In 1997 20 million Iranians voted for Mohammed Khatami in the presidential elections. With a monumental 69% majority pro-reformist Mohammed represented for many the long overdue possibility of political and social reform in Iran. However, the contradiction between clerical and representative government has hindered any progress towards change the President’s administration has repeatedly faced strong resistance from conservative clerics and supporters of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Scores of reformist newspapers that began shortly after Mohammed election have been shut down and many writers arrested. Increasing frustration with governmental gridlock and the slow reformation progress is no more evident that within the students of Iran.
Historically students have been integral in movements of political change. Their opposition to Reza Shah’s leadership proved a significant factor in his deposition and the eventual ‘Islamic Revolution’ in 1979. Two decades later, students are once again proving to be a powerful force but times have changed and the instrumental role they once played in the overthrowing of the monarchy has transformed into a pro-reformist movement in strong support of the President. This young post-revolutionary generation are frustrated with what they see as the static nature of Iranian politics. Mohammed Khatami’s election was followed by a tidal wave of hope and expectancy, however this was short lived. Despite some social relaxation, for example the employment of female bus drivers and softening of strict dress codes, most young people have grown tired of what they see as unfulfilled promises and blatant resistance of Mohammed’s reformist policies by clerics. The current wave of student demonstrations in the country’s universities mark the dissatisfaction with what Arman Farakish, chair of the Iranian Civil Rights Committee, describes as the ‘violation of basic human and civil rights that has strangled society.’
The sentencing of prominent reformist academic and university lecturer Hashem Aghajari sparked the recent protests in November. What began as a small gathering of 400 hundred activists in Tehran University to demonstrate against Aghajari’s death sentence rapidly escalated into scenes reminiscent of those in 1999, when Iran was rocked by the most violent demonstrations since the revolution. University campuses across the country were witness to hundreds of angry students, occupying buildings and shouting slogans including ‘death to despotism’. National Student Day on December 7 was marked by rallies that developed into stone throwing, violence and arrests as students clashed with militia groups. Demonstrators were urged by both sides of the government to remain calm and bring an end to the protests. Pressure brought about by the wide spread condemnation forced the Ayatollah to announce the reconsideration of Hashem’s sentence and tensions were eased. But as Arman says, ‘the situation is very volatile…their demands were clear: Freedom of expression, freedom of political prisoners, ending of executions’, issues that still need to be addressed.
Many now believe that the Presidents needs to redouble his efforts. Acknowledgement that little has progressed since his election has lead students to call on him for radical change, but they appear to go unheard. He has urged protestors to return to their homes so the matter could be resolved peacefully, but the students of Iran are tired of compromise. As Mohammed’s term in office begins to draw to a close the future is uncertain for Iran and its students. A lack of suitable successor and the prospect of a dominant clergy threaten to throw Iran back into the state it once was. One thing is certain, this temporary lull in student activity does not point towards a resolution of the situation and as Arman points out, the students will seize any opportunity to protest again.