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Iran's Campuses On Edge As University Doors Open

At Sharif University, students erected a memorial to those killed since the election unrest began.
At Sharif University, students erected a memorial to those killed since the election unrest began.
Iranian universities have reopened against a backdrop of simmering postelection dispute that has authorities fearing new protests and many students expecting the worst.

Officials are concerned that the new academic year will allow disgruntled youths to stoke public anger over the fiercely contested reelection of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Student leaders are meanwhile nervous as a result of arrests, bans, and efforts that appeared aimed at intimidating potential malcontents whose sympathies are thought to lie with the political opposition that's been shut out since the June 12 election.

One of the traditional hotbeds of student unrest, Tehran University, did not reopen, reportedly due to testing procedures that preempted the start of new classes.

Estimates vary widely over the number of detentions since street protests broke out the day after the election, but they are thought to number in the thousands.

But Iranian authorities have also exerted pressure through more indirect channels.

A 22-year-old student named Amir, who spoke to RFE/RL but requested anonymity out of concern for his safety, learned that lesson the hard way.

Amir had campaigned outside the capital for presidential candidate Mir Hossein Musavi ahead of the June election. He distributed leaflets and called on friends and relatives to vote for the former prime minister and staunch Ahmadinejad critic.

After officials anointed Ahmadinejad the winner, Amir took to the streets to protest a result that he believes was the result of a "coup."

Earlier this month, Amir was notified by university officials that he had been suspended for two terms.

Iran's largest reformist student group, the Office to Foster Unity (Daftar Tahkim Vahdat), claims that Amir's fate is similar to that of more than 200 student activists who in recent weeks have been summoned to appear before disciplinary committees, in court, or at the offices of the Intelligence Ministry.

Some have been banned from studies. At least three have been jailed. Others have been warned not to take part in protests. Those and other punishments have been handed down to students across Iran, including in Tehran, Mashhad, and Isfahan.

At Babol University, eight students who took part in postelection protests were reportedly sentenced to prison terms and banned from studying for five years.

Climate Of Fear

Mehdi Arabshahi, one of the leaders of the Office To Foster Unity, tells RFE/RL that authorities have increased pressure against student activists in order to intimidate.

Arabshahi says Iranian authorities appear to think that silencing students will keep entire universities quiet.

But he notes that mass arrests, including of key reformist politicians and activists, have so far failed to quell public anger.

Iranians protesting against Ahmadinejad last week warned that the reopening of universities could shake the Islamic establishment.

Protesters in Tehran on September 18 chant: "There will be resurrection day when universities open. There will be resurrection day when universities open."

The chants reflect the apparent belief among Iranians who remain angry over the outcome of the contentious presidential election that the new academic year could give their protest movement a boost.

Campus Activity

In recent weeks, a number of officials have warned that some might want to instigate "riots" in universities.

The reformist website "Rouydadnews" reported earlier this month that a Basij commander had suggested that members of that paramilitary group who are stationed at universities be equipped with antiriot gear.

The Office To Foster Unity has suggested it would be unsurprising if the government began appointing "military commanders" as university deans and placing "military units" on campuses to tighten its grip on universities.

Universities have traditionally been strongholds of political activism and dissent in Iran, and have long been under particular official scrutiny. Student activists say pressure on universities increased after President Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005.

In recent years, students have been among the most outspoken critics of Ahmadinejad's policies. A year after the Iranian president came to power, he was greeted with "Death to the dictator!" chants and his picture was set alight during a visit to Tehran's Amir Kabir University. The incident marked the first public protest against Ahmadinejad.

Student dormitories in Tehran and a few other cities, including Isfahan, came under attack by pressure groups following the June election. Such attacks were blamed for numerous injuries and at least five deaths.

New Mood?

Office To Foster Unity leader Arabshahi tells RFE/RL that events over the past four months have changed the mood in the country. As a result, he says he expects students who were not politically active in the past to become involved in protest actions.

He suggests that the general atmosphere has changed since last year, when "political indifference" seemed to prevail among many students.

"It seems that many of the incoming students will be full of political enthusiasm and excitement," Arabshahi says.

Fears of a fresh "cultural revolution" that could lead to the ouster of students, professors, and the closure of universities have circulated since Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said recently that the study of social sciences undermines faith in Islamic principles.

Arabshahi says purges of liberal professors and students considered troublesome began in the first term of Ahmadinejad's presidency.

He says shutting down classes will not end the opposition's so-called green movement and expects dissent within society to continue.

The Islamic Society at Tehran's Amir Kabir University, which has been a center of dissent, issued a statement on the occasion of the new academic year in which it describes the clampdown on students as fruitless.

The group says the "light" that has been created by "real values" is inextinguishable and will only burn those who try to put it out.
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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.

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