Thursday, October 18, 2007


The Student Movement’s Struggle

By: Ali Afshari and H. Graham Underwood

Ali Afshari served as secretary of the Islamic Student Association at Iran’s Amir Kabir University for three years and as a member of the Central committee of the Office for Consolidating Unity (Daftar Takhime Vahdat) for five years. He spent more than three years in jail, including 328 consecutive days in solitary confinement, for his activism on behalf of democracy. H. Graham Underwood is a freelance writer and researcher specializing in Iranian affairs.

Walking the streets of downtown Tehran during election season, one sees a striking picture. Rushing under and past the prominent murals and election posters featuring ayatollahs and other clerics with long gray beards and turbans is a teeming young populace that bears little resemblance, and feels little connection, to these figures. The revolutionary fervor that gripped Iran after the toppling of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s monarchical dictatorship almost three decades ago has subsided, and the spirit of the Islamic Revolution, particularly among Iran’s
youth, has given way to feelings of restlessness, disenchantment, and even defiance. But will the regime’s lack of legitimacy and young Iranians’ disaffection be enough to bring about democratic change? Does the disaffection have a political vehicle or even much political content?

Theoretically, political parties could represent a generation of frustrated and alienated youth, but Iran has almost no real, established parties. Alliances form just before elections only to dissolve soon after, and those with enough staying power to be even loosely called parties tend to be hidebound and lack meaningful ties to civil society. Tying these feelings of youthful rebellion to the cause of political change will require the rise of a stronger, more organized, and more representative democracy movement that encompasses all elements of Iranian civil society. One way such a movement might come into being is through the Iranian student movement, which historically has been at the forefront of opposition politics and has a natural connection to young people.

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini urged Iranians to bear more children, his “soldiers for Islam,” in order to strengthen the fledgling Islamic Republic. Pronatalism continued through the Iran-Iraq War of 1980 to 1988, when Iran lost more than half a million of its young men. With help from such policies, Iran’s population has nearly doubled since 1979, with official figures now placing it at just over 70 million.

Through a comprehensive family-planning program started in the late 1980s, Iran has managed to tame its population surge and achieve sustainable birth rates, but the high population-growth rates of recent decades have left the country with a population that “skews young.” Iranians under 30 now number 48.6 million, or 70 percent of the total population, and the median age is approximately 26 years.1 As these “children of the Revolution” (who are too young personally to remember the Revolution) have begun to come of age and to enter the ever-crowded workforce, the regime is finding itself increasingly hard-pressed to cope with a demographic problem that its own former policies helped to feed.

This demographic shift toward youth, coupled with economic pressures and a growing desire for modernity, has given rise to a cohort of Iranians under the age of thirty who continually test the limits of the totalitarian state under which they live. Although not avowedly political, young people are increasingly frustrated by the state’s efforts to control their lives, and their feelings of discontent and resentment toward the regime suggest the limits of authoritarian legitimacy and hence may be read as boding well for the future of democracy in Iran.

Iran’s Youth

Before discussing the student movement, it is important to examine and identify the emerging youth population. Roughly speaking, each of the past four decades has seen the rise of a somewhat distinct generation tied to a particular set of formative experiences and events. First, there was the revolutionary generation, born in the 1960s, who lived through the turmoil of the Pahlavi monarchy’s collapse and the rise of Khomeini and Shi’ite clerical rule. Second, there is the wartime generation, brought up during the bloody 1980s and the difficult period of reconstruction that followed. Third, there is the reformist generation that came of age amid hopes for “reform from within” roused by the two-term presidency of the putatively liberal cleric Mohammad Khatami (r. 1997–2005). Many of Khatami’s youthful voters (the age of suffrage in Iran was only 15 until it was raised to 18 in January 2007) have yet to reach their thirtieth year.

There is also a fourth, emerging generation—perhaps it should be called the postreformist generation, or even the nuclear generation—that makes up the rest of Iran’s massive younger population. Unlike earlier generations, today’s youth have no memories of the shah, and little or
no direct recollection of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Indeed, almost 48 million Iranians alive today—more than two-thirds of the population— had not been born at the time of the Revolution. For many, the war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is something that they hear about from older relatives or read about in books—only a relative few have any personal memory of the costly conflict that consumed most of the 1980s and cost hundreds of thousands of Iranians their lives. The under-30 generation knows current Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s autocracy better than his predecessor Khomeini’s revolutionary zeal, and is more acquainted with the nuclear crisis of today than the U.S.-hostages crisis of decades ago.

While one must be careful not to treat an enormous body such as Iran’s under-30 population as a monolith—especially given the lack of independent survey data—all accounts agree that the values of the young stand in stark contrast to those of their elders. Generally speaking, the generation that made the Revolution was extremely ideological and anti-Western
(particularly anti-American); spoke of self-sacrifice for the sake of the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary project and its spread throughout the Muslim world; and, after the shah’s forced Westernization, was concerned more with public than with private life. With some exceptions, young people today are essentially nonideological; favor normal relations with the international community, particularly with the West and the United States; seek pluralism in both politics and culture; care more about private than public matters; and are more concerned with fitting into a rapidly changing world than with transforming it. More specifically, the differences between today’s youth and those who grew up in the heyday of the Revolution can be seen in two main areas: culture and religion.

Culturally, Iranian youth are increasingly shunning traditional norms and constantly testing the country’s restrictive laws. Western music can be heard blaring from car stereos or wafting from private house parties, and Western-style musical groups—including Persian-language rappers—enjoy sizeable followings. Far fewer marital engagements are arranged by families, as young people are finding ways to date by escaping to coffee houses and parks, and are eventually marrying at a much older age than past generations. Presently, the average age of marriage
for women is 27.9 years, compared to 23 years a decade ago.2 Clothing fashions grow ever more audacious. In big cities such as Tehran (though not only there), most young women prefer a bright and often form-fitting roopoosh (overcoat) to a loose, dark-colored chador. They wear
patterned headscarves pushed back to expose as much hair as possible, and body-hugging jeans with the legs daringly rolled up. The amount of makeup and plastic surgery now seen on the streets of Tehran would shock even a Hollywood denizen. Women routinely have their lips or
eyebrows tattooed, and proudly sport bandages from rhinoplasty, so much so that some wags now call Iran “Nose-job Nation.”

Although laws regarding dress are more restrictive for women than for men, young men are also flouting Islamic appearance codes. Defying older norms, they increasingly wear their hair long and in complex, intricately gelled styles that look like something from a 1950s “greaser” movie. Indeed, the regime’s annual springtime crackdown on “un-Islamic” dress has come to target men as well as women. Police may shout Dastaa baalaa! (“Hands up!”) at a young man; if his stomach shows when he reaches for the sky he may be interrogated or fined for wearing his shirt too short. A university in the northwestern city of Shiraz went as far as to prohibit men from wearing shorts and short-sleeved shirts, an act that sparked student protests until the ban was overturned.

New technologies ease cultural change. An estimated 73 percent of youth have access to satellite-television dishes3 that bring them news from sources other than state-sanctioned outlets, as well as Western movies deemed unfit for Iranian movie theaters. Personal wireless devices allow hard-to-monitor electronic communications, and creative ways around Internet filters give access to foreign media and forbidden websites. Iran has become one of the most computer-savvy nations in the broader Middle East, and its people boast the region’s highest proportion of Internet users (38.6 percent). Teenagers and college students pack Internet cafes to communicate with their friends via e-mail or instant messaging, and to read and write endless Web logs (“blogs”) about all aspects of their lives. According to estimates, Iran in 2006 was
the home base for somewhere between seventy and a hundred thousand blogs; only eight other countries had more. Farsi has become the tenth most prevalent language in the blogosphere, and the popular Blogfa domain name reports nearly two million visitors per day.4

Religion, the hallmark of the Islamic Revolution, is another line of demarcation between those under thirty and their elders. By most accounts, present-day Iranian youth treat religion differently than do their elders. Fewer than 3 percent attend Friday prayers,5 and those who are religious prefer to treat their beliefs as private. Many young people consider themselves casual or nonpracticing Muslims, and see no contradiction between dating, or even engaging in premarital sex, and still believing in God.

In many ways, the youth have forged a way to reconcile modernity and their changing cultural preferences with the traditionalist interpretation of Shi’ite Islam espoused by the state. For example, the religious festival of Ashura, a somber day of mourning for the martyred Imam
Hussein (d. 680 C.E.), has now become an occasion for “Hussein parties” where young people dress up (though still in dark colors) and seek to mingle with members of the opposite sex. Some even bring dates to what has traditionally been a highly solemn observance.

On their own, these cultural and religious changes among Iran’s youth would be enough to worry the regime. What makes them even more troubling is their occurrence amid a sagging economy that has hit the young especially hard, and which has spawned social problems that threaten the very foundations of the Islamic Republic. Younger Iranians are highly educated, with postsecondary enrollment now at about two million. Often, however, people with bachelor’s and even graduate or professional degrees can find no job commensurate with their skills.
Many are jobless altogether. Even physicians are unemployed—currently about ten thousand of them.

In a 2006 survey by the state-run National Youth Organization, young people cited joblessness as one of the main problems they face in their lives. In 2005, there were approximately ten million young people of working age (that is, people between the ages of 15 and 29), and according to official numbers, a 34 percent unemployment rate among this group.6 This is higher than both the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs official overall unemployment rate of 12.5 percent and unofficial estimates that run close to 25 percent.7 Despite the decrease in the population-growth rate to its current manageable level of 1.61 percent per year,8 there simply are not enough jobs being created for the burgeoning youth population. Iran needs a million new jobs each year to employ the new entrants into its labor force, but the economy is managing to create only 300,000 annually. President Ahmedinejad’s reckless fiscal policies, coupled with increasing international isolation and economic sanctions, have significantly worsened this problem.

Drug addiction, prostitution, and human trafficking are additional ills that disproportionately harm young people. The most recent official figures peg the number of addicts at 2.5 million and recreational users at 1.5 million. Previous estimates by the Iranian National Center for Addiction
Studies put the total number of addicts at 7 million. Among the youth, official studies claim the share of addicts to be 2 percent among high-school students, 3 percent among university students, 17 percent among those aged 20 to 24, and 23 percent for those between 25 and 29. That these numbers increase as one gets closer to the prime age brackets for entering and establishing oneself in the labor force may be another token of economic despair and the sense that the Islamic Republic is badly failing its citizens.

Exact numbers for prostitution are difficult to come by, as the subject is taboo in the Islamic Republic, but it is estimated that Iran has 300,000 prostitutes, most of whom are between the ages of 14 and 25. Human sex trafficking has also become all too common. During the past year, an estimated 100,000 young women were trafficked to neighboring states, most commonly Dubai, Turkey, and Pakistan.9

Disaffection and Democracy

What, then, does all this have to do with democracy? Just because someone listens to Western music, avoids mosque attendance, and complains about bleak job prospects does not automatically make that person a democrat. Indeed, Iran’s postreformist generation has been charged with being more apathetic and selfish than its predecessors, concerned only with personal comfort and not with the overall well-being of society. Yet in a country such as Iran, what in other countries might pass for typical acts of aimless youthful rebellion unavoidably take on a political cast. A girl wearing a loose-fitting headscarf or a boy listening to underground Persian rap may not be consciously trying to make a political statement. But in a totalitarian country where the regime seeks to control every aspect of its citizens’ lives and interprets any hint of Western influence as pernicious, these acts become a de facto form of political opposition.

There is no question that the regime sees things this way. In the first two months after the announced crackdown on “un-Islamic” dress began in March 2007, more than 67,000 girls were given warnings, and almost 15,000 were interrogated and jailed for short stretches.10 Satellite dishes have been confiscated in huge numbers, and the state has cut Internet bandwidth in order to thwart censorship-avoiding technologies such as instant messengers or the Skype web-based phone service. There has even been a clampdown on underground music that resulted in the arrest of six popular Iranian rappers.

The fear that de facto acts of resistance such as ignoring the dress code inspires in the regime appears to be compounded by its awareness that many young Iranians remember the relatively reformist era of Khatami, under whom they became used to a measure of cultural and
political openness. The hard-won freedoms gained under Khatami’s administration threaten Ahmedinejad’s conservative government, which is taking great pains to curb them. Yet youth is not willing easily to give up these liberties, which it sees as rights rather than privileges. There is
certainly a degree of uninterest in formal politics among Iran’s youth, perhaps in no small part because those groups which pass for political parties have so little connection with civil society generally and youth especially. The average age of those who belong to any of the parties
(such as they are) appears to be about 50. Members of parliament are only slightly younger, averaging apparently about 45.

Khatami benefited from the support of hordes of younger voters, but none of Iran’s weak, elitist, tradition-bound, and involuted parties or quasi-parties has done much since to reach out to youth. And yet for all the talk of young Iranians’ political apathy, Khatami’s presidency did help to mobilize a huge portion of disaffected youth and introduce them to the political process. Many veterans of Khatami-era reformist campaigns are still not even thirty years old.

The reformist movement failed not because of a lack of rank-and-file enthusiasm, but because it ran into constitutional obstacles that it could not overcome. The Islamic Republic’s constitution renders institutions based on direct elections—including the presidency and parliament—
extremely weak and subordinate to the Supreme Leader. Legislation that clears parliament must also pass muster with the 12-member Guardian Council, a body whose veto can only be overridden by the Expediency Council, most of whose members are the Supreme Leader’s appointees. The Iranian presidency wields tightly limited powers that include no veto on legislation and no power to appoint the heads of the army and the police. The president must have approval from parliament (and also, in practice, from the Supreme Leader) in order to name cabinet ministers, and controls neither foreign policy nor education policy.11 Through direct appointments or vetting, the Supreme Leader—whose power as “supreme Islamic legal expert” is the keystone of the regime—controls 75 percent of political institutions, and the Guardian Council has the power to disqualify reformist candidates for popularly elected offices. The antidemocratic forces within Iran will only let reformism go so far, as one can see from the Guardian Council’s decision to bar 51 percent of reformist candidates—including eighty incumbents—from running in the 2004 parliamentary elections.

Simply put, democracy is not possible within Iran’s existing constitutional framework, and given this, Khatami’s reform movement could only go so far. The reform movement’s failure to achieve full democracy may have left many disillusioned and disgruntled, yet the reformists played an important role in establishing and strengthening a movement that was not simply for Khatami himself, but rather for democracy in general. This movement holds great potential for democracy’s future in Iran, particularly if it can draw upon the young population’s desire for
more openness and freedoms. Most importantly, it can provide a base of support that can help push through institutional changes which can help bring democracy to Iran. As Khatami’s presidency shows, the regime will employ any and all measures to resist reforms that threaten its survival. Without a foundational movement to give democratic forces the courage and political will to push back, democracy can never take hold.

Students and Their Associations

The democracy movement that Iran needs can, and must, draw its support from all sectors of civil society, including women’s groups, labor unions, intellectuals, and the student movement. This last has the potential to become a potent force within the democracy movement, as it enjoys a natural connection to Iran’s huge youth population and can draw on an ever-growing student population for support. Just as Iran’s population has soared since the Islamic Revolution, so has the number of students. In the last year of the shah’s reign, there were about 160,000 students in public universities; by the 2005–2006 school year, this number had jumped nearly sevenfold to more than a million and even then represented only about half the total number of Iranians enrolled in postsecondary education. Aside from the sheer increase in the number of students in this time, there has also been a marked increase in the number of women in universities. Between these same years, the female share of the college-student population more than doubled, rising from 31 to 64 percent.12

The past decade has also seen an increase in the number of students in private universities. These are known as azad or “free” universities because they operate outside the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Higher Education (although they are still controlled by conservative clerics).
Founded by three clerics without any higher education—among them former president and current Expediency Council and Assembly of Experts chairman Hashemi Rafsanjani—these universities have grown in popularity and now have branches in all Iranian provinces, including in small towns. Students do not have to take the difficult national entrance examination to gain admission, and they enjoy somewhat more freedom in their daily affairs than do their counterparts at traditional public universities. In less than a decade—between the school years 1997–98 and 2004–2005—the number of students in azad universities rose from just over 600,000 to approximately 860,000. Again, the female share of the student body in these universities has also increased, jumping from 41 percent to 50 percent during these same years.

As noted above, there are about two-million postsecondary students all told, and more than half (53 percent) are women. This two-million amounts to about 3 percent of Iran’s total population, or roughly 13 percent of the population between the ages of 18 and 30.13 Even as universities churn out graduates who cannot find jobs, it is estimated that the overall student population will continue to grow by around 5 percent a year.

Whereas students once had to travel to Tehran or its environs to get a proper higher education, burgeoning college enrollments are now evident in many other parts of Iran as well. While Tehran still draws the biggest share (21 percent), provinces such as Isfahan, Khorasan, East Azerbaijan, Khuzestan, and Mazandaran are becoming centers of education. This is encouraging, for it means that the student movement’s potential support base is not only growing numerically but is also spreading geographically to areas well beyond the capital.

With university ranks swelling, students are becoming more deeply involved in issues both on and off campus. Four types of student groups tend—whether directly or indirectly—to test the boundaries drawn by the regime. The first are arts associations, which show movies, plan concerts and performances, and generally seek to entertain the student body at large. These groups operate under the supervision of the each campus’s Office of Cultural Programs. Since Ahmedinejad entered office, censorship and other restrictions on campus cultural activities have tightened.

Student publications, the second group, have played a particularly active role on Iran’s campuses. The Khatami era saw such publications multiply; eventually there were more than five-thousand and they discussed subjects ranging from science and literature to politics. Threatened by an independent press and the free flow of ideas, Ahmedinejad’s government has tried to suppress these publications by slashing their budgets and banning some of them altogether.

The third group are shoray-i senfi, or student trade unions, which were formed during Khatami’s presidency and are elected by the student body as a whole. Similar to the student councils often found at universities in the West, these groups represent student interests and deal with such matters as academic curricula, recreational activities, and the state of dormitories and cafeterias. While these domains may seem mundane, the government’s micromanagement of universities often makes questions of course offerings, required readings, and faculty personnel decisions into de facto political controversies. Recent politically motivated faculty purges and student suspensions have energized students and sparked debate between their unions and university administrators.

To the fourth and final category of student associations belong the political groups, including the prodemocratic student movement. This movement is not simply part of a “youth culture” or subculture, but is in fact currently the main organizational pillar of Iranian civil society. Activists from this movement focus not merely on campus issues such as the independence of universities from government control, but on such larger matters as freedom, democracy, and human rights in the country at large. The movement dates back to the 1930s, when young Iranians studying in Berlin began to criticize the dictatorship of Reza Shah Pahlavi (r. 1925–41), the army officer who had seized the throne after staging a military coup against the tottering Qajar dynasty in 1921. During Reza Shah’s time student political groups were mainly liberal in ideology, but after Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq (r. 1951–53) was overthrown in a 1953 coup led by Mohammad Reza Shah (Reza Shah’s son, who would be toppled in 1979), they became more leftist and communist-leaning. Student groups began to become involved in strikes and protests against the Pahlavi regime, and were strongly represented and active within the main militant protest movements of the time—the Mojahedin-e Khalq (Holy Warriors for the People) and the
Fedayan-e Khalq (Martyrs for the People).

Stages of Student Activism

The student movement’s modern, postrevolutionary history can be divided into three major stages. First, from 1979 until the Cultural Revolution of 1981, the movement was strongly influenced by the prevailing politics and ideology of the Islamic Revolution. The student
movement comprised communist-leaning and religious factions, both of which were anti-American, anticapitalist, and generally left-leaning. The student movement at that time is perhaps best remembered for its 4 November 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and the 444-day hostage crisis that ensued.

During the second stage, from the Cultural Revolution until Khomeini’s death in 1989, student groups deemed not sufficiently supportive of the government were purged of their members or banned altogether. The government also created Islamic Student Associations (ISAs) to serve as
officialdom’s “eyes and ears” inside the universities.

Khomeini’s June 1989 death and Khamenei’s promotion to Supreme Leader—which signaled a power shift from left to right within the regime—brought about a third and still-current stage for the student movement. Since 1990, groups set up by the government, including the ISAs as well as the Daftar Tahkim-e Vahdat (Office for Consolidating Unity or OCU) have taken up the call for freedom, democracy, and human rights. Creations but no longer organs of the regime, these groups have become members of the democratic opposition and engines of the reform movement.

Like Iranian youth, the student movement is not homogenous. Political groups can be divided into four main categories: government-run, socialist-communist, Islamic-oriented, and democratic. Exact membership numbers for these groups are unavailable. Our best estimate is that today around half of those who are active in student groups belong to organizations from the fourth (democratic) category, with the remaining students divided more or less evenly among the other three types.

The proregime groups are supportive of and funded by the government, and their main goal is to reproduce the regime’s ideology inside the universities. The two biggest such organizations are the student wings, respectively, of the Basij militia and the Hezbullah (Party of God). Both hew to the regime’s line of hostility to modernity and the West, and support the current form of government and its key institution, the “supremacy of the Islamic legal expert.” They are hierarchical and paternalistic, and favor tighter government control over university life. Often their members are bussed to street rallies or auditoriums in order to create the impression of massive student support for the government. Additionally, they harass—sometimes violently—students who criticize the regime. Aside from the “true believers” and beneficiaries of the regime, students who gravitate to proregime groups come mostly from the poorer classes and from rural areas, lured by the prospect of safe government jobs after graduation.

Socialist-communist groups too form a minority within the student movement, though in recent years their popularity has increased modestly. They tend to be well-organized and enjoy a strong media presence, particularly online. In their ranks are found mainly poor and middle-class students from Tehran. Unofficial and underground organizations such as the student branch of the exiled Hezbe Communiste Kargeri (Communist Workers’ Group) tend to be intensely revolutionary in outlook—at times even condoning violence—and see themselves as fighting the establishment for the sake of the oppressed masses. Leftist groups are very liberal on cultural issues, and secular to the point of being antireligious. While they oppose the current regime, they are also against the normalization of U.S.-Iranian relations and denounce globalization even more vociferously than do the ruling clerics. While the more socialist and modern of the socialist-communist groups support democracy, the avowedly communist groups favor a Marxist state.

Islamic-oriented groups form a third minority bloc within the student movement. Such groups include the National Religious Party (Melli Mazhabi) and the Participation Front (Jebheye Mosharaket). Their base lies among religiously observant students who come mostly from poor or middle-income rural areas. Most of their members support the cause of Khatami-style reformism. The main feature of this Islamic-student bloc is a belief in democracy within the context of Islamic jurisprudence. That is, its members want democracy and respect for human rights, but within the confines of the existing constitution. They are somewhat liberal on cultural issues, and try to combine modernity with tradition. Unlike the previous two groups, they favor normalizing relations with the United States, and also look upon globalization as a positive force that can help Iran.

Lastly, there are the prodemocratic groups. Finding most of their base on the campuses of greater Tehran, these groups reflect not only liberal-democratic and secular but also Islamic-modernist and socialdemocratic schools of thought. Members come from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, and agree in favoring democratic development, respect for human rights, ideological pluralism, and a principled and permanent separation between religious and political authority. Like the Islamist groups, they want friendly relations with the United States and wish to take advantage of globalization, but differ by calling for radical reform and constitutional change through peaceful means. For democratic groups, an independent, nongovernmental student movement is an integral part of civil society, and they seek to engage all elements of civil society, not just students and young people.

There are numerous democratic political groups—such as the Independent Student Union (Ettehadi-e Mostaghel-e Daneshjui), the Student Democratic Front (Jebhe-e Demokratik-e Daneshjui), and the National Student Union (Ettehadi-e Melli-e Daneshjuyan)—but all are unofficial and operate outside the confines of universities—and so enjoy only limited support.

The Office for Consolidating Unity

The largest and most powerful democratic political group is formed by the OCU and its corresponding ISAs. These groups are at the fore front of the student movement, not only because they are active on seventy campuses across Iran, but because their inclusive and democratic institutional structures make them better able to represent students. Each
university has an ISA whose members are elected by all students—candidates must be ISA members but nonmembers are eligible to vote—and these representatives in turn elect students to serve on the ten-member national committee of the OCU for a one-year term. Exact numbers for ISA membership are difficult to find across all universities, but we estimate that approximately fifty-thousand students took part in the most recent elections.

The ISAs and the OCU have been at the forefront of many demonstrations, including the massive 18 Tir (July 9) protests in 199914 and a December 2006 protest against President Ahmedinejad. On that occasion, Ahmedinejad had come to speak at Tehran’s Amir Kabir University—a longtime activist hotbed—and was greeted by students holding his pictures upside down and chanting “Dictator, go home!”

The increasing popularity and openness of such opposition makes the regime feel threatened. Its response has been to harass, slander, and even jail student leaders. On the 2007 anniversary of the 18 Tir protests, armed security forces attacked the offices of the OCU alumni association
(Advar-e Tahkim Vahdat) and arrested twelve people at gunpoint, among them the current spokesperson of the alumni association, a member of the high council of the association, and the mother of the head of the executive committee, who was in the office to inquire about her son. Six members of the OCU’s central committee were arrested while taking part in a sit-in protest in front of Amir Kabir University. There have also been efforts to “pack” student elections with Basij members. A well-organized, far-reaching state-security apparatus exists within all universities to monitor and control students at every institutional level. Each campus has a disciplinary committee that comprises the university president, vice-president, a representative of the Supreme Leader, and faculty and student representatives—the latter two typically appointed by the university president. Under Ahmedinejad, these committees have become the prime tool for harassing regime critics amid the ranks of students, more than three-hundred of whom have been punished for political reasons.

Monitoring committees consisting of the university president and agents of the Supreme Leader and the Science Ministry decide which student groups to allow and which to ban, while regime-appointed University Cultural Councils issue permits for meetings, seminars, and conferences.
Both of the committees and the cultural councils have increasingly been used to control and pressure student activists. The Science Ministry’s Central Inspection Committee (known as the Gozinesh) assesses the personal backgrounds and beliefs of all university students. Recently, this body has been barring some students from registering, and has forced others to sign declarations saying that they will avoid political activities during their studies. Lastly and perhaps most insidiously, the Intelligence Ministry hires “guardians” (herasat) to identify and spy on students who are critical of the regime. No student can be sure that his or her private life is safe from official prying, or that he or she will not be reported to the judicial or security organs by the government’s network of campus informers.

In addition to these directly repressive tactics, the regime plays a game of “divide and rule” meant to foster splits between democratic forces and civil society. When groups such as the student movement gain popularity and build bridges to women’s groups or off-campus youth, the regime does all it can to wreck these ties and root out these elements. Rumors are spread about women activists’ private lives in order to isolate them from other groups, stories are planted that the student movement is too radical and does not care about labor or gender rights, and labor activists are told that they will lose their jobs if they attend events organized by student or women’s groups. The Islamic Republic has been able to withstand a two-term reformist presidency and a reformist-dominated parliament, but appears to realize that stopping a democratic movement which goes beyond political parties and has a grassroots base in Iranian society will be harder.

Is There a Way Forward?

In analyzing Iran, there is always the danger of underestimating the Islamic Republic’s survival skills. Its demise has been predicted many times—during the tumultuous early years after the shah fell, during the Iran-Iraq War, after Khomeini’s death, and during Khatami’s presidency—
yet in each case the regime managed to endure. It would be ill-conceived to point to Iran’s modernizing youth and a growing student movement as evidence of the regime’s inevitable collapse. They are good signs for the future of democracy in Iran—ones that have a worried set of powerholders scrambling to counteract their influence—but it will take time and energy
to organize these promising pieces into a greater democracy movement. Efforts to do so are underway, but it will not be an easy struggle.

One modest way in which the international community can help is by encouraging cultural and student exchanges. Engaging the Iranian people directly and bypassing the political tensions between Iran and the West, particularly the United States, can help to weaken the isolation of
the populace that the regime craves in order to survive. These measures can include sponsoring conferences where academics and civil society actors from Iran can interact with counterparts from the international community, and easing student-visa restrictions so that Iranians can come to study in the United States and other parts of the West. These exchanges should go both ways. Westerners should be encouraged to learn more about Iranian culture and history in university offerings, and more resources should be allocated for students to study Farsi. Americans in particular may be pleasantly surprised to learn that ordinary Iranians differ widely from the public persona that the regime puts forward, and that especially among the youth, Iran is home to perhaps the greatest degree of pro-American sentiment in the entire Middle East.

Foreign media should also be urged to cover aspects of Iran aside from Ahmedinejad’s nuclear saber-rattling and Holocaust denials. Increasingly, intrepid journalists are traveling to Iran and are reporting on the real situation within the country and among the population. This sort of journalism needs to be encouraged. Thankfully, the December 2006 student protests at Amir Kabir University garnered a surprising amount of media attention. Coverage of these protests and other types of opposition help to show brave Iranians—who often risk their lives and well-being to speak out against the government—that the international community is paying attention and that their efforts are not in vain. It is important for nongovernmental organizations and advocacy groups outside Iran to show solidarity with and moral support for groups such as the prodemocratic students’ movement. Making Iran’s struggle for democracy as global an issue as the nuclear one can bolster the forces for democracy within Iran and play a role in the Iranian people’s quest for freedom and human rights.

The Iranian student movement itself can and should take several steps to strengthen its ties with other parts of the democracy movement, specifically to take advantage of potential support among the young. First and foremost, the student movement must find a way to rise above the
factionalism that permeates Iranian politics. The aim should be to foster a basic intramovement solidarity that rests on shared democratic beliefs and sets aside other ideological considerations as less important. A new, overarching group similar in structure to the OCU could even be established to reach this end. Second, the student movement should work to involve in its activities other civil society groups such as labor and women’s organizations. Doing so will require expanding the language of their discourse to include workers’ rights and gender rights, not just issues that concern students and general demands for democracy.

Third, the student movement should reach out to those who are not yet in universities by persuading them that the totalitarian system of government currently in place is the root cause of their grievances, and that democracy is the only viable alternative. In fact, this should apply not merely to those below college age, but to the whole populace, many of whom see democracy as an elite concept that cannot address their real world (and often economic) problems. Existing student groups should even consider setting up branches in primary schools in order to rally
as many Iranians as possible to the democracy movement at the earliest possible age. Finally, both students and the larger democracy movement must be prepared for the violent repressive tactics that the government will use to quash any organized threat to its rule. While the concept of civil disobedience is certainly not unknown to Iran’s democratic forces, this idea must be emphasized and practiced if the democracy movement is to have any hope of breaking the regime’s stranglehold on power.

1. All population figures are drawn from data made available by the Statistical Center of Iran at
2. These data come from the research center of Iranian parliament and are cited at
3. “Welcome to Satellite,” Shargh Daily Press (Tehran), 28 May 2006. Available at
4. Cited in Liora Hendleman-Baayur, “Promises and Perils of Weblogistan: Online Personal Journals and the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Middle East Review of International Affairs 11 (June 2007). Available at
5. Jared Cohen, “Iran’s Young Opposition: Youth in Post-Revolutionary Iran,” SAIS Review 16 (Summer–Fall 2006): 3–16.
6. “Unemployment in Young People” [English translation], Fars News Agency (7 and 13 July 2005). Available at
7. Behrooz Karezooni, “Debate About Announced Unemployment Rate in Iran,” [English translation] Radio Farda, 1 June 2007. Available at
8. Data from the 2006 national census are cited at
9. “Dating in Darkness,” Shargh Daily Press, 20 August 2006.
10. Gozaar, June 2007 issues, available at
11. The body that decides foreign policy is the National Security Council, which does not include the president. In order to act, the Council must receive final approval from the Supreme Leader. All universities are managed by the Council for Cultural Revolution, whose members, aside from the president, are direct appointees of the Supreme Leader.
12. All data on student population are drawn from the official figures of Iran’s Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology.
13. Ministry of Science, Research and Technology. Available at
14. These protests began when students at Tehran University gathered peacefully in
the streets to demonstrate against the closing of the main reformist newspaper, Salam. Police officers and plainclothes security forces violently attacked them and raided the student dormitories. Following these assaults, more students at Tehran University and also Tabriz University took to the streets to decry the beatings and arrests. The five days of protests, which involved up to fifty-thousand students and other citizens, amounted to the largest set of street demonstrations that Iran had seen since the days of the Islamic Revolution. They ended only after the regime brought to bear still more violence and arrested more than a thousand students.

Journal of Democracy Volume 18, Number 4 October 2007
© 2007 National Endowment for Democracy and The Johns Hopkins University Press

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