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Analysis: Renewed Unity Among Iranian Students

By Bill Samii

The fifth anniversary of 18 Tir (8 July) -- the day in 1999 when uniformed police and plainclothes vigilantes attacked a Tehran University dormitory with fatal results -- is looming. That incident in the capital led to fatalities and a week of civil unrest that wracked the country, and calm was restored only after massive arrests and a threat from Islamic Revolution Guards Corps commanders to President Mohammad Khatami that if he did not calm the situation they would take matters into their own hands. Every 18 Tir since then has seen a renewal of the unrest, although not on the same scale.

This year the security forces are trying to preclude anything taking place. Said Robati, who heads the Tehran University branch of the Office for Strengthening Unity (OSU) student organization, said that in a 1 July letter to the Tehran governorate-general his group formally requested permission to hold a rally outside the university's main gate, according to the Islamic Association of Isfahan University of Technology website ( Robati said two days later that upon returning to the governorate-general he and his colleagues were informed verbally that a permit would not be forthcoming and any kind of off-campus rally would thus be illegal, according to the website.

The absence of a permit has not stopped the students before. Students demonstrated in July 2003 despite a ban on rallies (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 9 and 30 June; and 7, 14, and 21 July 2003). Furthermore, in June of that year demonstrations occurred in major cities in reaction to rumors that university students would have to pay tuition (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 16 June 2003). Egged on by exile television stations, the protests continued for four days until intervention by vigilantes and arrests by police.

Two-thirds of the Iranian population is under 35 and this cohort is chafing under clerical misrule. Ever since the events of 1999, therefore, there has been a degree of anticipation about the students' potential to overthrow the regime. Whether this anticipation has been based on politically motivated hype from foreign observers or the optimism of Iranian political activists, reality has not fulfilled expectations. There are many reasons for this, including the regime's coercive powers, public apathy, and an absence of organization and leadership among the students.

There has been no change in the government's ability to use force when it wants to, and the relatively low level of participation in the most recent parliamentary election indicates the level of apathy. It does appear, however, that student disunity has been reduced.

The OSU split into two wings in 2002. The majority Allameh wing wanted to withdraw from mainstream politics, while the smaller Shiraz wing preferred to continue its support for the president (for more on this split, see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 14 October 2002).

These divisions and the accompanying apathy were remarked on by members of the Sixth Parliament's "student faction," all of whom were in the OSU, during a 9 May ceremony at Allameh Tabatabai University. Tehran parliamentarian Fatimeh Haqiqatju reminded the gathering that the student movement's most important duty is "criticizing power," "Sharq" reported on 10 May. She urged the students to be actively involved with the upcoming presidential election, and she commented that there is a "language of despair" in the student movement. She warned that the conservatives find the student movement is an irritant that must be controlled, and they are trying to sow discord. Shiraz parliamentarian Reza Yusefian observed that because issues are viewed from an individualistic perspective there is no longer a student "movement."

In mid-May the OSU met at Khajeh Nasredin Tusi University. In a speech to the students, Tehran representative Ali Akbar Musavi-Khoeni urged the OSU that it must behave as a cohesive entity, "Vaqa-yi Itifaqi-yi" reported on 15 May.

Apparently, the gathering took Musavi-Khoini's words to heart. Members of the Shiraz and Allameh factions held lengthy discussions, and subsequently voting for new Central Council members took place. According to "Vaqa-yi Itifaqi-yi" on 16 May, the new council reflects the reduction in differences between the two factions. "These elections showed that the spell has been broken, and that the obstructions and external threats have been neutralized and that there is consensus among Islamic Student Associations," Abdullah Momeni of the OSU commented, according to "Hambastegi" of 17 May.

OSU Central Council member Hojatollah Sharifi described the meeting in an interview with Radio Farda and said the new unity of purpose would result in greater political involvement on the part of the student movement (

The outcome of the Central Council elections was unexpected, according to a report in the 6 June issue of "Sharq." The individuals elected to leadership positions were veterans of the student movement "who are well past their student years and student characteristics." The newspaper warned that the age gap between OSU leaders and the average university student precludes easily creating a relationship. The OSU will begin to function more like a party, and to outside observers it will be the "flag-bearer of Iran's reform movement." The two wings, according to "Sharq," believe that it is time to bury the old OSU.

An article by Central Council member Majid Haji-Babai in the 28 June "Sharq" suggests that the outcome of that funeral could be dramatic. He says ideas for ending the student movement's disunity included a "student parliament" and the Office for Fostering Democracy. The latter was an elitist version of the OSU, Haji-Babai writes, and the former would have been all-inclusive and nationwide. The student parliament, furthermore, would require direct voting by the students and would require cooperation from the universities and the regime.

Another problem, Haji-Babai writes, is that these two ideas only deal with the domestic situation. The "tens of thousands" of Iranians studying in the United States and Europe have created dynamic Iranian organizations at their individual institutions, and it would be a mistake to ignore them. What is required is a National Union of Iranian Students modeled on the old Confederation of Iranian Students that was active internationally from the 1950s onward. This entity could coordinate all the student organizations and play a powerful political role.

Developments in the OSU are noteworthy because it is one of the country's biggest student organizations and because it played a key role in Khatami's 1997 election victory. Nevertheless there are other organizations that have advocated more radical action against the regime. One of these is veteran activist Heshmatollah Tabarzadi's Democratic Front. It is unlikely that Tabarzadi will be part of any student union, and it is similarly unlikely that the OSU's new tendency will have a lasting impact.