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Looking Back At Tehran's 1999 Student Protests

Iranian students demonstrating in Tehran in 1999 before the unrest turned violent
Iranian students demonstrating in Tehran in 1999 before the unrest turned violent
Some call it the "Iranian Tiananmen Square," though it was not as bloody or as widespread as the Chinese student unrest in 1989. What happened nine years ago this week in Tehran has been the subject of intense discussion inside and outside Iran -- and sparked the creation of a student movement that has had a huge impact on the country's sociopolitical life.

On the hot summer night of July 8, 1999, during an incredible period of student unrest that lasted nearly five days and shook the regime, a Tehran University dormitory was attacked by plainclothes police forces and paramilitary elements calling themselves Comrades of Hezbollah (Ansar-e Hezbollah).

A couple hours after midnight, most students in the dormitory were sound asleep after a long day of scuffles with the police. The following day, they were to continue their protests against the closure of the reformist newspaper “Salaam” and parliament’s passage of a new law limiting freedom of the press. The Central Council of the Students’ Islamic Society at Tehran University had approved a series of protests against those two measures.

Then the attackers came.

“It was wild and sudden,” one eyewitness said later. The forces broke down doors, shattered windows, set fire to students’ beds and personal belongings and even threw some of them out of windows. At least one person, a visitor at the university, was killed. Many others were injured.

News of the attack circulated rapidly and shocked many. The students’ demonstrations, which until then had been limited to the campus area, spread into the streets. Many ordinary Tehran citizens joined them. And the police showed no restraint in crushing the demonstrations.

The reformist government of then-President Mohammad Khatami faced a serious crisis. Some of his close associates sided with the students. The minister of science and higher education resigned in protest at the brutality of the police and their Comrades of Hezbollah allies.

Khatami eventually condemned the attack and urged students to use moderation and not offer any pretext to antireformist elements. Then, the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic himself intervened. Ayatollah Khamenei publicly asked members of the Basij paramilitary force not to resort to violence or react harshly to the student protests.

"Entering students’ bedrooms by force is like attacking homes and private residences unlawfully, in the worst cases at night," he said. Khamenei also urged excitable young Basijis to show restraint. “If, for example, [the students] insulted the leader, we have to be patient, to be reticent," Khamenei said, even "if they set my picture on fire, or tear it.”

A few days later, a large demonstration was organized in Tehran to show the unity of the regime and the people.

The case of the dormitory attack later went to a special court, but nobody was indicted or punished for the killing or attacking the students and ransacking their rooms. Of all the atrocities that took place, only one ordinary soldier was found guilty -- albeit only for the crime of unlawfully confiscating a student’s lighter.

Roots Of A Movement

Most Iran observers believe that what happened in July 1999 laid the foundations for what has come to be known as Iran’s independent students’ movement. Until then, student organizations, most importantly the Office To Consolidate Unity, were followers or offshoots of political parties and groupings. But the events of July 1999 freed the student movement from the ideological and organizational links they had with those parties since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

During the past nine years, the student movement has gone through many ups and downs, but has never forgotten its main cause of defending students' rights. Those who participated in the events of 1999 talk about it from different perspectives. Some say they made serious mistakes. But all point to those events as an important turning point.

Hojat Sharifi, who took part in the student unrest, believes that one positive aspect was the fact that it all began as a protest against the closure of a reformist newspaper and in defense of freedom of the press.

“In my opinion, that protest was one of the most important and most valuable parts of the events," Sharifi said. "It could still teach us a few lessons even today. It showed the true sensitivity of the student community toward other sectors of Iranian society, particularly toward the media.”

Another student activist leader was Ali Nikoo Nesbati, a member of the Central Council of the Office To Consolidate Unity, the oldest and most important student organization. Nesbati believes the events of July 1999 made the student movement independent of both main currents of Iranian politics -- the conservatives and the reformists, who showed weak support for the students despite perhaps being closer to them in ideology.

“This was the beginning of a transformation that led the student movement toward independence from difference groups and toward developing new slogans and new programs,” Nesbati said.

Lessons Remain

The question persists as to whether the student movement of 1999 committed any irreparable mistakes -- and whether students grappling with even harsher conditions today can learn from them.

Former activist Sharifi believes the greatest mistake was thinking idealistically and acting emotionally. “Unfortunately, mistakes were made both in announcing slogans and expressing demands, and in managing and conducting demonstrations and protests," he said. "These were quite obvious. Instead of drafting limited slogans and pursuing them toward a goal, a series of unchecked slogans such as ‘overthrowing the regime’ were set forth, with demands like, ‘The leader [of the Islamic Republic] should personally come and answer to us."

Many of these lessons seem to have been learned by the new generation of student activists.

Despite the enormous pressures by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's administration on today’s student movement, recent protests at Sahand University in Tabriz, the Pardis Teachers' Training College in Karaj, and the University of Zanjan have all been considered mostly successful because students had clear and specific demands.

Those demands are no longer far-reaching and unrealistic. Instead, they have focused on, for example, improving the quality of food at university cafeterias or, in one case, protesting alleged sexual abuse by a faculty member.

Farin Asemi, a correspondent for Radio Farda who follows the student movement in Iran, believes today’s students have learned the lessons of 1999.

"Now, students demand what they can achieve within the framework of possibility, and [consider] the authorities of the universities," Asemi said. "One good example was the hunger strike by students of Sahand University in Tabriz. They achieved almost all their goals. Some call this the first victory for university students since Ahmadinejad became president.”

The protest by the students in Tabriz lasted for two months, ending in June with the authorities accepting most demands, including one for female and male students to be allowed in the same student unions.

Such demands may not be lofty. But to many in Iran, they represent small, practical steps forward in the long march toward a better life.