A few thousand University of Tehran students have shaken the Islamic Republic of Iran to the core. Teary-eyed veterans of the student movements of the 1960s celebrated by dusting up their situationist slogans and their Bob Dylan anthems: could this be the first revolution of the 21st century?
It all started a just over a week ago when a few hundred students didn’t take their nightly meal to protest against the privatization of a university restaurant on the campus. Radio Iran Farda, based in the US, and Los Angeles-based satellite channels broadcasting in Farsi immediately seized the story. As thousands converged to the students’ dormitories, the demonstration inevitably became politicized. The defiance was vocal: down with the mullah dictatorship, down with the “Leader of the Revolution” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and down even with reformist President Mohamad Khatami. The startled regime, via intelligence minister Ali Yunisi, claimed that “developments outside the campus were directed by foreign media and satellite channels, and a few extremists from within committed these acts.” For Mohammad Reza Djalili, professor at the Institut Universitaire des Hautes Etudes Internationales in Geneva, this 2003 Tehran spring reflects a very deep social, political and economic malaise: “Iranian society is about to implode. The system is totally blocked. First of all politically, because the reformers can’t find a way to change the regime. And socially because the regime can’t come to grips with unemployment among young people.” Djalili agrees that Iran’s actual encirclement by the US – on the one side Afghanistan, on the other Iraq – has added to the regime’s extreme nervousness, and has also given alternative ideas to a lot of Iranians. “But all these factors have a relative and marginal impact. The major problem is an internal problem.”
The religious conservative elite has been forced to perform a dangerous balancing act: it can’t organize a massive crackdown, but at the same time it must prevent the movement from spreading to the rest of the country. Djalili confirms that instead of brutal armed repression, the regime has preferred to send the bassidjis – young Islamist militants, all voluntary recruits – to confront the students, wielding their chains, iron bars and riding their Harley Davidsons.
The bassidjis – literally “mobilization” – are part of an organization created slightly after the Shah’s fall in 1979 to entice poor kids into the service of the embryonic Islamic revolution. In the beginning of the war against Iraq in the early 1980s, they were integrated into a special army created to counter-balance a regular army “too influenced by the West,” according to the mullahs. Farhad Khosrokhavar, an Iranian sociologist who teaches in Paris, qualifies them as exponents of “lethal Shi’ism, neo-mysticism and necro-mysticism.” Middle-class boys and girls in Tehran are experts in dealing with the bassidjis. Whenever the militants patrol the routine Friday get-together of young people in the mountains north of Tehran, girls instantly readjust their black veils over their dark glasses and the odd stereo disappears inside a backpack. And when the bassidjis discover cassettes of “decadent” American pop, a bribe in the form of a pack of cigarettes will do the trick. The bassidjis are complemented by members of the Ansar-i Hizbullah, a plainclothes, volunteer Islamic militia that suppresses dissent and upholds strict codes of behavior by thuggish means.
Djalili stresses that the regime at this point simply cannot afford a repression with lots of dead and wounded: “The students have families, and their parents support them. And the conservatives have to be even more careful because the demonstrators now want the head of reformist President Khatami.”
“This is the main news. Until now, Khatami was the security valve for the regime. But after seven years of Khatamism, people are angry, they don’t believe him anymore.” Significantly, Khatami has not been seen and has not uttered a single public word since the beginning of the protests a week ago.
Djalili poses many relevant questions for the immediate future. How long will the students be able to sustain their resistance? Will the movement cross the gates of the university? Will the state be divided? And in the event of a wave of strikes – for instance in the oil industry – will the state keep the means to take care of its clients? The major problem for now seems to be the absence of a political network to follow up on the students’ demands. Djalili reminds us that “in these last 20 years, all movements of the left, liberals, nationalists, even monarchists, were severely repressed.”
Last Friday, in the Azadi stadium in Tehran, 100,000 people were watching a soccer match between top local teams Persepolis and Istiqlal. But only 3,000 or 4,000 people were at the Amir Abad university campus – where the students were being hit by the iron bars of the bassidjis and the Ansar-i Hizbullah. Nevertheless, the number of protesters keeps growing slowly but steadily, day by day. One university after the next is being hit by the movement in key urban centers like Isfahan, Shiraz and Mashad. Tahkim-e Wahdat (“Movement of the Consolidation of Unity”), a student union, has been particularly active: three of its leaders have already been arrested.
Many in the Iranian diaspora in Europe, following the events extremely closely, regret only one thing: that the fusion between the very well-organized student movement and the rest of the population still has not happened. But the distance may now be only physical as the campuses in Tehran have been isolated from the rest of the city by anti-riot police. And this cordon sanitaire has only had limited success in preventing the bassidjis and the Ansar-i Hizbullah from attacking the students. And it may prevent the general population from enrolling in the protests. But it certainly does not prevent them from expressing very vocal support.
The key date to watch will be July 9 – the anniversary of the brutal repression of the student demonstrations of 1999. The regime, in full balancing-act-mode, is negotiating a deal with the students: the anniversary of 1999 may be celebrated, but only inside the campuses. And Ansar-i Hizbullah will not be able to invade the campuses to beat up students.
Roughly, south Tehran – very poor and ravaged by the country’s economic crisis – has been oblivious to the protests. But north Tehran, middle-class and more Westernized, is very much alert. North Tehran is literally rolling with the arrangement – in their cars, and with their hands on their horns: as reformist journalist Issa Saharkhi put it, “this is protest by honking.” Some reformist members of parliament support the student protests – but very carefully. They always make sure to also denounce American interference. In a recent open letter signed by 137 members of parliament, the reformist camp warned that political legitimacy is the only Iranian antidote against a possible American intervention. Reformists have been threatening to resign en masse for quite some time. But the conservatives don’t believe that they ever will. And even if they do, the conservatives know they can blame them for the inevitable consequences – or what the Iranian diaspora has already dubbed American “occuberation” (occupation plus liberation).
The conservatives are playing hardball. Students and intellectuals can’t do much against the ultra-conservative judiciary. The unelected Guardian Council once again humiliated them all, not to mention President Khatami and the parliament, as it recently rejected twin bills aimed at reclaiming more political authority for the elected parliament and president. The bills will be returned to parliament – and then an extremely diluted version may eventually be approved by the Guardian Council.
Things may be about to implode, as Djalili warned. In another unprecedented, very harsh open letter published last Sunday, 248 Iranian personalities defended the Iranians’ right to criticize and even get rid of their leaders: “The exercizing, because of its position, of a divine and absolute power … and instilling fear in people, is an heresy against God and it oppresses human dignity,” reads the letter. The object of the intellectuals’ anger couldn’t be more specific: the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei – who according to the Islamic Republic’s laws simply cannot be criticized.
As much for its mesmerizing cultural influence, dating back to more than 2,500 years, in the 20th century alone Iran has many times left its lasting mark far beyond its borders – from constitutional revolution and oil nationalization to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The goal used to be limited to a single theme: the establishment of a judiciary, nationalization of oil, the end of absolute monarchy. Now Iranians want real democracy: they want it all, and they want it now. Many in East and West cannot but see in these Tehran students the vanguard of a true, indigenous revolution.