A look inside Iran's student cause

Learning lessons from July's tumultuous protests, students refocus anddevelop new strategies.

The word "underground" is probably inaccurate when describing the political life of Pejman, one of Iran's reformist students, because it implies illegal action. And under Iranian law, nothing this Tehran student does in pursuit of political change is illegal.

Pejman, which is not his real name, wants peaceful, gradual change - the softer, more democratic Islamic system promised by Iran's embattled reformist President Mohamad Khatami.

But after tumultuous student protests last July were hijacked by extremists and turned violent - leaders of the most militant student faction have been sentenced to death - even moderates like Pejman must watch their step.

"I work underground, but I don't do underground activities," says Pejman, a member of the largest and most important moderate student group, Daftar Ta-Hakim, the "Office of Fostering Unity."

Pejman, who looks like a typical Iranian student down to his blue jeans, studies engineering at a technical school on the outskirts of Tehran. He is among the vast majority of students who support Mr. Khatami's efforts for change.

Important a player as he may be, Pejman has chosen a low-profile role that doesn't have a public face, working on a local student-movement newsletter. "In every association in Iran," he says, "there are two important people: those whom everybody knows and those whom nobody knows. The association needs people that nobody knows, whose work is hidden."

A tour of the Spartan dormitories that Pejman and his classmates live in shows them to be typical of those in Iran. Each room consists of bunk beds, a few simple chairs, a desk, table, and a bookshelf or two. The only decorations are Islamic sayings in elaborate calligraphy and maybe such touches as a yellow newspaper-clipped photo of the American film icon John Wayne. Indoor-growing vines curl up the corners of rooms.

It was a similar dorm last July in which police beat students who had protested the closure of a liberal newspaper, providing the spark for the most serious unrest since the Islamic Revolution two decades ago.

The first days afterward saw an outpouring of popular sympathy, with even Iran's supreme spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei saying that student complaints were valid.

Khatami called for a peaceful end, but a handful of violent students were later joined by right-wing vigilante groups who rioted. This provided ammunition to hard-liners who insisted on a crackdown to reassert their authority.

The students paid the price for what they call the July "accident."

"Everybody was bandaged; some heads were broken," says Pejman. He secretly videotaped many of the demonstrations with a hand camera to put together a film for student groups.

"If you want to say the students were taught a lesson, then it's not the first lesson of this class, and it won't be the last," Pejman says. "I can't judge if it was a setback or not because the story goes on. But until now I don't think anything positive has come from it. None of our demands, like removing the police chief, have been met."

Though some students blame Khatami for not acting forcefully enough in practicing his own politics of adhering to the rule of law, Pejman is still a loyalist.

"I voted for Khatami for reforms, and I have high expectations for him and must help him reach his goal, because his goal is my goal," Pejman says.

"Iran is not suitable for revolutionary change; in this country it leads to negative results," he adds. "So the solution is reforming slowly, maybe even taking two steps forward and one step back, with at last a positive result."

Students have emerged from the July event fragmented and disillusioned. Many say they know they are being watched.

"The repression is real against students and open-minded journalists. Dozens are still in prison," says a senior Western diplomat in Tehran. "In reality, the student movement was limited, just 20,000 of 12 million students. They received moral support - a lot of people support them in their hearts - but nobody did anything to help.

"The regime feared it was in danger, and they are, but not from the students," the diplomat adds. "They are in danger from themselves, because they are not able to cope with the problems."

In any event, hard-liners have hardly eased up on their battle against reformists. In September, four students were arrested for allegedly blaspheming Islam in an obscure student magazine called Moj.

Two students - including the writer of the play in question, who tearfully expressed his pious intentions in court - were sentenced to three years each in prison. Rumors swirled that the play was somehow planted by intelligence services as an excuse to crack down.

True or not, few doubt that the issue was raised to bait student activists into a strong, possibly violent response, especially as a prelude to important elections next February, in which the conservatives may lose their grip on the parliament, or majlis.

"The student movement is now mystified and confused, but it has gotten smarter," confirms a colleague of Pejman, who also asked not to be named. "The purpose of the Moj trial was to spark a street war, but the students would not allow it. Now for the country, peace is the most important factor for the president and the students."

Pejman shrugs "no" to a question about whether he has been arrested for his legal underground activities in these especially sensitive times. "Not yet," interjects a friend.

But some students, still, are confident. "The roots of violence are somewhere else," says Pejman. "I hope that my grandson will live in a free society.... I want to change and reform the culture, then everything is possible."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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