Sending A Message To The Ayatullahs

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Students at the University of Tehran usually devote their time to engineering, theology or foreign languages and escape their books by picnicking in the nearby Alborz Mountains. Last Tuesday evening, they poured out of their four-story dorms in a hilly section of central Tehran for another purpose altogether: to vent their anger at the theocrats running their country. They fought with police and progovernment thugs and chanted slogans against just about all of Iran's leaders. Soon they were joined by like-minded nonstudents. The protest wound down at about 1 in the morning — but the next evening, even more demonstrators gathered, some 3,000. By the end of the week, the protests had become a nightly affair, and pro-clergy vigilantes had retaliated by storming a dormitory and injuring 50 students. "Our society now is like a room full of gas," proclaimed Hadi Kahhal Zadeh, a member of the Office to Foster Unity, Iran's largest student organization, "ready to ignite with a small spark."

The schizoid regime in Iran — technically led by President Mohammed Khatami, whose attempts at reform have been stymied by supreme religious leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei — may be able to quell this rebellion, as it did a similar movement in 1999, aided by progovernment civilian militias. "Our leader has ordered us to protect the revolution," said Assad, a corpulent militia member, as he attempted to stop cars heading to the protests Friday. Assad characterizes the students as "prostitutes and gays."

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But the tumult in Tehran's streets suggests that the country's youth will not be quieted for long. More than 60% of Iran's 70 million people are under the age of 30. The oldest were just starting school when the Shah was toppled by Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979. Their fathers and uncles were sacrificed to Iraqi missiles and mines in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, which claimed more than 300,000 Iranian lives. They have inherited bitter memories and unrelenting strictures, and now the boys want girlfriends with whom they can hold hands and socialize freely, and the girls want to wear colorful head scarves rather than the black, tentlike veil known as the chador. They see only one way they can get those freedoms. "We want to change the nature of the state," says Abdollah Momeni, a student leader. "We want more democracy, human rights."

The flash point for last week's demonstrations was a government proposal to privatize higher education and introduce tuition fees. But the target of the students' anger went far beyond that: they attacked the essentials of Iran's theocratic state. "Down with the Islamic dictatorship!" they yelled. "Death to Khamenei!"

Washington has openly called for regime change in Iran. The Administration denies it plans to invade; it is hoping Iranians will get sick of their regime and topple it from within. The U.S. has more sway in Iran than one might think. Much of the population is openly enthusiastic about the American way of life. That is especially true of the young, who get a far different message about America from surreptitious viewing of videos and satellite television than from official anti-U.S. diatribes. Every night Iranian youths tune in to four different radio broadcasts beamed out of Los Angeles by U.S.-based opposition groups. Last week these channels spread the word, in real time, about the protests.

Until now, Iran's young people have avoided a head-on clash with the clergy. Instead they slip around restrictions. A visitor to a women-only section of a Tehran mosque found it had been turned into a sort of feminist refuge. All the women had removed their veils, the younger women were smoking cigarettes, and one mother was helping her teenage daughter wriggle into a new pair of jeans that were too tight. Last week Tehran's youth announced it was tired of enjoying freedoms only in secluded rooms.