Rebirth of a nation

Iran's burgeoning democracy movement against the power of the fundamentalist establishment is led by students in blue jeans who like American music.

Published July 23, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

When students were allowed to demonstrate in Tehran for six days before a government crackdown last week, it was dramatic evidence of just how profoundly the moderate policies of President Mohammed Khatami have reshaped Iran since he swept into office two years ago.

It also may prove to be a defining political moment for the children of the revolution -- a generation made up of the 65 percent of Iran's population that has been born since the 1979 fundamentalist overthrow of U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. This younger group exhibits Western tastes, eschewing veils and traditional Muslim garb for jeans, pirated American videocassettes and pop music. Fittingly, at the close of the Levi's century, Koran-toting, blue-jean wearing youth are fueling reform in the Islamic nation.

Their demonstrations began as a peaceful protest against new curbs on press laws and the shutdown of a popular reformist newspaper that published classified information linking intelligence officials to recent killings of intellectuals. The protests became confrontational only after cleric-aligned security forces and vigilantes bullied their way into the Tehran University dormitories, killing several students, injuring 20 and arresting 125 others.

In the days following this incident, there were daily protests against the hard-line clerics. At the peak of the protests, more than 25,000 showed open scorn for the country's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "Death to despotism, death to dictators," students, workers and even mothers chanted. Religious leader Khamenei maintains control over Iran's military, police, security forces, courts, intelligence agencies and media and he often sees Khatami's reformist policies as a threat to his own hard-line rule.

After six days of protests, the hard-line leadership successfully reclaimed the streets by summoning its own rally of 100,000 supporters -- many of whom were ordered by their employers or the government to attend -- and threatening the anti-clerical protestors with Draconian punishment.

Salon News spoke with Iranian emigri Shaul Bakhash -- a professor of Middle East history at George Mason University, author of several books on modern Islamic political thought and a former journalist for the Tehran-based Kayhan Newspapers, about the significance of the recent upheaval.

Has there been open protest against Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at any other time since the 1979 revolution?

Not since 1982, when there was a serious challenge to the regime from opposition groups, has the Islamic Republic faced this kind of crisis. This is more serious because it comes from the children of the revolution, from university students, from a generation that's been subjected for 20 years to the Islamic Republic's propaganda, which they haven't found very persuasive. It was also serious because of the demands the students made. They called for changes in the institutions and the power distribution in the state. There was also direct criticism of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and calls for him to cede some of his extensive powers. He is not only the most powerful man in the country, but also a man who wields enormous authority.

Who was the target of the students' protest? Was it the clerics for curbing press freedoms, security forces for raiding a student dormitory or the hard-line rule of Ayatollah Khamenei?

The immediate trigger for the student demonstrations was the attack by the security forces and gangs of club-wielding bullies known as the Ansar-e Hezbollah [Helpers of the Party of God], which are basically the conservative clergy's shock troops. They've been deployed in the past to break up meetings and lectures, to attack newspaper offices and bookstores, and were instrumental in attacking Tehran University student dormitories after very minor student protests. But the students were also protesting the closure of a very popular reformist newspaper, Salam, over a very restrictive press law now before Parliament.

But didn't these political freedoms come as the result of President Khatami's election?

Since President Khatami was elected two years ago, there has been a considerable increase in freedom of the press, freedom of association and far less pressure on women to conform to Islamic dress. It's these freedoms that the students were demonstrating to protect and expand. They also want a more independent judiciary. Another issue is the body of senior clerics that determines the qualifications of candidates to run for office and has the power to prevent people from running. The council in recent elections has acted in a partisan way, using its authority to prevent supporters of Khatami from presenting candidates at the elections.

Under the Islamic system in Iran, where the supreme leader wields so much power, how much influence can elected officials have?

The Iranian Parliament is a genuine debating body, with powers that have waxed and waned, but it still remains a legislature of some weight. But the individuals who can run and those who can participate in the electoral process are strictly limited to parties of the ruling group. What we've been witnessing in Iran is an elite politics of rivalry between factions within the same ruling group, but the spectrum of this group is getting broader now.

Will the backlash against the student protests also spur a backlash against the reformist policies of President Khatami?

We have seen not only a backlash against students, but also the conservatives and hard-liners using the opportunity of a mass rally to show their muscle and to bring their own supporters out into the streets in an attempt to squash the student movement. The student demonstrations have been attacked as having been infiltrated by foreign agents, outsiders and troublemakers. This will continue to be the theme from the right wing. As far as Khatami's natural constituency is suppressed, this affects the standing and freedom to maneuver of the president himself.

What do the week's events tell us about Khatami's leadership?

Khatami has always hoped that the democratization process and building of a civil society could take place peacefully. I don't think he's temperamentally inclined to pursue his goals through street confrontation. On this occasion, like the hard-liners, Khatami was startled by the severity of the clashes.

Sixty-five percent of the population was born after the revolution. How do the political ideologies of Iran's youth differ from their parents'?

It's a generation that has been hardened by living under the revolutionary regime, undergoing eight years of war against Iraq, intense factional politics, revolutionary committees, the morals police and all kinds of restrictions and frustrations at universities and schools. They're a tough generation and they've learned to stand up and look out for themselves. They've also been exposed to a continuous stream of propaganda. But the dress style of the students, the Western music they listen to, the pirated videos they watch, the blue jeans they wear and the desire of young men and women to spend time together despite the authorities show how ineffective the propaganda has been. The surprising development of the past three years has been the embrace by the younger generation, the intelligentsia and the middle class of the idea of a civil society with individual rights and the rule of law.

Is the notion of a democratically influenced civil society possible under fundamental Islamic rule?

There is serious thinking within Iran's intelligentsia about ways Islam and democracy can or cannot be compatible. Many of these same students, who grew up in religious households or traditional households, identify as Islamic. Finding a path in which religion and democracy can coexist is important to many of them. There are many who would like to reconcile their Islamic identity and sentiments with the idea of democracy and a civil society. Religion can be interpreted in many ways and one of the major discussions in Iran today is over the interpretation of Islam and the role of the clergy in politics.

Are we witnessing the baby steps of a democracy movement?

Yes. The masses are sick of the restrictions and the arbitrary nature of the clerical rule. There's great resentment about the corruption that exists within official circles.

What kind of progress has President Khatami made with his reforms? Have they made a major difference for the Iranian people and economy?

The changes in Iran over the past two years are striking. The press is freer, there's a greater degree of free speech and there's a better environment for freedom of association, though restrictions still apply. Social restrictions on women and the behavior of youth have also been eased. People have learned to take concepts like rule of law, individual rights, civil society, the importance of having strong civic associations importantly. At the same time, we have seen newspapers being closed down, editors being arrested and in November and December last year there was a series of killings and assassinations of intellectuals and dissidents at the hands of the security agency. But the press has not been cowed and the young continue to speak out.

Are President Khatami's reformist goals compatible with Islamic rule?

In some ways they're not. That's why his attempts at changing the system generate so much factionalism within the ruling elite and create the kind of disturbances we have seen over the last week. I think it's impossible to find a middle course between rule of law, protection of individual rights, democracy and religion. But finding this middle way will mean that the restrictive group that's been ruling for the past 20 years must give way and be willing to share power or cede it to others.

Will the student demonstrations have any lasting impact on Iranian hard-liners?

The hard-line clerics must feel triumphant to be able to stop the student movement. The revolutionary guards and the paramilitary forces are back again on the streets of the capital. They may feel that they have successfully quenched this movement. What we need to see over the next few weeks is how durable it is, how persistent the students are and how President Khatami can reorganize his forces and resume the campaign for reform.

We've learned that commanders of the hard-line military issued a threatening letter to President Khatami on July 12, the peak of the demonstrations, blaming his democratic agenda for the "anarchy" of last week's demonstrations.

I was struck by the plaintive tone of the Revolutionary Guard's letter. This is the tone of military commanders who feel their hands are tied. There has been a general crackdown and reversion to hard-line oppression since the rally last Wednesday -- five journalists have been arrested and charges have been brought against one of the protesters, who was brought on television to broadcast a confession. But the reformist newspapers and pro-Khatami political groups haven't been cowed.

By Daryl Lindsey

Daryl Lindsey is associate editor of Salon News and an Arthur Burns fellow. He currently lives in Berlin and writes for Salon and Die Welt.

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