Protests Lend Momentum To Iranian Students' Struggle
Student rallies began to gain momentum in early December. But they appear to be part of a wave of open dissent that began to build in earnest one year ago when -- during a speech by Mahmud Ahmadinejad at Tehran University -- students in the crowd burned photos of the president and chanted, "Death to the dictator!" Similar, if less strident, rallies followed in May and October, with the authorities responding in each case by arresting activists.
On December 4, some 250 students at Tehran University gathered to chant slogans such as “Freedom and Equality!” and “No to war!” About 20 were arrested and sent to Tehran's Evin prison. Several were released but others are still being held, students say. Similar protests spread the next day to the cities of Hamadan, Isfahan, Mazandaran, Shiraz, and Kerman, where students reportedly openly criticized Iran’s disputed nuclear program.
"Since the academic year began in October, the students' movements and activities have not stopped,” Iraj Jamsheedi, an independent journalist, told RFE/RL from Tehran. “They’ve been ongoing, at different levels, at many universities across the country. It has become a trend. And unlike in the past, I don't think their activities will die down after a short while, because their demands reflect those of the majority of the Iranian people."
Authorities had not planned any official events at universities to mark Student Day, which commemorates the death of three students during protests in 1953. That is in sharp contrast to previous years when senior leaders, including Ahmadinejad, made a point of meeting with students. Iranian media said the authorities this year instead planned "happy events" for students, such as "placing flowers on martyrs’ graves."
The students had different plans.
Student Day this year fell at the start of the Muslim weekend on December 7, so organizers were expected to mount rallies on December 9.
Iran's Intelligence Ministry on December 8 reported detaining several people whom it accused of carrying false student-identification cards and planning an "illegal gathering" at Tehran University. The ministry alleged that the detainees were plotting "to create conflict, disturbances, and unrest" at the behest of "antigovernment groups."
An unspecified number of students with ties to the Office to Foster Unity (Daftar-e Tahkim-e Wahdat), a leading reformist students' group, gathered at Tehran University on December 9 to protest the detention of their colleagues. A report by Reuters said photographs from the rally indicated protesters demanding the release of student detainees had damaged bars on one of the university's gates.
Bahar Hedayat, a member of the women's commission of the Office to Foster Unity, had predicted ahead of Student Day that young people would protest. She said they would “demand their rights, including the right to academic freedom and publish journals reflective of their opinions. They also demand freedom for political and social organizations." Hedayat, speaking to RFE/RL from Tehran, said students also are calling more broadly for democratic change, improved human rights, and the release of students imprisoned for taking part in demonstrations.
Parents and relatives of students detained last week in Tehran were still seeking information about the fate of their children held at Evin prison. Nasreen Musavi told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that her daughter, Ilnaz, had been arrested during the protest on December 4 and that the authorities had denied her any contact with her family or a lawyer. Another student, Ehsan Azadbar, said he was arrested during the rally along with his sister Azadeh, and that the authorities had released him only after two days of interrogation. Azadeh remains in custody.
At least one student has been in prison since 1999. That year, Iran saw its largest student demonstrations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Thousands took part in demanding freedom. Clashes with police left five students dead. Similar scenes, on a smallar scale, were seen in 2003. With some shouting “Death to Khamenei!,” the supreme leader who holds ultimate religious and political power under the constitution, thousands rallied against the perceived slow pace of change under then-President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist. Scores were arrested after clashes with police and radical Islamist vigilantes.
As the authorities sharpen their current crackdown, Hedayat says that she and other students know they risk arrest, expulsion from school -- even death for campaigning for change against the country's current leadership. “The more active the student movements become, the more intense will become the pressure from the authorities,” Hedayat said.
But the latest protests will continue, she vowed, because Iranians "can no longer put up with the current political, economic, and social pressures."
Iran: Women Reject The 'Little Miseries'
As a college student some 20 years ago, Gisoo briefly fell in love -- and got married. Yet there was no honeymoon. Shortly after the wedding, her husband made her quit studying and stay home. Ever since, he has made virtually every important decision in her life. Her husband even moved the family out of her native Tehran without consulting Gisoo. Now, she would like nothing more than a divorce -- but the price would be high.
According to Iranian law, if a woman initiates a divorce, she loses her right to a share of the family's property. She would also lose access to her kids, because fathers get custody of all children over the age of 7. In short, Gisoo would be left virtually homeless -- with no money, no kids, and no decent job, given her interrupted studies.
Now, women's activists from across Iran are rallying to defend women like Gisoo, who are the victims of daily abuses of their human rights. But in perhaps a sign of the challenge that their drive, the One Million Signatures Campaign, represents to Tehran's clerical regime, authorities have cracked down hard on the grassroots movement, detaining scores of its activists in recent weeks and months and accusing them of endangering national security.
Campaign To End Discrimination
Members of the signature campaign, which started in August 2006, say they want to change what they call inequitable laws -- such as polygamy, unequal legal compensation for men and women, and different ages of criminal responsibility for boys and girls (15 for boys, 9 for girls). Their goal is to present a petition with 1 million signatures urging parliament to change such laws.
Jelveh Javaheri, a 30-year-old Internet journalist, recently became the fourth activist of the movement to be arrested and jailed since October. On December 1, the Revolutionary Court in Tehran charged her with inciting public opinion, propaganda against the state, and the publication of false information on websites. She's being held at Tehran's notorious Evin prison.
Another member of the campaign, Maryam Hosseinkhah, was sent to Evin in November on similar charges and is awaiting trial, while Delaram Ali was sentenced earlier in the month to a prison term and flogging. The authorities requested the equivalent of $105,000 in bail for Hosseinkhah's release -- a sum her family says it cannot afford.
Since its start, criminal cases have now been slapped on a total of some 40 campaign members.
And yet, the movement insists it is nonpolitical. Speaking to RFE/RL from Tehran, Khadija Moqaddam, a member, says the group merely seeks to promote equal rights for women. "It's a campaign that started a year and a half ago to change discriminatory laws against women," Moqaddam says. "Its activities include talking to people directly to broaden their general knowledge about the issue. We also are trying to collect 1 million signatures and pass them on to the parliament, and ask the parliament to change the discriminatory laws."
The campaigners say Iranian women are treated like "half-persons" under Islamic laws that first surfaced some 1,400 years ago. Still, campaigners say they are aware their counterparts in other Islamic societies, such as Saudi Arabia, probably face even worse discrimination.
Although women in Iran are required to follow an Islamic dress code, they have the right to work and vote, and participate in the country's political life. With some dress restrictions, Iranian women are able to take part in domestic and international sports competitions. And, unlike places such as Saudi Arabia, Iran does not bar women from driving cars by themselves.
However, women's rights activist Raha Askarizadeh says there are still many laws that restrict rights and freedom. "Iranian women have no right to divorce," Askarizadeh told RFE/RL from Tehran. "If they marry a foreigner, they lose their Iranian citizenship. Their right to inheritance is smaller than their brothers'. When her husband dies, the wife gets only one-eighth of his property."
Although Iranian officials have not officially criticized the campaign, its members came under pressure from authorities almost immediately after the movement was set up. At least 33 women -- with Javaheri and Hussienkhah among them -- were arrested in March for taking part in a peaceful protest. The women were eventually released.
In August, a court in Tehran sentenced two young female members of the campaign, Nasim Sarabandi and Fatemeh Dehdashti, to suspended prison terms. They were also found guilty of acting against the state by "spreading propaganda."
In October, Ronak Safarzadeh was reportedly arrested at her home in Sanandaj in Kurdistan Province and is being held in a detention center at the local office of the Intelligence and Security Ministry. Shortly afterwards, in early November, the same office arrested another women's rights activist, 21-year-old Hana Abdi.
Both women are being held without formal charges and they have reportedly been denied access to a defense lawyer. Their families claim they have no information about Safarzadeh or Abdi's whereabouts.
The arrests have attracted international criticism and condemnation. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders has called for an immediate release of the arrested women. And the European Parliament has strongly condemned the "dramatic increase in the repression of women" in Iran.
But Iranian women activists say they are concerned that the recent arrests are just the beginning of a wider crackdown on women, and that they will be followed with more arrests and convictions.
"With 10 or even 100 such arrests, Iranian authorities cannot silence those who fight for the most basic social rights," women's rights leader Khadija Muqadam told RFE/RL from Tehran. "That's because there are millions of women and men in Iran who share the same values as the arrested members of the One Million Signatures Campaign."
Tehran Seizes On U.S. Nuclear TurnaroundRare is a U.S. intelligence report that seems to strike joy in the hearts of Iranian leaders. But a new U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which concludes that Iran is not currently at work on a nuclear weapons program, appears to have done just that.
Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki, speaking in Tehran after the NIE on Iran was released in Washington on December 3, welcomed the report, saying, "of course we are pleased."
The NIE, which is considered the most authoritative written U.S. intelligence judgment, represents the consensus view of 16 intelligence agencies.
The last NIE on Iran in 2005 expressed “high confidence that Iran currently is determined to have nuclear weapons.” Two years later, the new NIE states with an equal degree of “high confidence” that Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003. The report, which said it is “moderately confident” the weapons program has remained inactive since then, is largely seen by Western analysts as likely to blunt arguments in Washington for military strikes to stop Iran’s nuclear drive.
So far, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have not yet publicly reacted to the report -- nor have any so-called moderates led by former President Mohammad Khatami. But Mottaki was echoed by officials from both the “pragmatic conservative” camp of former President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and the “ultraconservative” grouping led by Ahmadinejad.
The head of the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Alaeddin Borujerdi, who is considered a pragmatic conservative, was quoted by the IRNA news agency as saying that the report has "nullified" claims by U.S. administration officials that Iran "is thinking of producing nuclear bombs." He said those officials are "under the strong influence of the Zionist lobby" and had wanted to deflect attention from Israel’s nuclear program, but added that the NIE should now provide the basis for a new U.S. approach to Iran.
Another committee member, Elham Aminzadeh, told IRNA that the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush should apologize to Iranians, and that the UN Security Council should cancel economic sanctions on Iran. She added that the great powers and international bodies should compensate Iran for the moral and financial harm it has suffered from sanctions, and allow it to resume unrestricted trade and business around the world.
Iranian government spokesman Gholamhussein Elham also said the United States must pay for the damage its "lies" had inflicted on Iran, IRNA reported. He told reporters in Tehran that Iran would continue its nuclear program "on the basis of international treaties," and insisted that its activities are supervised by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog.
Mohammad Ali Hosseini, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said that the report “contains good news for the European partners” of the United States, such as Germany, Britain, and France -- all of which have been involved in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.
Those European Union countries, known as the EU-3 in their negotiations with Iran, have been considering backing a third round of harsher UN sanctions on Iran for failing to suspend uranium enrichment as demanded by Security Council resolutions. But Hosseini said that in light of the U.S. report, the EU-3 can revise their approach and choose “wise and practical" decisions rather than further punitive measures.
Hosseini added that the most important part of the NIE is that “it shows that what Bush and other U.S. officials claimed about the ‘dangers’ of Iran’s nuclear program is baseless and fabricated.”
Iranian officials have not commented on the NIE assessment "with high confidence" that "until fall 2003, Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons." The U.S. intelligence agencies go on to conclude "with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons."
Meanwhile, observers were waiting with bated breath for Ahmadinejad's and Khamenei's reactions to set the tone of the Iranian debate. But moderates and pragmatic conservatives were expected to use the U.S. report as an opportunity to push for more talks with the United States. Indeed, IRNA quoted some "observers" as saying that "the U.S. is getting ready for a grand bargain with Iran.”
Shahram Chubin, an Iranian-born analyst, expressed a similar view in an interview with RFE/RL’s Radio Farda. “I think what happens now is a much more deliberate effort by the Europeans to push the U.S. to engage Iran across the board,” said Chubin, who is the director of research at the Geneva Centre for Security Studies. He said any such talks should “look for a solution that, on the one hand, allows Iran some [uranium] enrichment, and on the other hand, allows more intensified or more intrusive [nuclear] inspections.”
(RFE/RL's Golnaz Esfandiari, Iraj Gorgin, and Vahid Sepehri contributed to this report.)
Questioning Tehran's 'Urgent Need' For Nuclear Energy
Some of the bluntest Iranian assertions about atomic energy have come former top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani and Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki. Both men have played major diplomatic roles in deflecting global criticism of Iran's nuclear program, which has driven Tehran into dispute with the UN Security Council, with the United States convinced that Iran’s nuclear bid is secretly aimed at developing weapons.
The fresh Iranian rhetoric comes in the wake of a mixed report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Iran's nuclear activities, and appears to signal a broad push to capitalize on any momentum that the November 22 report might have generated in favor of Tehran.
Mottaki, in particular, warned "Iran's energy demand will exceed its supply" in the near future and the country "urgently needs to produce 20,000 megawatts of nuclear power by 2020."
No Energy Deficit
But some Western energy experts -- particularly those wary of the proliferation threat -- are skeptical of any pressing Iranian need to pursue nuclear power to replace fossil fuels. Shannon Kile, a nonproliferation specialist at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said that it's unlikely Iran will face an energy deficit anytime soon.
"Most Western experts do not think that there is a compelling, a persuasive economic rush now for Iran to be pursuing nuclear power,” Kile told RFE/RL. “And I think there is a consensus view among Western experts that it doesn't make economic sense for Iran to produce nuclear energy, and that oil and gas reserves are going to last longer than Iranians say."
Iranian officials argue that energy consumption has increased rapidly and that oil and gas supplies will run out one day. Iran's official figures suggest that oil consumption since the early 1990s risen an average of 8 percent a year. Total energy consumption has reportedly grown more than 200 percent in the past three decades.
But Iran sits on 9 percent of the world's proven oil reserves and possesses the world's second-largest natural gas deposits. And proven reserves usually represent a conservative estimate of actual retrievable levels, analysts note.
Still, London-based nuclear-energy specialist and consultant Mehdi Askariyeh says that Iranian energy consumption looks set to increase, particularly since its population has more than doubled since the 1979 Islamic revolution. "Iran predicts that in the next 20 years it will have a population of more than 100 million," Askariyeh told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda.
Skeptics, however, warn that Iran consistently exaggerates its energy needs. They say that per capita consumption is no higher than other oil- and gas-producing countries. International Energy Data and Analysis claims the world's largest oil producer, Saudi Arabia, has a similar level of total energy consumption to Iran.
Critics of an expanding Iranian nuclear program also say that increasing industrial output, producing energy-efficient cars, and creating energy-efficient industries is probably cheaper and easier than investing in a nuclear industry.
Kile says that "by a variety of conservation measures and alternative energy sources -- other than nuclear power -- Iran can easily make up for whatever is going to be [consumed or exported] over the years."
Iranian sources note that fossil fuels have caused serious environmental degradation and health problems related to pollution in the air, water, and soil.
Moreover, questions about the storage of nuclear waste and incidents like the Chornobyl disaster in 1986 also contribute to concerns in Iran about its nuclear program. Chornobyl in Ukraine was a largely Russian-built facility, and Russian technology is a keystone of Iran's nearly completed Bushehr nuclear power plant in the south.
Still, Iranian officials use the nuclear drive as a rallying cry, and say they are determined to produce nuclear-generated electricity. Those same officials have consistently rejected claims that their nuclear program has a weapons component.
Iran has already been targeted by two rounds of UN Security Council sanctions as part of the international community's effort to stop it from enriching uranium.
Askariyeh says Iran's desire for diversification and alternative energy sources are as legitimate as any country's. But he argues that the need is not pressing enough to make the hasty pursuit of nuclear technology -- and the resulting international isolation -- a wise option for Tehran.