Thousands of students at several colleges and universities in Tehran have returned to the streets in recent weeks to protest the jailing of Abdullah Nouri and closing down of his newspaper, Khordad.
Nouri, a central leader of the reform wing of the Islamic Republic regime, was tried by a “special court for clergy” in late November and convicted on the heresy charges. Nouri was sentenced to five years in jail. He was also ordered not to participate in any political activities for five years and to pay a sum equal to $5000.
These recent actions are the first since the suppression of the student protests of July 8-13. The July events began as a peaceful protest against the closing of another reform-minded newspaper, Salaam, but quickly radicalized and spread to over 13 Iranian cities after a bloody attack on the student dormitories in Tehran (see December 1999 issue of Socialist Action).
There are no reports of harassment of students during the recent demonstrations.
In one of these demonstrations, some 800 students of the Allameh Tabatabai University symbolically carried copies of the banned newspaper, Khordad, while covering their mouth with tapes. In another, some 3000 students gathered outside of Tehran University mosque-some carrying portraits of Nouri and Khatami, the Islamic Republic President.
The Bureau for Consolidation of Unity (BCU) was the major organizer of these events. The organizers of these protests told the British Broadcasting Corporation that they are also pressing their demand for a public trial of those responsible for the fatal attacks on student dormitories in July.
The BCU was founded on the basis of the existing Islamic Student Associations in 1981. These student organizations rallied behind Khomeini and actively opposed his secular and religious rivals.
In May 1981, after a speech by Rafsanjani at the University of Tabriz, the BCU seized its central offices and demanded a “cultural revolution.” Within days, all other student organizations were banned, their offices confiscated, and their leaders and activists were subjected to arrest. Leaders of the Islamic Republic proclaimed a “Cultural Revolution” and all universities were closed down for two years.
All students and faculty, who were not to proclaim views considered at odds with the regime, including socialist views, were purged. The curriculum became the subject of constant censorship to ensure it meets the demands of the clergy.
However, the BCU suffered a split under the impact of factional struggles within the Islamic Republic. And, in the 1990s, smaller non-religious student organizations appeared on campuses. The BCU itself has come to ally itself with the reform wing within the Islamic Republic.
In the student protests of last July, BCU leaders took their distance from the radicalizing students who showed a distrust of various factions of the Islamic Republic. While broad layers of the Iranian society, including students, show a preference for reform politicians, such as Khatami and Nouri, this is because of their support for democratic freedoms.
After Khatami spoke to 5000 students at the Science and Industry University urging them to vote for the reform politicians in the February parliamentary election, a student told an Associated Press reporter: “But reforms must be speeded up. We, young people, do not understand [Khatami’s slow pace], all we know is that we want social reforms and freedoms.”
Intensification of factional struggle
The trial and conviction of Nouri marked the deepening crisis of the Islamic Republic. Nouri had resigned his recently won seat on the Tehran city council to run in the coming parliamentary election. He has been widely viewed as the most likely candidate for the speaker of the parliament, the third highest office in the Islamic Republic. Supporters of Khatami and Nouri contend that his recent conviction was an attempt to abort their impending victory.
As a compromise measure, Hashemi Rafsanjani, who served as the speaker of the parliament during the Iran-Iraq war and as two-term president after the war, has declared his intentions to run in the election. He also has been favored by sections of the international capitalist class in the United States and elsewhere.
During the July crisis, The New York Times op-ed page columnist Friedman argued in favor of the return to the center stage by “Ayatollah Deng.” The Wall Street Journal supported him as someone who has worked for integrating the Iranian economy into the capitalist world economy.
Indeed, Rafsanjani and Khatami agree on neo-liberal economic policies to prop up the crisis-ridden Iranian economy. Khatami has continued the austerity campaign waged by Rafsanjani. His new balanced budget includes provisions for privatization of important sectors of the economy such as railroads and telecommunications, and opening up to private investment industries such as tobacco, sugar, and tea.
They disagree on how to deal with the crisis of legitimacy of the regime. Khatami and his co-thinkers, including Nouri, consider a certain degree of political liberalization necessary to co-opt the rising bourgeois democratic sentiments. During his trial, Nouri argued: “The essence of my defense is reformism. I expect that reforms can bring back the real authority and elevate the legitimacy of political rule in the Islamic Republic.”
Nouri is in a good position to know. He served as the ideological and political director of the Revolution Guards on Khomeini’s orders. He was the Minister of Interior in the cabinets of Rafsanjani and Khatami. He was a vice president to Khatami.
Fight to free all detained students
In the aftermath of the July protests, hundreds of students were detained and some tortured and forced to make “confessions.” The current political situation inside and outside Iran makes it possible to wage an effective international campaign to win the release of detained students.
Inside Iran, the campaign for their freedom has fallen essentially on their immediate families. Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic regime has refused to make public the names and charges of those arrested. Based on various reports in the Iranian press, we have compiled a partial list of detained students and their current status (see box on this page).
An additional obstacle is the policies of organizations engaged in the defense effort. Many of the organizations are not defense committees but political groups that subordinate the fight to win the freedom of the detained students to their own sectarian objectives.
The BCU, for instance, has not campaigned for the release of detained students. Instead, it has gone on a campaign to rally students to vote for the reform candidates and support President Khatami.
But Khatami took a “law and order” position during the student protests. While he has denounced the attack on the student dormitories in July, he has refused to call for the release of those arrested.
The BCU strategy is based on their continued support for the Islamic Republic and attempts to salvage it in the face of its mounting crisis. Thus they oppose any independent organization and action that is focused on winning the freedom of those detained.
Outside of Iran, the wave of protests against the crackdown on the student protests in July has subsided because of a lack of a long-term, independent perspective to fight for democratic freedoms. The majority of organizations still active in the fight to win freedom for the detained students do so either by hoping for eventual dominance of the reform wing of the Islamic Republic that promises a “civil society” or by relying on imperialist governments and politician or institutions under their control.
For instance, an organization called “Student Movement Coordination Committee” calls for an appeal to “Free Countries Dignitaries” such as U.S. President Clinton and Secretary of State Albright and other leaders of imperialist countries to press for freedom of the detained students.
The modern history of Iran is rich in lessons of interventions by these powers to suppress any attempt at self-determination and democratic organization of the society by the Iranian peoples.
What is required is the dissemination of facts and consistent work to educate the public about the struggle of the Iranian students for democratic freedoms. It is through such a mass mobilization strategy that principled defenders of democratic rights and organizations of students, workers, women, and others can add their voice in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Iran to demand the release of the detained students.
Indeed, as the attacks on the democratic rights of working people are international in scope, so is the fight in their defense. The struggle for democratic freedoms is international in character. It is through joining of these struggles that we can learn from each other and build upon each other’s successes.