Fury then fizzle- Student protests expose depth of anger and ap

Sunday, January 12, 2003

TEHRAN, Iran -- Bonfires rose wild and menacing during the height of campus rage against Iran's Islamic establishment.

Then, last month, the flames sputtered out. Riot police withdrew. Students went back to class.

All that's left from four weeks of anger are patches of charred pavement and a puzzle: how could such fury end with such a whimper?

The protests, ignited by a death sentence for a liberal professor, help explain. Each stage of the unrest offers lessons about Iran's shaky foundations and why -- for the time being -- predictions of a violent collapse have turned out wrong.

"The giant has yet to really stir," said Saeed Laylaz, a political analyst in Tehran.

The biggest threat to the 24-year-old theocracy rests not with student rebels, experts say. It's with the quiet power of mainstream Iranians and their worries: scarce jobs, a stumbling economy and a growing sense that the country needs to open to the world or be left behind.

A possible U.S.-led war to topple Iran's old foe Saddam Hussein could elevate these concerns if Iraq returns to the international fold while Iranian leaders keep a cautious distance, analysts say.

"The big question remains whether this general feeling of discontentment will ever gel into a credible force to challenge the regime," said Laylaz. "There's lots of grumbling but little action from the average Iranian."

Iran has been here before.

In July 1999, Islamic vigilantes and security forces attacked Tehran University students protesting new media restrictions. The assault killed at least one student and touched off the worst street battles since the 1979 revolution that ousted the U.S.-backed monarchy.

But the masses shied away from the upheaval. It was over in a week and the ruling clerics survived with their almost limitless power intact.

The protests fizzled after the country's top authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, intervened. In a rare move, he ordered the judiciary to reconsider the verdict. A final decision is pending.

"The student movement is a genuine force that stands against despotism whether in the name of religion or anything else," said a protest organizer, Akbar Atri, who was held by security forces for two days. "The establishment got the message."

Leaders also took ¡away something else: the comfort that the public still has no stomach for violent confrontation. The campuses seethed, but the streets were calm. No groups -- even those most critical of the system -- rose up in sympathy as protesters were detained and beaten.

Many even viewed the student uprising as a possibly harmful deviation from the reform movement.

The students lack a clear leadership or agenda to channel their clout -- as the previous generation did in the Islamic Revolution. Meanwhile, the protests galvanize groups that protect the status quo, such as the Revolutionary Guards and volunteer Islamic militias.

"The regime managed to ride this out with little harm to its power," said Ehsan Ahrari, a regional political analyst based in Norfolk, Va. "The events showed clearly that Iran is not ripe for a potentially bloody political showdown."

Ruling clerics have managed to gain breathing room with selective concessions in recent years. Greater social freedoms, such as unfettered Internet access and looser rules on women's dress, seek to appease Iran's lopsided demographics: half the country's 65 million people are under 25.

There is little leniency in other areas. Reformist journalists and anyone else challenging the clerics face swift reprisals. Complaints about the economy, however, cannot be silenced.

Some analysts place unemployment near 40 percent. The state planning agency estimates 15 percent of Iranian families live below the poverty line in OPEC's No. 2 producer.

"We are trying to change the Iranian culture," said Mojtaba Najafi, a leader of the pro-reform Islamic Association at Allameh University in Tehran. "People should demand nothing less than democracy and true leaders, not religious fanatics. We're trying to wake up the country."

The next test of conservatives' resilience could be in parliament.

President Mohammad Khatami, trying to reclaim his status as a reformist champion, is pushing ahead with two bills that strike at the heart of clerics' power: their ability to arbitrarily ban political candidates and their control of the judiciary and security forces.

No date is scheduled for a vote. Approval, which is expected, would force conservatives to swallow the humiliation or try to crush the popular changes and risk the backlash.

Students, meanwhile, are planning their next move. They face strong pressure from conservatives to abandon plans for campus referendums on whether religion and politics should remain intertwined.

"The hard-liners are most definitely scared," said Morteza Zavarzadegan, a student leader at Allameh University. "They know what the answer will be -- no."

The ultimate goal, he said, would be merging the activism of students with the sourness on the streets.

"As long as students protest on campuses it will have little impact on the nation," said Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a political affairs professor at Tehran's Imam Sadiq University. "But the establishment will not be able to resist if the protests start to mix with the people."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: