Student Protests in Iran



For five days last summer (July 8-13), Iranian students took to the streets of Tehran and other cities to protest the denial of basic democratic rights. These protests, their immediate and underlying causes, the solidarity they generated, and the Islamic Republic regime’s response to them offered a way to examine and understand the political crisis in Iran today and potential and challenges for its resolution by the Iranian working people.

The student protests were but a phase in a string of other struggles by the Iranian people for democratic freedoms and social change. However, they also marked the arrival of a new generation of combative youth on the political stage who have not experienced the demoralization of the generation that overthrew the U.S.-backed dictatorial regime of Mohammed Reza Shah two decades ago.

The protests have also prompted a new surge of efforts by the supporters of democratic freedoms who are living abroad to build solidarity with their Iranian counterparts.

The Committee in Defense of the Democratic Freedoms in Iran (CDDFI) has been organized in this context. It aims to build the broadest grassroots support among the organizations of students, workers, women, oppressed nationalities, and others to win the release of the imprisoned students and other political prisoners in Iran.

Youth in the Islamic Republic

The big majority of Iranians are young. There were 27 million persons between the ages of 15 and 30 in Iran in 1997 out of a population of 60 million. There are 1 million university students and 20 million secondary and elementary students. Over half the population is under 20 years old.

After the 1979 revolution, a layer of the youth was attracted and absorbed into the Islamic Republic for ideological and economic reasons. Many urban and rural poor joined the Revolution Guards, Revolution Committees, and Mobilization Corps, which offered direct and indirect means for upward mobility.

However, the youth today find neither ideological nor economic reasons to support the regime. According to the 1996-97 official statistics, 60 percent of the population lives in poverty.

The Iranian economy has been in persistent crisis since 1979. Per capita GNP has declined from over $2500 in 1977 (a year of deep recession) to $1770 in 1998, a 30 percent drop. This is due to economic stagnation in the face of the doubling of the population.

More important, gross investment in the national income has plummeted from $37 billion in 1977 to $19.8 billion in 1998, a 47 percent decline! This is the money that goes into replacing the aging productive structures of the economy and building additional ones.

This puts the economic position of the new generation at great risk. Thus the structure of the economy has significantly changed. Private consumption as the share of the GDP has increased from 42.1 percent to 68.4 percent during the same period. With a significant rise in the unproductive economic activities, inflation has skyrocketed.

In 1979, the Islamic Republic as a form of a government was an untested idea for the Iranian people. Khomeini and his supporters claimed that Islamic governance would bring a better society to Iran. This claim has failed on every basis. Meanwhile, Islamic jurisprudence has been consistently used to justify force to maintain the rule of the clergy, landlords, and the capitalists. In particular, the youth and women have suffered.

Background to the student protests

Last July 8, the Bureau of Consolidation of Unity (BCU) met at Tehran University and decided to call for a demonstration against the court-ordered closing of Salaam and the passing of a more restrictive press law by the Majlis (parliament). But before they could act on their decision, a demonstration was underway by the students who lived in the dormitories near the campus

Salaam was a major Iranian daily, published for the past 10 years, with Mossavi Khoeiniha as its editor. Khoeiniha was the clerical spokesperson for the students who took over the U.S. embassy on Nov. 4, 1980.

As a voice of the League of the Militant Clergy, Salaam had allied itself with President Khatami, whose landslide election victory 20 months earlier was more evidence of the political crisis of the Islamic Republic. In that election, the Iranian people soundly rejected the speaker of Majlis, Nategh-e Noori, the candidate favored by the dominant section of the religious establishment.

The immediate reason for the closing of Salaam was the publication of a classified letter from Saeed Emmami, an operative of the Ministry of Information, to its minister at that time, Fallahi. In that letter Emmami discussed the need to deal with the internal oppositionists.

Emmami and others from the Information Ministry were arrested early in 1999 on charges of a series of political murders.

The victims were five prominent oppositionists. These were Darioush Frouhar-the head of the Party of the Iranian Nation, a small bourgeois liberal organization-and the Minister of Labor under the Bazargan-Khomeini government in 1979, his wife Parvaneh Eskandari, and three Iranian intellectuals-Mohanimad Mokhtari, Mohanimad Ja’far Pooyandeh and Majid Shareef.

These murders angered many Iranians and confirmed the continuation of the long-standing policy of terror by the Islamic Republic against its opponents. The public trial and severe punishment of these men has been an ongoing demand of many, and has been promised by the government. However, there has been no progress to bring these assassins to justice a year after the murders occurred.

Meanwhile, it was reported a few months before the demonstrations that Saeed Emmami, the reported ringleader, had committed suicide in jail by swallowing hair-removing compounds. More recently, it was also reported that another central operative in this group had killed himself by swallowing poison. It has become clear to many Iranians that the Iranian regime is not serious in its pledge to deal effectively with such state-sponsored political violence.

A premeditated attack

The attack on the student’s dormitories in the early hours of Friday morning was premeditated by the police and semi-fascist forces of Ansar-e Hezbollah (Aids to the Party of God).

Dehnamaki, a well-known leader of the goons and the editor of Jebhe (Front), was on the scene directing the mob that night. There were other leaders of the Ansar-e Hezbollah on the scene. The attack happened after a peaceful student demonstration of several hundred that began at 10 p.m. Thursday, July 8.

This was not an unusual timing for a spontaneous demonstration. Summers are hot in Tehran and the city is crowded on Thursday night, as Fridays are holidays in Iran. The director of the residence halls, Koohi, had already called the local police station to monitor the demonstration. But no confrontations occurred.

However, soon after the students ended their demonstration, Lt. Gen. Ahmadi arrived with his forces and immediately began a confrontationist approach by insulting Koohi for allowing the demonstration to proceed. He then ordered as many as 40 policemen to attack the students with their nightsticks. As a result, as many as 1000 students came out of their rooms to help their friends and a struggle ensued with the police.

Ta’alli from the Governor’s Office arrived on the scene to mediate with the students and urge them to return to their dorms. Just as the students appeared ready to return, someone fired three shots over their heads, agitating the students.

At 2 a.m. General Nazari arrived with anti-riot forces and entered into private conversations with Rezaie from the Governor’s Office. At 4 a.m. Nazari emerged with a sudden decree that the students had five minutes to return to their rooms. He then proceeded to order the anti-riot police to attack the students and chase them into their dormitories.

The Ansar-e Hezbollah forces joined the police. They chased and beat the students, vandalized their rooms-and in some cases set them afire. One graduate student serving in the army and a 15-year-old were killed, the former by a shot to his head. Eight hundred rooms and 2400 beds were damaged. Dozens of students were arrested. These events set off five days of protests that received national and international attention.

What is Ansar-e Hezbollah?

This shadowy organization took this formal name in 1992. However, its origin dates back to the street gangs of the urban poor, called “Hezbollah” (Party of God), organized by various forces in the Islamic Republic regime during the revolution of 1979.

For instance, two such groups were organized by Sadegh Ghotbzadeh and Haady-e Ghafari. Ghotbzadeh was the director of the radio and TV, who began to reintroduce censorship after the February revolution. He was later executed after plotting a coup against Khomeini. Ghafari made a name for himself in his zeal to attack Baha’is, a prosecuted religious minority in Iran.

The Hezbollah goons were particularly sent to attack opposition gatherings and demonstrations organized by various socialist organizations and the Mujahedin. The first major victim of these attacks was the March 8, 1979, march of 20,000 young women and men against Khomeini’s decree to force women to wear the Islamic veil.

The operational method of these gangs is to provoke and then physically attack their opponents using clubs, chains, and knives. They sometimes use firearms. Later on they were equipped with motorcycles.

After the end of the war with Iraq, a layer of demoralized and unemployed youth who had fought in the war were recruited to these gangs, establishing the Ansar-e Hezbollah in 1992. While there have always been material incentives for members of Hezbollah, “saving Islamic morality” in the face of godless communists, during the revolutionary upsurge, and against onslaught of the West, that is, against liberal opponents in more recent years, has served as the glue and motivating force.

Thus playing the shock troopers in defense of Islamic morality has been a big part of what they do. Populist and anti-capitalist rhetoric has been merged with antisecularism and anti-communism, and a hatred for democratic values.

Students win broad support

The original student demands centered on the freedom of the press. However, resignation of the head of the security forces (General Lotfian), disbanding of the Ansar-e Hezbollah, prosecution of those responsible for the attacks, and freedom of the students arrested were quickly added to the list of demands.

The newspapers do not print on Friday but on Saturday they came out with headlines about the attack on the students in the early hours of Friday morning. The state-run radio and TV did not report on the attack and tried to smear the students. Yet as the population began to learn about the attack, they expressed sympathy and solidarity for the students.

There are reports that protests spread to 13-18 cities, where solidarity with the students attacked in their dormitories was echoed. The character and tempo of these protests differed and were generally more cautious. But in Tabriz, there were pitched battles in the streets, the bazaar was closed down, and 10 students on campus were wounded by firearms. Later the security forces raided hospitals and took wounded students into custody.

According to some reports, as many as 600 high school students were detained during the university protests in Tehran. Two of the 10 persons reported killed during the protests in Tehran were middle-aged workers.

At Tehran University, the Ansar-e Hezbollah attacked a prayer meeting by students on Friday afternoon, and skirmishes continued throughout the day.

A group of university and government officials were delegated to visit the students late on Friday. They included the Minister of Higher Education, Minister of Health, and Minister of Interior. The former two resigned their posts in protest, as did the president of the University of Tehran. But even the cabinet seemed divided.

Three days later, the same Minster of Interior issued a law and order decree banning student demonstrations after a decision reached at the highest levels of the regime. The resignations were reported in public. President Khatami refused to accept the resignations of his ministers and stated that the most important thing was to “keep calm and reject aggression and crisis.”

Indeed, three days later, his Minister of the Interior issued a law-and-order decree banning student demonstrations.

Divisions in student leadership

Encouraged by mass support, some students went on the offensive-chasing the Ansar-e Hezbollah. When they captured one, they brought him to the campus for questioning. Some Ansar-e Hezbollah’s motorcycles were set afire.

BCU declared a sit-in beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday. At the same time, it took its distance from those who called for street demonstrations and who opted for more confrontationist slogans.

However, students who joined the sit-in also wanted to demonstrate in the streets. A discussion ensued about marching outside. The leadership gave in and the students staging the sit-in also joined the demonstrations. People brought water, soft drinks, food, cake, fruit, etc. for the students.

During the marches, differences broke out between some who wanted to keep them more peaceful and those who wanted to physically stand up to the police and the Hezbollah. There were also disagreements on the type of slogans to use.

Two groups of marches, one heading south to the Ministry of Interior and another heading east to Vally-e Assr Square, engaged in fights with the police and Ansar-e Hezbollah. There were other arguments. Some of the students covered their faces. Others disagreed, arguing that it is best to show their faces to make sure everyone knows that they are in fact students engaged in a legitimate struggle for a just cause.

Some men were asking women to stay behind in safe places. Women protested: “Either we are in this together or nothing.” Indeed, women were included among the injured and arrested.

Divisions in the regime

The regime was clearly taken aback by the eruption of the protests, their force, and the support they began to receive. Khamenei, the Vally-e Faghih, who had been the object of the students’ scorn, sent his representative, Qumi, to talk to the students. He was snubbed by the students, who demanded a visit by President Khatami.

Khatami in turn sent his brother, the head of the Islamic Cooperation Party. The students did not accept this gesture. For the first two days, there were no direct response by either one of these two men to the crisis. By Saturday, they both had condemned the attacks. They were busy meeting at the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) on how to put down the student protests.

The Office of Islamic Propaganda, where official street demonstrations are organized, called for a demonstration on Wednesday to “support the Islamic Republic.” Quickly, many of the same groups that put out statements in support of the students but that generally support the Islamic Republic also backed the planned pro-regime demonstration.

This coincided with the street fighting that broke out Monday afternoon, July 12, at the Vally-e Assr Square near the campus. About 1000 protesters were demonstrating when many others joined them. At 2 p.m., a fight began between them and the riot police. Helicopters were brought in and tear gas was used. About 7 p.m. Hezbollah forces were brought in and fighting continued here and there till 10 p.m.

The Ansar-e Hezbollah then turned its attention to the sit-in on the campus. The TV and radio repeatedly broadcast Khamenei’s speech about how a “bunch of bandits” supported by foreign powers and exiled groups are disturbing public peace. He asked the security forces to fulfill their duties accordingly.

Khatami was also shown to denounce the events of Thursday night, but he went on to also denounce “anarchy, disturbing the order, and ugly acts” of recent days.

On Wednesday, various factions of the Islamic Republic regime supported demonstrations of tens of thousands in a number of cities. The demonstrators chanted “Down with America,” “Down with Israel,” and “Down with the Hypocrites,” a reference to the Mujahedin. The Mujahedin did not take direct credit for any activities related to the student protests.

The main speaker of the Tehran rally was Hassan Rouhani, the spokesperson of the Supreme National Security Council, who accused the students as being at war with God, in the Islamic Republic a crime punishable by death.

The aftermath

A wave of arrests of the students and former political prisoners ensued after Wednesday, July 14. According to the government, as many as 1400 were arrested. Some student leaders and protesters were forced to make a “confession” of guilt of various degrees on the TV. Manouchehr Mohammadi, a central leader of the National Organization of Students and University Graduates, for example, “confessed” to receiving financial assistance from abroad.

Public calls for the execution of those “responsible” for the protests were made. The Expediency Council published a statement Saturday, July 18, that claimed the protests were the work of the “Mujahedin and other agents of foreign powers.” It called on the police and security forces to suppress these activities and urged the courts to prosecute those “responsible.”

On Sept. 12, the Chief of Tehran Court of the Revolution leaked to a pro-Khamenei daily in Tehran that four of the student leaders are sentenced to death. He did not name them. But rumors were then spread who these four might be.

Recently, another Tehran paper has reported that one of those previously believed to be on the death row, Manouchehr Mohammadi, has been sentenced to 13 years in jail. This is not confirmed by any other source.

In Tabriz, where students fought the Ansar-e Hezbollah in the streets, the chief of the Revolution Court announced that 21 people had received sentences ranging from three months to nine years in prison. The identity and the specific charges of those convicted were not made public.

The BCU held press conferences right after the protests ended pressing their demands, including release of the detained students. Meanwhile, the BCU leadership, some with bruised faces, met with Khamenei in a gesture of reconciliation.

A political assessment

The student protests underscored the political crisis of the regime, while showing the potential to push it back when there is mass unity and mass action. These protests, when backed by large sectors of the population, clearly divided the lower ranks of the regime and forced it to give some concessions, such as the announced dismissal of Lt. General Ahmadi.

However, the protesters lacked experience, organization, and the necessary leadership to walk the fine line between the reformist orientation of the BCU and the confrontationist approach of others. Clearly the repressive forces of the Islamic Republic were intending to provoke an early showdown with the students, beginning with their attacks on the dormitories.

Similar lack of organization and leadership marks the various other protests of workers and other social sectors. However, for reasons explained earlier, the student protests probably gained the most widespread and open expression of solidarity from various sectors of the society.

Students did not achieve their central demands, but many among them and others certainly lost their illusions in “pro-democracy” sectors of the Islamic Republic, especially Khatami and the BCU.

These protests and earlier mass activities to win democratic and social rights have enhanced the divisions within the Islamic Republic. Soon after the protests were over, Khatami spoke in Hamedan, a western city in Iran. He defended his “law and order” position, arguing that his opponents in the regime have been campaigning for chaos, especially since the discovery that the Information Ministry agents were involved in the political assassinations of the autumn of 1998.

A few days earlier, a secret letter to Khatami by 30 high-ranking officers of the Revolution Guards was published; it essentially had threatened Khatami with a coup if he continued to provide space to those “insulting the Islamic values.”

The Islamic Republic is the form of counter-revolution available to the landlords and merchant bourgeoisie and their clerical allies after the fall of the Pahlavi regime. As a form of governance it is pre-capitalist. The area where it has generated most resistance is where it has tried to turn back bourgeois modernization under the Shah- in particular, in the sphere of private life. This ideological retrogression requires the state to get involved in the most private spheres of the citizen’s life, making everyday life political and tense.

The bourgeois forces within and outside of the Islamic Republic regime are pushing for an increased space for capitalist development. This requires “law and order” for capital in the face of the arbitrariness of rule by Islamic clerics.

In this factional struggle at the top, various groups appeal for support to the Iranian masses, often in the name of democracy. However, when various exploited and oppressed social classes and groups come to fight for their own rights, they open a dynamic that undermines the entire system of social control. This is when all factions in the Islamic Republic and all opponents of democracy from below unite to stop them from advancing.

This is how the U.S. government and mass media has approached the student protests. They have generally used it as a way to lend support to President Khatami, who they see as the primary candidate who can bring about conditions that will make Iran safe for international and U.S. capital.

The U.S. government is not concerned with democratic rights. In fact, during the past 25 years it has been on an offensive to limit these rights at home as a part of the general offensive to resolve the crisis of profitability on the back of the working people.

The struggle for democratic rights in Iran is part and parcel of the fight for these freedoms worldwide. It is through such struggles that working people everywhere come to build their own independent organization and activities necessary for a better world for all.

This article is based on a talk by Kamran Nayeri at a San Francisco Socialist Action forum on Nov. 12, 1999. He is one of the founders of the CDDFI. To contact CDDFI, write to P.O. Box 6583-0583, Albany, CA 94706. E-mail

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