Anniversary of a Turning Point
by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles
10 Jul 2010 14:35
July 9 marked the 11th anniversary of the uprising of Iranian university students that began in the dormitories of the University of Tehran and spread to several campuses around the nation. It shook the foundations of the Islamic Republic and demonstrated that, despite the vast purges of progressive faculty that took place in the 1980s under the guise of "Cultural Revolution" and the hardliners' tremendous efforts to control students' political activities and very thoughts, the universities' grand, decades-old tradition as centers of resistance to oppression survived.
After the purges of the 1980s, as well as the execution of thousands of political prisoners, Iran's universities were relatively quiet for a few years. All the secular leftist and nationalist university organizations, as well as the Muslim Students Society -- aligned with the Mojahedin Khalgh Organization -- had been banned and their leaders jailed, executed, or, at the very least, expelled from school. The Muslim Student Association (MSA), and their umbrella organization, Daftar-e Tahkim Vahdat (Office for Consolidation Unity, or OCU), founded in September 1979, were strongly supportive of the political establishment during the 1980s.
I remember very well a visit I made to my alma mater, the Faculty of Engineering (FOE) of the University of Tehran, in summer 1989, only a month after the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. I conversed with a professor under whom I had studied before the 1979 Revolution. I remarked to him that the FOE no longer seemed to be a hotbed of political activity and opposition to the ruling establishment. He responded, "They broke the students' backs, and we also had a bloody war with Iraq. It will take a few years to recover. But they will come back." They did, and with a vengeance. In fact, 1991, just two years after my visit, turned out to mark a pivotal point in Iran's political evolution.
A leading cleric, the leftist Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha, spiritual advisor of the students who took American diplomats hostage in November 1979 and a close associate of Khomeini's, founded the first Reformist newspaper, Salaam, in February 1991. Its editor was Abbas Abdi, a leading figure among the Islamic leftist students who had overrun the U.S. Embassy and later an outspoken Reformist who was jailed for his views. The paper's name was chosen by Ahmad Khomeini, the ayatollah's son.In November 1991, Kian, a monthly magazine, was launched by Mostafa Rokh-Sefat, Mahmoud (Mashallah) Shamsolvaezzin, and Reza Tehrani. The founders were influenced by the political philosophy of Dr. Abdolkarim Soroush (born Hossein Haaj Farajollah Dabbagh), a chemist by training and one of the most influential Islamic thinkers and reformers in the world (pictured). Many of the Reformist journalists who emerged amid the "Tehran Spring" of 1997-2000, during former President Mohammad Khatami's first term in office, worked with Salaam, Kian, or both. The hardliners shut down Kian in 1998 and Salaam in 1999. The closure of the latter played a pivotal role in the student uprising, as I will describe.
In 1991, as well, the Organization of the Islamic Revolution Mojahedin (OIRM), a leftist Islamic group, reemerged after being dormant since 1985. The OIRM had played a pivotal role in the formation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in 1979. Several years later, an internal struggle between the group's left and right wings had led the rightists to split off and the leftist faction to fall silent.
With its 1991 revival, OIRM began publishing Asr-e Maa (Our Era), a biweekly devoted to political and ideological matters. There were other publications in which Reformists and democrats were also active, such as Iran-e Farda, put out by the Nationalist-Religious Coalition. Such publications marked the first significant signs of popular discontent with the ruling establishment and, naturally, the university campuses were not immune.
While these were positive developments for those interested in democracy, there were countervailing developments as well. The Guardian Council, the constitutional body that supervises most elections in Iran, bestowed upon itself the power to vet all candidates. The first test of this power came in spring 1992 when the council disqualified en masse almost all the leftist candidates for the 4th Majles (parliament), allowing the right wing to take complete control of the body. This contributed to the rising concerns, even among those who had supported the Revolution.
During the early 1990s, weekly sessions known as the Wednesday Meetings brought together many now well-known Reformists and activists, such as human rights advocate Emad Baghi; Dr. Saeed Hajjarian, a leading Reformist strategist; investigative journalist Akbar Ganji; and Dr. Mohsen Aminzadeh, deputy foreign minister in the Khatami administration, who was jailed after last year's rigged presidential election. The group was known as Ashaab-e Cheharshanbeh (roughly, Wednesday's Comrades). The meetings, which took place in a Tehran restaurant, were devoted to discussion of the political issues faced by Iran and how to help the country address them. The activists were concerned about how the conservatives had taken absolute control of the Majles and seemed intent on establishing a complete dictatorship and a single-voiced society. Smaller such meetings also took place at the Kian central office. These discussions bore fruit in the form of Reformist policy ideas. Indeed, it is widely believed that it was members of the Wednesday Meetings that developed the Reformist platform on which Khatami ran for office in 1997.
Mousavi Khoeiniha, the founder of Salaam, was, and still is, a leading member of the Rouhaniyoun (Association of the Combatant Clerics, or ACC), the leftist group that split in May 1988 from the Rouhaniyat (Society of Militant Clergy, or SMC). When the split occurred, the SMC accused the ACC of acting like the Khawarij, the rigid, zealous Muslims who rebelled against Imam Ali, the Shiites' first Imam and a most revered figure in Shiism -- implying that Khomeini was the Ali of the present day. But the label of Khawarij did not stick. The ACC had Khomeini's blessing.
Salaam soon gave a voice to nonclerical Islamic leftists as well, activists such as Dr. Mohsen Mirdamadi, secretary-general of the Islamic Iran Participation Front (the leading Reformist group), who is now in jail; Dr. Alireza Alavitabar, an important Islamic leftist intellectual; Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, one of the three top leaders of the students who overran the U.S. Embassy; and Rajabali Mazruei, a member of the Reformist-controlled 6th Majles They all had worked with Khoeiniha at the Center for Strategic Studies, which he then headed. Salaam had a broad readership, comprising those of many different outlooks who shared a common concern about the nation's direction. I say with pride that I read practically every issue of Salaam from its birth to its demise in July 1999. I had my family buy it every day in Tehran and mail the issues to me every two weeks. I also distributed my copies to whomever wanted to read them.
An editorial in Salaam's second issue, in February 1991, made clear what type of newspaper it would be and where on the political spectrum it would stand:
We hope that God Almighty will prompt you to help us, so that we can stage a war together on the enemies of the nation -- as demanded by the people -- launch on attack on the White House that is blackened with tyranny and crimes -- as favored by God -- on the capitalists, the indifferent well-to-do, the reactionaries, stupid people disguised as religious ones, those who sleep in their luxurious villas without caring for the sufferings and pains of the deprived and, in short, assault the pro-America elements with the weapons that we have in our hands [pens], as recommended by our Imam [Khomeini].
This brand of unabashed leftism was attractive to many. It also indicated the level of discontent that was surfacing against the right wing.
For most of its existence, Salaam's circulation was only 100,000. Accepting no advertisements, it was always full of analytical articles, criticisms of the establishment, historical reviews, and discussion of important international events. Soon it began to clash with the administration of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, criticizing his "reconstruction" policy after the end of the Iran-Iraq War that had resulted in wasteful spending and vast corruption. In March 1996, it was even temporarily banned for criticizing Rafsanjani too harshly.
Meanwhile, the OCU, the student activists' umbrella organization, was beginning to distance itself from the ruling elite. Its original leaders -- Mirdamadi, Asgharzadeh, Habibollah Bitaraf of the FOE, and others in the 11-member leadership council that they had formed after the U.S. Embassy takeover -- were now in their thirties. They had weathered the war-torn 1980s and wanted a more open society. The OCU began criticizing Rafsanjani as well. The campuses were making a comeback.
Salaam, through its in-depth analyses, made important contributions to the birth of the Reformist movement, both on the campuses and in the broader society, and to the election of Khatami in May 1997. It was Khoeiniha who first suggested that he run, after Mir Hossein Mousavi had turned down the invitation. According to Khoeiniha, Khatami was at first angry, even furious, at the invitation but, after calming down and thinking about it, he accepted the idea. Salaam then began to act as the mouthpiece of the Khatami campaign. Its daily circulation shot up to 500,000, a remarkable number. All that time, it was clear who the true behind-the-scenes power was: none other than Khoeiniha. The OCU also played a crucial role in Khatami's victory.
Under the Khatami administration, press restrictions were loosened. Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Ata'ollah Mohajerani instituted a policy of tasahol and tasamoh (roughly, leniency) toward cultural activities in general. Many new newspapers, weeklies, and other publications were launched during the ensuing "Tehran Spring." Practically no day passed without some revelation about past crimes and political corruption. The press played a particularly important role in shedding light on the infamous Chain Murders. The universities were also full of political activities. Reformists and intellectuals gave speeches to student groups, and all sorts of open debates were taking place on the campuses.
Closing Salaam and Attacking the DormitoriesRecognizing the potency and popularity of both the Reformist press and the OCU, the hardliners attempted to break, or at least rein in, both. First, the conservative-dominated 5th Majles began considering a new draconian press law. On Monday, July 5, 1999, the day before the vote on the legislation was scheduled, Salaam published a letter written a few years earlier by Saeed Emami, notorious leader of the gang of Ministry of Intelligence agents who committed the Chain Murders. The letter, indicating that the legislation was Emami's idea, ignited a storm of protest. The hardliners, not knowing how to react, were on the defensive.
The next day, the Special Court for the Clergy, an illegal, extra-constitutional court that has been used since the early days of the Revolution for controlling dissident clerics, ordered Salaam> closed. On Thursday, July 8, students in the dormitories of the University of Tehran responded with a demonstration. The call to protest had apparently been issued by a student, Farrokh Shafiei, who was later arrested and jailed for 30 months. After the demonstration, the students returned to their dormitories.
That the students protested the closure of Salaam was not unprecedented, of course. What was new was that police forces, the vigilante group Ansaar-e Hezbollah, and plainclothes agents attacked students in the dormitories at 11:00 p.m. that night, ransacking everything and throwing several students out of windows. Even the dormitories of the foreign students were attacked. The violence continued into the early hours of July 10. At least 300 students, and possibly as many as 1,400, were arrested. Word quickly spread of the assault on the dormitories, prompting even larger demonstrations, both in Tehran and elsewhere, particularly Tabriz. Suddenly, the nation was in deep crisis.
The Special Court of Clergy that ordered Salaam's closure is under the direct supervision of Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei. The commander of the national police, Brigadier General Hedayatollah Lotfian (also a Revolutionary Guard commander), and the commander of the Tehran police, Farhad Nazari, also reported to Khamenei. The students thus turned their anger toward the ayatollah who, though he condemned the attacks, refused to sack the two commanders responsible.
On the morning of Friday, July 9, students began protesting in Vali-Asr Square, about two miles from the University of Tehran dormitories. They moved south down Vali-Asr Street toward the office and home of Khamenei, also a distance of two miles. The Revolutionary Guards went on high alert. Dr. Hajjarian, then deputy chair of the Tehran City Council, said that he was in Khatami's office when a phone call came in from the Guards' top commander, Brigadier General Yahya Rahimi Safavi, to Mohammad Ali Abtahi, Khatami's chief of staff. Safavi warned that if the students crossed Jomhouri Eslami Street, halfway between Vali-Asr Square and Khamenei's headquarters, the Guards would begin shooting and would not hesitate to kill. Abtahi and Hajjarian rushed to the scene and, after much negotiation and pleading, convinced the students to turn back toward their campus.
The Reformists committed a grave mistake by not supporting the protesting students as strongly as they could. Although Minister of Interior Abdolvahed Mousavi Lari and his principal deputy, Mostafa Tajzadeh, both members of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), rushed to the scene, sympathized with the students, and condemned the attacks -- as did Khatami -- the students had rightly expected much firmer backing. Khatami suggested that the attacks were the price that the people and his government were paying for pursuing the Chain Murders. The weak support offered by the Reformists created a rift with the OCU, which eventually led to the student group splitting from the Reformist coalition.
There was credible evidence that the attacks on the students had been organized in advance, as part of a plan to topple the Khatami government. Khatami himself said as much in a speech about a month later, declaring that the violence had been perpetrated by those who wanted to get rid of the Reformist movement. Three hardline Guard commanders in particular had played central roles in the dormitory assault: Brigadier General Mohammad Bagher Zolghadr, then deputy Guard commander, now an advisor to judiciary chief Sadegh Larijani; Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naghdi, a notorious officer implicated in many crimes, now commander of the Basij militia; and Brigadier General Hossein Nejat, then in the Guards' intelligence unit, now deputy secretary-general of the SNSC for domestic security.
Once it became clear that the Reformists would not go all out to defend the students nor prosecute the main culprits in the attack, the protests gradually faded, dying out after five days. But every year, anniversary commemorations of the event are held at campuses around the nation, sometimes leading to protests and violence. Last year, on the uprising's tenth anniversary, the dormitories of the University of Tehran and Amir Kabir University (also in Tehran), as well as dormitories in Esfahan and Shiraz, were attacked, with damage more severe than that in 1999. On June 15, just three days after the rigged presidential election, the University of Tehran dormitories were savagely attacked once again. At least five students were confirmed dead. After a video of the attacks surfaced, even the hardliners were embarrassed.
Farhad Nazari, many policemen, and several members of the Ansaar-e Hezbollah were put on trial, but found not guilty. One enlisted soldier, Orooj-Ali Birzadeh, was convicted of stealing an electric razor from a dormitory room.
Eleven years after the uprising, it is still not clear how many people were killed. At least two people are confirmed dead. One was Ezatollah Ebrahimnejad, a graduate of Ahwaz University's law school who was visiting friends at the dormitory when the attacks occurred. His murderer was never identified. His family was represented by Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel Peace Laureate, and Mohsen Rohami. They were told that there is actually a criminal case against Ebrahimnejad for having thrown rocks at the security forces.
Fereshteh Alizadeh, an activist at Tehran's all-female Al-Zahra University disappeared in the clash between the protestors and the attackers, and was never seen again. There are credible reports that she was arrested by the security forces, killed, and buried in Khavaran Cemetery, east of Tehran, where many of the political prisoners executed in 1988 are interred. Her mother suffered a heart attack and also passed away.
Another student, Saeed Zinali, was arrested at home and was never heard from again. His family was told that he had been arrested by the Guards' intelligence unit, which refused to confirm or deny the report. Last year, his mother pleaded with the security forces to at least tell her where he was buried, if in fact he was killed in jail.
A high school student, Tami Hamifar, is presumed to have been killed during the clashes between the police and protestors. Akbar Mohammadi, a student arrested along with his brother, Manouchehr, passed away on July 30, 2006. Akbar was first given a death sentence, which was later reduced to 15 years. Eventually released, he was rearrested. He went on a hunger strike, and ultimately died in jail.Many of the arrested students were given long prison terms. Ahmad Batebi, for example, was first sentenced to death, reportedly after the Economist published a picture on its cover that showed him holding the bloody shirt of a fellow student. His sentence was then reduced to 15 years. After nine years in jail, he was released for medical reasons. He left Iran secretly. He now works for the Persian program of Voice of America television. At least a few students remain in jail.
The Reformists' failure to stand up to the hardliners had a devastating effect. Twenty-four Guard commanders, including then Brigadier General Mohammad Ali (Aziz) Jafari, now a major general and the Guards' top commander, wrote a letter to Khatami, threatening that if he did not end the pursuit of his Reformist policies, they would be forced to take strong action. It read in part,
Your Excellency, Mr. Khatami, look at the international media and radio broadcasts. Does the sound of their merriment not reach your ear? Dear Mr. President, if you do not make a revolutionary decision today, and fail to fulfill your Islamic and national duty, tomorrow will be too late and the damage will be more irreversible than can be imagined.... With all due respect, we inform you that our patience is at an end, and we do not think it is possible to tolerate any more if [the issue is] not addressed.
Along with General Jafari, other signatories include Brigadier General Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, now Tehran's mayor; Brigadier General Qasem Soleiman, now commander of the Qods forces, the Guards' special forces that operate outside of Iran's borders; and Brigadier General Ali Fazli, commander of the Guards' Sayyed ol-Shohada division when the last year's election protests erupted, now deputy commander of the Basij. This letter was crucial in establishing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a force to be reckoned with in Iran's political scene.
Right before the first anniversary of the uprising, police chiefs Lotfian and Nazari were removed from their respective commands. Nothing ever happened to Naghdi. He was quiet for some time, but reemerged last year with his appointment as Basij commander.
The Tehran Spring ended several months later in April 2000 after the Reformists won an overwhelming majority in the 6th Majles, and Khamenei angrily denounced the Reformist newspapers. In the two days following his speech, 16 newspapers were closed by the judiciary.
The OCU, which had been strongly supportive of the Reformists, began distancing itself from them after the uprising. While the Reformists swept the elections for the 6th Majles in March 2000, the OCU had its own parliamentary faction including such notable figures as Dr. Fatemeh Haghighatjoo (now living in the United States), Dr. Ali Tajernia (a dentist by education who has been given a long jail term), Davood Soleimani (currently in jail), Ali Akbar Mousavi Khoeini (now also a U.S. resident), and Elyas Hazrati (editor of the daily E'temad). By 2003, the OCU was strongly criticizing the Reformists and Khatami. It boycotted the presidential elections of 2005. But in 2009, after much deliberation, it supported Mehdi Karroubi for the presidency.
This past Thursday, July 8, Mir Hossein Mousavi said that if the culprits behind the attacks on the dormitories in 1999 had been tried in open court and properly punished, the vicious dormitory attacks of June 15, 2009, would not have occurred.
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