to be able to organize a student protest gathering at the start of the school year," Hashemi said. "The policies of officials at the Education Ministry and Ahmadinejad's attitude toward universities and human rights in the past two years triggered these protests."

Hashemi added that the Iranian government views its opponents and critics as "enemies" and treats them as security threats.

Student Detentions

In its letter, the Office to Foster Unity highlighted the cases of three Amirkabir University students -- Ehsan Mansuri, Majid Tavakoli, and Ahmad Ghasaban -- who have been in jail for the past five months over accusations that they defamed Islam in student publications.

The student group called the charges fabricated and said it thinks the students were detained in response to a demonstration against Ahmadinejad in December. In that incident, during a visit to Tehran's Amirkabir University, students demonstrated against Ahmadinejad -- and some burned photographs of the president.

Following the more recent protest, Iranian officials said no one was arrested. But some observers are concerned that the protesters could eventually be targets for retaliation.

Hossein Bastani, a Paris-based journalist, warned in an article in the online daily "Rooz" on October 11 that students who protested against Ahmadinejad are "in danger." Bastani expressed concern about "each and every student" who chanted slogans against Ahmadinejad, adding that "he and his ‎supporters are not the type to easily disregard such protests.‎"

After the Amirkabir University protest, Ahmadinejad defended the rights of the demonstrators.

This time, the Iranian president has been silent about the rights of those who called him a "dictator" on October 8.

(Radio Farda's Fereydun Zarnegar contributed to this report)

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. She can be reached at