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Maryam Nayeb Yazdi

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How Iran's Student Movement Has Shaped Democracy

Posted: 12/07/2012 3:08 pm

On this day in 2009 I and a few other online activists worked an intense and thrilling 16 hours to publish live updates on Persian2English about mass opposition student protests in Iran. It was National Student Day, or as the Iranians call it, 16 Azar. This year the Iranian calendar caused 16 Azar to fall a day earlier, but there were no signs of opposition protests in Iran yesterday.

National Student Day is an important day not only for students but for many freedom-seeking Iranians. The day reminds us of resistance against dictatorship and suppression in Iran for the past six decades.

The student movement in Iran, a non-violent movement, stands out from other student movements around the world because it extends beyond student rights issues. The Iranian student movement struggles to obtain freedom and democracy for the overall Iranian civil society while resisting dictatorship. Watch student activist Bahareh Hedayat in this video talk about the role of the Iranian student movement. She has been in Evin prison since her arrest in December 2009. Bahareh is sentenced to a total of ten years in prison.

Student Day gatherings became an annual occurrence at post-secondary institutions in Iran following the murder of three University of Tehran students in 1953. However, after the 1979 revolution, the gatherings were largely suppressed by the Islamic Republic and it became nearly impossible to protest in public. It wasn't until the early 90s that Iranian students began to speak out more.

During Hashemi Rafsanjani's presidency, starting in 1989, the number of universities in Iran increased. With the election of Mohammad Khatami as President of Iran in 1997, the activities of the student movement in Iran vastly grew. Once Khatami was elected, freedoms for students increased and the suppressed university atmosphere became more open. As a result, demands for human rights became a main component of the student movement in Iran. And, since students were generally known to be open minded, their overall influence played an integral role in modernizing civil society.

Prior to his election Khatami was considerably lesser known by the general public, since newspapers in Iran were controlled by Ali Khamenei's regime and were only permitted to publish information in favour of Iran's political right. Khatami and other leftist regime members in favour of reforming the system were given one outlet to express their ideas, a newspaper by the name of Salam, which was shut down by Khamenei's regime in 1999. Arguably, students played the largest role in Khatami's presidency. Without Iranian students Khatami would probably not have gained the popularity he did.

In July 1999, Khamenei's regime attempted to blow out the flames of student protests by attacking dormitories at the University of Tehran and the University of Tabriz. Numerous students were murdered and many more were injured, threatened, arrested, and tortured. Ahmad Batebi, a student whose famous picture holding a bloody t-shirt was published in the Economist magazine, was among the students arrested, imprisoned, and tortured.

Though Khamenei's regime was able to suppress students and slow down their activities it did not succeed to quash the movement. Iranian students continued to work toward reaching their demands for freedom and democracy.

Regime agents in 2003 waged a second attack on dormitories in Tehran's Allameh Tabatabaie University and other post-secondary institutions across the country. Students were once again arrested, imprisoned, and tortured.

When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad assumed the position of President in 2005, the suppression of students became more intense. His government made great attempts to stop student activism by forcing university groups to halt to their activities. Arresting and torturing students and banning them from their education became a regular occurrence.

The student movement is one of the main powers that went head to head with Ahmadinejad's government and refused to bow down to the violent suppression. For example, when Ahmadinejad had visited Tehran's Amirkabir University in 2006 to deliver a speech, students protested his presence by setting his picture ablaze. Student supporters of Ahmadinejad (mainly members of the Basij militia) retaliated by physically beating the protesting students.

Following the 2009 rigged Presidential election, university students played a major role in campaigning for reformist presidential candidates, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. Iranian students brought a certain excitement and positive energy to the campaigns, which caused a significant portion of the Iranian civil society to support Mousavi and Karroubi.

The growing influence of students moved Mousavi and Karroubi to deliver their campaign speeches mainly at the universities. It was the students who would decide the topics addressed in the reformist presidential candidate speeches, including women's rights and ethnic minority rights. Though taboo, Mousavi and Karroubi were obliged to address these issues or they risked losing their core support. With the help of students Mousavi and Karroubi quickly gained widespread support from the Iranian civil society.

Students were the main power that helped establish what came to be known as the Green Movement following the results of the election. Slogans that were heard in public street protests in June 2009 and on originally derived from student chants, like "Down with the dictator" and "Political prisoners must be released."

As protests grew, Khamenei's regime became more threatened. Sadly, in June 2009, regime thugs once again attacked dormitories in a few universities, including the University of Tehran. Large numbers of arrests were made and students were murdered.

In July 2009, on the anniversary of the 1999 university dorm attacks, more protests took place. Khamenei's regime responded by making mass arrests and transferring numerous students to a detention centre by the name of Kahrizak. Numerous students were brutally tortured until they died, including Mohsen Rouholamini, Amir Javadifar, and Mohammad Kamrani.

By December 2009, most student activists who played an active role in the protests were thrown in prison. Since June 2009, thousands of students have been arbitrarily arrested. Today, more than 30 students suffer behind bars. Some of the students have been imprisoned for more than three years, while others are serving outlandish sentences in remote parts of the country, far away from their family. Some students are being held in cells with drug addicts and prisoners who have committed serious crimes, like murder.

Here are some names of students who are currently imprisoned: Hassan Asadi Zeidaadi, Majid Tavakoli, Mehdi Khodaei, Zia Nabavi, Majid Dori, Shabnam Madadzadeh, and Arash Sadeghi.

Today, the arbitrary arrests of students continues, and it will for as long as a democratic system is lacking in Iran.

I call on university students and professors around the world to launch public campaigns at their colleges and universities in support of Iranian students. Let's rise together to be the voice of the voiceless.

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  • Oct. 1, 2009

    <em>Iran's top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili answers to a question during a press conference following talks between Iran and six world powers to discuss the Islamic republic's disputed atomic program on October 1, 2009 in Geneva. (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>Iran meets six world powers in Geneva and approves in principle a plan to send 75 percent of its low-enriched uranium to Russia and France, where it would be made into special fuel for a Tehran reactor making medical materials.

  • Oct. 25, 2009

    <em>International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors arrive at Imam Khomeini airport in Tehran early on October 25, 2009. Four inspectors of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency arrived in Tehran to check Iran's controversial second uranium enrichment plant. (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br> U.N. nuclear experts inspect a newly disclosed enrichment plant being built inside a mountain bunker.

  • Oct. 30, 2009

    <em>Herman M.G. Nackaerts, who led the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors team to Iran, speaks to journalists upon his arrival on October 29, 2009 at Vienna airport from Iran. (SAMUEL KUBANI/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>Iran tells the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) it wants fresh nuclear fuel for a reactor in Tehran before it will agree to ship enriched uranium stocks to Russia and France, according to U.N. officials.

  • Nov. 18, 2009

    <em>A picture shows the reactor building at the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran on August 21, 2010 during a ceremony initiating the transfer of Russia-supplied fuel to the facility after more than three decades of delay. (ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>Tehran says will not send enriched uranium abroad but will consider swapping it for nuclear fuel within Iran.

  • Nov. 27, 2009

    <em>A file satellite image taken Sunday Sept. 27, 2009, provided by DigitalGlobe, shows a suspected nuclear enrichment facility under construction inside a mountain located north of Qom, Iran. (AP Photo/DigitalGlobe, File)</em><br><br>The IAEA's 35-nation governing board censures Iran for developing the Fordow plant near Qom in secret and demands Iran freeze the project. Iran rejects the demand.

  • Jan. 19, 2010

    <em>Iran's chief negotiator Saeed Jalili looks on during a press conference closing nuclear talks on December 7, 2010 in Geneva. (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>Iran rejects key parts of the deal to send abroad for processing most of its enrichment material.

  • Feb. 9, 2010

    <em>NATANZ, IRAN - APRIL 9: A general view of the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, is seen on April 9, 2007, 180 miles south of Tehran, Iran. (Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)</em><br><br>Iran begins making higher-grade nuclear fuel, enriched to a level of 20 percent, at the Natanz plant.

  • Feb. 18, 2010

    <em>Delegates watch the opening of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board of governors meeting at agency headquarters in Vienna on September 27, 2010. (SAMUEL KUBANI/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>An IAEA report suggests for the first time Iran might be actively chasing nuclear weapons capability rather than merely having done so in the past.

  • May 17, 2010

    <em>Brazilian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Celso Amorim, gestures during a press conference at Itamaraty Palace in Brasilia, on May 18, 2010, on the nuclear agreement between Brazil, Iran and Turkey. (EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>Iran, Brazil and Turkey sign a nuclear fuel swap deal. Iran says it has agreed to transfer low-enriched uranium to Turkey within a month in return for higher-enriched nuclear fuel for a medical research reactor. The deal is not implemented due to lack of U.S., French and Russian involvement.

  • June 9, 2010

    <em>U.S. President Barack Obama arrives to make a statement regarding a United Nations Security Council vote on new sanctions for Iran in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House on June 9, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Roger L. Wollenberg-Pool/Getty Images)</em><br><br>U.N. Security Council votes to expand sanctions against Iran to undermine its banking and other industries.

  • June 24, 2010

    <em>This photo shows a branch of Iranian Bank Tejarat in Tehran on January 24, 2012. (ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>U.S. Congress approves tough new unilateral sanctions aimed at squeezing Iran's energy and banking sectors.

  • July 26, 2010

    <em>Former Iranian president and head of Iran's Assembly of Experts, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, delivers a speech during a meeting of the top clerical body in Tehran on September 14, 2010, urging Iranian officials against dismissing the sanctions as 'jokes', saying that the Islamic republic was facing its worst ever 'assault' from the global community. (ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>The EU imposes tighter sanctions on Iran.

  • Dec. 5, 2010

    <em>Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi speaks to journalists after the Conference on Disarmament at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012. Salehi has called for other countries to chose engagement over confrontation in resolving their differences over his nation's nuclear program. (AP Photo/Keystone, Jean-Christophe Bott)</em><br><br>Iran's nuclear energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi says Iran will use domestically produced uranium concentrates, known as yellowcake, for the first time at a nuclear facility, cutting reliance on imports of the ingredient for nuclear fuel.

  • Dec. 6, 2010

    <em>Iran's chief negotiator Saeed Jalili (R) gestures next to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in the foyer of the conference center near the Swiss mission to the United Nations on December 6, 2010 in Geneva. (ANJA NIEDRINGHAUS/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>Talks begin in Geneva between Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is leading the discussions on behalf of big powers.

  • Jan. 21, 2011

    <em>US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks about Iran during a press conference with Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa following their meeting at the US State Department in Washington, DC, February 3, 2010. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>World powers fail to prise any change from Iran in talks, with the EU and U.S. calling the discussions disappointing and saying no further meetings are planned.

  • June 9, 2011

    <em>Demonstrators hold effigies of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (L) and Iran's religiuous leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a protest outside the 66th UN General Assembly at the United Nations headquarters in New York, on September 22, 2011.</em><br><br>Russia and China join Western powers in telling Iran its "consistent failure" to comply with U.N. resolutions "deepened concerns" about possible military dimensions to its nuclear program.

  • Aug. 23, 2011

    <em>International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief inspector Herman Nackaerts arrives with his team at the Vienna airport from Iran, on February 22, 2012. (DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>Iran allows IAEA Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts rare access to a facility for developing advanced uranium enrichment machines during a tour of the country's main atomic sites, an Iranian envoy says.

  • Sept. 3, 2011

    <em>The head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization Fereydoun Abbasi Davani (2nd L) and Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko (R) shake hands during a ceremony in the southern port city of Bushehr on September 12, 2011, to celebrate hooking up Iran's first nuclear power plant in Bushehr to the national grid, supplying 400 megawatts of its 1,000 megawatt capacity. (AMIR POURMAND/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant begins to provide electricity to the national grid, IRNA reports.

  • Jan. 9, 2012

    <em>Alireza Jafarzadeh arranges satellite images and maps allegedly showing location of an industrial site near Tehran that produces components for centrifuges used to enrich uranium, before a press conference in Washington, DC, on April 7, 2011. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>IAEA confirms Iran began refining uranium to a fissile purity of 20 percent at Fordow.

  • Feb. 15, 2012

    <em>Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unveils a sample of the third generation centrifuge for uranium enrichment during a ceremony to mark the National Nuclear Day day in Tehran on April 9, 2010. (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>Iran proclaims nuclear advances, including new centrifuges able to enrich uranium much faster. The next day Iran proposes a resumption of nuclear talks with world powers.

  • Feb. 20-21, 2012

    <em>Hans Blix(R), former general director of the United Nations (UN) International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Robert Kelley, former IAEA chief inspector in Iraq chat February 21, 2012 before a panel discussion on Iran's nuclear capabilities on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>Senior U.N. inspectors end a second round of talks in Tehran, without success and without inspecting a military site at Parchin.

  • March 5, 2012

    <em>International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Yukiya Amano (C) looks on during an IAEA board of governors meeting at the UN atomic agency headquarters in Vienna on March 5, 2012. (DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>Iran has tripled its monthly production of higher-grade enriched uranium and the IAEA has "serious concerns" about possible military dimensions to Tehran's activities, IAEA head Yukiya Amano says.

  • March 6, 2012

    <em>European Union's Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton gives a press conference after a meeting on April 14, 2012 as Iran and six world powers open talks on Tehran's disputed nuclear programme in Istanbul. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton accepts Iran's offer of new talks, after a year's standstill. U.S. President Barack Obama says the announcement offers a diplomatic chance to defuse the crisis and quiet the "drums of war". Iran says it will let U.N. nuclear inspectors visit Parchin but diplomats note a proviso saying access to the site hinges on a broader agreement on outstanding issues.

  • April 10, 2012

    <em>A sign shows gas prices over five dollars a gallon for all three grades at a EXXON service station on March 13, 2012 in Washington, DC. According to AAA the average price of gas has climbed three tenths of a cent nationwide as a result of high oil prices and tensions tied to Iran's nuclear program. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)</em><br><br>Iran cuts oil exports to Spain and may halt sales to Germany and Italy, state television reports, in an apparent move to strengthen its position ahead of crucial talks.

  • April 12, 2012

    <em>Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad waits for the arrival of Iraqi Shiite Vice President Khudayr al-Khuzaie prior to a meeting in Tehran on March 10, 2012. (ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>Ahmadinejad says the Islamic state will not surrender its nuclear rights "even under the most difficult pressure".

  • April 14, 2012

    <em>Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Said Jalili gives a press conference on April 14, 2012 as Iran and six world powers open talks on Tehran's disputed nuclear programme in Istanbul. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br>Talks between Iran and the United States, France, Germany, China, Russia and Britain resume in Istanbul. A diplomat describes the atmosphere at the opening session as "completely different" from that of previous meetings. Iran has promised to put forward "new initiatives".


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