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In Iran, Renewed Efforts To Keep University Students In Check

Opposition supporters demonstrate at Tehran University in December 2009.
Opposition supporters demonstrate at Tehran University in December 2009.
Former university professor Saba Vasefi and student activist Salman Sima are casualties of the Iranian state's campaign to purge universities of dissenting voices.

In the aftermath of the country's contentious presidential election in June 2009, Vasefi, a professor of literature at Shahid University, was fired. The reason: politically interpreting literary texts and fomenting "moral corruption" among students.

Sima has found himself jailed twice and most recently saw an appellate court uphold a six-year prison sentence against him.

The two exemplify the pressure that has come to bear on universities in relation to the prominent role played by students in mass protests over President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's reelection.

The tactics used to keep universities in check have transformed over the months. In the initial days of the protests, pro-government forces reacted violently. The dorm of Tehran University was one of the first targets, with five students reportedly killed and many injured. Students were among those killed in street protests and at least three are reported to have died after being tortured at the Kahrizak detention center outside the Iranian capital.

The next stage involved the sentencing of dozens of students to lengthy jail terms or their banishment from future education.

Today, the country's institutes of higher learning are working under heightened scrutiny, with a heavy police presence keeping a close eye on students and professors alike.

Toeing The Line

Saeed Peivandi, a Paris-based university professor and an expert on Iranian youth and education, says the Iranian establishment sees students as a body that must be controlled.

"Today, students make about 5 percent of the Iranian population. In many cities, they make up about 12 to 13 percent of the population," Peivandi says. "Therefore, the public opinion of the students is considered an important social, cultural, and political weight in Iran's society."

The university has demonstrated that it will not be silenced.
The authorities are employing various means of offsetting students' political weight. In some cases, institutions have come under pressure to toe the regime's ideological line, as evidenced by Science and Education Minister Kamran Daneshjou's declaration in August that those who do not should be destroyed.

In other cases, the curriculums of universities have been altered to make them more "Islamic" and university boards and staffs overhauled to favor members committed to the principle of the Velayat Faghih, or the rule of the supreme leader.

Vasefi and Sima say the methods have largely succeeded in silencing students and in their cases led them to seek exile abroad.

Vasefi, who now lives in Sydney, says the authorities seek to turn learning institutions into "seminaries."

"A number of students were killed [in the postelection crackdown]. Many were injured. I know a student who was injured by a bullet and he's paralyzed," Vasefi says. "Many have been forced to leave the country; many are in jail. All of this provides a picture of the number of dissidents and critics at universities. Clearly [the authorities] can't [tolerate] all these opposition members."

Student Activities Banned

Ashkan Zahabian, a student activist in northern Iran, says that universities' disciplinary committees used to deal with students vocally critical of the regime. Now, he says, that task is increasingly the domain of the Intelligence Ministry and other security organs. Zahabian also says the authorities have banned the activities of various student groups, including cultural societies.

One student activist, who was banned from studies for two terms and sent into internal exile to a small city, says on condition of anonymity that intelligence authorities have threatened him and his family to make him stop his political activities. He says other activists are facing similar harassment.

A student activist from Tehran's Polytechnic University, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, says authorities have successfully blocked all possibilities of activism at universities.

"Any place that could be used for group activities by critics is being attacked under different excuses by the university management and others," he says, adding that holding discussions or open forums at his university is "unthinkable."

Leave The Door Open

Paris-based professor Peivandi says there's been unprecedented pressure on professors considered not to be in line with the Iranian establishment.

"For example, the classes of the professors who are in a way opposed to the state policies are being controlled," Peivandi says. "In some cases, their classes have been recorded by Basijis and later [some of them ] have been summoned because of some of their comments."

Peivandi says scientific staff at universities are being chosen based not on their academic merits but on their ideological stances. Professors have reported being interrogated by security officials upon returning from academic trips; some say they've been told to leave the doors to their offices open at all times.

The risk, Peivandi warns, is that the interference will hinder professors' research and lead to a brain drain that will undermine the country as a whole.

'University Is Still Alive'

Activists say that while they expect the repression to continue, a simmering desire for change is not going to go away.

Activist Sima, who is currently seeking asylum in Turkey, likens the student movement to an ailing patient, but one which he says will recover.

"The university has demonstrated that it will not be silenced," Sima says. "For 30 years it has come under all kind of repression, yet there's a sentence that all [students] say: 'The university is still alive.' Let me ask: If it were not alive, if the student movement were dead, then why is there so much pressure, and arrests, and threats?"

While universities appear calm and free of protests on the surface, student activists say that criticism of the establishment is still being discussed and new ideas are still being aired privately -- in gatherings and online.

Antigovernment graffiti serves as evidence that "underground activities" continue, according to one activist, and the distribution of leaflets and opposition statements remains widespread.

Another predicts that universities will continue to be a "nightmare" for a regime well aware of their "enormous potential" to push for change.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.