New battles take shape in Iran

December 15, 2009

Snehal Shingavi looks at the political impact of the recent student protests in Iran.

OFFICIAL STUDENT Day rallies in Iran December 7 turned into the biggest wave of demonstrations in months, as college campuses became the scene of violent repression by authorities and spirited resistance by students.

And in the aftermath of the protests, there were signs of a split between the circle around President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the wider political establishment in Iran.

December 7 is known as University Student Day in Iran, to mark the anniversary of the 1953 killing of three students at Tehran University by forces connected to the government of the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who had only recently taken over the country in a CIA-sponsored coup. Since the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah, the day has been used for state-sponsored rallies that denounce American interference in Iranian affairs.

University Student Day was very different this year, however. In continuing a pattern of using official holidays to bring the pro-democracy movement out into the streets--mostly to avoid repression by the state--students all over Iran mobilized in protest.

Iranian students demonstrate in Tehran
Iranian students demonstrate in Tehran

The pro-democracy movement has also been radicalized, partly because of the police repression and partly because of the vacillation of the leadership of the movement. A few months ago, the chants were primarily about election fraud in May and the illegitimacy of Ahmadinejad's government. Now, the slogans indict the regime as a whole.

Despite warnings from the security establishment that it would not tolerate any "hijacking" of the national celebration for opposition protests, thousands of people came out into the streets in Tehran. But the protests weren't confined to the capital. Students from all over the country used the occasion to challenge the regime.

Immediately, they were met with severe repression from police and the basij, a right-wing, paramilitary organization used the regime to repress opposition. Iranian media outlets reported that all of the major universities in Tehran were surrounded by busloads of arrested students, their heads covered by bags before they were transported to undisclosed locations. By the end of the day, Tehran's police chief would only confirm that 204 people had been arrested in the capital.

Protests continued the following day. Students took up more aggressive slogans than in the past--"Khamenei ghaateleh, velayatesh baateleh" which means "Khamenei is the murderer, his authority is rubbish," a reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who used his authority as the top political figure in Iran to bless Ahmadinejad after he stole the election from reformer Mir Hussein Mousavi earlier this year.

In the past, it would have been unthinkable to direct such harsh language at Khamanei, who is supposed to be a revered religious figure above the political fray. But after blatantly intervening to prop up Ahmadinejad, Khamenei is now seen as just another right-wing politician.

Another noteworthy development is the fact that the trademark green flags, which in the past signaled support for Mousavi, were noticeably less prominent on the demonstrations.

The demonstrations spread from Tehran University to neighboring Sharif University, when students gathered to protest the treatment of their friends at Tehran University and the decision to allow basij militiamen onto their campus.

There have also been impressive shows of solidarity. At Amirkabir University, a key student leader, Majid Tavakkoli, was arrested after giving a rousing speech denouncing Khamenei's undemocratic control over the country.

Tavakkoli had been arrested in 2006 and spent 15 months in prison, and was arrested again earlier this year for his public opposition to Khamenei's policies. After his most recent arrest, police leaked pictures of Tavakkoli dressed up as a woman to news agencies, and claimed that he had put on a head covering, or hijab, in order to escape capture.

In response to this attempt to humiliate Tavakkoli, men all over Tehran have been posting pictures of themselves dressed up in hijabs on the Internet. The Islamic Association of Amirkabir University produced a solidarity statement: "Not only Majid Tavakkoli but all students in the dungeons of tyranny are the pride of the student movement, whether they be dressed in women's clothing or men's."

NEWS OF the protests has been hard to come by, as foreign journalists have been barred from covering the demonstrations, and there have been widespread disruptions to phone and Internet connections. But still, some news has made its way through.

Mousavi and other reformers have been playing a careful two-step, denouncing the repression of the students by police and paramilitary forces, while at the same time attempting to hold protesters back by asking them not to demonstrate or raise slogans against the system.

Iranian authorities have showed no such restraint, however. They have used the basij militia against the student protesters to try to physically crush resistance.

But the crackdown has brought splits in Iran's ruling circles into the open. Ahmadinejad's popularity is plummeting, even among sections of the rural and urban poor that have long been his stronghold.

Key figures within the clerical establishment have voiced concerns--in particular, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former Iranian president who backed Mousavi for president. When Rafsanjani criticized the crackdown on students, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Larijani--an Ahmadinejad ally--backed him up. In fact, the rancor between various factions in the government has made it impossible to fill dozens of important posts within the government.

Moreover, Ahmadinejad's now widely ridiculed belief that he is in contact with a messianic figure known as the "hidden imam," or mahdi, has even turned high-ranking figures in the Shia Islam clerical establishment against him.

The political crisis is unfolding amid an economic crisis. Unemployment is high, especially among young people. Double-digit inflation and massive capital flight mean there's no chance that the economic crisis in Iran will be short-lived.

All this is contributing to a mass radicalization within the pro-democracy movement. As long as the official leaders of the movement continue to rely on internal deals to negotiate a settlement with Khamenei in their interests, the gulf between them and the people in the street will only widen.

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