Irans student movement: a catalyst for change?
Recent civil unrest in Iran reawakened interest in the potentially significant role Iranian students can play in the evolution of the Islamic Republic. There is much frustration at the inability of reformists to act as catalysts for real change, but also hope that the increasing independence of the countrys students will help alter this.
Iran has had well-organized student societies since the end of World War II. These have generally been aligned to leftist and nationalist causes and ideologies. Students played an important role in the 1979 Iranian revolution, and some historians have cited the shahs November 1978 assault on Tehran University as a turning point before his overthrow.
Despite the organized and disciplined nature of Iranian student societies, it was only after the Islamic revolution that they acquired power and influence. On the first anniversary of the Tehran University assault, students stormed the US Embassy and took hostages. In hindsight, the act, apart from determining the premises of the Islamic Republics foreign policy for the next decade, was the main catalyst for the post-revolutionary theocratic system. Clerics aligned to the late Ayatollah Khomeini used the hostage crisis to settle scores with their opponents and consolidate theocratic institutions.
After a two-year closure, Iranian universities reopened in 1982, ushering in a new chapter in student politics. The main student body, the Office for Fostering Unity (OFU), which had been set up in 1979, was a supra-organizational entity representing dozens of smaller political-cultural student societies and groups. Contrary to some views, the OFU was never a rubber stamp for the interests of the ruling clergy in the universities. From the outset it was a decentralized and autonomous body that maintained strong ties with and loyalties to left-wing factions in the Islamic regime.
The influence of the OFU went beyond Irans universities. Many of its founders and leaders played pivotal roles in the Islamic Republics security and political apparatus. Abbas Abdi and Ebrahim Asghar-Zadeh are two prominent examples. Both had played a leading role in the seizure of the US Embassy Abdi became deputy to the chief prosecutor in the 1980s, while Asghar-Zadeh held an important position in the political-ideological directorate of the Revolutionary Guards.
The OFUs decline began a decade after the revolution, around the time of Khomeinis death. This was largely due to the sidelining of the Islamic left by conservatives in the regime. Moreover a split within the OFU in 1990 led to the emergence of the Islamic Society of Students and Graduates (ISSG). In its early years the ISSG gravitated towards the Islamic right, though it later returned to the OFU fold.
The May 1997 election of President Mohammad Khatami and the beginning of the reformist offensive provided a massive boost to the student movement, which had had to contend with seven years of relentless low-level political and cultural suppression during the Rafsanjani era. The old loyalties of the 1980s re-emerged as reformists, virtually all of whom hailed from the ranks of the Islamic left, forged a close alliance with the student movement. This alliance reached its peak during the student riots of July 1999, when reformists, many of whom occupied government positions, protested against the harsh measures meted out to students.
The alliance of reformists and students did not last. The reformists inability and unwillingness to confront the Islamic Republics theocratic power centers alienated students. There were also sharp differences over objectives. Whereas many reformists in government sought to reconcile Irans democratic and theocratic facets, the students overwhelmingly wanted to dismantle the latter. The decisive break occurred in the February 2003 local council elections, during which reformers suffered their first electoral defeat since May 1997. The OFU officially withdrew from the Dovomme Khordad Front, the main reformist coordinating forum.
This was followed by moves to change the OFUs name to the Office for Fostering Democracy. Saeed Rezavi Faghih, a member of the OFUs central committee, initially made the suggestion, which was long overdue. The OFU was forged in the 1980s, when the embryonic Islamic Republic was in need of unity to overcome a multitude of internal and external challenges. Today, however, Irans main test is to reconcile its deep philosophical and ideological incongruities, and this can only be done by irreversibly dismantling the clerical component of the regime.
The OFUs increasing independence, and that of the broader student movement in general, is welcome. It challenges the stalemate in Iranian politics and exerts real pressures on reformists to adopt a bolder strategy vis-a-vis the conservatives.
However, the separation of the students from the reformists entails real and imagined dangers. The imagined dangers come from the increasingly hollow and perverse rhetoric of conservatives, who seek to link students to foreign plots and discredited exiled opposition groups. In fact, Iranian students have always been at the forefront of resistance to illegitimate foreign influences. Moreover, exiled opposition groups do not have significant constituencies inside Iran. In outlook, knowledge and political acumen, the students are far more sophisticated than the increasingly isolated and extreme voices from beyond the countrys borders.
The real dangers stem from increasing radicalization and the potential for the emergence of a disloyal opposition from the students ranks. The disturbances of June 2003 showed how peaceful and legitimate protest could turn into mayhem. This can only be to the detriment of students and the democratic movement, undermining the peaceful transition of power in Iran.
Another danger lies in the students overestimating themselves and, hence, inflicting real damage on the reform movement. They must recognize, as representatives of a sectional interest, that they are unlikely to transform Iran on their own. Their power resides in prodding the reformists to come to terms with their own ideological confusion and take decisive steps to dislodge unelected regime institutions.
These unelected institutions lack the resources and the popular mandate to decisively halt the inexorable drive toward transparent and accountable governance in Iran. The conservatives success has been due to a combination of reformist diffidence and lack of imagination. It is entirely possible that the independence of the students will propel reformers into a decisive confrontation with Irans enfeebled theocratic institutions.
Mahan Abedin, a London-based financial consultant and analyst of Iranian politics, wrote this commentary for THE
DAILY STAR http://www.dailystar.com.lb/opinion/02_08_03_b.asp