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Iran: Power Struggle Paralyzes Reformist-Led Student Movement

  • Charles Recknagel

Iran's largest student organization is in turmoil as conservative students have recently challenged the long-standing dominance of the movement by reformist activists. As RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports, the crisis may be in equal parts about politics and personal ambitions. But it raises the question of whether the reformists' appeal to the student body may be dimming amid Iran's continuing hard-line crackdown on liberals.

Prague, 8 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Usually when Iran's largest student movement, the nationwide Office to Consolidate Unity (OCU), appears in the Western press, the focus is on its activist, pro-reformist side.

That is the face represented by student leaders like Ali Afshari, who recently created a sensation in Iran by telling reporters he had been forced by hard-line interrogators to confess he plotted to overthrow the state. Prior to that, he was in the news as one of a number of leading Iranian activists sentenced to jail for attending a conference in Berlin two years ago on the future of Iran's reform movement.

The OCU's pro-reform leadership, which is impatient for greater democracy, has also been highly visible in organizing sit-ins and protests inside universities to support press freedoms. Other smaller and more radical student groups have sometimes taken the reform demands to the streets, notably in 1999. Then, student protests against a vigilante attack on a pro-press freedom rally at Tehran University sparked nationwide demonstrations that ended in rioting and a violent police crackdown.

But while pro-reformist student leaders have often made headlines in recent years, there is also a minority in the national student organization that identifies with the conservative establishment. That minority often invites hard-line speakers to universities but otherwise rarely makes the news -- that is, until recently.

Last month, the conservative wing of the OCU opened a bitter dispute with the reformist side over who should be the movement's elected officers. The dispute led to conservative students trying to take over the OCU's headquarters building in Tehran in a scuffle on 25 February, which ended in police arresting some 40 reformist students. The reformists, some of whom were severely beaten in the police action, were released the next day.

Today, the headquarters building remains sealed by police as the Ministry of Education has vowed to resolve the conflict. In the lull, accusations from both sides abound. Some reformists have said the events aim at halting their political activities and that conservative authorities are trying to infiltrate the student movement to neutralize it. Conservative students, in turn, have charged the reformist activists themselves with hijacking the student organization, which they say should be free of outside political interests.

Amir Mosaddegh Katouzian, a correspondent with RFE/RL's Persian Service, has been closely following the affair. He says that, at the moment, it is hard to know if the conservative student leaders are seeking to take over the OCU for ideological reasons or are simply acting out of their own personal ambitions.

"There are two aspects to the program of the so-called conservative wing of the OCU, I think. One that makes them [ideologically] similar to the conservative establishment has to do with the pace of reforms and what they sometimes call the radicalism of their [reformist] opponents within the OCU. They complain about this."

He continues: "But certainly what has been underemphasized in the interpretation of some of these conflicts is the personal aspect, the aspect that has to do with the concern of people with their own ambitions, aspirations, as well as status...the aspect that has also to do with seeking more [personally] powerful positions within the OCU."

Katouzian says that the dispute is important because it raises questions as to whether the balance of power between the reformists and conservatives in the student movement is shifting amid Iran's continuing hard-line crackdown on liberals.

In recent years, the reformists have enjoyed the ascendancy as students have had faith that Iran's system will change. But the arrests of many reformist leaders has shaken some students' confidence by demonstrating the high personal risk of being an activist. Many students regard membership in the government-funded OCU as a stepping stone to good jobs in the bureaucracy and elsewhere, and they have to balance their political interests against their own career hopes. That means that setbacks to Iran's reform process can increase the appeal of conservative student leaders, who emphasize focusing on professional goals.

Katouzian says that: "These [conservative] students insist that they want the OCU to remain independent from existing parties, and in the context of debates within the OCU this has been interpreted to mean they want the OCU to be independent from proreform parties. But this may also have the effect of appeasing the careerists within the student body because the OCU has been a stepping stone in its history toward good managerial or otherwise influential positions in both the private and public sector."

As the dispute over the OCU leadership continues, it also is highlighting other rifts in Iran's student body -- where differences in students' political leanings often correspond to differences in their socio-economic backgrounds.

Reformist students, who seek greater personal and political freedoms, tend to be from more economically advantaged families. They are supportive not only of moderate President Mohammad Khatami, who seeks to change the establishment from within, but also of the Religious-Nationalist Alliance, a loose association of individuals and groups that advocates a Muslim state not necessarily under clerical leadership.

By contrast, conservative students tend to be highly religious and from less economically advantaged backgrounds. Many of them enter the universities through a government quota system that reserves places for those who lost family members in Iran's 1980-88 war with Iraq. The quota system allows the students admittance despite obtaining poorer grades than others in entrance exams.

Over the past decade, the two groups of students have co-existed within the OCU under a board of nine directors dominated by reformists. But that co-existence has grown increasingly strained amid Iran's continuing political battles.

The current dispute erupted when some of the conservative directors unilaterally held an election for a new board last month in the southern city of Shiraz. The election, which produced a board of directors made up entirely of conservatives, was hotly disputed by reformist-led student groups at 46 universities, who immediately called for the results to be annulled.

This week, in the wake of the scuffle at the headquarters in Tehran, some reformist leaders are holding their own elections for a new board of directors at a university in the capital. But other reformists have called for trying to solve the dispute with the conservative wing through dialogue. Observers say the crisis could play out for weeks before either side -- or the Ministry of Education -- finds a way to resolve the differences and produce a new leadership acceptable to most members.

The OCU is the largest and best-established student organization in post-revolutionary Iran and receives substantial government funds for its activities, as well as office space at all universities. Other smaller student groups exist, including the radically conservative Basiji-Daneshjuy. Several small radical reformist offshoots of the OCU have played a key role in organizing street protests, such as those which rocked Iran in July 1999.

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