September 4, 2009

Economist: “Iran’s dissenting students; Trying to pep up the opposition”

The Economist published a very good article today on “why the ruling ayatollahs want to keep Iran’s students under their thumb”.
This is an important question for many people these days because of the country’s universities are scheduled to restart in 2-3 weeks, and also because of the appointment of the new Minister of Science, Research and Technology, Kamran Daneshjoo.  Daneshjoo was a close ally of Ahmadinejad during the disputed election.
During the Parliament’s vote of confidence, one of the members of the Majlis who made speech against Daneshjoo, called him “a pin in the grenade” that will explode when the univerities open.

IN THE autumn of 1978 the beleaguered shah postponed the autumnal return of Iran’s politically disgruntled students to their universities by several months. But when the institutes of learning eventually opened their doors, the students soon poured furiously into the streets in their tens of thousands, until, in the growing mayhem, the shah fled and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini replaced him. Could the same process occur all over again?

Today’s authorities are loth to take any risks. Iran’s students are still seething with discontent, following the disputed presidential election of June 12th. And the government sounds reluctant to reopen universities on their due date, September 23rd. But it also wants to show that everything is back to normal after the turmoil of the two months that followed the election.

The authorities are certainly preparing to take countermeasures in case students again revolt. At a recent Friday prayer, the quiet streets around Tehran University became rallying points for clusters of conservative worshippers, many of them wearing the characteristic untucked shirts of the vast paramilitary organisation known as the baseej, which has carried out much of the thuggery against opponents of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was reinstalled as president last month. Many of Tehran’s students were prevented from taking their final examinations because of the disturbances in the election’s immediate aftermath. Now the baseejis are on alert in case, when the students do return later this month, they take their chance once more to express their disaffection in public.

In any event, the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council, the government body that oversees education, stated at the end of August that universities may stay shut in the autumn because of swine flu, just as officials had cited high pollution levels as the reason for keeping students indoors after the summer election.
In some universities the authorities have delayed registration of students for the new academic year. In Shiraz, where campuses have already reopened, the security forces are tightly controlling them, with circulars telling students not to undertake unauthorised political activities. Elsewhere, even if universities do reopen, classrooms may be packed with loyal baseejis, who may get increased quotas.
Students who have gone back say they are afraid that masked baseejis may beat them up if they step out of line. This happened in mid-June when Tehran University’s dormitories were stormed at midnight in a raid now being investigated on the orders of Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, the new head of the justice system, a tough disciplinarian. “[The regime] can’t control students easily,” says a Tehran graduate. “The only way to keep them calm is to threaten them with an attack by the baseej.”
Students played a big part in the summer protests in Tehran. They were at the forefront of demonstrations, helped organise strikes and lambasted the regime on their blogs. They also provided staff for the main opposition candidates, Mir Hosein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, handing out leaflets, knocking on doors, and arranging campus meetings. Some helped shape the opposition manifestos through the influential Office for Strengthening Unity, Iran’s main student organisation, which has remained critical of the regime.
The students at the universities in Tehran who come from the provinces and were living in those dormitories were sent home when the post-election turmoil began and universities shut. Many of them, now poised to return, are keen to revive what they missed. “Since they have no parents around them,” says an engineering student at the Islamic Azad University of South Tehran who comes from the north-western town of Qazvin, “they are free to do anything. The atmosphere is highly radical. Students right now can continue the protests in a very good way.”
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seems rattled by the prospect of student unrest—and has hinted that the regime may purge universities of professors suspected of “unIslamic” tendencies. On August 30th he complained that the study of social science “promotes doubts and uncertainty”, telling a meeting of students and teachers that the study of liberal arts and other humanities had led to a “loss of belief in godly and Islamic knowledge.” Perhaps presaging a crackdown on teachers as well as students, Kamran Daneshjou, who ran the interior ministry’s election headquarters during the presidential poll, has been appointed minister in charge of universities.
Yet the regime is unlikely to close the universities altogether. This month it may become clearer whether the students can pep up an opposition that may, in the past month or so, have begun to flag. In any event, internecine skirmishing within the ruling establishment is still going on—ensuring that Iran’s crisis is far from over.

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