In Iran, Student Activist Pays Price for Democracy Pursuits

Times Staff Writer

Abdollah Momeni is a student on the run. The university activist began challenging Iran's Islamic regime seven years ago, and since then he has seen peers get arrested, jailed -- and even risk their lives to fight the system.

Last fall, he spent a night in police custody so harrowing that he considered abandoning his activism altogether.

Now, as the clerical regime tries to round up student leaders in the wake of days of violent unrest, Momeni is a target. Tehran's hard-line Revolutionary Court has issued arrest warrants for Momeni and about 55 others, all high-profile activists who have ties to a countrywide network of students.

The students say Iran's hard-line regime is trying to crush their movement before massive demonstrations, which are expected July 9, the anniversary of nationwide pro-democracy protests that took place in 1999.

Plainclothes police showed up at Momeni's apartment after dark one day this past week to arrest him. But Momeni doesn't go home now. He also believes that both his home phone and cellular phone are tapped by intelligence agents. If he is arrested, authorities could hold him again for just a night. Or, like several students arrested in 1999, he could be jailed for years.

Momeni is driven by the dreams of political freedom, human rights and secular democracy in Iran, ideas supported by many of Iran's 48 million young people, a large majority of the population. They are increasingly frustrated by the strict rule of clerics, but protests have been sporadic and relatively few are willing to take the risks that Momeni takes.

"This is a system that wants to hear only one voice -- its own," Momeni said this week in a conversation on a friend's cell phone. "How can they refuse to tolerate our opposition after we've agreed to work for change within the system?"

Although he is watching out for police and security officials in order to avoid arrest, Momeni still attends student meetings where he and others debate tactics. In the last week, they have staged sit-ins to demand the postponement of final exams and petitioned pro-reform members of parliament for the release of students who have been imprisoned for their political views.

Protesters chanted slogans calling for an end to the Islamic system of government and for death to the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Before Momeni and the other student organizers went into hiding, they convened their meetings in parks and coffee shops around Tehran. The core group of each university's student association meets regularly in such public places, debating the future of Iran's internal power struggle and charting strategy.

The Islamic Student Assn., an umbrella group of student organizations from around the country, has a few thousand members. The leadership core, including activists such as Momeni, is much smaller.

Tehran University, at the center of the student movement, spreads out along a city block in central Tehran, its aging buildings retaining an air of dignity.

Momeni came to the capital at age 17 from western Iran to attend Tabatabei University. He was married already, had a child and was well versed in the frustrations of being young in a crippled economy that reserves success for the establishment elite.

Today's student activists are mostly young people like Momeni -- middle-class, practicing Muslims from provincial cities -- an indication of the depth of opposition to the Islamic system.

Iran's revolution of the 1970s was shaped by clerics aiming to satisfy this broad, traditional swath of Iranian society, which felt that the overtly pro-Western tilt of the shah's regime was an affront to its social values.

Today dissent springs from this class rather than from the privileged, cosmopolitan suburbs of north Tehran. Once they witnessed the children of well-connected revolutionaries and senior clerics step into the shoes of the shah's associates -- complete with educations abroad and gaudy mansions -- students such as Momeni began to lose faith in the revolution's ideals.

The votes of young people seeking change twice brought moderate President Mohammad Khatami to power. Students were among the many Iranians seeking to combine Islam and democracy, and they backed Khatami's efforts to transform the country.

But hard-line clerics obstructed reforms, and students parted ways with Khatami. They began advocating a secular system.

The 1999 protests represented a watershed for the student movement. At least one student was killed when vigilantes stormed a dormitory and threw students off a balcony. Several more almost certainly died.

The number of politically active students dropped.

"What are we going to do?" asked 23-year-old physics student Maryam Sarafian, who has stopped attending political meetings. "What can we really accomplish?"

This time, some of the 55 student leaders facing arrest have already been detained. Student leaders hope that once the July 9 anniversary passes, authorities will release those they have targeted. But they are not sure.

"We used to differentiate within the system between its elected and appointed sides," Momeni said this week in a sit-down interview.

"Now, to us they're all the same," he added, tensely bending his long, slight frame. "We have to admit that the reform movement is at a dead end."

Momeni looks nothing like the long-haired youths whom state-controlled television likes to put on display after protests, as evidence that only thugs and spoiled rich kids oppose the system. He is clean-shaven, dresses in khakis and speaks softly in the dense, intellectual vernacular of Iran's student organizers.

Financial hardship makes it difficult for these student activists to travel abroad, and they have not been widely exposed to Western culture. However, they are enamored with Western political theories, especially liberalism. Their heroes are Iranian philosophers and dissident clerics whose writings are heavily influenced by secular nationalism and Western thought.

Like most students, Momeni relies on Internet sites run by Iranian reformers for access to the outside world. Satellite television is expensive, technically illegal and impossible to install on campus, where Momeni has been living with his family in a simple two-room flat crammed with books.

The student group to which Momeni belongs, the Office to Consolidate Unity, used to chart strategy at a decaying two-story villa in downtown Tehran, near the former U.S. Embassy, the site of the hostage drama during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But that meeting place is now off limits because of incessant surveillance by intelligence agents.

Alone most of the time now, his wife still supports his activism but fears for her husband. She believes that the authorities will eventually track him down.

Momeni says the student movement advocates only peaceful protest but is aware that demonstrations can lead to violence. Last week, some demonstrators provoked confrontations with the Islamic vigilante groups that the regime often deploys against them.

Passive resistance is unlikely to bring about the fundamental change students seek, Momeni says, but it might prod the regime into opening up, creating a foundation that can be built upon in more favorable circumstances.

"We're breaking taboos and pushing the red lines," he said.

As students criticize the regime more directly, their thinking goes, pro-reform newspapers will take a more aggressive tone and slowly the regime will be nudged into a higher tolerance for dissent.

In the meantime, the hours Momeni dedicates to politics leave only a small chunk of each day for academic work. A social welfare major, he has stopped going to classes, where he could be arrested. As is the case with many student activists, his degree is taking twice as long as it should.

"Unfortunately, the system doesn't make room for political activity, and you pay a great price for pursuing this goal," said Momeni, who was taken from his house last fall and interrogated all night blindfolded and handcuffed.

His captors also tried to intimidate him by accusing his parents of plotting to overthrow the regime -- a crime punishable by execution in Iran.

"For the first day or two afterwards, I thought of giving it all up and just having a simple life rather than one full of insecurity and anxiety," he said. "But later I thought I might come to regret not putting my capabilities to use. If your activism stems from true belief, I believe you'll never be regretful."

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