Discussion Points: Iran Student Protest
by Jeremy Brecher
July 08, 2003
This June, vigilante forces attacked nonviolent Iranian
student protesters, charging them on motorcycles and
assaulting them with batons, chains, and knives.
Instead of protecting the students against the vigilante
attacks, the Iranian government threatened to punish
the students severely. It arrested over 4,000
people. Continuing repression of the student
movement, combined with deep popular unrest, are
likely to keep the Iranian conflict in the global spotlight.
Normally, the global peace movement and the global left would
respond to repression by an authoritarian, theocratic regime with outrage
and protest. But so far there has been a deafening silence. The reason
is probably not, as some have alleged, that they don't care about democracy
and human rights when they are trampled by opponents of America. More
likely it is due to wariness about intervening in a complex,
multi-player drama in which it is easy to have an impact completely
contrary to what one intends. The purpose of this piece is to promote the
discussion that is needed to help the movement see its way clear to a more
forthright, but responsible, response. That discussion may also help
clarify other situations in which the peace movement and the left
must respond to opponents of US imperialism that are also tyrannies.
Iran has had a strong and recurring internal conflict between
autocratic and democratic tendencies. Its first constitutional movement
forced the shah (monarch) to accept an elected parliament nearly a century
ago, and powerful democratic movements have arisen repeatedly
In 1953, the nationalist National Front movement, based in the
urban middle class and led by Muhammad Mossadegh, pushed to nationalize the
British controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Newly elected US President
Dwight Eisenhower authorized the CIA to cooperate with a British plan to
overthrow the Mossadegh government. The coup was successful, and the shah
was established as a virtual dictator. He froze out the democratic
nationalist elements who had backed Mossadegh and, with strong backing from
the US, ruled by tyranny, terror, and torture. The US succeeded in
taking Iran's oil industry from the British. US policy designated Iran,
along with Israel, as its "surrogate" for control of the Middle
A recently disclosed aspect of the CIA operation is that it
included unprecedented political mobilization of the traditionalist,
fundamentalist Shiite religious leaders known as the mullahs. As Gabriel
Kolko put it, the US "eliminated a secular, middle-class
nationalism." As throughout the Middle East, "rebellion and discontent"
increasingly took "fundamentalist Islamic forms and ideologies."
Resistance to the shah grew as the regime become more and more
repressive. In 1978 massive street demonstrations led to bloody
confrontations with the shah's police. The shah's peasant-based army
disintegrated. The revolutionary movement had many tendencies, but the
religious leaders who had first been politicized by the CIA ultimately won
out. In 1979 the shah fled into exile and Iran was declared an
Islamic republic. While elections and some other democratic forms
remained, the mullahs possessed ultimate power and used mass executions,
long incarcerations, and vigilante violence to impose their will.
Over the course of the 1990s, a new Iranian generation came of age
who increasingly despised the tyranny and corruption of the regime and the
poverty and isolation to which it was consigning the country. A reformist
movement elected Mohammad Khatami president. According to Human Rights
"Iran is caught in a continuing power struggle between elected
reformers, who control both the presidency and parliament, and clerical
conservatives, who exercise authority through various offices including
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the judiciary and the
Council of Guardians, and elements of the security forces."
Many students and many others have lost faith in the
non-confrontational strategy of the elected reformers. A quietly but
carefully conducted poll in 2002 showed broad opposition to the regime's
The current protests, the latest in a series, began with student
opposition to a plan to charge tuition at state-run universities. The
protests spread to a dozen cities, the demands deepened to include full
democratization, and support spread to many adults who came out
with their children and honked horns in support of the
student demonstrators. The movement is self-organized and nonviolent and
has wide public support.
The student movement's principal demand is to eliminate the power
of the self-perpetuating theocratic elite over the Iranian government and
to allow the elected government to rule without the "guidance" of the
mullahs and their allies. One widely discussed means to do so would be a
referendum giving full authority to the elected government.
This situation appears a straightforward confrontation of
idealistic young democrats and repressive fundamentalist authoritarians.
But it is embedded in a context of geopolitical manipulation that
complicates the picture.
The US has implacably opposed the Islamic Republic. In the
Iran-Iraq war it even supported Saddam Hussein as a bulwark against Iran.
This is hardly because the US has sought a democratic Iran -- it supported
both the mullahs and the shah at one time or another. Rather, it sees Iran
as a critical source of oil and a powerful country that currently threatens
- but could support - both US interests and those of Israel.
Germany, France, Britain, and Russia have taken advantage of US
isolation from Iran to develop ties with the regime and profit from its oil
wealth. According to the New York Times, France for example is "committed
to the stability of the Islamic Republic." European support for the regime
has led many of its opponents to see the US as their only potential savior.
As part of its post-9/11 bluster, the Bush administration declared
Iran part of the "Axis of Evil" and has made numerous threats against it.
It has seized on recent indications that Iran is continuing its quest for
nuclear weapons - initiated by the shah -- as an opportunity to amplify
those threats. It has pressured the European Union, Russia, and the
International Atomic Energy Agency to encourage Iran to accept
tighter monitoring of its nuclear programs.
Currently the Bush administration is divided on Iran policy. The
mainstream conservatives in the State department have been inclined to
support the "official" reform movement. The neoconservatives in the
Department of Defense see an opportunity to promote a revolution in Iran
that will install a pro-US government.
The Bush administration has repeatedly hinted that it might pursue
an Iraq-style attack and occupation. National security advisor Condoleezza
Rice, echoing the threats that preceded the US attack on Iraq, recently
warned of a "'Made in America' solution" if multilateral action does not
produce results. "Sometimes one has to fight wars to deal with
tyrants." Notwithstanding such implicit threats, the problems of
managing the aftermath of a US attack on Iran would appear to be an awesome
President Bush recently praised the student protests as "the
beginning of people expressing themselves toward a free Iran." This comes
as US troops regularly censor the media and shoot down demonstrators next
door in Iraq. While the Bush administration may wish to use student
protest to destabilize the situation in Iran, the US government is
notorious for promoting revolts that it is not willing then to protect -
witness the US-encouraged uprisings by Kurds and Shiites in Iraq after the
Gulf war that Saddam Hussein was allowed to suppress with extreme
brutality. It is unlikely to have scruples about cheering on the Iranian
students to destruction. While the Bush administration is happy to
encourage the student revolt, it does so in the interest of its own
agenda, which can not be accurately described as freedom,
independence,and self-determination for the people of Iran.
The actual impact of Bush administration destabilization efforts
is difficult to evaluate. Bush's endorsement of the student movement may
already have helped hardliners legitimate their suppression of the students
as "foreign forces." On the other hand, fear of foreign
intervention may also serve as a constraint. For example, after the start
of the student demonstrations, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said
on state television, "I call on the pious and the [conservative cadres] not
to intervene whenever they see riots." Two days later, a right-wing
militia pledged not to take part in the street skirmishes.
This may lead some supporters of democratization to see US threats
as a way to accelerate reform. But that presumes that democratization
really matters to the Bush administration. In fact, the mullahs are less
likely to respond to US threats by conceding democracy and human rights to
their own people than by offering concessions suited to the real
Bush agenda - such as oil deals and helpful policies in Iraq.
For the peace movement and the left, this situation presents
several interlocking dilemmas. How is it possible to promote human rights
and democracy in Iran without strengthening the drive of the US to dominate
the world in general and the Middle East in particular? How is it possible
to oppose European support for the Islamic Republic without
undermining the development of a much-needed united front for
the containment of US aggression? How is it possible to encourage
disarmament and restrict the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction
while discouraging US threats against Iran and other countries?
The problem is in some ways parallel to that faced by the
international peace movement in the 1980s when repression of nonviolent
anti-authoritarian revolts in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe
coincided with aggressive US military expansionism. At that time, the
European Nuclear Disarmament movement developed a sophisticated strategy
that simultaneously increased pressure for human rights in the East
and for demilitarization in the West. Today we need to develop a
democratic alternative to the tyranny of the mullahs, the proliferation of
weapons of mass destruction, and the devastation that the US has wreaked on
Afghanistan and Iraq and now threatens to visit on Iran.
The goal for the global anti-war movement and the left should be a
nonviolent transition to a democracy with human rights and freedom from
domination by outside powers. The movement should aim to empower the
Iranian people against both mullahs and the US, the EU, and anyone else who
would treat them as pawns for their own agenda.
The obvious first step is to demand that the Iranian regime
release all political prisoners regardless of their beliefs and end the
suppression of protesters' human rights by its own agencies and those of
vigilante groups. Just as clear is the need to support the peaceful
struggle of the Iranian people for democracy, including a
referendum to decide their own future. An important aspect here is the
demand that European countries and the EU end tacit and active support for
the suppression of human rights and democracy by the Iranian regime.
International support for human rights played a major role in the
democratization in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
History indicates that outside support for governmental legality can have a
substantial impact in Iran as well. In 1996, a German court implicated
Islamic Republic leaders of assassinating opponents in Berlin.
Several European countries then briefly cut diplomatic ties with the
regime. The ruling had a huge impact on Iranian opinion,
contributing substantially to the reformist President Khatami's landslide
Support can take the form of action as well as words. In
Poland, labor and left activists smuggled printing presses, fax machines,
photocopiers, and other means for mobilizing the public to Solidarity.
Satellite broadcasts are already playing a significant support role
for the Iranian movement. More direct contact, ranging from
support delegations to the kind of volunteer human rights observation and
nonviolent intervention provided by the "Internationals" in Palestine,
would be difficult but appropriate. So would a campaign for international
human rights monitors.
Such an approach is almost the opposite of a US "liberation" that
imposes "democracy" and "human rights" through war and occupation, on the
model of Afghanistan and Iraq. The international movement should present
the demand for human rights and democratization in Iran alongside its
demands for an end to US occupation in Iraq and Israeli occupation in
We also need to lay out an approach to the problem of weapons of
mass destruction that provides an alternative to Bush administration policy
of unilaterally threatening to "Saddamize" anyone it doesn't want to have
such weapons. A good starting point is to demand that all countries
support the Syrian UN proposal to make the Middle East a zone free
of weapons of mass destruction. This obviously implies that the US
and other powers must address the issue of Israeli nuclear weapons in
discussions of eliminating weapons of mass destruction. And for any
effective response to proliferation, the existing nuclear powers must meet
their responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by moving
promptly toward the elimination of their own nuclear weapons. In such a
context, specific demands that Iran not build nuclear weapons and that it
comply with IAEA demands for answers to questions about its nuclear program
are appropriate, but they need to be combined with negotiations to provide
Iran other means of security against military attack.
Iran is only one of many countries that appear to oppose the Bush
administration's imperial juggernaut, but that also suppress the human
rights of their own people. It is always a temptation for the peace
movement and the left to soft-pedal our critique of such regimes out of a
feeling that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." It is
particularly hard to find a balanced position when the US government is
utilizing the flaws of those regimes it opposes to justify aggression
against them while ignoring the equal or greater crimes of those it
Failure to defend human rights in such circumstances only plays
into the hands of the Bush juggernaut, however. One of the strongest
supports of the Bush administration, especially with the media-manipulated
American people, is the belief that US overthrow of regimes like those in
Afghanistan and Iraq free people from tyranny and establish human rights
and democracy. The movement to terminate the Bush juggernaut shoots itself
in the heart when it fails to identify another and better way for people
to liberate themselves from oppression. We can't afford to provide any
justification for the charge that we are the defenders of tyrants.
Let us instead be known as people whose fundamental solidarity is not with
one or another government but with all people who are struggling for
liberation from oppression.