Iranian discontent

Published : Jul 18, 2003 00:00 IST

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Syed Ali Khamenei addressing a gathering on June 12 in the southern city of Varamin. He accused the United States of stirring up trouble in the country. - ISNA/AP

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Syed Ali Khamenei addressing a gathering on June 12 in the southern city of Varamin. He accused the United States of stirring up trouble in the country. - ISNA/AP

The student protests against the move to privatise higher education could be the harbinger of a movement of opposition to Iran's conservative clerics who continue to have a strong grip on power.

THE term "pressure cooker situation" aptly describes the conditions in Iran. The whistling is getting louder and more frequent, and the steam is spreading further at each subsequent venting. The theocrats do not know how to put out the fire, nor do they dare lift the lid which represents their control.

Three separate sets of developments have combined to pose a threat to the control that the conservative clergy is accustomed to exercise. The utter chaos that Iraq has slipped into following the ill-conceived (not to say illegal and immoral) Anglo-American military operations in that country has resulted in Iran being pulled into the power vacuum that has developed within the territory of its western neighbour. Teheran's long-standing fear that it could become the focus of Washington's imperialist designs appears to have been factored into its nuclear programme, though it has for long denied the existence of a weapons component. If Iran has actively striven to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, it is currently in a race against time before it can put in place a rigorous inspections regime.

The pressures exerted on Iran by these external sources are no doubt enormous. The Iranian regime had in the past displayed an ability and a finesse to steer around the contradictions between major players on the international stage. The regime also had the confidence to stand up for its interests in its neighbourhood or take steps that were deemed necessary for the security of the country because Iranians by and large, whatever their political or social outlook, would not countenance their country being made the quisling of a big power. But whenever conservative clergy has been confronted by the people's desire for change, it has never displayed flexibility, imagination or finesse. The theocrats are performing true to form in the wake of a new wave of protests, which rose around June 10.

As has been the case with the protest demonstrations and riots that have broken out ever since Hojatolesslam Syed Mohammed Khatami became President for the first time in 1997, this time again it was the students who provided the spark and thereafter stoked the agitation. The immediate cause of the protests was a move to privatise higher education. While the government might have had financial reasons for taking recourse to such a measure, the students could clearly read the implications that such a measure would have in terms of the fee structure. As it is, tuition fees were on the rise and if institutions of higher education were to go into the hands of private parties, the costs would go still higher.

The privatisation move and its implications were perceived by the students as having an impact within a social context which had already caused much embitterment. There is already a widespread belief that the scions of the clerical-bazaari merchant network, which forms the backbone of the regime (and which two elements have meshed in many instances, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani's family being the best example), find it easier than the less well-connected to get admission to institutions of higher education. Since nepotism is a major factor in determining employment in the government sector - which also accounts for much of industry given the fledgling state of private enterprise - a good education is seen as the only avenue of escape from a bleak future. (For the 180,000 educated Iranians who are estimated to leave the country each year, their university degrees provide the way out).

With unemployment running at 20 per cent (if not higher) and even those who are employed having to take up two or three supplemental jobs to make ends meet, it is easy to understand why so many Iranians believe that their future is bleak. In voting overwhelmingly for Khatami in 1997 and 2001 and by giving huge electoral support to pro-reform candidates in poll after poll, the Iranians had demonstrated how desperate they were for change. Most of them also realised, when they voted, that political reforms would have to precede economic reforms. The people had shown remarkable patience when the politicians who promised change repeatedly failed to deliver. They could understand that reform would take time since the conservative clerics, who are so entrenched at all levels of the power structure, would fight hard to preserve their privileges.

Patience appears to be at a premium now. Conservative clerics are a minority in Parliament but they control the two unelected supra-legislative bodies, the Council of Guardians and the Expediency Council, which have the final say in making laws. They are also backed by the Supreme Religious Leader, Ayatollah Syed Ali Khamenei (or, rather, the other way round, since Khamenei is the wellspring of the opposition to change) who has the final say in the making of any policy. Khatami, who once offered hope to the people that he could usher in change without causing too much turmoil, has not been able to make a significant dent in the political architecture of the regime. This has resulted in his failure in the economic sphere, since the Guardians have been able to crimp all efforts at reform.

Khatami is halfway through his second, and mandatorily last, presidential term, at the end of which he would have little to his credit other than having offered a glimmer of hope. Even at the end of Khatami's frustrating first term, most Iranians were willing to accept his word that attempts at slow incremental changes were likely to be more effective than a cataclysmic effort. But now, with Khatami and his pro-reform supporters having faltered on every occasion when they ought to have applied greater pressure on the conservatives, vast sections of the masses appear to have concluded that they have waited long enough. The pro-reform forces appear, in retrospect, to have merely provided a facade behind which the conservative clergy continued to wield untrammelled power. Sections of the Iranian public appear to have concluded that change can only be wrought through their own direct action.

THE student protests began with dormitory meetings and demonstrations outside the college campuses in Teheran. The students were beaten by the police, the Basij paramilitary and activists of the Ansar-e-Hisbollah, which owes allegiance to the conservatives. But there was a change in the pattern of street fighting this time around. The students, though outmatched by the strongmen of the conservatives, were able to strike a few blows of their own and kidnap personnel of the paramilitary forces. The public appears to have been supportive, with people leaving the doors of their houses open so that the students could seek shelter from their assailants. Non-students also answered calls to take vehicles out on the roads and sound horns in support of the protesters. A large group of pro-reform intellectuals wrote an open letter to Khamenei suggesting that he give up direct power.

For the first time, the protesters raised slogans against Khatami as well - a sign of how far he has fallen in the esteem of his countrymen. The protesters' rage, or the strength of their defiance, can be gauged from their readiness to call for Khamenei's death (such a call is an offence under the penal code that can attract capital punishment). Within days the protests spread to other cities. While the intensity of the rioting was not so uniform as to suggest that it would build into a huge wave that could present a real threat to the conservative clergy, the fact that the agitation had not abated even after a fortnight indicated that it would simmer and perhaps boil over now and again.

One glaring weakness of the pro-change forces is that they lack a cohesive, identifiable, national-level leadership. Pro-reform legislators grouped around Khatami are obviously not the kind who can offer good leadership; the more outspoken among the pro-reform politicians were jailed long ago, as were leaders of student movements of years past. It is not at all certain that a new leadership will emerge if the protests continue.

What the protesters in Iran could have done without were the statements of support issued by United States President George W. Bush and his officials. Even before Bush made his ill-timed utterances, leaders of the conservative faction (led by the former head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Mohammed Yazdi) had labelled the protesters as agents of a foreign power and as people working against Allah (to do so is another criminal offence that attracts the death penalty). The official pronouncements from the U.S. and the wide coverage of the protests on television channels run by anti-regime exiles located mainly in Los Angeles added strength to the conservatives' allegations. They may also have the effect of dividing the pro-change forces.

Iranian society is not as anti-U.S. as it reputedly was in the period immediately after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The U.S. is a favoured destination among those who wish to flee Iran, and urbanised Iranian youth have certainly fallen for the globalised culture of their generation. However, this does not mean that they and the rest of the Iranian population look upon the U.S. as a model. Much like their counterparts in India, this segment of the population believes that while they can partake of the global culture there is neither the need nor the possibility of changing Teheran into a San Francisco. What they desire is greater freedom within their own country. Even those who are culturally more liberated know that the struggle for political freedom will be defeated if they were to ignore, let alone defy, the conservative mores of their countrymen. When Washington lauds a people's struggle, the instinctive reaction of those all over the world with a conservative bent of mind is that the U.S., which they regard as the epicentre of philistinism, is set to launch a cultural onslaught.

Hawks in the U.S. establishment have let it be known that they will not rest content with the beaming of anti-regime broadcasts into Iran. Clandestine operations are to be stepped up, and there are reports that U.S. and British special forces are set to make forays into Iranian territory. U.S. fleets in the region have sufficient numbers of carrier-based aircraft to make credible their threats of resort to armed intervention. But these are early days yet and the threat of resorting to military means might, at this stage, be no more than a ploy to get other powers - notably the European Union and Russia - around to the view that Iran must be subjected to increasing pressure.

Iran's alleged pursuit of a nuclear weapons programme has provided the pretext for such efforts. The International Atomic Energy Agency noted in a recent report that the Iranian nuclear programme (reportedly being conducted at 15 sites) is more complex and diversified than it was earlier believed to be. With the IAEA asking Iran to be more open about its programme, the two sides have begun discussions on the possibility of Iran accepting an additional protocol that will allow for more intrusive inspections. But the IAEA, much to the chagrin of the U.S. administration, did not take on board Washington's desire to hold Iran in material breach of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. A finding by the IAEA on these lines would have created the grounds for the imposition of a harsher programme of economic sanctions.

U.S. machinations have succeeded to an extent in pushing the Iranian regime off-balance at a crucial point of time. Iran and the U.S. are currently involved in a vigorous struggle for the soul of Iraq, and indications are that the former has a decisive edge. At the very least, Washington needs Teheran to remain occupied with other concerns so that it can tighten its hold over the new colonial possession. But the U.S. will only be too pleased if its efforts actually led to a regime change (Washington's fond and futile hope is that the son of the former Shah will be the rallying force) or perhaps even an expansion of its empire. The freedoms that Iranians are agitating for are only incidental to these desires.

Iran's conservative clerics believe that the country's freedom, and their own privileges, can only be protected by denying their people more liberty than they now have. They appear incapable of understanding that Iran's independence can be better defended if its people have faith in the future of their country. Such faith will be instilled only if they are sure that they have a stake in running its affairs. But the mullahs of the status quo prefer to sit atop the pressure cooker rather than put out the fire or open the lid.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment