The last two years have seen an upsurge of the Iranian student movement — and a sharp turn to the left, as more and more student radicals become influenced by Marxism.
Since December, the Iranian government has arrested dozens of socialist students for attempting to organise demonstrations. Laura Schwartz, Sacha Ismail and Sofie Buckland spoke to Azadeh and Kave, two activists now living in London who were until recently active at Tehran University.
Kave: The British left seems to be in a horrible state. There are so many groups, and many of them are soft on political Islam, on Hizbollah, Hamas and Ahmedinejad. I have only found a few groups with more progressive ideas, including Workers' Liberty and HOPI. The most important thing for me is to persuade socialists in Britain to support
the left in Iran.
Since the collapse of the reformists [the modernising wing of the Islamist regime, who held the presidency until Ahmedinejad's election in 2005], there have been big left movements in Iran, but these have faced heavy repression, including widespread arrests and torture.
Still, in Tehran University - I am not a student at that university but my political activity was there - we had a big demonstration, perhaps 1,000, with red flags. We shouted slogans like "Freedom and equality", "No to war" and "The university is not an army garrison".
Azadeh: At Tehran University there was also a big demonstration to protest against an exhibition in the political science faculty celebrating the Iran-Iraq war [1980-88]. The university has many links to the military, with many military cadets, particularly in the political science department. Young members of the Revolutionary Guard
[a highly trained counter-revolutionary Islamist militia] walk around the university with guns! So left activists smashed up the exhibit, pulled down the statues, burnt the flags. It was brilliant. After that they held a ceremony, but it was more like a funeral!
K: Student activists have been thrown in prison, and subjected to torture and immense pressure, both physical and psychological. A number have been forced to "confess" on TV.
How did the socialist movement among students develop?
K: Six years ago there were very few communists in Iran. The debate was between the conservatives and the reformists, who dominated student Islamic associations (in Iran, remember, everything has to be "Islamic"!) The reformist groups, of course, put their faith in the wing of the regime around president Khatami. Since then, many of their leaders have become disillusioned and turned to support for liberal capitalism and for the US - even, in some cases, for a US attack on Iran.
A: Yes, comrades have paid dearly for his comments. The communist movement began with a few determined activists, people like Behrooz Karimizadeh [who is now in prison following the recent demonstrations]. After a while leftist papers or bulletins, usually 12 pages, began to be published, beginning in Tehran and then spreading elsewhere - to Isfahan, cities in Kurdistan, to the north of Iran. The different groups established loose relationships with each other. That is how Freedom and Equality Seeking Students began.
K: The government would close the papers down, at which point they would start again with a different name. Sometimes the new paper would be ready to print in advance!
At one point, before FESS was established, some ex-reformists developed links to the Tudeh party [Iran's Stalinist party, who took a cravenly pro-Islamist line during the Iranian revolution]. Tudeh is a deeply pro-regime organisation: their press ignores student protests, but, we like to say, it carries pages and pages if a mullah sneezes. Tudeh made a big deal about Shirin Ebadi, claiming she was a model for women, despite being an Islamic nationalist who said she wanted to kiss the hands of every Iranian MP! [We pointed out that the SWP have also talked her up!]
Every June, there are student demonstrations to mark the anniversary of the 1999 protests in which Ahmed Batebi was arrested. Back then, it was mainly reformists, with a few left-wingers around the edges. By 2006, the left was strong enough to have our own demonstrations. That is how FESS came into existence.
It can't do national conferences, for obvious reasons, but it does hold events. Sometimes we go up for walking trips in the mountains, which is the only safe place to meet free from interference! Before FESS, most student activists were at just a few universities.
Repression has done us one favour, by making us more popular! Suddenly there were reports, posts on the internet and so on, of students campaigning "for freedom and equality" in all parts of in Iran, in small towns, even in religious institutions. There is a branch at the International Qazvin Khomeini University!
Tell us more about students in Iran.
K: There are about two million students in Iran. Some are at state universities, which are free; others at private ones, where you have to pay. The University of Tehran is free. There has been a lot of privatisation in Iran, but not yet in the universities. We don't really campaign much on issues like fees - when even having a demonstration is illegal, there are more important things to worry about!
A: 68% of university students are women; in fact, the government has a project aiming to reduce this to 50%, as part of its attempt to privilege boys. In my political science class at Tehran University, about 70 out of 100 are women.
K: When I studied architecture, there 15 men and 80 women!
A: Yes, but there are some subjects which women are not allowed to take: 56 courses in fact. Electrical engineering, mine engineering, pilots, some areas of law.
What sort of campaigns do you run?
K: Our most important campaign is to get support for FESS, both inside Iran and internationally. We want our group to be known across the world.
A: We have done a lot of campaigning for women's equality. Do you know about the 1 Million Signatures campaign? [An attempt to collect one million signatures to amend the existing Iranian constitution to include equality for women.] I was initially involved in this initiative. However, it became clear that the general trend of it was to argue that there is no problem with Islam, that Islam is perfectly compatible with women's rights and that the problem is merely the current government. In Qom, which is a sort of Vatican city in Iran, many of the clergy became leaders of the campaign. As a result of these developments, many of the activists, including most of the students, left the campaign.
I would like to strongly disagree with this view of Islam and women's rights. The Koran is a book of Islamic regulations governing how people live, including the relationships between men and women. According to this book, women are property!
K: Maybe many individual Muslims are okay on women's rights. But we are not talking about individual religious people, we are talking about a campaign whose specific aim was to bolster the reformist wing of the regime. It looked to people like [former reformist president] Khatami, [defeated reformist presidential candidate] Moeen and even [former president] Rafsanjani. They claimed to be non-political, but of course the issue of women's rights is highly political. It was a political project, and its politics were defined by its softness on religion. The campaign would issue statements attacking the left, making clear their hostility to leftists.
A: Some activists, including Anoosheh Azaadbar [the jailed student Education Not for Sale has nominated for NUS Honorary Vice-President] tried to start an alternative, secular campaign, but it was not possible.
K: The 1 Million Signatures people wanted a stage army who could be wheeled out to help them manoeuvre with the government - not an activist campaign.
A: I was also involved in campaigns against child labour in poor parts of Tehran, in supporting prostitutes and in a a group which tried to get financial support for poorer students at Tehran University. I felt it was necessary to indicate my politics with action, not just words. Because of previous behaviour by some leftists, socialism has a bad reputation; thus I have tried to demonstrate our real values.
- The next part of this interview, published in the next issue of Solidarity, will discuss the students links with the Iranian workers' movement as well as other issues.