Middle East

Middle East

Iran: Students Pump Up the Volume

Students protest in Iran
Students from the conservative Basij militia clash with reformist students at Tehran's Amir Kabir University, Dec. 9, 2002 (Photo: Henghameh Fahimi/AFP).

“Marx said that religion is the opiate of the masses. But he didn’t go far enough. It’s also the opiate of governments,” said Hashem Aghajari, a leading reformer and history professor closely allied with President Mohammad Khatami, in June. By December, hard-line clerics found him guilty of insulting the Prophet Muhammad and sentenced him to death for voicing this and other criticisms of the clergy in a speech before a small group of students at the Bu Ali-Sina University in Hamadan.

Aghajari’s death sentence was announced a few weeks before Students’ Day, Dec. 7, which marks the killing of three students by the shah’s government during protests against then-Vice President Richard Nixon’s visit to Iran in 1957. It sparked two weeks of student demonstrations demanding revocation of the death sentence and a referendum on Iran’s leadership. Press coverage of the protests has reflected the division among the country’s ruling elite. While the archconservative Kayhan condemned the student gathering as “an anti-revolutionary riot” (Dec. 8), the reformist Etemad ran an article the same day headlined, “Objection of Students to Any Kind of Riot.”

In a full-page article, Etemad presented a more in-depth analysis of the students’ demands under the headline “What Do the Students Want?” In the article an unnamed student said, “Calling Dec. 7 ‘Students’ Day’ reflects a nationalist sentiment against dictatorship and shows that we feel responsible for our country” (Dec. 8). Yet the article’s overall tone conveyed a sense of disenchantment with the reformists’ unfulfilled promises.

“Students have become passive and exhausted,” said another unnamed student. “We’ve lost the right path and we think only about employment and making money. We’ve forgotten that there are bigger problems that affect the whole society.”

Iran, the newspaper of the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), strove for neutrality in its coverage, perhaps because  Abdullah Nasseri Taheri, IRNA’s managing editor, was recently tried for reporting an opinion poll that showed 75 percent of Iranians support relations with the United States. Abbas Abdi, a director of the research institute that took the poll, also is on trial for espionage and threatening national security. Iran reported (Dec. 8), “In the [Students’ Day] gathering, one of the student leaders objected to an evening newspaper [Kayhan] that called the students ‘rioters’ and said, ‘Why don’t they [security forces] look into these provocations and only ask students to keep their cool?’ ” Iran concluded, “A number of ‘plain-clothed individuals’ [a euphemism for Basij, paramilitary militias] attacked the students with stones and sticks, while some students threw stones and bricks at the security forces.”

Kayhan, which reflects the hard-line conservative perspective, had a two-tier approach to its coverage of the protests. In a Dec. 8 editorial, it took an analytic and historical tack: “Political parties and organizations with strong theoretical and political experience use naive students as their prey....In past decades, students have been constantly used by the communists and terrorists as foot soldiers.” And in its news section the same day, Kayhan reported, “The students belonging to the Participation Front [the main reformist party] started chanting ‘Khatami, resign’ [a slogan chanted at recent student gatherings] and started attacking Basij students who were chanting slogans in favor of logic and conversation.”

Contrary to the reformist press, which only reported students’ demands for reforms, Entekhab, which represents the moderate-conservative faction of the establishment, reported, “A group of students [those belonging to the Basij] chanted slogans against the corrupt sons of the high authorities.” Traditionally, reformists have accused conservatives and their families of corruption and abusing public funds, but recently the conservatives have tried to use the same argument against the reformists in charge of the oil ministry and its subsidiaries. “Abusing public funds was a new issue raised in the students’ gatherings yesterday. One of the students said, ‘Some people [i.e., reformist leader Behzad Nabavi, deputy speaker of the Parliament] try to hide behind these riots and distract public attention from corruption and stealing oil revenues” (Dec. 8).

On Dec. 9, Hayat-e-No published a warning by prominent reformist cleric and lawyer Mohsen Rahami, saying, “Our Islamic Republic system is founded by students. Yet today we are witnessing the demise of the student movement. Many students migrate to other countries, and there are so many suicides among students. They [conservatives] say sentencing a university professor has nothing to do with the students. Whose concern is it then? We should worry about the day that our students become passive and stay home fearing a reprisal.”