Iran's student movement mirrors a fractured society

Iran's student movement mirrors a fractured society
Comment: Ben Afleck's Argo and Jon Stewart's Rosewater depict the Iranian student movement in contrasting lights. The reality, however, is much more complex than Hollywood would have you believe.
6 min read
16 Jul, 2015
Iranian students are strongly engaged with political issues [Getty]
Students have been at the forefront of every significant political movement in Iran over the past century, from the Iranian revolution to the ill-fated Green Movement of 2009.

Last month marked the Green Movement's sixth anniversary, the popular demonstrations that began on 12 June 2009, following the disputed victory of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The government's heavy-handed response to the protests led to the deaths of more than 70 Iranian citizens.

In Tehran, the students who spearheaded the demonstrations were shot at by riot police and paramilitaries, then followed back to their dormitories after the demonstrations and severely beaten.

Students across the country faced the same brutal treatment.

Universities and dorms from Babol to Mashad to Shiraz to Isfahan were raided by riot police and the Basij, a paramilitary militia loyal to the regime. Thousands of students were arrested, some tortured in prison and even more scattered into exile.

The Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre contends that the similarity and timing of the raids suggests coordination of repression at the highest levels.

The film portrays the students, and especially the film's key protagonist, Mazair Bahari, as tech-savvy and eager for Western democracy.

One theory that would make strategic sense from the government's perspective is that the Iranian student movement has always been the fulcrum of any major political upheaval in Iran.

Iranian students were indispensible, for example, in the success of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Conflicting narratives

The Academy Award-winning Argo depicts the bold evacuation of US diplomatic staff from a turbulent post-revolutionary Tehran in a fast-paced and stylish manner.

However, the opening scenes of feverish Iranian students storming the US embassy amid bloodthirsty jeers of "death to America" recounts only one aspect of the post-revolutionary student movement.

It is correct that students associated with Ayatollah Khomeini were instrumental in orchestrating the hostage crisis, which plunged Iran-US relations to even icier depths.

Yet even as events were unfolding, many students were languishing on death row in numerous Iranian prisons.

During the 1980s, thousands of communist, liberal and even Islamist students were executed, and the Khomeinism of Iranian Universities was undertaken with gusto by the fledgling Islamic Republic.

Jon Stewart's Rosewater portrays Iranian students on the streets of Tehran in 2009 as liberal, democratic, sprightly post-modern hipsters.

The film is keen to portray the students, and especially the film's key protagonist, Iranian born Canadian filmmaker Mazair Bahari, as tech-savvy and eager for Western democracy. This ignores the fact that many students in Iran are spied upon by their colleagues, who are associated with regime militias such as the Basij.

Arshin Hadarian is a former a student activist leader in the Polytechnic University in Tehran, and currently edits the Iranian student news channel Daneshjoonews ["Student news"]. He was elected to his position of leadership at the time Ahmadinejad began repressing his critics.

He spoke to al-Araby al-Jadeed about the methods students use to strengthen their movement, despite open attacks on their institutions within the university:

"We actively organised ourselves, held our meetings inside the university, published many political journals and even structured a few study groups to read and discuss different fields within history, sociology and philosophy."

Students in Tehran protested against the nuclear deal [Getty]

Materials available to students in Iran are tightly monitored, despite some developments under the Rouhani administration.

According to the most recent report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, authorities continue to censor many forms of cultural and artistic and cultural expression.

Arshin is deeply proud of the history Iranian students have of standing up against whatever government appears to be taking away their freedom. This goes back decades.

"During these years, thousands of students have actively organised themselves in different social and political groups and protested against however limited their liberty," he said.

"The movement has a hybrid structure; students in many universities around the country have their own political, cultural and art associations."

Arshin contends that constant conflict with ruling regimes - whether the shah or the mullahs - has meant the student movement has been a "strong force, which has backed civil society for a long time".

Regime affiliations

Arshin noted two motivations for students involved in the hostage crisis: a staunch opposition to US imperialism, and a belief that political Islam was key to freeing Iran from it.

"They wisely found that Khomeini was the strongest leader who could support their ideas," he told al-Araby.

Despite the relative liberality of Iranian society, even in the late 1970s, there has always been friction between liberal values and conservative Shia Islam culture. And students wanting to adhere to the latter still exist.

"The Basij have branches in almost all universities, they are formally under the control of the military groups," said Arshid.

Despite Iran's largest student organisation, Tahkim-e Vahdat, openly supporting reform and democracy, many student Basij members actively spy on their classmates - enjoying patronage from the government.

"During the past few years, many of these students illegally benefited from special offers to use scholarships and became a part of faculties as researchers," Arshid claimed.

An uncertain future

Wednesday's nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 could mark a new dawn in the country’s relationship with the Western world.

Since the 2013 election of Rouhani on a reformist agenda, there has been a thawing of relations between the student movement and the government.

A dozen university presidents were removed, most of whom were appointed during the Ahmadinejad era, allegedly complicit in the campus raids of 2009.

However last summer's decision by Iran's parliament to dismiss reformist Science Minister Reza Faraji-Dana, whose responsibilities included universities, belie deeper structural obstacles.

Conservative elements in Iran, including the powerful Revolutionary Guards, were angered by Faraji-Dana's decision to allow pro-democracy students expelled in 2009, to return to campus.

Open for business

Wednesday's nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 could mark a new dawn in the country's relationship with the Western world, but in a region in a constant state of flux and an increasingly hawkish Republican-dominated US Senate, anything could happen in the next few months.

One thing is certain, however: the lifting of the sanctions will open up Iran's middle class to the global economy, with Peugeot and Charlemagne Capital but two transnational corporations already eager to invest in the automobile and security industry respectively.

Any influx of capital will strengthen Iran's middle class and could add gusto to the resurgent pro-democracy movement, a group that, for Arshin, is poised to challenge the structure of the Islamic Republic due to the very nature of their lifestyle choices.

Iran is a young and vibrant nation, with more than four million people enrolled in its universities and higher education establishments.

"The next generation of the Iranian middle class, which ultimately reinforces human rights and democracy, carries a serious conflict with the current regime's setup," said Arshin.

Names in this article have been have been changed in order to protect the identity of contributors.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.