03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Iran's Perennial Quest for Reform: A Closer Look at the Student Movement

On July 8, 1999, approximately two hundred students held a peaceful demonstration at Tehran University against a ban on a reformist newspaper. Later that night, an organized force of plain-clothed militia men broke into the school's dormitories, assaulted students indiscriminately, and systematically ransacked their rooms. Students across the country held massive anti-government demonstrations for several days following this attack. Hard line elements within the regime subsequently launched a swift crackdown, and a few years later, the international community's attention shifted to the country's nuclear program.

Students have been at the forefront of political and social movements for change since universities first opened in Iran. They played an important role in organizing major demonstrations against the Shah in the lead up to the Islamic revolution. Following the revolution, student organizations were screened for ideological loyalty and controlled by the government. As university enrollment began to increase after the Iran-Iraq War, a devastated economy topped with constant intrusions into people's lives led to disenchantment among the youth. Student participation played a key role in bringing [former reformist President] Mohammad Khatami to power in 1997, which launched the reform movement that would eventually lead to the present-day green movement.

Since the beginning of the reform movement, numerous student groups and organizations have assembled against the regime. The Ettehadiyeh-e Eslami-e Daneshjouyan va Danesh-Amukhtegan (Islamic Association of Students) publicly criticized the traditionalists' abuse of power and demanded the establishment of political pluralism long before the unprecedented events that took place this past summer. Members of this group are also strong advocates of basic freedoms of thought, expression, and the press. Other groups involved in the movement include the Confederation of Iranian Students, the Independent Student Movement, the Independent Student Association of Amir-Kabir University, and the Iranian Students for Democracy and Human Rights.

The country's most prominent student organization, Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat (Office for Consolidation of Unity), was established in the first year of the Islamic Revolution by Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, who was at the time one of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's top confidants. It was originally formed to counter the growing influence of the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MKO) among university students, and played a key role in both the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis and in purging dissident students and lecturers during the Cultural Revolution. It has since evolved and divided itself into two factions: the majority party, Allameh, advocates change in the political system while the minority party, Shiraz, generally works for the government. The most prominent government-backed student organization is the Basij, a voluntary paramilitary organization that was founded by Khomeini in November 1979 to protect the ideologies of the Islamic Revolution.

In Iran, politically active students -- those who are not backed by the government -- risk not only imprisonment, but in many cases, expulsion from their studies. There is a system in place that allots political marks, or "stars," to those who are caught in the midst of political activism; three stars results in a ban from all universities. Despite these risks, students remain at the forefront of the reform movement. While broader street protests against the disputed June 12 election appear to have dissipated, students continue to hold demonstrations on campuses across the country.

The international community can help Iran's reform movement by condemning the government's incessant violations of basic human rights through censorship, imprisonment, and abuse. Though some activists may ask for direct international support, most understand that this would be used to discredit their movement. When former President Bush stated his support for the Iranian students in their anti-government demonstrations in 2003, four thousand people were purportedly arrested the following night. In 2005, when the President expressed America's support for Akbar Ganji, a prominent figure in the pro-democracy movement who had been jailed since 2001, Ganji's interrogators began talking to him as if he had dinner with Bush the previous evening.1

A new bill proposed under Congresswoman Kay Granger (TX-12) that directly expresses support for the green movement would present Iran's hard liners with an opportunity to align the movement with the U.S. government. Openly stating support for the movement risks undermining it. While engagement remains the best option, diplomacy with Iran should not be limited to the nuclear issue. The U.S. should include human and civil rights in future talks and condemn the use of widespread violence inside Iran. If the U.S. wants to see positive results as it engages with Iran, it should remain on a path of smart diplomacy by incorporating a broader range of issues in future talks, providing economic incentives, and condemning Iran's systematic use of violence against its civil society.


1 Wright, Robin. "Free Thinker: Iranian Dissident Akbar Ganji, at Liberty to Speak His Mind, at Least Until He Goes Back Home." Washington Post. Aug 14 2006.