Insight on the News - World
Posted July 8, 2003
Issue dated 7/22/03
Student Heroes Take on Mullahs
Posted July 9, 2003
By Kenneth R.
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
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
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
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
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
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.