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'Cultural Revolution' Redux

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

11 May 2010 22:008 Comments

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Cartoon (right to left): University Student: Year 1, Year 2, Year 3, Year 4

As in 1980, student opposition to dictatorship prompts repressive countermeasures.

Ever since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected Iran's president in 2005, Iranian universities have been the target of extensive purges. Many faculty members, particularly in the social sciences, philosophy, and law, have either been fired or forced into retirement. Many others have left academe in disgust. Economics professors have been targeted simply for critiquing the president's economic policy -- if he can even be said to have one.

Neither have university students escaped the wrath of the hardliners. They are now subject to a ranking system that assesses their political activities, outspokenness, and positions on various issues. Depending on the ranking -- expressed by a given number of "stars" -- various punishments are meted out. The base sanction is loss of the right to take courses for up to two years. At the next level, students are exiled from one university to another, usually in a remote area. Then they are kicked out of school altogether. Ultimately, they may be jailed on bogus charges.

Politically active students are also barred from obtaining higher education and degrees. Those identified as troublemakers are first summoned to the Ministry of Intelligence to sign a letter in which they promise to refrain from any political activity. Those who refuse are routinely prevented from enrolling in graduate programs, even if they have passed, sometimes with distinction, the national entrance examination.

Since the rigged presidential election of June 2009, the hardliners have ratcheted up their pressure on both faculty and students, and for an understandable reason. Iran's universities have always been at the forefront of the struggle against dictatorship. Of the 107 confirmed deaths in the wake of the election, 23 were university students. Placing this figure in perspective, while Iran has about 3 million university students, representing 4 percent of the population, they account for 22 percent of those murdered.

Hundreds of students are in prison, including several members of the leadership council of Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat (Office for Consolidation of Unity, or OCU). The country's most powerful university student organization, the OCU is an umbrella group for most of the university-based Muslim Students Associations that have been outspoken critics of the hardliners.

Majid Tavakoli, a prominent student leader at Tehran's Amir Kabir University of Technology, has been arrested three times by the Ministry of Intelligence. He was imprisoned for 15 months in 2006-7 for supposedly insulting Islam and Iran's leadership in student publications. On December 7, 2009, the annual University Students Day, amid broad-based student protests, he was arrested after delivering a courageous speech denouncing the fraudulent election and ongoing repression. After a show trial, he was given a long jail sentence.

Bahareh Hedayat, a member of the OCU leadership council, was arrested in July 2009 and released the following month. She was arrested again on December 31 and held in solitary confinement for an extended period, before being transferred to Tehran's notorious Evin Prison.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has openly called for purging the universities of students and faculty opposed to the doctrine of Velaayat-e Faghih (guardianship of the Islamic jurist, represented by the Supreme Leader, the backbone of Iran's political system) and theocratic government. Hardliners and reactionary clerics such as Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi have issued similar calls.

Minister of Science, Research, and Technology Kamran Daneshjoo, who overseas the universities, has said bluntly that he will carry out Khamenei's order. He has issued guidelines on how faculty members are to be evaluated. After paying lip service to professors' scholarship and research work, the guidelines instruct the university administrators to monitor their statements and activities. The purge of dissident faculty continues unabated.

There is now much talk about a new "cultural revolution." The hardliners are trying to rein in universities that are centers of resistance against the ruling elite. If they succeed, they will not only weaken the higher education system for years to come, but in depriving the nation of one of its most important centers of dissent, they will also undermine Iran's chances for political progress. The campaign has already led to a massive brain drain that will do substantial harm to Iran's economy. No country in the world has lost more of its elite students and scientists in recent years than Iran.

But will the hardliners succeed? Iran's modern history, both before and after the 1979 Revolution, teaches us that they will fail once again. This is the 30th anniversary of the first "cultural revolution" in Iran that closed most universities for almost three years, purged thousands of academics, students, and staff opposed to the emerging political elite of clerics and their reactionary supporters, and played a major role in retarding Iran's political development. It is instructive to recall those events. Let us first take a brief look at their background, and how the movement of university students began in Iran.

For many decades, Iranian universities have been a hotbed of opposition to dictatorship and the ruling elite. This tradition goes back to at least 1942, a year after Reza Shah was deposed by the Allied forces that had occupied Iran. With his exile, his dark dictatorship also ended. After his son, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, succeeded him, there was a semidemocratic political environment that lasted until 1953 during which it was possible for political parties and the university-based student groups that supported them to organize.

Chief among the political parties founded during this period was the Tudeh (Masses) Party, a traditional pro-Soviet communist party wrapped in Iranian nationalism for local appeal. In the 1940s, the Tudeh Party established Sazman-e Javanan-e Hezb-e Tudeh Iran (Youth Organization of the Tudeh Party of Iran), which was active at the University of Tehran and a few other institutions of higher education.

To counter the influence of the Tudeh Party, future prime minister Mehdi Bazargan (1907-1995), then dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Tehran, helped establish Anjoman Eslami Daneshjooyan (Muslim Students Association, or MSA) in 1942. Shortly thereafter, a young university student, Mohammad Nakhshab (1922-1975), organized an Islamic leftist group that advocated social justice based on socialism without dialectical materialism.

Nakhshab and several comrades had started their first political group while still at Tehran's Dar al-Fonoun High School, arguably Iran's first modern school. They even put out a handwritten, carbon-copied newspaper, Rouznaameh-e Ma (Our Newspaper). One member of the group, Sayyed Nasir Asar, was fascinated by Marxist ideology and its stance against exploitation. His father Sayyed Kazem Asar, an Islamic scholar, told him about the clash between dialectical materialism and Islamic teachings, but also that Islam took a similar stance against exploitation. In particular, the fourth and fifth verses of al-Qasas Sureh of the Qur'an promise the exploited and disenfranchised the leadership of the world.

At the same time, another politically active group of 25 high school students led by Jalaloddin Ashtiyani had been accepted to the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Tehran. By 1943, both groups were active at the university. They more or less shared an ideological vision, namely, social justice based on some type of Islamic socialism. In addition, both groups were fiercely nationalist. They eventually merged, under Nakhshab's leadership, as Jameiyat-e Mosalmanan-e Vatankhah (League of Patriotic Muslims).

By 1944, the group had grown to about 75 members. They began calling themselves Nehzat-e Jahani-ye Khoda Parastan-e Sosialist (World Movement of Socialist Worshipers of God), before dropping world from their new name. Nakhshab's thesis for his bachelor's degree elaborated on his group's precepts. Together with the MSAs, the influence of the Muslim students grew in the institutions of higher educations. Along with the University of Tehran, other universities founded during the period in Shiraz (1946), Tabriz (1947), Mashhad (1949), and Isfahan (1950) became major centers for political activity. Ever since, they have played significant roles in the struggle for democracy in Iran.

On July 16, 1952 (25 Tir 1331), Prime Minister Dr. Mohammad Mossaddegh resigned from his post in protest against the Shah's interference in his government. The Shah appointed Ahmad Ghavam as the new premier. Almost immediately after the resignation, large demonstrations erupted in Tehran and elsewhere, during which hundreds were killed or injured by security forces. Huge demonstrations on July 21 (30 Tir) forced Ghavam to resign and go into hiding, and brought Mosaddegh back to the premiership. University students played a pivotal role in these demonstrations.

After the August 1953 coup engineered by the CIA that overthrew Mosaddegh's government and restored the Shah to power, the university campuses became leading centers of resistance to the Shah's dictatorship. On December 7, 1953 (16 Azar 1332), three students of the University of Tehran's Faculty of Engineering -- Mehdi (Azar) Shariat Razavi, Ahmad Ghandchi, and Mostafa Bozorgnia -- were killed while protesting the visit of U.S. Vice President Richard M. Nixon. Their murders had a galvanizing effect that still reverberates.

The Shah, like the leaders of today's Islamic Republic, tried to control the universities through a variety of means. In the fall of 1974, for example, the government began transferring most of the classes and labs of the University of Tehran's Faculty of Engineering to an off-campus location on Amir Abad Street (the current North Kargar), next to the university dormitories. The entire student body of the engineering school, including the author, went on strike. In retribution, the government completely cancelled the 1974-75 academic year.

Throughout the 1970s, many university students were killed in the armed struggle against the Shah or executed in jails, culminating with the events of Saturday, November 4, 1978. During demonstrations at the University of Tehran, several high school and university students were killed by the Shah's security forces. There were strikes all over the country in response that brought the nation to a standstill. These events played a decisive role in the downfall of the Shah almost three months later.

After the Shah's overthrow, the campuses became even more overtly politicized. Every important political group had its own student organization. The leading three were Daneshjooyan-e Pishgam (Avant-Garde Students), known as Pishgam, associated with Sazman-e Chrikhaa-ye Fadaee Khagh-e Iran (Organization of People's Devotee Guerrillas of Iran, or OPDGI), a secular leftist group founded in 1970; Anjoman-e Daneshjooyan-e Mosalman (Society of Muslim Students, or SMS), consisting of supporters of the Mojahedin Khalgh Organization (MKO); and the MSA, which formed the core of the students who supported Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Other secular leftist groups were also active on the campuses. They included supporters of the Tudeh Party; Sazman-e Paykaar dar Raah-e Azadi-ye Tabagheh Kargar (Organization of the Struggle for the Liberation of the Workers), known simply as Paykaar, a Maoist group that had split off from the MKO in 1975; Raah-e Kargar (Worker's Path), a more moderate group; and Razmandegaan (Militants).

While there was vast popular support for the new revolutionary government, the campuses gradually began to become centers of opposition to it. The SMS and Pishgam had much more on-campus backing than did the MSA. Though Iran had only about 180,000 university students at the time, the situation was deeply worrisome to the ruling establishment.

To counter the rise of opposition on the campuses, particularly the growing influence of the pro-MKO SMS, an umbrella group was founded in September 1979 to coordinate the activities of all the MSAs. Originally known as the Dafter-e Tahkim-e Vahdat-e Howzeh va Daneshgah (Office for Consolidation of Unity between Universities and Seminaries), it evolved into the aforementioned OCU. Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammad Hosseini Beheshti (1928-1981), a key aide to Ayatollah Khomeini, member of the Islamic Revolutionary Council, and first judiciary chief after the Revolution, was the key driving force behind the establishment of the group.

The OCU was strongly critical of the government of Mehdi Bazargan. It found common cause with the Jonbesh-e Mosalmaanaan-e Mobaarez (Movement of Militant Muslims, or MMM), an Islamic leftist group led by Dr. Habibollah Paymaan, a dentist who had written several books under the pseudonym Habibollah Paaydaar. With Mir Hossein Mousavi, Paymaan had founded the MMM before the Revolution and was active against the Shah.

In many ways, the MMM was a revival of Mohammad Nakhshab's Nehzat-e Khoda Parastan-e Sosialist. Its mouthpiece was Ommat (Muslim Masses), a highly analytical daily. I not only read most issues of Ommat until it voluntarily ceased publishing in the summer of 1981, but also distributed copies of it to anyone who was interested. The MMM was a progressive movement, fiercely opposed to reactionary and backward interpretations of Islamic teachings, as well as to U.S. interference in Iran's affairs. It is now a key member of the opposition Nationalist-Religious Coalition.

Despite the leading role played by the OCU in the hostage crisis that began on November 4, 1979, when the U.S. embassy in Tehran was stormed by students, it was clear that the secular leftist organizations and the SMS were still the most important campus political groups. This was not a tolerable situation for the clerics.

Only a year after the Revolution, political freedom was waning. As more restrictions were put in place, internal strife began to increase dramatically and the universities were the centers of dissent. The reactionary right managed to convince the MSAs and the OCU of the need for a crackdown. The political establishment began to speak of a "cultural revolution."

On February 27, 1980, Mostafa Pour Salim, deputy interior minister in charge of the police force, asked all university presidents to prevent student political groups from organizing any gatherings on their campuses. Three weeks later, in his message for Nowruz, the beginning of the Iranian year 1359, Ayatollah Khomeini said,

The Islamic Revolution must come to all the universities in Iran in order to purge those academics that are linked either to the West or the East, so that the campuses can become a "clean" environment for teaching the Islamic sciences.

On April 10, there were widespread demonstrations by secular leftist students at the University of Tabriz during which scores of students were injured. The conflict ended only when the leftist students' campus headquarters were taken over by pro-government students and their supporters in the security forces.

Five days later, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani gave a speech at the Tabriz campus. During a question-and-answer session that followed, he was criticized strongly by students. In response, he threatened to purge the campuses of troublemakers. Students calling themselves Followers of the Imam's Line, the same group that had taken over the U.S. Embassy and which formed the bulk of the MSAs, staged a sit-in at the campus's central administration building. Echoing Khomeini's declaration, they declared that they would not leave until the university was purged of all professors, students, and staff "who were linked to the West or the East."

On Thursday, April 17, the MSA students, together with units of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, closed the University of Science and Technology in eastern Tehran. Leftist students at Sharif University were attacked. All signs were pointing to a bloody confrontation between the pro-government forces and university leftists.

The next day, after Friday prayers, Khomeini raised the prospect of an overt response by the United States to the ongoing hostage crisis only to dismiss it, describing Iran's own universities as a greater threat:


We are not afraid of economic sanctions or military intervention. What we are afraid of is Western universities and the training of our youth in the interests of the West or East.

This was a clear signal for attacks on the universities. The same day, Khomeini met with the Islamic Revolutionary Council. After the meeting, the Council gave all student organizations around the country three days to evacuate their headquarters and campus rooms they were occupying. At the end of the grace period, it was declared, President Abolhassan Banisadr, accompanied by the people, would go to the campus of the University of Tehran to retake it.

In the afternoon, demonstrations broke out at the Teachers Training College of Tehran, leading to its seizure by leftist students. MSA members -- referred to as Phalangists, after the Lebanese Phalangists then fighting leftist forces in that country's civil war -- laid siege in the evening. The campus looked like a "war zone," according to a British reporter, and one student was reportedly lynched.

Over the next two days, offices of leftist students at universities in Ahwaz, Isfahan, Mashhad, and Shiraz were ransacked, leaving at least 20 people dead, and probably many more. In Tabriz, 300 students were injured; in Mashhad, 356. Unknown numbers were injured in Ahwaz and Isfahan. The violence spread to several campuses in the capital, particularly the University of Tehran.

On April 20, the OPDGI issued a strongly worded statement accusing Banisadr, the cleric-dominated Islamic Republican Party, and other Islamic groups of orchestrating the violence. It called on the students to resist and not evacuate the campuses. While demonstrations continued and the pro-OPDGI Pishgam, along with other secular leftist groups, continued to resist the evacuation order, the SMS abandoned its campus headquarters around the country.

Mehdi Fatapour, a top member of the OPDGI leadership who had spent years in jail under the Shah, was responsible for supervising the activities of Pishgam. He and Farrokh Negahdar, another leading OPDGI figure, were called to an emergency meeting with Banisadr. According to Fatapour, the president explained that the campus evacuation order was just one element of a much broader plan. The clerics, he said, "do not intend to end the crisis once they take back the headquarters of the leftist students. They have targeted the president, and the model that they use is China's Cultural Revolution." Fatapour then met with Paykaar's Hossein Rouhani (subsequently executed by the Islamic Republic) and Raah-e Kargar's Ali Asghar Izadi (now living in exile) to urge them to ask their supporters to evacuate the campuses, but they both rejected the call.

April 21 was the last day of the resistance. There was widespread violence on the University of Tehran campus. At least three students were killed and 349 were injured. Finally, the secular leftist groups agreed to evacuate.

The next day, Banisadr and a large supporting crowd went to the University of Tehran. The president delivered a speech in which he announced that the Islamic Revolutionary Council had decided to close the universities. All the universities were shut down on June 12, 1980. The medical schools reopened after two years; the rest, almost a year after that.

Officially, the goal was the "Islamization" of the universities (An absurd notion. How, for instance, can one "Islamize" the natural and medical sciences, or engineering?) This was really just a guise for purging thousands of faculty, students, and staff from the campuses, just as is happening with the new "cultural revolution."

What were the consequences of the 1980 "cultural revolution"? In addition to the extended university closures and the purging of thousands of people, a large number of scholars left the country. By 1992, Iran faced a shortage of 9,000 university professors and instructors, leading then President Rafsanjani to invite many of those who had been purged back to work. Scientific and technical research effectively stopped for a long time, but the Iran-Iraq war and international economic sanctions forced the Rafsanjani government to restore research spending.

After the universities were reopened, new restrictions were imposed on women interested in pursuing higher education (some of these were later eliminated). Background checks on the families of high school students who had passed the national entrance examinations became an official factor in admissions.

One official reason for the "cultural revolution" was that it was meant to unify the universities and the seminaries. Although this did not happen, there was an unexpected byproduct: Many of the clerics became familiar with the works of Western culture.

And was the primary goal, of taming the universities, achieved? The answer is an emphatic no. By the time Rafsanjani began his second term as president in 1993, the same MSA and OCU that had played important roles in the "cultural revolution" had became critics of his government. They played an important role in the landslide victory of Mohammad Khatami in the 1997 election. The July 1999 uprising in the dormitories of the University of Tehran that shook the nation demonstrated that the universities can never be a tool in the hands of the hardliners and reactionaries, at least not in the long run.

This is not to say that the hardliners will not try. Just like the Shah, Ahmadinejad now talks about transferring Tehran's universities to other parts of the country. The rationale this time is the threat of a major earthquake; the real reason, as before, is to disperse the powerful student force. Just like the Shah, Ahmadinejad and the hardliners are suspicious and deeply fearful of the universities, linking them to foreign governments without ever presenting a shred of evidence.

In a recent interview, Morteza Nabavi, editor of the hardline daily Resaalat and a member of the Expediency Council, attacked the universities and claimed that they are at the heart of the Green Movement. He said that the faculty has become more radical than the students, and that "God has died in the campuses." He lamented the fact that "our children who have grown up in the Islamic Republic have turned against it." He failed, naturally, to recognize that it is none other than the hardliners and their treatment of the citizens that have turned Iran's youth against the political establishment.

The grand, 70-year-long tradition of Iran's universities as centers of dissent and opposition to repressive ruling elites will continue, no matter how hard the establishment attempts to stifle it. To paraphrase a recent observation by Mir Hossein Mousavi, just as you cannot prevent the coming of spring and nature's greening, you cannot prevent the student movement from raising its voice against the dictatorship.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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8 Comments

Mr. Sahimi,

Thanks for another great history lesson.

One comment: I have noticed that in all your articles you translate Anjoman Eslami Daneshjooyan as Muslim Students Association. As you know a more precise translation is: Islamic Association of Students.

I find that very confusing for those of us who participated in the immediate events post 1979 revolution because the MKO supporters across universities and high schools used the name "Muslim Students Association" which were the arch-enemies of the regime supporters' Islamic Association of Students.

The difference is minute for those who did not experience those years but for those of us who were in the center of it, it's like calling South Korea, North Korea!

My comments do inevitably bring to mind Monty Python's hilarious take on the naming of leftist groups in the movie "Life of Brian"...a must see for all political activists who don't take themselves too seriously!

Thanks again for your great articles.

Bahman / May 12, 2010 7:33 AM

Nabavi might be right about God having died in the campuses if so it begs the question who or what killed him? The case of Akbar Mohammadi the student leader arrested after the 1999 student protests is illustrative. Sentenced to death, commuted to 15 years in prison, on the orders of Khamenei (so much for the independence of the judiciary) but what happens next. He sustains serious injuries during repeated torture in his 6 years at Evin; he is released on medical leave in 2005 with host of long-term injuries.Suddenly re-arrested in 2006 died an unexplained death months later in what was meant to be a not-so-subtle warning to students.A cruel fate for a young man from the provinces. Its a wonder that any dared to protest later but they did and still do so.

pirooz / May 12, 2010 8:21 AM

They can never pacify universities. It is impossible. It can not be done. Even if the current students are purged, demoralized or beaten into submission, they will inevitably be replaced by new, fresh energetic students-- possible more radical, certainly tougher. That is the nature of universities. It's membership is constantly turning over, changing and evolving.
KhR and A.N. are too stupid to see the futility of their efforts. Or may be they know it and have no other choice but to try to prolong the inevitable.


This is not unique in Iran. Universities played a key role in the US in ending the Vietnam war. They were very active in election of Barak Obama. university students were instrumental in revolutions in former soviet countries. They lead the deomcracy movements in China, thailand,...

Ahvaz / May 12, 2010 10:05 AM

As a former student Iran who left not too long ago, I am always unsure about how to take in this news of student activism.

On one level, it seems necessary for the greater democratic movement in Iran. On another, I think it is in the best interests of the students themselves to focus on their school work, and not have to pay such a hefty price. Having worked closely with the Muslim Students Association at my school, I know that the students themselves and their families face this dilemma every single day even when the environment was less lethal: do we become more politically active and risk everything? Or mind our own business and just get on with our lives? Do we organize Kadivar's visit to our school (as we did) or is it too much of a risk? Do we design a poster for Ghods Day or no?

I think that's a nuance that's often missing in Western analysis however, as here, we just like the students to be active, to applaud them for both pushing the democratic aspirations of the country, and their own generation. From afar, they're more like a band of warriors than real kids with fears and aspirations whose dreams are often jeopardized or shattered by political activity, and who may be better off personally had they not been active politically. These contradictions and complexities are so real when you deal with them on a day to day basis.

Pedestrian / May 12, 2010 10:27 PM

This sort of thing is not what my grandfather had in mind when he helped found and subsequently presided over the University of Tehran.

Pirouz / May 13, 2010 5:30 AM

Beautiful post, Pedestrian.

Ali from Tehran / May 13, 2010 6:38 AM

The Iranian people (women in particular) will never surrender. They will never surrender. Where were Mousavi and Karubi when thousands of Iranians were murdered quietly and without any reaction from these so called moderates? They are just the other side of the same coin of terror. The message of Iranian people is loud and clear. The Barbaric Republic has one destiny, the garbage of history. Stay focused Iran, victory is at hand.

Niloofar / May 13, 2010 11:25 PM

Well, Thanks for the article Prof.Sahimi!

Whatever the Green movement is trying to achieve is not possible without the off-campus support.

And I totally agree that Islamic fascists can't stifle the universities because they can't put a lock on brains. They can put a lock on eyes and ears but not on brains and imagination.

MirAmin / May 15, 2010 1:45 AM