TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

“Death to the Dictator”Protests at Amir Kabir University in Iran

The Iraq Study Group has, notoriously, called for “talks” with Iran, as if there were reasonable interlocutors in Ahmadinejad’s gang. The octogenarian sages of that bipartisan committee evidently know something that Iranian students don’t—or is it perhaps the other way around. While Baker, blinded by the rose-colored glasses of realism (“let’s make a deal” is the core of his philosophy), hopes to practice his conversational Farsi, people who really have to live in the Islamic Republic know better and, as reported widely, students in Tehran have courageously confronted the regime. Bloggers in the safety of the US may quibble over the terminological propriety of “Islamic fascism” (“how can they be fascist if they don’t speak German,” they ask cleverly). But when Mahmoud the Magnificent visited Tehran’s Amir Kabir University last week, he reportedly faced some clear language: “Fascist president, the polytechnic is not for you.”

According to the Mail and Guardian, Ahmadinejad

faced chants of “Death to the dictator” as he addressed a gathering in the university’s sports hall last week. Several hundred students forced their way in to voice anger over a clampdown on universities since he became president last year.

That’s a key point to remember: yes, a clampdown on the universities in Iran—even as former President Khatami was being feted in western universities, from Harvard to Saint Andrews. Do western academics care about repression of scholars and students anywhere? (Answer: yes, they care about Ward Churchill, but that’s about it.)

While his aides played down the incident, the Guardian has learned details of the violent and chaotic events. The disclosures came on Sunday as early returns from Friday’s council elections indicated that Ahmadinejad’s hardline supporters had failed in their attempt to take control of several key local authorities. Turnout was estimated at about 60% after reformers urged liberal-minded electors to vote in large numbers to protest against the government’s policies.

So while the Iranian population grows restive and the student movement becomes bolder, the Iraq Study Group proposes de facto bolstering the regime in Tehran by granting it respect and regional influence. Which side are they on, anyhow? And who elected the ISG anyhow? (Answer: half never held elective office.)

The protest at Amir Kabir included an incident where Ahmadinejad’s limousine was surrounded, until security guards dispersed the students.

Protesters later surrounded the president’s car, prompting a security guard to fire a stun grenade to warn them off. Four cars in the presidential convoy collided in their haste to leave. Ahmadinejad’s staff later insisted he had remained calm and ordered that the students should go unpunished. But some of those present say he accused them of being paid United States agents who would be confronted.

“He threatened us directly, saying that what we were doing was against the wishes of the nation,” said Babak Zamanian, a spokesperson for Amir Kabir university’s Islamic students’ committee. “After that, the students protested even more sharply, calling him a lying religious dictator and shouting, ‘Forget America and start thinking about us!'”

The content of that slogan is crucial. It identifies the policy of disregarding the interests of the Iranian people, while committing to international adventures. That’s why Ahmadinejad can bankroll Hezbollah’s dole roles in Lebanon, while Iranians impoverish. Not to mention his outlays for agents to influence public debate in the West.

“We were chanting, ‘Get lost Ahmadinejad!’ and ‘Ahmadinejad — element of discrimination and corruption.’ You could see from his face that he was really shocked. He wasn’t flashing his usual smile, and at one stage I thought he was going to cry. He told his supporters to respond with a religious chant hailing Ahmadinejad, but he was so shaken he was actually chanting it himself.”

Another student said: “He was trying to keep control of himself, but you could see he was angry and upset.”

The dictator in a rage? Out of control? This bears comparison to the temper tantrums of other dictators. Think of Chaplin’s Great Dictator. Yet this is not just about his personality. The Iranian student movement has a long history as a source of dissent and protest. The dialectic of repression and emancipation plays out in university settings in particularly salient ways. The incident at Amir Kabir is one extraordinary story, but it is also symptomatic of the confrontation between brute power and a bold aspiration for freedom.

The university authorities’ contentious use of the disciplinary code was said to be a trigger for last week’s protest. About 70 students have been suspended and threatened with expulsion for various political activities, including writing articles critical of the government.

Last month, the authorities demolished two building belonging to the Islamic students’ committee — a moderate grouping representing diverse opinions. An elected student body was also disbanded. Women students have been told to wear conservative dress and remove any makeup.

In this atmosphere, activists at Amir Kabir university — a traditional hotbed of political activism — regarded Ahmadinejad’s visit as a deliberate provocation and decided to protest. While many chanted, a hard core waved banners and burned his portrait, some ignoring instructions to cover their faces.

The 21-year-old student holding the “fascist president” banner was among those threatened with expulsion. He is said to be in grave danger after foreign news outlets, including the Guardian, published a picture of his gesture. Friends say he went into hiding after being confronted by two vigilantes.

“They said they would pull his father out of the grave [an ancient Persian threat],” said one student. “He is in real danger. Vigilantes have been standing at the dormitory doors asking for him.”

Students now fear an even fiercer crackdown. “We believe [the authorities] will react much worse than before,” said Armin Salmasi (26) a leading activist. “We are already under constant surveillance. The student movement in Iran is going to be driven underground — just like it was before the revolution.”

Just like before the revolution—with the difference western liberals and the left sided with the democratic student movement “before the revolution.” Where are they today?

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