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Iran's Students Speak Out

Students played a key role in the 1979 revolution. Until recently, they had been largely silenced under Ahmadinejad's regime.

By Nazila Fathi in Tehran

When Iran's President spoke recently at one of Tehran's elite universities and protests broke out, Babak Zamanian could only watch from afar. He was on crutches, having been beaten up during another student demonstration a few days earlier.

But the significance of the confrontation at Amir Kabir University of Technology, which forced President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to cut short his speech, was easy to grasp even from a distance, said Zamanian, a leader of a student political group: The Iranian student movement, which played a key role in the 1979 Islamic Revolution and planned the seizure that same year of the American Embassy in Tehran, is reawakening from its recent slumber and may even be spearheading more widespread resistance against President Ahmadinejad.

"It is not that simple to break up a President's speech," says Alireza Siassirad, a former student organizer, explaining that an event of that magnitude takes careful planning. "I think what happened at Amir Kabir is a very important and a dangerous sign. Students are definitely becoming active again."

The students' anger had been stoked by a blatantly political purge of university professors and students, a crackdown on basic personal freedoms, and worries that the government's economic mismanagement and international provocations are threatening their future. Since the protests, many of the student demonstrators have gone into hiding, fearing for their lives. (Thousands of antigovernment protesters have been jailed over the years.)

Hard-Line Demagogue

The student protests erupted after local elections in December in which Iranians turned out in droves to vote for the President's opponents. The results were seen as evidence that the students' concerns are shared by many Iranians.

Internationally, Ahmadinejad is known as a hard-line demagogue who has angered most of the world by saying Israel should be wiped off the map, by hosting an international conference of Holocaust deniers, and most of all, by pressing ahead with Iran's suspected nuclear-weapons program in defiance of the United Nations and most Western countries.

Iran has also been denounced for its role in destabilizing the Middle East. The Bush administration says Iran interferes in Iraq, supporting Shiite militants. (In January, President Bush bluntly warned Iran to quit meddling in Iraq.) And Iran is also accused of funding the Islamic militant group Hezbollah, whose attacks on Israel from its base in Lebanon led to a 34-day war last summer.

The student protest on the Amir Kabir campus, punctuated by shouts of "Death to the dictator," was the first widely publicized outcry against Ahmadinejad. Students also held banners calling him a "fascist President." When he left, angry students stormed his car, kicking it and chanting slogans.

In addition to the social and economic complaints shared by many Iranians, the students are outraged at the President's campaign to purge the universities of all vestiges of reform.

Last summer, the newly installed head of the university ordered the demolition of the office of the Islamic Association, which had been the core of student political activities on campus since 1963. And since then, more than 100 liberal professors have been forced into retirement and at least 70 students have been suspended for political activities.

'Do Something For Us'

Zamanian, the student leader, says Ahmadinejad's anti-reformist campaign has led students to value the relative freedoms they had enjoyed under Iran's previous, reform-minded President. Then, they were permitted to hold meetings and invite opposition figures to speak, he says, and could freely publish their journals. Now, Zamanian says, their newspapers are forbidden to print anything but reports from official news agencies.

The students also complain about the failure to deliver economic growth and jobs. At the December protest, which coincided with the conference of Holocaust deniers, students chanted, "Forget the Holocaust—do something for us."

A student who identified himself only as Ahmad, for fear of retribution, said, "A nuclear program is our right, but we fear that it will bring more damage than good."

Another student said: "It is so hard and costly to come to this university, but I don't see a bright future. Even if you are lucky enough to get a job, the pay would not be enough for you to pay your rent."

Meanwhile, the U.S. is watching the protests to see what effect they'll have on Iran's policies. According to Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.: "Student protests could help galvanize those in Iran who think the current government's strategy of confrontation with the West is a mistake."