Socialist resistance in Iran
This is the extended version of a talk presented by Behzad Bagheri, an Iranian socialist activist, in a meeting jointly organised by Socialist Alternative and Iran Solidarity-Melbourne in July 2013. The text is edited by Afshin Nikouseresht.
Behzad (born 1986) began his political activities as a student activist at Tehran University in 2004 and in the following years organised student protests and published dissident papers. In 2006, he, along with several other activists, helped establish the Freedom and Equality Seeking Students, a loose coalition of leftist students from a number of Iranian universities.
He was twice arrested, in 2008 and 2010, by intelligence authorities and charged with building illegal student and labour organisations, organising illegal rallies and protests, and for producing propaganda against the Islamic state. He was forced to flee Iran in 2010 and lived in exile in Turkey as an asylum seeker for more than two years. He has been living in Australia as a refugee since January 2013.
The challenges of building socialist organisations in Iran
Student movements have been at the forefront of the political struggle for freedom during Iran’s contemporary history. Except for some brief episodes when revolutionary outbursts and uprisings shifted struggles to the streets, universities have always been the main place where dissident political currents can make their voices heard.
Universities have been an important centre for organising and expressing political views in more explicit ways mainly because, traditionally, they have been more open than the repressive atmosphere outside. Students also have a higher level of political consciousness and can therefore become seeds of revolutionary movements. So it is no surprise that, before the 1979 revolution as well as after it, universities have been one of the main strongholds of left wing movements and political parties.
There were four waves of the leftist student activity in modern Iranian history: two before the 1979 revolution and two afterwards. I will give a short account of the first three phases and then elaborate more on the last experience, which I was a part of.
The first wave began in the late 1940s and continued up until the 1953 military coup d’état and for a short while after. It was a fairly democratic period, and there was an open political atmosphere in which the left could organise. The student movement at that time was mainly sympathetic and even organised by the Tudeh Party, which was a socialist party with a national-reformist agenda and close ties with the USSR. At that time, Tudeh was the major player and the pillar of the Iranian left.
Socialist activists in the universities actively supported the nationalisation of the oil industry by Mohammad Mosadeq’s nationalist government. Some of them also tried to go to rural areas and impoverished urban neighbourhoods in order to educate peasants, the working class and the urban poor and spread socialist ideas among them. During and after the 1953 coup, students organised a resolute resistance against the military government, which reached its peak when police opened fire and murdered three leftist students on the Tehran University campus during a demonstration against Nixon’s visit in 1953. In the following months, the police and army intelligence clamped down on the student movement and broke it.
The second wave began in 1966, when two groups of leftist students merged and formed a united group with the purpose of organising an armed resistance against the Pahlavi dictatorship. Those days were the heydays of anti-colonial guerrilla movements and, in particular, the victories of the Chinese and Cuban revolutions encouraged the left wing students to choose armed confrontation with the regime. Left wing students at the time reasoned that the brutality of the dictatorship, the lack of any organised opposition and the need to stimulate and arouse the masses left no other way but to take up arms. This mind-set was summed up with reference to Regis Debray’s philosophy that a “small engine” must jump start the “large engine”.
In the initial phase of their activities, the students mainly used the universities as a base from which to spread propaganda and recruit members. In 1971, they started an armed rebellion by attacking a police station in northern Iran, followed by a period of organising underground cells for waging urban guerrilla war; operations included blowing up the British and US embassies. They reasoned that terrorism served as propaganda to encourage people into action. They also inspired the formation of other armed groups, Marxist or Islamic, who, along with the Fedaii movement, played an important role during the 1979 revolution and afterwards, especially in the universities.
By the middle of the 1970s, all the leaders and most of the members of these student-based guerrilla groups were either in jail or executed by military courts. Thus, at the beginning of the revolution, although they were popular among people, particularly among the urban poor and the middle class, they were disorganised and unprepared for the enormous challenges facing them.
The leftist student movement was one of the most active elements in the 1979 revolution, taking part in demonstrations and invigorating the popular movement. For the first time in Iran’s contemporary history, the student movement had spread nationwide, with offshoots in almost all universities. But it was not a united force since it was connected with different old or newly formed political parties and groupings. Therefore, during this period, we should speak about leftist student currents working alongside each other in and outside the universities.
During this period leftist student activists managed to establish fairly close links with radical sections of the labour movement and the women’s movement, which included groups such as the Association for the Liberty of Women, the Union of Combatant Women and the National Union of Women. This solidarity was a point that the next generation of student activists tried to keep in mind.
When the newborn Islamic regime started to consolidate its power through repression and limitation of the liberties won through blood and struggle during the revolution, it saw the universities as a major bulwark of the revolutionary movement, so it took harsh and bloody measures (called “Cultural Revolution”) to purge dissident activists, mainly leftists and liberal Islamists, and to suppress leftist students; this culminated in the closure of the universities and the murder and imprisonment of hundreds of students.
After this initial assault, the Islamic regime tried to stifle civil society and movements, in particular the labour movement, and also crack down on the opposition, mainly the left. Between 1982 and 1988, more than 100,000 leftists and socialists, many of them students, were arrested, tortured and executed. The Islamic regime reopened the universities in 1984, replacing the former radical and active student organisations with their own loyal, state-sponsored organisations such as the Islamic Associations and the Basij, which were tasked with forging and strengthening unity between the university and the seminary, acting as the repressive branches of the government and watchdogs of the authorities.
The Islamic Associations acted as the official student union on campuses. The national body to which these associations were affiliated was called Daftare Tahkim (Office for Consolidating Unity between the University and the Seminary).The generational shift that occurred in the 1990s had a big impact on Daftare Tahkim. The students who had grown up before this period and were entering the universities for the first time in the early ’90s had no experience of the Cultural Revolution, and had less fear and fewer ties with the official ideologies.
This new generation of Islamic Association members and their representatives in Daftare Tahkim began voicing criticisms of conditions, namely the repressive situation, the dictatorship and Rafsanjani’s government. They demanded freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association and a more open atmosphere in the universities. In the following period, Daftare Tahkim and its affiliated associations would become the major base of the reform movement and spread reformist propaganda among the population. Some of their members, such as Fatemeh Haghighatjoo and Ali Akbar Mousavi Khoeiniha, later became members of parliament and were forced into exile after the 2009 uprising and subsequent crackdown.
Reformists in power
When the reformists took legislative and executive power in 1997, they had to mobilise this student base to counter the rising opposition of conservative students and the Basij on university campuses and to demonstrate that they had roots in society and that their demands were the demands of the people. This period caused a split in the allegiances of the official university student organs The Basij became a bastion of the conservatives and the Islamic Associations became a reformist stronghold.
As time went on, the Islamic Association students became disillusioned and frustrated with the reality of the reformists in power and the interference of the unelected organs of the state. For example, when parliament proposed to debate a bill on freedom of the press, the Supreme Leader issued a decree ordering parliament not to debate it. The response of Khatami, the reformist president, was that he could not challenge the word of the supreme leader. In addition, the conservatives began a counterattack using one of their most effective tools, the judiciary, which is controlled by the supreme leader and completely conservative. The judiciary began shutting down reformist newspapers, including one of the main organs of reformist propaganda and one of the more radical, Salaam.
Convinced that the reformist government was unwilling to stop this attack on freedom of the press, Tehran University students were mobilised when the campus Islamic Association and Daftare Tahkim called on students to protest against the press restrictions. These protests in 1999 became the most widespread and radical against the Islamic regime since the early years of the revolution. The street protests were violently repressed by the police, Basij, plain-clothes forces such as Ansare Hezbollah and the Intelligence Ministry; students were once again attacked directly on university campuses and in their dormitories, rounded up, jailed or killed.
These developments radicalised Daftare Tahkim, which declared that it wanted to “overtake Khatami” [i.e. position itself as more radical]. Its leaders, such as Ali Afshari, were arrested, tortured and made to confess and repent on state TV. This radicalisation of one of the main official student bodies coincided with widespread dissatisfaction with reformists in society and created a general radical atmosphere on university campuses. Every year there were protests of thousands of students demanding the resignation of the supreme leader and calling for a referendum. [A referendum is generally seen as a call for a different political system. It is therefore an implicit attack on the Islamic Republic.] This radical atmosphere made the re-emergence of a radical left wing movement possible.
The reform movement came to the forefront of politics when Mohammad Khatami was elected as president in 1997 on a platform of expanding political and social freedoms, freedom of expression, strengthening of civil society, easing the tensions with the West, re-establishing relations with the US and encouraging economic development on the basis of a free market, the capitalist agenda and encouraging foreign investment. Despite holding all the elected centres of power, namely government and parliament, the reformists failed to live up to their promises and could not make any substantial change in the Islamic regime’s power structures or its relationship with the people and foreign countries.
When students and civil society activists began to challenge these power structures from below by mobilising on the campuses and the streets, the reformists not only refused to organise this force, but also refused to involve these people in the reform process altogether and then collaborated with conservatives in their suppression. At the same time, the space outside the universities was not as open as inside, and worker organisations were not yet developed enough to assert more substantial pressure from below by organising nationwide strikes. The conservatives benefitted the most from this ineptitude and reluctance. They not only blocked every effort at change but regrouped and united their ranks and took control of the military forces and economic resources in order to remove the reformist nuisance and suppress the increasing popular protest that was engulfing every corner of society.
In the final years of the Khatami’s so-called reformist government, the country was in a mess. High unemployment and soaring inflation were crushing the working class and urban poor. Any kind of protest was quelled by the police; in one case, police shot four workers dead in a strike in a copper mine. Although it was more open politically than any other period under the Islamic republic, it could not meet the people’s slightest demands or expectations. Therefore, frustration and anger were the first outcomes of the people’s disillusionment with the reformists, which drove the whole society to become more radical and critical of the entire regime. This growing discontent created a situation for the left to develop, especially in the universities.
Left wing student papers
I entered Tehran University in 2004 to study archaeology. At this time there were some left wing papers being produced in Tehran University. Khak, a revolutionary Marxist paper whose founders were influenced by Workers Communist Party literature, especially the founder and main theorist, Mansour Hekmat’s work, was the main one. They considered themselves influenced by Hekmat’s theories but were not affiliated with the WCP group. Khak was financed by the resources of its members and funds gathered from supporters.
Daaneshgah va Mardom, one of the other papers, was founded before Khak in 2002 by Parisa Nasrabadi. Daaneshgah va Mardom was closer to the traditional Iranian left and had a more centrist line. It wrote mainly about anti-globalisation, anti-imperialism and Third Worldist politics.
The group that produced Khak, which I eventually got involved with, was established by Behrouz Karimizadeh and Kaveh Abbasian. both leftist students of Tehran University. Behrouz studied economics and Kaveh was a film student. They were in their early 20s when they established Khak to spread left wing views on campus and to create a group around the ideas in the paper. The paper served as a way of identifying and getting in contact with potentially left wing people.
The new left wing students had learnt from the mistakes of the past underground and armed groups and had concluded that the best way forward for the left in Iran was to operate openly on university campuses. We reasoned that under the existing conditions, a clandestine organisation would sooner or later be discovered by the authorities, and that because clandestine organisations are smaller and their members unknown to the public, they can easily be isolated and destroyed. Therefore, we refused to organise underground cells for armed resistance and terrorism. We also reasoned that the existing relatively open environment on the campuses and the natural contact that could be made between students on a daily basis provided the best means for creating a left wing movement.
Operating above ground, we were limited in the things we could say and do. Because of the restriction on freedom of speech on university campuses and in Iranian society in general, Khak could not publish anything that directly criticised the regime’s top officials, such as the Supreme Leader and historic figures, such as Khomeini, top ranking martyrs of the Islamic Revolution, such as Ayatollah Behesthi and Ayatollah Motahari, and most importantly anything critical of religion and Islam, for example criticisms from Marxist or atheist perspectives. We could not criticise unelected offices of the regime or officials appointed by the Supreme Leader like the head of the judiciary, the entire Revolutionary Guards or the Basij. We could not question any sensitive policies like the nuclear or foreign policies of the regime.
We could not talk about the rights of religious minorities or atheists. It was inconceivable to write about the rights of gay people, and we could not criticise the death penalty because Islamic jurisprudence dictated that the death penalty is an integral part of the Islamic judicial system and is the word of God. These restrictions were very frustrating for us, because as a socialist group we recognised that the Islamic Republic is founded on systematic gender and religious discrimination, but we could not say this openly.
One of the main issues on Iranian campuses is that members of unrecognised religions, such as Bahais and Daravish, and Afghan non-citizens cannot enrol in universities. We were strongly opposed to this in principle but we could never openly state our opposition to these and other policies. We also could not openly call for the overthrow of the regime even though this was our number one objective. We could not openly call ourselves “Marxist” or “communist”, but we could say that we were “radical left wing” or “socialist”.
To say that you are a Marxist is to admit that you are an atheist; to admit that you are an atheist could bring a death penalty. Because Iranian communism has had a history of armed resistance, to call ourselves communist would associate us with the advocates of armed resistance and armed resistance in Iran is equated to “waging war on God” by the regime. You can get away with calling yourself a socialist because socialism in Iran is associated with social and economic justice and it would not necessarily mean that you are against the Islamic Republic or are an atheist.
Pushing the boundaries
As a result of the restrictions, the publication of Khak was an interesting exercise. We were constantly testing the tolerance of the university administration and pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable to publish and circulate on a university campus. For example, we had pictures of Marx in our publications but did not refer to ourselves in the magazine as “Marxists”. One of the most daring things we ever published in Khak was an article which appeared in edition 23 in January 2007. In that article, we criticised one of Khamenei’s decrees in which he ordered the government to involve entrepreneurs in and increase the rate of privatisation in the economy, which we interpreted as an expansion of neoliberal economic policies.
After publishing this article our licence holder (the person responsible for the political correctness of the content of the paper) was summoned by an official from the Bureau of Safeguarding. I went along to this meeting. We were served an official warning and told that we were not allowed to publish anything criticising the Supreme Leader, not even his economic policies.
So how did we communicate our ideas with our audience and other political groups? We could give the publication a “left wing” and “radical” look and communicate our true identity cryptically by what we wrote and through the aesthetics we employed in a way that a more informed radical student could immediately recognise as belonging to the revolutionary socialist tradition. For example our name and logo “Khak” was made up of a red star; the base of the logo which the word “Khak” was written on looked like a block of soil with wheat growing on top of it. A keen radical eye could interpret this as meaning that our publication was to be the foundation from which an inspiring new movement could grow.
On the front of one issue was a picture of a woman. This would be instantly recognisable to anyone who knew recent Iranian history. The picture was from the famous Women’s Day protests of March 1979, which were organised by the left in response to Khomeini’s attempts earlier that month to introduce compulsory hejab. Following these mobilisations, Khomeini backtracked and said that there was no compulsion to wear the hejab, that it was desirable but optional.
However, following this period the regime began an ideological campaign against women aimed at psychologically and physically preparing the population for the introduction of compulsory hejab. One of the most active women in this campaign, who often wrote of the virtues of hejab, was the Green Movement leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard, who is one of the main theoreticians of the reactionary “Islamic feminist” movement. This image would have been recognised as containing anti-regime, left wing and subversive content and therefore belonging to people with a socialist perspective.
Therefore it was possible for someone who recognised the radical undertones of our imagery and article contents to recognise us for what we were and to get in contact with us to find out more.
I was recruited by Khak through this process. I first came across Khak at Tehran University in autumn 2004. I bought the first issue for 2004 at a stall at Tehran University in the humanities faculty. I knew there were left wing students on campus because of the protests the previous year, but I had no idea who they were. I found them through this paper. I had come across Marxism as a teenager, so when I saw Khak at university, I instantly recognised its content as belonging to the Marxist tradition. I emailed the editors. We met at a cafe on campus.
Khak editors expected a level of familiarity with left wing history and literature before inviting people into the group. Those who were not familiar with Marxism were invited to join a reading group, to become educated. It was during these face to face meetings that we could communicate all our ideas orally to possible recruits.
Before people were accepted as part of the group, they had to fundamentally and wholly oppose the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic and all of its factions. They had to oppose imperialist attacks on Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq, support existing social movements such as the workers’ movement and the women’s rights movement and the idea that Iran needed a revolution in order to change.
At the time I joined the group, its activities consisted of publishing and distributing Khak, holding rallies to commemorate key events on the political calendar, recruiting new people and holding public meetings where we would invite keynote speakers including journalists and left wing commentators to speak about issues ranging from the situation of workers in Iran to the rise of the left in South America and imperialist military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan and the experience of the left before the 1979 revolution.
One of the things that we had accepted at this time and which dictated the framework of our activities was that we were powerless to influence publicly the consciousness of the students we came into contact with in our public meetings and in public places. If we had a meeting on the situation of the workers’ movement at Tehran University, for example, and it was attended by 100 non-members and curious students, we could not make a public argument to them about the need to organise workers for the revolutionary overthrow of the government. Had we done anything like that, we would have been banned from holding any more public meetings.
Our desire to operate above ground meant that every member practised self-restraint and self-censorship in order not to jeopardise the group’s existence and the safety of the members. Every member had to accept that. While we could express our revolutionary views to trusted students in one-on-one discussion, we could not publicly make arguments that called for revolution against the Islamic Republic. Therefore we could not influence the thinking of non-radical or apolitical students whom we did not personally come in contact with. Despite this, we became known to the already politicised students as the anti-regime group on campus because of the use of our slogans in the various student protests.
The group that revolved around Khak consisted of only one organ, an editorial board. There were five to 10 different people on it at any one time. Its permanent members from the time I was on the board were Kamran Akhshi, who was the managing editor, Behrouz Karimizadeh, Kaveh Abbasian, Amin Ghazai, Vaheed Valizdeh, Behzad Bagheri, Shahoo Rastegari, Mehdi Gerayloo, Majid Ashrafnejad, Peyman Piran and Bahareh Rahmanian.
The first editorial board was made up of three people, including the two founders of the paper. When new potential recruits came into contact or entered the friendship circles of the Khak editors, the editorial board members would nominate that person to come onto the board. If the majority of the editorial board voted in favour, that person would be accepted. Subsequent members of the board were always elected by the majority decision of the existing board.
The editorial board was the main contributor of Khak’s content. But it also accepted contributions from other people, if the majority were in favour of publishing it. Before publishing any edition the board would meet and discuss what to publish and the members would give suggestions. There were usually not many controversies in relation to content, and articles were mostly published with unanimous support of the board members.
The first editions were printed in the university print house, but then the university refused to print Khak any further. The first editions of Khak were not taken seriously by the Bureau of Safeguarding on the campus. The Bureau of Safeguarding is one of the 15 departments that are a part of the Ministry of Intelligence. Its role on university campuses and other public institutions is safeguarding Islamic principles, codes of behaviour and clothing and morals, confronting and nullifying any form of political dissidence and unrest, collecting intelligence and reporting to the Ministry of Intelligence.
Confrontation with Khatami
However, something happened on the campus that changed the way the Bureau of Safeguarding dealt with Khak. In December 2004, the then reformist president Khatami came to Tehran University to speak at the official ceremony on the anniversary of Student Day.
At that time Khatami was under immense pressure from his conservative critics, who alleged that he was “acting against the principles of the Islamic Revolution”. On the other hand, Khatami was under pressure from students and was being fiercely criticised for failing to deliver on reformist promises and for collaborating with the security forces and the police in suppressing dissent, including the two major nationwide waves of student-triggered protests in 1999 and 2003 in response to press censorship, newspaper closures and violent intervention against public meetings and gatherings. The source of both of these outbreaks of unrest was Tehran University. Student Day in 2004 coincided with the fallout from these events. Khatami’s intention in appearing at the university was to demonstrate to his rival faction the support he had among students. This event completely backfired for him.
At the seminar, Khatami was greeted with jeers and slogans and called a liar when he tried to intervene on behalf of a member of the Basij who was claiming that the real victims of violence on university campuses were the Basij students. This allegation was met with ridicule by the students present, and Khatami tried to silence this outburst by calling the students undemocratic and intolerant of different views. This further aggravated the students, who lashed out at Khatami.
At the same time, outside the lecture hall there occurred for the first time a protest in which different left wing groups from different universities in Tehran came together and appeared as one united bloc. Explicit socialist slogans calling for equality and freedom and supporting the labour protests and strikes in the petrochemical industry and elsewhere could be heard and seen on placards. This was the first time the left wing students around different newspapers organised a sizeable public protest on the campus. There was one other such protest the previous year, but the university atmosphere during Khatami’s visit was far more politicised.
After these events, the Bureau of Safeguarding began to restrict the student press, including the left wing press and Khak magazine, and we could no longer publish Khak using the campus printing house. This was the first time the state tried to restrict the activities of Khak and the other new left wing publications. Khak tried to find alternative printing houses outside the university, but we ran into trouble with some printers who refused to print student publications and others who demanded to see our university-issued permits. But in the end, we always managed to find a way to get the paper printed and circulated.
In 2005, there was a change of government. The conservatives united behind a single candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while the reformists entered three candidates. Also, Ahmadinejad used populist slogans to win the votes of the urban and rural poor, whose demands had been neglected by the reformists. One of Ahmadinejad’s main objectives was to militarise society and the universities in particular, which the conservatives considered the base of their reformist adversaries. Ahmadinejad’s government pursued policies aimed at turning the tables in the universities. He replaced the top officials of universities with loyal conservative academics; he called for a second cultural revolution, the re-Islamisation of the universities, suspending and sacking dissident and critical students and academics, enforcing sexual segregation and Islamic moral codes of behaviour and the expansion of the roles of the security institutions. Eventually these policies not only eradicated the reformist students but also destroyed the left wing student organisations.
Links with workers
However, this period also coincided with increased activity of left wing students in Tehran, Mashhad, Isfahan and Mazandaran.
Some of the left wing students’ achievements in 2005-06 were as follows: Khak established links with newly formed independent labour organisations such as the Tehran Bus Drivers Union and the Coordination Committee for Creating Independent Workers Organisations. Left wing students established links with women’s rights NGOs and activists outside of the university and held joint public meetings. The different left wing groups also managed, for the first time, to hold an independent and separate rally on Tehran University campus to commemorate Student Day.
Left wing students in Tehran University became the spark for protests that took place in the dormitories and spread to the whole campus against the increasing militarisation of the university. Khak also began sending its paper to left wing students in universities in other cities and thus established a network of left activists who were later to form the basis of a national coalition of left wing students called Freedom and Equality Seeking Students (DAB).
In 2005, the Bus Drivers Union was formed, and some of the left wing students from Tehran universities attended the meetings of the union representatives and their members and ran study groups for the drivers around Marx’s Capital volume one. This connection could not have been made this easily had we not been producing Khak for the previous two years and had the leaders of the union not come across our ideas in Khak before. Then the bus drivers went on strike.
We participated in these strikes along with the drivers and their families. Five hundred people, including leftist students, were arrested, jailed and severely beaten. This show of support was very important in establishing links between the student movement and the workers. When the repressions against us were in full swing by 2007, we could rely on the support of the bus drivers, who issued a statement condemning the arrests of our members and demanding our release.
When the massive student protests broke out in 1999 and 2003, there was no support from any worker organisations because the reformist-dominated student movement of the time had never oriented towards establishing links with the working class and had not been able to bridge the gap between reformist political demands and the economic demands of the workers. This inability to articulate and support the demands of workers is what ultimately cost the reformists the election. We were the first student activists who attempted to establish links with worker organisations. In a short time and with limited resources, we managed to lay the foundation for future cooperation between students and workers.
In relation to women, we were the first student activists to bring the demands of the women’s movement into the university. We commemorated International Women’s Day by holding a public meeting on 8 March 2005 and participated in protests outside of the university in Parke Lale (Tulip Park). After this, the trend of students going to Women’s Day protests or holding public meetings in universities was established, and 2006 and 2007 had similar events.
2006 was also the year that the radical left began to call itself Freedom and Equality Seeking Students. Up until this time, we had simply been known either by the name of the papers we were affiliated with or simply as radical left students. However, as our numbers grew, Behrouz Karimizadeh and Mehdi Gerayloo, two of Khak’s editors, proposed that the left consolidate their coalition under the name of Freedom and Equality Seeking Students. We also felt that this would make it easier for others to identify us as the proponents of the freedom and equality slogans that had been seen around the university campuses over the previous few years.
The formation of this coalition had several positive effects. It made decision making more efficient and effective. When organising a joint event, students would come together in a meeting and debate and make a decision together by majority vote. We also inspired other inactive left wing students to become active. After the consolidation in Tehran, other left wing groups in other cities, which we had already been in contact with through the distribution of Khak, followed suit and formed independent Freedom and Equality Seeking Student coalitions.
The peak of our activities was in the 2006-07 study year. We held several successful rallies on campus, the biggest of which was a joint rally organised by Daftare Tahkim and DAB students. However, this rally ended with clashes between Daftare Tahkim Students and DAB, whom the Daftare Tahkim students accused of trying to hijack the protest by raising radical slogans. In fact, it was Daftare Tahkim that had breached its agreement with DAB.
We had organised this joint protest on the condition that regime-affiliated figures would not be present, but the Daftare Tahkim students tried to read a statement from prominent reformist figure Ebrahim Yazdi. This event made it impossible to hold further joint rallies with reformist students. Furthermore, the reformist publications outside of the university, such as Shahrvande Emrooz (Today’s Citizen), began to taunt and provoke the Ahmadinejad government to arrest left wing students. They asked how it was possible for Ahmadinejad to claim that he was re-Islamising the universities if he wasn’t purging left wing students.
By the beginning of the 2007-08 study year, we were starting to feel the tightening grip of the new repressive measures. Some of our members had already been summoned by Intelligence Ministry officials and threatened with retribution if they did not cease their activities. Other members were suspended from university and banned from entering campus for the duration of their suspension. By the end of the previous study year, Khak had already been closed down and we were no longer permitted to publish Khak in the 2007-08 study year.
However, in the new year, we managed to get a permit to publish a new magazine named Toloo (Dawn). On the front page of the first issue of Toloo, the headline screamed “Khak is closed down”; we decided to make the word “Khak” much larger than the new logo of the magazine so that people could instantly recognise who the new paper belonged to.
In this period, we made a deadly mistake. We did not grasp the seriousness of the repression and instead of scaling down our activities, continued to stage rallies on the campuses. In the days before the Student Day demonstrations in 2007, around 15 of our activists were arrested in Tehran and at Student Day protests and in the following days, around another 30 were arrested in Tehran and Mashhad. We discussed what to do in response to the arrests, and because we underestimated the lengths to which the state was willing to go to suppress the student movement, we planned another protest to demand the freeing of our comrades.
In hindsight, we should have stopped staging protests in order to preserve what was left of our organisation. But we staged another small protest action a few weeks after. In the following month, we held a meeting to plan further actions in response to the arrests, but armed Intelligence Ministry officials disrupted this meeting and arrested all 10 who were present. This wave of arrests spelled the end of our activities in Tehran, Mashhad and Tabriz, marking the beginning of the decline of not only the left wing student movement but also the broader student movement.
After I came out of prison in March 2008, I went back to Isfahan, my home town. There I told the local DAB students to restrict their activities and not to hold any more rallies. The Isfahan group was of the opinion that it could try to compensate for the blow against Tehran by keeping the group alive and active in Isfahan. They held protests on Student Day 2008, and a month later the same interrogation team from the Ministry of Intelligence which rounded up the Tehran group arrived in Isfahan and arrested all DAB members in Isfahan. The students based in Mazandaran made the same mistake and were arrested around the same time as the Isfahan group.
We attempted to keep the activists together by holding private study groups in Isfahan. However, when a worker from a small underground workers’ circle which had put out a statement for May Day 2010 was arrested, his affiliation with our study group was discovered and some study group participants were again arrested. During this period, most activists, including me, fled Iran for fear of further persecution. Most ended up in European countries such as Sweden, Germany, UK, the Netherlands and France plus Canada, and three have come to Australia so far.
The biggest success of Ahmadinejad’s first term in office was completely to eradicate the left wing students from the campuses and to crack down on all other sources of opposition. This included a sustained crackdown against workers’, women’s rights and other civil society organisations. By the time the 2009 presidential elections came around, the idea of overthrowing the regime as a possible political alternative to reform was completely suppressed.
The policies of the reformists in power had already doomed the post-election movement to failure. Through collaborating and participating in the suppression of workers and civil society organisations during their eight years in office, they destroyed any prospect of the workers and urban poor, who had been crushed by poverty, unemployment and inflation caused by Ahmadinejad’s neoliberal policies, joining the movement as an organised force.
Once the movement took to the streets, they quickly neutralised it by limiting their post-election criticism of the regime to the issue of election rigging. The failure of the reformists to lead, coupled with the repression of the political movements after the election, meant that now even the reformists have been weakened as a political force and have been cast out of the system by the conservative establishment.
Consequently, when the reformists re-emerged to compete in the 2013 presidential election, they had to compromise many of their own principles in order to enter an alliance with centrist forces associated with Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has historically been one of the main advocates of neoliberal economic policies. This rebranding of the eight years of Ahmadinejad’s government and the impact of the tough economic sanctions have turned back the clock on the political consciousness of the population in regard to what it is possible to demand under the Islamic Republic.
In the last 14 years, we have gone from a period in which talk of the possibility of overthrowing the regime was alive on university campuses to today, when there is no political activity on campuses and civil society is severely repressed and the main issues of the elections have shifted from political freedoms to easing relations with the West, lifting the sanctions and cleaning up the mess created by Ahmadinejad’s government.
The period ahead might be another chance for civil society to regroup and reorganise and push the Islamic Regime back. But there are many difficulties. The regime’s repressive apparatuses are cautious and ready to suppress any kind of serious opposition organisations. The challenges ahead are enormous, which means that social movements must be very careful and take steps wisely and with a clear understanding of their demands.