Middle East

Leftist Students Square Off Against President in Iran

Iranian students chant slogans beneath pictures of fellow students detained by the authorities during a demonstration at Tehran University in December. (Photo: - / AFP-Getty Images)

You might be surprised to learn that some Iranian university students call each other "comrade," hold up pictures of Che Guevara in rallies, use the hammer and sickle symbol on their blogs, and look to Karl Marx as their philosophical role model. After all, they live under the theocracy of the Islamic Republic, where Marxism is considered blasphemy and association with it can have heavy legal consequences.

"People from other countries might think that Iranians are all religious Muslims who have no understanding of other ideologies," said Mehraneh, 22, a leftist Iranian student. "But this is just a false picture that both Iranian and Western media portrays. We have liberals, seculars, and leftists as well; and if anything is going to be changed in Iran, it would be through grass-roots socialist movements and by us who live in this country, among the masses of our own people."

The leftist movement of the Iranian students might be regarded as one of the youngest independent political voices inside the country. They are boldly criticizing Tehran's ruling system, and paying a price for it, too.

A countrywide crackdown was recently launched against a group of leftist students known as the "Students for Freedom and Equality." More than 60 of the activists were arrested on charges such as "undermining the national security." Most were later released on bail, and are currently awaiting hearings.

The clampdown was launched after an unprecedented move by hundreds of Marxist students, who held a gathering in Tehran University, holding up portraits of Che Guevara to protest President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's policies.

"The need to confront the leftists" was echoed in one of the speeches of the Islamic Republic's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, when he warned against the spread of "Marxist thoughts" in universities some weeks prior to the crackdown.

The direct involvement of the ultra authoritative supreme leader, who by tradition rarely focuses his speeches directly on the details of current affairs, and tries to stick to moral advises and fundamental mottoes of the Islamic Republic, was enough to demonstrate the concern that had been triggered in Tehran. The reason for such concern might be traced in the marriage of "university" and "leftism."

Modern Iran has a rich tradition of public hospitality toward leftist ideologies, dating back to the 1920's and the formation of the Communist Party of Iran. Although leftists have never ruled the country, they have been among the most efficient forces during almost all of the power transitions in Tehran, among them, the United States-led coup of 1953 against the Nationalist prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq, and the 1979 revolution. Numerous leftist parties, including the Soviet-backed Tudeh Party (Hezb-e Tudeh Iran; Party of the Masses of Iran), played a significant role in toppling the monarchy of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Following the formation of the Communist Party of Iran in the 1920's, the leftist path was adopted in 1941 by the Tudeh Party, which became one of the largest parties in terms of membership. Forces of the Tudeh Party along with other leftist movements such as the Organization of Iranian People's Fedai Guerrillas and the People's Mujahedin of Iran (an opposition Marxist-Islamic party that in the past decade has been designated a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union) were actively involved in the 1979 revolution.

By the early 1980's, with the stabilization of the clerics in Tehran, the Islamic Republic launched a massive crackdown on its leftist allies, now deemed the only major rivals to the religious rulers.

Although many intellectual figures have declared leftist tendencies over the years, the recent student's movement can be singled out as the only major leftist tendency that has officially entered the political arena of activism inside Iran.

Iran's universities both before and after the revolution have continuously been the cornerstone of political activism in the country. The Tehran University uprising of July 1999, triggered by a ban on Salam, a reformist newspaper, has so far been documented as the largest demonstration in the three-decade history of post-revolution Iran. More recently, the student gathering of December 2006 at Amirkabir University in Tehran, at which pictures of Ahmadinejad were burned, has been the most dramatic protest of the hard-line president's policies.

The potential impact of a merger between the atmosphere of revolt at universities and the historical popularity of leftist movements has given way to a more serious concern by those within the corridor of power in the Islamic Republic—and the worries do not appear far from reality.

Shortly after the first round of the clampdown on the leftist students in Tehran, which landed up to 25 students in detention, the student's movement began sweeping into other cities. Qazvin, Mazandaran, and Kurdestan were among the provinces where leftist students joined the Students for Freedom and Equality bloc in a move to show solidarity with their comrades in the capital.

"It seems that the regime [of Iran] thinks it can terminate our movement by the vast arrest of our comrades," writes one member, in a Weblog dedicated to Qazvin's leftist students. "But as they go on, the voices of the students will be heard louder and louder, day after day. Now the 'Students for Freedom and Equality' shouts its existence in Qazvin!"

Utilization of the Internet and the blogosphere has been one of the most diverse features of the recent movement in Iran, which despite heavy online censorship, remains one of the biggest Internet users in the Middle East. Hundreds of supporting sites launched on the Internet have functioned as perfect tools for coordinating simultaneous events and as the primary source of communication among activists.

It is through the cyber world that Kaveh Abbasian, the spokesperson of the bloc who has fled to an unknown location, sends his Persian New Year message to his "comrades" in prison and pitches his own "revolutionary" image.

"My comrades are being tortured in prison … but today the 'Students for Freedom and Equality' are everywhere, from Tehran to Isfahan," he writes in a Weblog the title of which is embedded in a red background: "Anarchist." "We exist! We stand! We do not lay low! And we do not deal on our demand for freedom and equality."

The picture beside the post shows the 25-year-old Abbasian staring into the distance with mountains in the background and wind in his hair—a pose influenced perhaps by Che Guevara.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Niusha Boghrati.