To and fro and back to the middle of the status quo

Wendell Steavenson
25 November 2002

A Tuesday afternoon, raining, grey, darkening, Tehran downtown where the traffic is stuck like riveted mecchano. The first big crowd of students was inside the main gate of Tehran University, shouting, sloganing, whistling with derision.

They were calling for the release of Hashem Aghajari, a great favourite of the reform movement, a son of the revolution, one of the students that took the American Embassy hostage in 1979, he lost a brother and a leg in the war with Iraq, a University teacher, journalist. A man who has argued on numerous occasions that the structures of supreme leadership and guidance that govern and control the Islamic Republic are not appropriate. He gave a speech to this effect in the provincial city of Hamedan and was arrested and sentenced to death for his troubles. The students were demonstrating the verdict, galvanised by its harshness. It’s now three years since they last demonstrated and were beaten by militia for their trouble; three were killed.

As long as they stayed on campus the students were allowed their protest. The police massed buses to block them from view. The opposite pavement is lined with bookshops and hundreds of people milled in and out of them, pretending to peruse, watching the show, tacitly supporting. Standing in clumps on the corners were basij, defenders of the revolution, plain-clothed, bearded, in black leather jackets – loitering intimidators. After a while things calmed down and everyone went home.

A stream of anger

Another demonstration at Sharif University a week later: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei had asked the judiciary to revise Aghajari’s sentence, but the student momentum had begun to vent more general frustrations. People are dissatisfied, disillusioned, but it seemed with no leadership and little coherence of demands or agenda. The reform debate proceeds inconclusively in a political arena ignored by most people getting on with their everyday.

In front of the gates of the university, twenty women sat on the curb in a line. They said they were supporting their sons inside. They were nice middle-class women with lipstick and patterned headscarves, sitting quietly together. The crowd beyond was made up mostly of women, some wearing chadors, high school students, a few older men. They were an angry, watching, passive present force.

A scuffle broke out. A man, grey-haired, caught in a mash of security agents, one with an earpiece, another with a walkie-talkie, they slapped him in the face, four or five of them trying to cram him into a black Peugeot. He struggled, flailed, the crowd retracted to the walls of the alley and catcalled, wailing, whistled. Two women tried to intervene and were shoved back. Another woman shouted, ‘Don’t take him! Don’t take him!’ The man was pushed and pulled up the street. Separately two women were being beaten back after a verbal assault on a policeman. The policeman struck out at them. Later, people said they too had been taken away.

The police moved people down the narrow street, pushing them to disperse. High school boys ran around them like a game and the police chased them with sticks. The crowd was two or three hundred, forty, fifty, sixty police. One girl had tears running down her face. I asked her why she was crying. ‘Don’t I have a right to cry for my misfortune? This is jungle law, people who speak the truth are arrested.’ ‘They play with Islam!’ said her mother. ‘I hope they kill everybody.’ They spoke in a stream of anger, emotional and exaggerated invective; it became apparent that an agent was watching them and they went inside their block.

The politics of waiting

I’ve been talking to reformists for a couple of weeks. Student demonstrations all over Tehran, and throughout Iran, are happening as reformists are trying to pass two bills that would limit the Guardian Council veto of electoral candidates and reinforce President Khatami’s authority over the arbitrary judiciary. It seems like the last chance for the reformists who have not achieved much legislation since Khatami was publicly elected in 1997; everyone expects the Guardian Council to reject the bills; ultimately a decision will rest with the Expediency Council where the old President Rafsanjani presides. No one knows what will happen then.

Jamile Kadivar is a woman MP married to Ayatollah Mohajerani, former Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance indicted for his liberalising troubles, now marking time at Khatami’s Centre for Dialogue of Civilisations before being called to be a Presidential candidate (perhaps). He is in the same ‘Construction’ party as Hashemi Rafsanjani, which seems a bit odd, but one commentator suggested that ‘they think they can put Mohajerani in and get eight more years.’

Kadivar told me: ‘From the beginning we thought Aghajari’s verdict was based on some kind of political calculation. The conservatives aim to create a situation similar to the dormitory incident so that they can head the state towards militarisation. I also think that the death sentence was a way of testing public reaction…In parliament, we say that every nine days the Conservative faction creates another crisis for the whole process of reform.’

Shirin Ebadi is a human rights lawyer with a fifteen-year sentence, currently under appeal, for ‘publishing false information’. She is a lot less outspoken these days than she used to be. ‘Mr Khatami should have done this earlier,’ she told me, ‘now it is too late. He has only a year and a half left in office. Already he has been President for six and a half years…Four years ago the press and newspapers were much more open and not many people listened to foreign broadcasts – now they listen to them all the time, because they don’t trust the local news. It is like the early days of the Revolution in the time of the Shah.’

Saleh Nikbakht is Aghajari’s lawyer. He is not a politician, but he is a Kurd. The views that he expressed were those of his client: ‘Mr Aghajari criticised the angle of view of some of the clerics and the principle of guided leadership. He said that we should not allow such hierarchies and that when we see a member of the clergy we should not think that he is something special; he is just a part of the people. The relationship between the clergy and the public should be like a student and professors, not like a Lord and his followers.’ Aghajari had announced that he would not appeal his sentence. He told Mr Nikbakht: ‘This verdict should have a high cost for those who ordered it.’

Hadi Semati is an easy-talking Professor of Politics at Tehran University, a Khatami policy wonk: ‘We are not going to gain a lot in the next two or three years – reform is a fight that will drag on for a long time. But the debate has got to be pushed further. Now it is just gridlock. I predicted four years ago that we could have this status quo for a long time. Of course, there is a limit, but who knows when it will be reached? Now it is equilibrium: neither side can eliminate the other and it is very solid; the power of the people versus the institutions?’

Ebrahim Yazdi is over 70 and head of the Freedom Movement of Iran, which has argued for greater democracy and the rule of law for forty years. He was foreign minister during the interim period between the Shah and Ayatollah Khomeini. His party is banned and he is currently facing charges of, variously, acting against the security of the state, spreading anti-Islamic propaganda, having contacts with foreign diplomats and insulting the late and current Supreme Leaders.

Yazdi’s perspective was wide and historical: ‘If you look at Iranian history you will recognise the power structure even before Islam came to the Persian Empire. There were two pillars, the Shah and the clergy and they ruled together. From early times the clergy had power because they had a close intimate relationship with the ordinary people. Whenever there was a conflict between the Shah and the clergy the Shah always lost, but at the same time history shows that seldom have the clergy ruled directly…At the moment there is a quarrel. It started 150 years ago between modernity and tradition.’

Defending the sanctities

The day after Sharif, we were back at Tehran University. Outside the gates was a crowd of 200 women chanting, fists in the air, some old, grey hair under their headscarves. ‘We are here to free Iran from the Mullah,’ one woman told me. They chanted: ‘The student basij must be eliminated.’

Inside the campus the basij had organised a rally to address economic corruption. A crowd several thousand strong had assembled, much larger than the reformist students had been able to muster. Some held pictures of Khomeini and placards that read: ‘To fight social corruption and prostitution!’ ‘Israel must be eliminated from the arena of the Universe.’ ‘We are all soldiers of Khamenei and our ears listen to your command!’ Every so often there was call and response: ‘Death to America! Death to England! Death to Israel! Death to Saddam!’

The speaker spoke: ‘…the same people who interfered at the time of the dormitory incident are interfering now! … As Khamenei has said, some people think they can move public opinion where they want…political interference in the University is condemned! … the student is awake and hates conspiracy!’

We tried to talk to a group of chador girls but a security agent came over, demanded to see my identity card and then told them that it was forbidden to talk to foreign journalists, because of the publication of false information.

I interviewed one of the speakers, a member of the basij called Mohammed Zeinal Zadeh, in his last year at the Medical School. He was modest, moderate, spoke with a chain of prayer beads through his fingers, intoning something with his lips constantly and made sure he did not look at me directly.

I asked him about the previous ten days of demonstrations: ‘We believe these actions do not represent and are not reflecting the mass of students. For example, Tehran University has 50,000 students. At the gathering of the students protesting Aghajari’s verdict there were only about 1,000 participants. We object to those who use the students as tools.’

He agreed that Aghajari’s verdict was harsher than the offence merited; but maintained that he had been rightly convicted of insulting the sanctities. He seemed to see no need for reform: ‘You refer to reform, but we don’t have reform in a general sense. Whoever takes actions against poverty against corruption and discrimination, these we support. But whoever calls for other reforms, whoever has other ideas, we call “supporters of America”.’

It looks a little exciting for a moment in Tehran. But the status quo prevails.

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