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Iran: Student Movement Set To Re-Emerge

  • Charles Recknagel

Three years ago this month, Iranian student protests against hard-line crackdowns sparked the worst unrest in the country since the Islamic Revolution. But this year's anniversary of the protests is passing with mainstream student groups refraining from public demonstrations. As RFE/RL reports, the students' silence is raising questions as to whether they have been cowed by the hard-liners or are simply regrouping for a new reform drive in the future.

Prague, 11 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- When a student protest against the closing of a liberal paper sparked nationwide unrest three years ago, many observers saw it as a measure of the students' power to force Iran's establishment to change.

But as the unrest quickly degenerated into rioting and brought a violent crackdown by police and hard-line vigilantes, many of the students left the streets for fear of being seen as revolutionaries rather than reformers. The result was a victory for the hard-liners, who jailed dozens of student leaders and accelerated their closures of reformist newspapers.

Three years later, there is no sign of the conservatives relaxing their efforts to roll back the reformists. A frustrated President Mohammad Khatami, who was overwhelmingly re-elected on a reform platform last year, recently threatened to quit if his efforts at change continue to be stymied. Today, a senior liberal cleric and staunch Khatami supporter, Ayatollah Jalaledin Taheri, resigned as prayer leader in the central city of Isfahan, protesting what he called the sacrifice of justice and freedom in Iran.

The reformist students themselves seem to have lapsed into silence. This year's anniversary of the weeklong unrest in 1999 has passed by with little public reaction from the students, just as it did last year. The largest student organization, the nationwide Office to Consolidate Unity, called off a planned rally saying it feared stoking tensions after the Interior Ministry banned the event. Some 4,000 youths did clash with police on 9 July, but they were reportedly called out by exiled opposition groups through satellite television broadcasts.

Still, despite the quiet, many observers say that Iran's student movement is regrouping and predict it will re-emerge soon as a leading political force. One reporter for the U.S. daily "The New York Times" wrote early this month from Tehran that "a forceful student movement is replacing President Mohammad Khatami as the leading engine for political reform in Iran."

To assess the student movement, our correspondent recently spoke with two experts on the subject. Both agreed that the student movement has lapsed into a period of self-assessment since the events of 1999. But they said this period is now coming to an end.

Ali Ansari, an expert on Iran at the University of Durham in England, said that one of the products of the reformist students' self-assessment is a growing feeling that they must look beyond Khatami as their chief hope for change in the society. Until now, the student movement had strongly backed Khatami due to his endorsement of reformist demands for greater political and social liberties, including freedom of the press. They also share his desire for greater transparency in government and for greater rule of law in the society.

"What you find with a number of the student leaders that are coming up is that they are beginning to reflect very much on what has gone wrong, why have they not been able to achieve as much as they had hoped to achieve. And this is really a sense of looking ahead to saying, 'What happens after Khatami? Is this the end of the road?' Well, many of them will say, 'No, we can't stop at this stage,'" Ansari said.

Ansari said that some of the students' feelings are motivated by the need to think of whom they would support in the 2005 presidential election, when Khatami's second, and last, term expires. Pro-reform student groups took part in organizing Khatami's campaigns and want to also take part in shaping their next candidate's platform.

Ansari said: "The reformist agenda and the development of this reformist agenda was very much generated within the student bodies, within the universities, [and] within the press. And Khatami was very much a candidate of the reformist movement, rather than someone who necessarily shaped the movement himself. He was willing to take it up to a certain extent."

The analyst said that as Khatami now moves through his last term, the reformist students are looking at some of his more activist supporters as possible follow-up leaders. "One of the key areas that people are looking at are some of the more activist ministers of the Khatami administration, people like Abdullah Nouri, who is in prison, or even Ataollah Mohajerani, who is now running the Center for Dialogue Among Civilizations. Although Mohajerani is more of a centrist character, he is seen as someone who can get things done," Ansari said.

Nouri is a leading reformist cleric who was sentenced to jail in 1999 after losing a lengthy power struggle with hard-liners. That struggle first saw Nouri forced to give up a key post as Khatami's interior minister, then bounce back after Khatami appointed him as a vice president instead.

A special court for the clergy finally sentenced Nouri to prison for five years on charges of insulting the country's religious leadership and promoting restoration of ties with the United States. During his trial, however, Nouri turned the courtroom into a forum for defending the liberals' agenda. He argued that the liberals are loyal to the 1979 Islamic Revolution's values but want to modify them to accommodate two decades of changes in Iran and the world.

Mohajerani is Khatami's former minister of culture and Islamic guidance, and was instrumental in issuing licenses for liberal newspapers. He resigned after battling with conservatives who charged him with questioning the power of the Judiciary to force press closures. He remains a top Khatami adviser as the head of the Center for Dialogue Among Civilizations in Tehran.

However, if most observers of the student movement predict it will re-emerge as a major force for change, some question to what extent it can become the reformists' leading engine.

Amir Mosaddegh Katouzian, a correspondent with RFE/RL's Persian Service, closely follows developments among the student organizations. He said that the student movement is just one of several reform movements in Iranian society. "There is no question that the student movement is a significant part of the reform movement. A significant part of Khatami's campaigns in 1997 as well as 2001 was organized by pro-reform student organizations. The student movement also has a symbolic historical significance because of its durable efforts toward changing the Iranian society in the past eight decades or so. Several times in the era of both Pahlavi kings, as well as during and after the revolution, the student movement has shaped key events in Iranian history," Katouzian said.

Katouzian added: "But one should not conclude from this that the student movement, as a part of the reform movement, could by itself, single-handedly replace the whole reform movement. Because, for one thing, the movements of other parts of the civil society, like teachers or workers, have also played an important role, especially during last year, a role that has been as significant, if not more significant, than that of the students since their suppression three years ago."

Katouzian said that the students' impact is limited by the fact that they are well outside the governing centers of power. Some historians argue that when societies undergo reform, it is usually in the centers of power that decisions to change are made. Often, it is only in the late phases of a revolution that the decision making passes from these seats of power to the streets, where students can hold sway. So far, the current student leaders in Iran have shown little wish to go from reform to revolution.

Nevertheless, the student movement is likely to be a wellspring of energetic new leaders who could go into government to push for reforms in the post-Khatami era. Many analysts say the student movement now is incubating just such people as it criticizes its own older generation of leaders for pursuing reform too slowly. The older leaders, who made their mark in the ideologically heady days of the Islamic Revolution, are often also criticized for being too ideological, and too insufficiently pragmatic, to push for change effectively.

Katouzian said the ideological fervor of the older student leaders -- many now in their 30s and 40s -- can seem out of touch with the concerns of many students today. "The Iranian student movement has moved away from the kind of outlook that the students had two decades ago, the, let's say, radical outlook that existed at that point in time that was shared both by the Islamists as well as the left. And the goal right now is that the living conditions of Iranians should improve, and it is less about politics. Therefore, the demands are simpler and more direct, meaning a strengthening of the civil society, more political freedoms, more movement toward having good relations with other countries," Katouzian said.

Analysts say that the students' new priorities may reflect two facts about life in Iran today. One is that some two-thirds of the population is under 30 and that many of these young people face the practical concerns of finding a job. The second is that Iran's socialist-style economy is now increasingly unable to absorb the large numbers of young job seekers entering the marketplace every year.

Ansari, who recently visited Iran, said that by itself, the youthful nature of the society creates a powerful force for reform, quite apart from political ideologies. "I was very struck, [when] I was in Iran recently, [with] the aspects of youth culture that now dominate the general economic and cultural environment in Iran. And what you find is a commercial elite in Iran that is now being forced, if they want to sell their goods, to cater to youth culture. And that's a very interesting aspect of the reformists' momentum, in the sense [that] it's got nothing to do with activists, it's got nothing to do with the political agenda, it is actually a social and economic change that is coming from just the reality that 70 or 50 percent of your population is under 30," Ansari said.

Iran currently is struggling with double-digit inflation and unemployment. "The New York Times" recently quoted Iranian officials as saying that as the economy is unable to absorb new job seekers, some 6 million people could be jobless by 2004. That would be a little over 10 percent of the country's total population of 65 million people.

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