Helping Iran’s student protesters
No one understands the revolutionary potential of students better than old revolutionaries. That’s one reason Iranian security forces fought hard with tear gas, batons and arrests this week to put down university protests across the country. Another is that six months after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection, and despite persistent government efforts to quash the unrest, the protests continue. To these students, the leadership that took power three decades ago in a popular uprising against the repressive government of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi is now the repressive establishment. With youthful courage and conviction, they are now daring to shout “Down with the dictator!” while holding aloft photographs of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to witnesses and amateur videos.
Students played a key role in toppling the shah in 1979 with street protests in Iran and abroad, challenging the regime and galvanizing international opinion against it. Then, as now, many of the students were secular democrats, while others were devout Shiite Muslims. They were part of a broad movement that included radical leftists, liberal democrats and religious leaders, not the least of whom was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Paris-based exile who returned to become the first supreme leader of the Islamic Republic. The religious students made their biggest headlines after the shah’s fall, when they held Americans hostage in the U.S. Embassy for 444 days, paving the way for clerics to consolidate power in Iran. Ahmadinejad was part of the religious student leadership.
Today’s students belong to a broad movement led by reformist politicians Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, both of whom ran for president against Ahmadinejad. The government and the increasingly powerful Revolutionary Guard know from experience that students are a vanguard of the discontented; they view the young protesters as a threat to their divine responsibility to maintain the Islamic state.
The students, for their part, seem to be girding for a long fight, and the West should follow their lead. Western governments should offer the reform movement moral support, as President Obama did in his Nobel Peace Prize speech, promising to be a voice for the aspirations of reformers such as the “hundreds of thousands who have marched silently through the streets of Iran.” But the West also must be careful not to undermine the reformists with too close an embrace. This is a national movement, and the Iranians who are questioning the legitimacy of their own government are diligent students of their revolutionary forefathers.
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