International press reports have not done justice to the complexity of recent dramatic events in Iran. What began as a genuine, spontaneous student uprising in defense of press freedoms and political reforms has now been appropriated by extremist religious paramilitaries and vigilantes aiming to discredit the students and provoke a crackdown by anti-reform elements of the regime. Khatami’s call for moderation in the wake of street battles between students and security forces was not an “about face” on reform, but a demand consistent with several appeals for calm issued by leading pro-reform figures and groups, including the fledgling student “Unity Council.”

What the international press still mistakenly calls the “student movement” has been infiltrated and compromised by vigilante thugs who have disguised themselves by shaving their beards and changing out of their customary black shirts in order to provoke students into leaving the university compound, whereupon they were clobbered by other paramilitaries or arrested by the security forces. This has been witnessed by numerous participants. One of these infiltrators, a member of the hard-line Bassij militia, was captured by students and exposed in the “Sobh-e Emrooz” morning newspaper. Vigilante groups have attacked banks, looted shops and harassed passers-by. All student groups and spokespeople have now distanced themselves and the student movement from the rioters.

The security forces, which are under the complete jurisdiction of Ayatollah Khamene’i, the Supreme Leader of the Revolution [velayat-e faqih], witnessed and tolerated the spreading lawlessness. It is ironic that the current Iranian state’s elected executive branch, led by President Khatami and the Council of Ministers, has no jurisdiction over any branch of the security forces, not even the traffic police.

Reactionary elements deeply opposed to Khatami and the reform movement have been responsible for most of the recent terror and violence in Teheran. Their goals are:

1) to discredit the student movement by making it appear lawless and violent.
2) to discredit Khatami by depicting his administration as powerless to control the actions of his own supporters.
3) to justify Khatami’s impeachment and the dismissal of his cabinet on grounds of incompetence, thereby entirely dismantling the political and cultural reforms that have been realized during the two years since his election.
4) to facilitate the banning of a half-dozen independent daily newspapers that have played a key role in providing accurate information and a voice for the reform movement since 1997.

Khatami’s call for calm and his warning that the security forces would crack down on all manifestations of violence and lawlessness was a startling but effective way to forestall the achievement of the hard-liners’ goals. His warning was an attempt to take back the initiative from the conservative forces and the street-gangs agitating to expand the scope of violence by provoking the students’ anger and frustration.

On July 7, hard-line elements in the conservative-dominated Majlis [Parliament] finally succeeded in passing an extremely restrictive press law. The next day, the important pro-reform daily, “Salaam,” was closed down, allegedly for publishing a sensitive classified document: a letter in which Saeed Emami, the main intelligence agent behind the assassination of dissident intellectuals in Iran last year, had also advocated precisely this type of restrictive press law.

Some 200 students at the residential campus of Teheran University staged a peaceful street march in support of “Salaam” and against press restrictions. They were soon attacked by some security forces and paramilitaries. Other students soon joined in to defend their colleagues, swelling the numbers of protestors.

In the early hours of Friday morning (July 9), the students’ dormitories were attacked first by religious paramilitaries and then by members of the state security forces, who entered the university without authorization, ransacked rooms and beat up and arrested several hundred students. There are confirmed reports that one young man visiting a friend in the dormitory was killed.

The next day brought a general condemnation of the unauthorized actions of the security forces. The jailed students were released and all branches of the government promised to look into the matter and punish those who had attacked the students. A group of six ministers representing Khatami’s cabinet went to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamene’i, and submitted three demands:

1) that the newspaper “Salaam” be reopened;
2) that the chief of security forces be dismissed and tried; and
3) that effective control of the security forces be transferred to the interior minister.

Mr. Khamene’i reportedly refused all three demands.

Meanwhile, news of the brutal assault on the campus enraged public opinion. The outpouring of sympathy for the students visibly shook the conservative forces. Faced with seething unrest, the hard-line forces of the regime moved to appropriate the crisis for their own purposes by infiltrating the student movement and instigating violence in the city, culminating in a large, stage-managed anti-reform march on July 14. All through the night of July 13, busloads of conservative supporters were brought into the city from provincial towns, camping overnight in tents by highways. Employees of state institutions were ordered to participate in the march. This was widely reported and personally witnessed by this writer.

An atmosphere of fear has descended upon Iran. Key sections of downtown Teheran have been colonized by roving bands of vigilantes who terrorize neighborhoods and passers-by. Shops and bazaars were forced to shut and all the mobile phones were disconnected as a large official demonstration called for “Unity” and the reinsertion of the regime’s power. It is still too early to determine whether Iran’s reform era has abruptly ended or has suffered another painful birth pang. What is certain, however, is that president Khatami has managed, for now, to avert a bloody crackdown, and thereby gain a little more valuable time for the reform movement.

How to cite this article:

MERIP's Special Correspondent in Iran "Report from Iran," Middle East Report Online, July 15, 1999.

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