Insight on the News - World

Original story

Posted July 8, 2003

Issue dated 7/22/03


Student Heroes Take on Mullahs

Posted July 9, 2003

By Kenneth R. Timmerman

With the leaders of the latest round of student protests now in jail, the freedom movement in Iran has taken up spray paint and slogans to express its displeasure with the ruling clerics. "They must go!" declares one popular slogan, painted on the wall of a Tehran house. "Khatami the incompetent, accomplice of crime!" announces another, referring to Iran's so-called "reformist" president who recently ordered his police to crack down on the students.

Every night, as new slogans appear on the walls of Tehran, squads of basijis (paramilitary Islamic volunteer forces) armed with paint buckets roam the streets trying in vain to scrub the revolutionary messages from the walls. But as this is written, the graffiti-busters can't keep up with the young protesters. In the last few days, slogans have proliferated that call on Tehran residents to come out massively in the streets to commemorate the July 9, 1999, massacre of student protesters. If people heed that call in large numbers, the protests could spread across Iran. And if that occurs, all bets are off as to what happens next.

Iran's clerics appear to realize that popular discontent with their incompetent and repressive rule has reached a fever pitch and has spread to all ages and sectors of the Iranian population. Demonstrations that began on June 10, apparently as a local protest by Tehran students against a government project to privatize the universities, quickly spiraled out of control as pro-regime thugs attacked the students with clubs, chains and automatic weapons.

From Los Angeles, Iranian exile broadcasters such as Shahram Homayoun transformed their satellite-TV talk shows into a 24-hour marathon of encouragement, urging Iranians to support the students against the vigilantes by marching in the streets. "In a half-hour, the streets leading to the campus were choked with people as if everybody had spread the word," one of Homayoun's fans told the Tehran correspondent for the French daily Le Figaro. "These TV stations [beaming programs via satellite] from Los Angeles have begun a real cultural revolution," she added.

The demonstrators called for greater democracy and freedom, and chanted slogans against the clerical leaders, including "reformist" President Hojjat ol-Eslam Mohammad Khatami, who appears increasingly isolated and out of touch with the mood in the country. The protests went on for nine days and nights, with running street battles between demonstrators and armed vigilantes that led to hundreds of wounded and at least one student killed. By the end of the first week the protests had spread to most major Iranian cities, including Mashhad, Shiraz, Tabriz and Isfahan. In Washington, President George W. Bush paid tribute to "those courageous souls who speak out for freedom in Iran" and urged the regime to treat protesters with "the utmost of respect." Instead, on June 17 vigilantes armed with clubs, chains and automatic weapons brutally stormed a student dormitory in Isfahan and murdered seven students, according to reports circulated by Iranian exiles in Germany.

Then began the arrests, many of them carried out in the middle of the night by plainclothes police and intelligence officers who raided university dormitories and private houses, carrying away suspected protest leaders to secret prisons. By June 27, Iran's Prosecutor General Ayatollah Abdonnabi Namazi confirmed that more than 4,000 people, including "some students," had been picked up in the security sweep. On June 28, the U.S.-based Student Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran announced that a 36-year-old secular leader, Bagher Parto, had "died under torture" in an intelligence-ministry prison in Shiraz where he had been taken 12 days earlier.

The head of Iran's judiciary, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, has ordered the courts to deal with protesters not as political opponents but as moharebs, an Arabic word meaning those who fight against God. In Iran's Islamic legal system, an individual convicted of fighting against God must be put to death.

In a strongly worded open letter to Khatami, 106 student leaders warned that, if the regime continued the violence against the student movement, Iran faced turmoil. "This is probably the last time that the student movement addresses the Islamic Republic establishment," students wrote on June 26, according to the Paris-based Iran Press Service.

The student leaders urged Khatami to stop the massive arrests and to shut down the secret detention centers where student leaders were being tortured. One of the letter's signatories, Said Razavi Faqih, said that if Khatami failed to act the freedom movement would stop recognizing the legitimacy of elected reformists such as Khatami himself and his supporters in the Majlis (parliament) who have called for greater freedoms.

Instead, Khatami dismissed the protests as being led by the United States and, in a bizarre twist, claimed that the United States had made a mistake because its interference in Iran's internal affairs had "fortunately caused greater national solidarity." The same day the letter appeared, plainclothes policemen arrested one of the most prominent student leaders, Abdallah Momeni. In protest, four reformist parliamentarians staged a two-day sit-in in the lobby of the Majlis on June 28-29. Under Iran's law, the four could lose their parliamentary seats and face prosecution for acting against the ruling clerics.

But real trouble for the regime lies ahead. In an effort to prevent demonstrations to commemorate the July 9, 1999, murder of student protesters at Tehran University, officials announced that they were closing student dormitories in the Amirabad campus where the attacks had taken place. The closures were to be effective July 7 and last through July 14.

Initially, Interior Ministry spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh told reporters that police would not prevent commemoration events from taking place on campuses, but that they intended to ban demonstrations anywhere beyond them. But the closure of the dormitory, announced on June 30, shows how edgy regime leaders have become.

The 1999 protests erupted with a force not seen in Iran since the 1979 revolution as campuses in 18 cities across Iran exploded with antiregime demonstrators who called on Khatami and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to resign and for an end to clerical rule. Riot police and pro-regime vigilantes stormed the dormitories in the early morning hours of July 9. At least one student was shot dead and several others were hurled from fourth-floor balconies to the street below. Now, four years later, a leader from the 1999 revolt, Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, has called for a general strike to commemorate the dormitory murders. Commemoration ceremonies were a key element in the successful strategy used by Ayatollah Khomeini when he led the revolution that ousted the Shah in 1979.

Roozbeh Farahanipour, the leader of the secular opposition Marzepor Gohar party, was jailed for his role in the 1999 uprising and brutally tortured. During a furlough while he was awaiting trial, he managed to escape Iran and now lives in Los Angeles. He is one of many young Iranians who serve as a bridge between the powerful exile community and the activists leading demonstrations inside Iran. "This regime cannot be reformed," he tells Insight. "Reform will come when the regime is overthrown." Increasingly, that view is spreading across Iran. An unusual public-opinion poll conducted on behalf of the Expediency Council, a key regime power center headed by former president Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, found that 45 percent of Iranians surveyed wanted changes in the political system - even if this came through foreign intervention.

The poll was revealed by the Iranian newspaper Yas-I Now on June 22 and by the Persian Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Of those surveyed, 26 percent said they wanted "managerial changes" to improve the regime's performance and bring about efficient growth, while just 13 percent said they wanted the continuation of current policies. Given the internal censorship of the regime, the levels of discontent probably are much higher than the numbers in the poll. A correspondent from the Christian Science Monitor guessed that 90 percent of Iranians want change.

American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Ledeen wrote one of the first and best books about the 1979 revolution and believes Iran has reached a revolutionary proxysm. Iran's newest revolutionaries "smell rot and fear coming from the corridors of power," he wrote in National Review Online during the first week of the current protests. "They smell telltale odors coming from the undergarments of the doomed leaders. And they sense a wavering of will, a growing pattern of panicky response."

However, as Ledeen points out, "You never know what will provide the spark for revolution." It could be July 9, it could be something else. In the end, the "when" and the "how" will become part of Iran's history. But the "what" already has been written, Ledeen and other analysts believe. The revolution that ultimately will put an end to clerical rule in Iran has begun.


Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight magazine.