Suspense in building up in Tehran in anticipation of July 9, which will mark the fourth anniversary of the last massive student riots that came close to rocking the Islamic republic to its foundations before being brutally suppressed. Student protesters and the authorities are squaring off for a massive confrontation. The students promise the biggest anti-government rally in Iranian history. They are backed by opposition groups which expect to bring millions out into the streets for an outpouring of fury against government repression that may even spell the beginning of the end of a quarter century of clerical rule.
However, massive, daily detentions of protest ringleaders over the last two weeks may have taken the steam out of the coming demonstration. Prosecutor-general Abdel-Nabi Namazi, reported 4,000 suspects taken into custody this week, with about half released after questioning. Opposition leaders say the number of students behind bars is far higher than the official figure of 2,000. Even more ominously, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Teheran report Iranian officialdom is doing nothing to scotch the rumor that five detainees are to face a firing squad, while the fate of dozens is unknown.
Undeterred, the students are pressing ahead with their protests and slogan-chanting for reform. They are publishing open letters to Iranian leaders, primarily reformist president Mohammed Khatami, warning them their end is near unless they carry out real reforms, and accusing the regime of turning the universities into huge prisons. Students have gone on hunger strike in the big cities, the most extensive in Esfahan, joined by dozens every day. A group of twenty-five broke off their hunger strike in response to a visit and appeal by an opposition cleric, Ayatollah Seyyed Jalal-Edin Taheri-e Esfahani. Instead they turned to other forms of protest, joined for the first time since clerical rule was instituted in Tehran by four members of the Iranian parliament. The lawmakers declared a two-day hunger strike to signal their disapproval of the mass arrests and wholesale persecution of student leaders.
All four possess impeccable credentials as Islamic revolutionaries active in setting up the Islamic Republic of Iran. They too were student activists, but they fought in the pro-Khomeinist movement in the early years of the revolution. Ali Akbar Moussavi Khomeini-Ha bears the distinguished name of his uncle Hojjat-al-Islam Mohammed Moussavi Khomeini-ha, leader of the student mob ordered by Khomeini in 1979 to seize the American embassy in Tehran and take its inmates hostage.
The Faithful Join the Dissenters
Now members of this quartet argue the time has come for a comprehensive program of reforms. One of them, Fatehmeh Haghighat-Jou, was arrested last year after delivering a fiery speech in parliament denouncing the regime’s draconian measures. The majority Moshrekat party in parliament, led by Khatami’s brother, has come out in a body in support of the hunger strikers.
The influential ayatollah Hossein-ali Montazeri, whose five-year house arrest was lifted four months ago, also weighed in. He told students from Esfahan who came to visit him that he has given up preaching morality to national leaders because his words fall on deaf ears. The senior cleric accused the regime of tyranny and distancing itself from the true paths of Islam, whereas the students and faculty he praised as the cream of Iranian youth. He implored them to continue their fight to be heard.
The families of detained and missing students have launched a public campaign to compel the authorities to release them or at least reveal their fate. Meanwhile, they have begun a sit-in inside the parliament building.
The students are operating an Internet site with updates on the arrests. According to the Website of Amir Kabir university, dozens more students have been arrested in the past few days, including Mojtaba Najafi, a member of the students union of Allameh Tabatabi university, and Morteza Safii, a member of the student council. Other detainees include Abdollah Mo’meni, the most senior member of the largest student union in the country.
The Iranian government is beset by two additional crises. The low-paid oil workers are being incited by opposition elements to shut down this vital industry with strike action that would swiftly endanger the government. A small number of oil workers were willing to demonstrate for a wage hike outside the energy ministry in Tehran this week. They were sent home with empty promises of better conditions but are expected back in larger numbers.
Iran’s ethnic minorities are also up in arms over official discrimination against them in every field – economic, political and social. Getting ready for action are the Baluchis in the southeast, the Turkmenis in the northeast, the Kurds in the west, the Azeris in the northwest and the Arabic-speakers in the south. Their leaders held a secret palaver in London a month ago and decided to join forces.
A combined ethnic campaign would spell danger for the clerical regime of Tehran, especially in view of the suspicion that Washington’s finger is stirring the brew of ethnic dissent. Deep concern was registered by the ayatollahs at the news of the prominent Iranian exile, Mahmudali Chehregani, whom the Pentagon regards as a strong opposition leader, flying into neighboring Azerbaijan to spur Iran’s millions of ethnic Azeris out on the streets against the government.
Head of the Southern Azerbaijani Awareness Movement, Cheregani, a linguisitics professor and former member of parliament, does not believe the Islamic regime is capable of self-reform and is campaigning for its overthrow. To gain support for his cause, he has spent the last year lobbying US senators, congressmen, the state department, the Pentagon and the White House.
Having spent three years in prison for fomenting dissent, the Azeri leader told London’s Daily Telegraph: “They don’t want democracy. They have no respect for people’s rights. They only want the power to control people’s lives.”