From where I sit - History of violence and betrayal

August 13, 2009

When hardline militia attacked the University of Tehran's student dormitories earlier this summer, it was a shock for Iran's academic community and society at large.

Up to 150 students were jailed, at least one was killed and many more were injured. Several other students were killed later in Tehran's streets. The attack followed a mass rally that challenged the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran's President.

Iran's universities have often suffered brutal repression at the hands of those in power. In December 1953, three students were shot dead as they and their peers demonstrated against a visit to the country by Richard Nixon, at that time the US Vice-President, after a CIA-backed coup had reinstated the Shah.

Similar repressions that led to many deaths occurred at the university in 1978, when students demonstrated against the Shah's policies.

On 9 July 1999, after a protest against the banning of a pro-reform newspaper, paramilitary vigilantes supporting the Government broke into the university's dormitories. There were multiple arrests and at least one confirmed fatal shooting. Several students were arrested, found guilty and sentenced to death. This was decreased to 15 years in prison after a domestic and international outcry, but one of them died on hunger strike.

This summer's attack on Tehran was followed by similar incidents at other universities, including Isfahan and Shiraz. The arrested students remain in custody. Information on those detained is unavailable.

In the past seven decades, Iranian universities have been at the forefront of protests against the pre-1979 secular monarchy and, in recent years, the dictatorship of conservative politicians. Scholars are unhappy with the rigid academic and social restrictions established by the fundamentalists who run Iran.

But the university movement remains largely frustrated owing to a lack of leadership. There is a dearth of domestic support for the university-based civil rights movement, and most senior officials in the academy are appointed by the Government.

So far, the West has failed to offer its support. Before the 1979 revolution, it stood firmly against the Iranian universities' aspirations by backing the Shah. After the revolution, the US and its allies never supported Iranian students and scholars.

In addition, academic societies in Western countries do not co-operate with Iranian universities or support them in their struggle against the fundamentalists.

So it is hardly surprising that Iranian student and academic movements are pessimistic about the support they might see from Western colleagues.

But the current situation is a historic opportunity for the West to redress past failings. Its universities and international scholarly societies should seek to rebuild trust with their Iranian colleagues by expressing their solidarity with Iran's universities and condemning the state's violence against them.

However, nothing is more important than the West refusing to recognise Mr Ahmadinejad as President. If Western leaders shake his hand, as their predecessors did with the Shah, they will have to wait a long time before Iranian academics are ready to do the same with Western scholars and universities.

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