Iran's president facing revival of students' ire

Posted in Iran | 21-Dec-06 | Author: Nazila Fathi| Source: International Herald Tribune

Iranian students protest against Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while he speaks at Amir Kabir university in Tehran, December 11, 2006.

Students say they've had enough of inaction

TEHRAN: As protests broke out last week at Amir Kabir University, cutting short a speech by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Babak Zamanian could only watch from afar. He was on crutches, having been clubbed by supporters of the president and had his foot run over by a motorcycle during a less publicized student demonstration a few days earlier.

But the significance of the moment was easy to grasp, he said, even from a distance. The Iranian student movement, he says, is reawakening from the slumber of recent years and may even be spearheading a more widespread backlash against Ahmadinejad.

"It is not that simple to break up a president's speech," said Alireza Siassirad, a former student political organizer, explaining that an event of that magnitude takes meticulous planning. "I think what happened at Amir Kabir is a very important and a dangerous sign. Students are definitely becoming active again."

The protest, punctuated by shouts of "Death to the dictator," was the first public outcry against Ahmadinejad, one that was reflected Friday in local elections, where voters turned out in droves to vote for Ahmadinejad's rivals.

It mirrored as well public frustration with the president's crackdown on civil liberties, his blundering economic policies and his harsh rhetoric toward the West, all of which threaten to isolate Iran.

But the students also had a more immediate and potent source of outrage: the president's campaign to purge the universities of all vestiges of the reform movement of the last president, Mohammad Khatami.

Last summer, the newly installed head of the university, Amir Kabir, demolished the office of the Islamic Association, which had been the core of student political activities on campus since 1963 and had matured into a moderate, pro-reform body.

Since then, some students said, more than 100 liberal professors have been forced into retirement and other popular figures have been demoted. At least 70 students have been suspended for political activities, 2 have been jailed and about 30 have been given warnings.

The students also complained about dormitories that are overcrowded and crumbling and proscriptions against women wearing makeup or bright colors — rules that were relaxed when Khatami came to power in 1997.

Amir Kabir University has been a hotbed of student activism since before the revolution.

The 1979 attack on the U.S. Embassy was planned here and many protests before the Islamic revolution that same year were orchestrated in the office that was closed last summer.

Students have the ability to rapidly organize large protests, something they have done only sporadically in recent years. They have networks at universities around the country through a so- called Office for Consolidating Unity, which links all the Islamic Associations. There are also student guilds, which are independent and influential, and more than 2,000 student publications.

Zamanian, head of public relations of the Islamic Association at Amir Kabir, said that while the situation was not ideal in the Khatami years, Ahmadinejad's anti-reformist campaign has led students to value the freedoms they had back then.

They were permitted to hold meetings and invite opposition figures to speak, he said, and could freely publish their journals. Now, he added, their papers are forbidden to print anything but wire stories from official news agencies.

The students also complained about Ahmadinejad's failure to deliver on his promises of economic growth and jobs. At last week's protest, which coincided with a Holocaust conference organized by the Foreign Ministry, students chanted "Forget the Holocaust, do something for us."

"A nuclear program is our right, but we fear that it will bring more damage than good," said a student who would identify himself only as Ahmad for fear of retribution. "Our country is in a sensitive time and we need to have a peaceful attitude. Why should we hold a conference on the Holocaust when it creates more enemies in the world for us?"

Another student said: "It is so hard and costly to come to this university, but I don't see a bright future. Even if you are lucky enough to get a job the pay would not be enough for you to pay your rent."

Zamanian said the protest was not planned ahead of Ahmadinejad's visit, but he said students were enraged when they saw supporters of the president being bused into the university.

Although the auditorium was almost full with the president's supporters by the time any students were let in, the protesters forced their way inside and started chanting "Death to the dictator" and held banners calling him a "Fascist president."

They also held up posters of the president with his picture upside down and set fire to three of them. Many of those students are in hiding now.

At one point, the head of a moderate student guild complained to Ahmadinejad that students were being expelled for political activities and given three stars next to their names in university records, barring them from re- entering. The president responded by ridiculing him, joking that the three stars they had received made them sergeants in the army.

Ahmadinejad was eventually forced to cut his speech short and leave.

But angry students stormed his car, kicking it and chanting slogans. His convoy of four cars collided several times as they tried to leave in a rush. Eventually, the security forces dispersed the students.

In an entry on his Web log posted Wednesday, Ahmadinejad played down the scale and significance of the protest, writing that he had a "good feeling when he saw a small group amidst the dominant majority insulting him without any fear."

A few days after the protest, former Amir Kabir students affiliated with the Office for Consolidating Unity wrote a letter to the president. In it, they turned down what they said was his invitation "to share with him their problems," because they believed he wanted to use the occasion to bolster his candidates ahead of the local elections.

The students also wrote that the president had "insulted their intelligence" by talking to them in the same language he speaks in remote villages on his provincial trips.

"You should know that what happened at Poly Technique University was the voice of universities and the real voice of the people," they wrote, using the name of the university before the revolution.