Iranian leader eyes key constituency: young people

Ahmadinejad told students in a speech this week that Israel should be annihilated.

The surprise announcement by Iran's hard-line judiciary that imprisoned students would be released grabbed headlines and boosted hopes among the country's restless youths.

But a month later, not a single student has been freed. Instead, student leaders say, old case files have been reopened and new sentences handed down to keep Iran's embattled student movement in check under fundamentalist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"Even during [the rule of reform-minded] President Mohammad Khatami, a shadow government was suppressing the student movement," says Reza Delbari, a leader of the main student group, the Office for Strengthening Unity.

"After Ahmadinejad, the hidden government revealed itself, and came forward to openly take part in the action.... I could say it is worse than before."

Youthful discontent spreads far beyond campuses. Well over half the population is under 25 years old; unemployment is high. How Mr. Ahmadinejad and his team of ideological Islamists handles this group, many of whom reject theocratic rule, will tell much about the inclusiveness of his presidency. It will also reveal his views on how the state should define the role of students, a historically volatile constituency.

The president underlined his uncompromising views Wednesday, telling a student anti-Zionism conference that, "As the Imam said, Israel must be wiped off the map," referring to the leader of the 1979 Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He cast the creation of the Jewish state and Islamic resistance to it as "part of a war of destiny."

Those words were widely criticized in Western capitals and Israel, where suspicions run deep that Iran wants to clandestinely build nuclear weapons, a charge that Tehran denies.

Mehrdad Bazrpash, adviser on youth to the president, points to Ahmadinejad's campaign this year as evidence of the focus on young people. "During the elections, 60 to 70 percent of the president's slogans were about affairs of the youth," he says. "What is important ... is to create enough opportunity ... to let their capability flourish."

Young people, he says, have proved themselves in the nuclear-science lab "without depending on outside powers." They've done stem-cell research and won international science prizes.

But Mr. Bazrpash also defines "joyful and happy youth" in religious terms drawn from the Iran-Iraq war in the1980s, which Iran's ayatollahs called a "sacred war." During the past eight years under Khatami, he says, many youth strayed from these ideals.

"We talk all the time about wrong interpretations of what made youths happy in the past," says Bazrpash. "With the right tools, we can define what is happiness for the youth.... It's the job of the state to create and transfer this culture of sacrifice to these youngsters."

The tools include "correct [TV] programs," especially during religious festivals, says Bazrpash. Also planned are more public sports facilities. Parliament has approved a $1.3 billion "love fund" to give newlyweds a head start.

But not all young Iranians may tune in. "A lot of people believe in these [religious] ceremonies, but a lot have different ideas," says Mehdi Gomar, an engineer with Western tastes and flexible political views. He voted for Ahmadinejad, but praises Mr. Khatami's more laissez-faire attitude. "I don't think this [Islamic] system will last more than 10 years more, because a lot of people are not satisfied - they only tolerate it," he says.

Ahmadinejad has promised moderation, though last week a cultural body he heads reportedly banned imported films that promote secularism, feminism, drugs, alcohol use, and violence.

"Maybe, God-willing, [Ahmadinejad] can do better than now," says Gomar. He worries that the basiji militia will take Ahmadinejad's electoral mandate as a license to crack down.

"Many [basiji] are children; they are not mature enough," says Gomar. "They think they can do what they want, but it doesn't mean that Ahmadinejad thinks that way."

Gomar's views are more accommodating than those of many students. Radical students have held sacred ground since helping to lead the Islamic revolution and the takeover of the US Embassy. Prodemocracy student demonstrations that turned violent in 1999 prompted the basijis and other vigilante groups to knuckle down.

One student leader of the Office for Strengthening Unity, Ali Afshari, spent three years in jail - including 350 days of solitary confinement - for "threatening security." After the announcement that students would be released, his file was reopened, and he was sentenced to six more years.

"The university is still suffering from the [1999] shock," says Unity's Delbari, who attends Amir Kabir University. "As soon as students begin to unify, they receive another hit."

"[The announced releases] are important, but we hope it comes to a final result," says Emadedin Baghi, a journalist and founder of the Society for Defending Prisoners' Rights. "A few students have been released [in the past], but their verdicts are still there," says Mr. Baghi, jailed nearly three years for "insulting sanctities" and "publishing falsehoods." "If they are canceled, we can say it is an improvement."

But there are two factions in the judiciary: a moderate wing probably responsible for the announced release, and a hard-line faction that "uses prison as a tool against their political opponents," says Baghi.

Where Ahmadinejad stands may determine if he can carry young people. "Our programs should be acceptable to all kinds of youths," says presidential adviser Bazrpash.

"We are pursuing an advanced ... and happy country, and the existence of these youths is the source of joy and happiness," he adds. "We will introduce the model of happy, young Iranians to the world."

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