Implications for Iranian Democracy: The Student Movement and Social Change

After September 11, Iranians set aside their differences with America and expressed public support for our loss in a candlelight vigil held in “Azadi” (freedom) Square in Tehran. Now, almost two years later, the U.S. may have lost a window of opportunity to improve relations with Iran, and currently faces resentment throughout the Islamic world. By proclaiming Iran as part of an “axis of evil,” continuing to implicate it in state-sponsored terrorism and nuclear weapons production, and threatening regime change, the U.S. has alienated a key regional player.

But the chance to reclaim the sympathy that followed 9/11, and to bridge a thirty-year enmity between the two nations, lies in the youth of Iran, disillusioned by a Revolution they barely remember. In a country of over 70 million, 70% of Iran’s population is under 25; if the recent protests are any indication, their frustration is mounting. What started last month as a small disturbance over university privatization soon became one of the largest public demonstrations against both the Islamic regime and, surprisingly, the reform-minded President Mohammad Khatami. Students turned their outrage over increased tuition fees into a demonstration against the Iranian regime’s restrictions on political and social freedoms; they also expressed their dissatisfaction with Iran’s sliding economy, where youth unemployment has reached nearly 50%; and with the sluggish pace at which government reformers have pushed for social change. Ordinary Iranians sympathetic to the students have joined in, offering refuge from security forces and vigilante groups eager to suppress dissent. Protests also sprouted up in dozens of other cities, such as Isfahan and Shiraz, demonstrating that opposition to clerical rule is more widespread than many within Iran may concede.

According to student leaders involved in the opposition, the response of the Iranian regime to last month’s protests, and to last week’s attempts to hold sit-ins on the anniversary of a July 9, 1999 demonstration, suggests an awareness of its growing illegitimacy. Iranians are increasingly dissatisfied with their economic stagnation, lack of civil rights and political transparency, and restrictions on social freedoms. A recent Washington Post report notes that inflation hovers at 15% in Iran, causing once-well-off professionals to seek second or even third jobs to survive. This downturn has fueled anger across Iran, provoking many to express solidarity with the student movement. In reaction to last month’s protests, vigilante militias and secret intelligence forces arrested close to 4,000 students and citizens. Dozens of students were attacked in their dorms by knife-wielding thugs, in a raid similar to one four years ago. As well, hard-liners have condemned Iranian-exile television stations such National Iranian TV and Azadi, which have supported the protesters and broadcast their stories across the Iranian Diaspora. The regime has successfully jammed exile satellite feeds urging Iranians to revolt. Criticism of the Supreme Ruler Ayatollah Khameni is punishable by imprisonment, thus many students are still detained as families search for missing children. To prevent this week’s efforts to mark the anniversary of one of the most violent demonstrations since the coup of 1979, Iran banned all protest outside campus gates, closed universities, and delayed exams for a week.

The regime’s repression of student protest was justified as an attempt to avoid the violence that erupted during the 1999 “18th of Tir” protests, which began over the closing of a left-leaning newspaper. Then, violence escalated after one student was killed and several others wounded in a raid on university dorms. But the regime’s reaction may have backfired. Students are hailing the protests and the resulting crackdown as evidence that the regime’s legitimacy is faltering. They stress that lies about the numbers of arrested and detained, and disingenuous promises to punish the vigilantes for attacking and injuring over 50 students, are causing increased agitation among Iranians of all stripes. While both MPs and hard-line clerics have declared the vigilantes no better than “organized” crime, they have cautioned that increased force and security measures will be taken against future pro-reform demonstrations. Not only will this deepen students’ determination, it will most likely make their efforts more violent.

Ironically, the reform-minded Khatami has done little to protect the students. While acknowledging that “what divides democratic communities from undemocratic societies is the existence of such protests,” he has argued that students should work “within the framework of the law.” It is conciliatory statements like these that have disillusioned students, Khatami’s major base of support in both the 1997 and 2001 elections. Although Khatami does not possess the powers necessary to fulfill many of his campaign promises, he is not a radical, and should not be perceived as one. Khatami is seen by students and reformers as a moderate Islamic philosopher, who speaks of equal rights, the rule of law, and progress, while being hindered by a judiciary, military, and press controlled by an unelected body of clerics.

If Iran is to initiate reforms offering enhanced social and political rights, its students will be at the forefront. Although students and youth in Iran are often divided about the ways to achieve such freedoms–some calling for a radical cultural revolution, some favoring a more evolutionary process that maintains Islamic tradition–they are often united in feeling that changes should have occurred by now. In the past decade, Iranian youth, particularly of the urban middle class, have relaxed their observation of the strictures enforced by the Basiji or “moral police”–bending interpretations of everything from head-coverings to music to public dating. Iran is awash in satellite dishes and black-market wares–from music to videos games to Western clothing–and many disaffected youth have easy access to a world otherwise closed off to them.

The issue of how the U.S. should respond to student dissent is politically charged. While Americans have a rare opportunity to stand up for human rights and democratic ideals, Washington must temper its official support for Iranian youth with the knowledge that explicit statements of U.S. approval may inadvertently undermine their efforts. As citizens, Americans should continue to express solidarity with the students’ right to voice their concerns without fear of persecution. We should also stand behind international human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as they call for the release of political prisoners and press the Iranian regime on police brutality, suppression of dissent, and vigilante justice. Simultaneously, however, the Bush administration should not make its position on the matter part and parcel of a foreign policy toward Iran–the delicate nature of political dissent in Iran means that students and other activists are vulnerable to accusations of “Western” interference, and vocal support from the White House may actually taint the process. Already, hard-liners within the regime have blamed the protests on America and exile groups, attempting to de-legitimize the real disaffection of Iranian youth.

The Bush administration must manage our relationship with Iran delicately, embracing diplomatic approaches to a complex array of issues, from Iran’s nuclear ambitions to its role in post-war Iraq to accusations of state-sponsored terrorism and economic sanctions, while treading lightly on Iran’s internal political scene. This balancing act between human rights and political reality, however difficult to handle, may do more for a future free Iran than direct confrontation and economic isolation, and will ensure students’ physical safety in the short-term. On July 9, despite major efforts to commemorate the “Tir” protests, student demonstrations were cancelled due to an overwhelming security clampdown. While solidarity rallies were being held worldwide, hundreds of security forces and right-wing vigilantes surrounded Tehran University, and three student leaders were arrested for holding a press conference outside the United Nations office. Yet the students may have won the fight: the shutting down of hostels, universities, and major urban centers only proves that the movement’s strength and legitimacy are growing.