Voices of Iranian Reform, Silenced

Fotini Christia is a fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard. She is currently at the International Center for Persian Studies, University of Tehran. (THE WASHINGTON POST, 09/07/06):

Today marks the seventh anniversary of the student protests that took post-revolutionary Iran by storm. On July 9, 1999, after the forcible closure of several liberal media outlets and a coordinated attack on a dormitory at the University of Tehran, Iranian students poured into the streets by the thousands, calling for political reform. Just as at Tiananmen Square a decade before, the Iranian students gave the world a glimpse of what might be -- only to be quickly silenced by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's Revolutionary Guard.

Naturally, Iran's regime will not celebrate today's anniversary, but neither will Iran's opposition. The Iranian student movement is a shambles -- divided, confused and lacking any cause for celebration. In extensive conversations with students and student veterans of the 1999 protests, who asked to remain anonymous because of fears about their safety, I found that one message emerged loud and clear: Iran does not need another revolution, but it is in desperate need of reform.

The atmosphere at the University of Tehran is eerily quiet these days. Nothing remains from the 1999 protests, which were in fact the most notable outbreak of unrest since the Islamic Revolution 20 years earlier.

The protests were directed at the rule of the ayatollahs, and they revealed the pronounced internal divisions between the reformist president, Mohammed Khatami -- then in the middle of his first term -- and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Khatami, who was trying to loosen Khamenei's tight control of the judiciary, security services and media, was facing strong resistance from the clerics when the students came to his aid. But unlike the Islamic Revolution, in which the legitimacy of the country's whole system was called into question, the 1999 protests sought reform within the existing regime, and for an Islamic democracy, that would be in accordance with Iran's constitution.

That reform didn't happen, and now, under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's leadership, the process has been completely sidelined. The Iranian political scene is dominated by the nuclear issue. Confrontation with the West has made the public more tolerant of authoritarian methods, damaging reformers and making concern for individual rights and civil liberties seem utterly irrelevant. The student movement very much wants a reemergence of the reform process, but it has no good ideas on how to make it happen.

Indeed, the student movement has found no place in Iran's new political reality, and its stance has moved from the politics of realistic change to the politics of survival through inaction. The old guard -- the 1999 student leaders -- is either in jail or abroad, and those of its members still in Iran desperately want out. Their successors -- the new leaders of the liberal student union Daftare Tahkim Vahdat -- have no organized structure and are weak and fragmented. Their manifestos espouse a Marxist ideal -- the orthodox left as they call it -- and surreal plans for communist change. These are mostly poor students from Iran's provinces who find themselves repelled by the big city's bourgeois way of life. They see the move to the left as an outlet for change, but they have no real ideological base or sense of direction. "The government could crush them any day, but they don't because it is convenient to have some sort of weak opposition," said a student participant in the 1999 protests and a former member of the group. "It makes the regime look more democratic."

Said another disillusioned veteran of the 1999 student uprising: "Everyone talks about radical change, but nobody wants to do anything about it, and they don't want it to come from America. . . . We need to bring together the student movement, the women's movement, the workers' movement and the ethnic minority movements and create a united front to face the regime's radical ideas."

When I asked this person about his contribution to the student movement, he told me he is working on a book. "I am using the U.S. student protests from the late 1960s to show the students that revolution and radicalism is a bust," he said, adding that "lessons may come from America after all, but they will be for reform, not revolution."