As Students Return, Iran's Regime Braces for More Protests

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Morteza Nikoubazl / Reuters

Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard attend Friday prayers at a university in Tehran

The young man spent the tumultuous summer making Molotov cocktails used in the street demonstrations, spray-painting walls with antigovernment slogans and distributing leaflets supporting the leading opposition figure, Mir-Hussein Mousavi. But he was no ordinary hooligan: he also happened to be a top law-school student at University of Tehran, an idealist who was hoping to use his degree to really get under the regime's skin.

Then, a few weeks ago, authorities notified the 24-year-old student that he was not welcome back to campus — ever — despite having only one semester left to go. "I was going to continue the protests with my law degree in a more effective manner," the thin, curly-haired student told TIME. "But now I am just a simple pedestrian." His story is similar to that of other Iranians interviewed by TIME who have either been suspended or thrown out of school, lending credence to emerging reports of a widespread purge of universities by ruling hard-liners worried about a resurgence of protests when campuses reopen on Sept. 23.

Even before the momentous semester begins next week, students will have to clear one hurdle — what is expected to be a large antigovernment demonstration this Friday on Quds Day, ostensibly an annual memorial in support of the Palestinian people. The authorities are certainly worried about an uncontrollable crowd of seething young students. They have reasons to be fearful. The government shut down campuses early because of the presidential election, but students nevertheless led the mass protests that followed the announcement of the results. Roughly half of Tehran's students are from out of town, and these students were sent packing in mid-June. They are now streaming back to start the new school year, swelling the size of the student population to levels not seen since the election. The government is already hinting that it may shut down universities for the entire fall term.

At the moment, the regime is being a bit more selective about its targets. According to a report by the reformist website Peykiran, officials have focused on politically troublesome university students in Tehran, Tabriz and Shiraz, whom they are banning from living in campus dormitories, subjecting to disciplinary hearings or outright suspending or expelling. Advar News, a student news agency, claimed that 50 students at University of Tehran — which was the epicenter of not only this summer's protests but also demonstrations that led to the fall of the Shah 30 years ago — were recently forced to defend themselves for hours in front of a disciplinary committee. "I am tired of going to university, which always looks like a prison," says a young woman who was suspended for the coming term from Allameh Tabataba'i University in Tehran. "Every day, they harass us by any means — threatening to reject us or suspend us [so we will] be quiet."

The authorities know that street demonstrations could easily flare up again, considering that some half-dozen universities crowd Enqelab (Revolution) Boulevard alone, site of a millions-strong silent march in June. But can the students dent the hard-liners' seemingly armored position of power? New York University professor Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, author of a new book, The Predictioneer's Game, that argues that pressure by student demonstrators this summer has already led to concessions by the regime, predicts that the influence of students will rise sharply this month to a level that will rival that of Khamenei's. "That doesn't mean they're going to rule the day," says Mesquita. "But it does mean we will see a substantial uptick in action by students and dissidents and increasing efforts by Khamenei and others perceived as hard-liners to find some pragmatic ways to accommodate or co-opt them."

Of course, dissent is not limited to the students. In the aftermath of the postelection crisis, dozens of professors resigned or went on strike over the crackdown and more were thought to have been whisked to notorious Evin prison. In late August, Khamenei rekindled fears of a purge of "un-Islamic" faculty, declaring that studying the social sciences "promotes doubts and uncertainty." Speaking in front of a group of conservative students and professors, he said, "Many of the humanities and liberal arts are based on philosophies whose foundations are materialism and disbelief in godly and Islamic teachings."

The regime may have already bullied some university professors into submission. One recent graduate student in Tehran says he has firsthand knowledge of how this plot works: "I know professors in Amir Kabir University who are cooperating with Intelligence Ministry and have no scientific values, but [are there] just as Ph.D.-holding soldiers who attend school to control students."