The Rise of Students: Catalysts for Change in Iran
Photo: The Iranian student protests of July 1999, was the first widespread and violent public protests to occur in Iran since the early years of the Iranian Revolution.
Undoubtedly, the social and political developments in Iran over the past few decades bear the unmistakable imprints of the leftist student movement. The influence of students extends far beyond their union demands, as they have consistently and relentlessly inserted themselves into every discourse and demand, both big and small, within Iran’s political landscape. However, this article focuses solely on examining the role of the student movement in the mass uprisings aimed at toppling the Islamic government.
Today, the collective memory of Iran includes significant uprisings that occurred in July 1999, 2009, 2017, 2019, and 2022, all aimed at overthrowing the Islamic Republic. While students have actively participated in all these uprisings, two cases stand out—the first mass uprising against the Islamic Republic in July 1999 (which took place within the university) and the Zan, Zindegi, Azadi revolution (the largest mass protests in the history of the Islamic Republic). These cases provide a clearer understanding of the student movement’s position and its role in shaping the country’s macro developments.
Some observers in the political sphere argue that the transient nature of student life, both academically and socially, prevents students from exerting a long-term and profound influence on the political atmosphere of society. However, this claim is entirely unfounded and does not align with the reality of the world we live in. In fact, the success of mass protests by the Iranian people has consistently relied on the level of preparedness, engagement, and organization of the students.
Student protests in 2008
Consider the 1990s as an example. The Islamic Republic had weathered the suffocating and violent period of the 1980s, marked by extensive killings, particularly leftists, and the eight-year war with Iraq had concluded. Societal discontent and demands for change had grown significantly, pushing the Islamic Republic to engage in government reforms in an attempt to address the multifaceted crises it faced. However, it took less than two years for the people, disillusioned with the government, to rise up and mount their first significant challenge to the Islamic Republic, despite its imperfections and weaknesses. In July 1999, the world witnessed, for the first time, a considerable crowd of people gathering in opposition to the Islamic government, particularly through the events that unfolded within the university. The power of the developments in July 1999 compelled the Islamic Republic to reinforce its repressive forces in order to quell further protests. This pivotal moment convinced the public that the suffocating era of the 1980s was over and that a new phase of widespread protests against the entire system had begun. It also led the international community to recognize that a government faced with such levels of resentment and protest within its society could not be easily reformed and was not acceptable in the realm of international relations.
From the July 1999 protests onwards, all the events and their impacts that we have succinctly described unfolded with the intervention and prominent role of leftist students. Within these developments, it was the students who became the collective voice of society’s protest against the Islamic Republic. They bravely took to the streets, defying Islamic rule, and endured violence, imprisonment, and torture. Simultaneously, they rallied the community to join them in their resistance against the government. This marked the first instance in which the Islamic Republic confronted such a severe political crisis—one that not only foiled attempts at “reform” but also aimed to overthrow the government. In this crisis, the students played the most pivotal role in its inception.
As years went by, the society experienced even more widespread uprisings and protests, characterized by increased intensity and violence. Without a doubt, students were present and actively engaged at various levels in all of these events. Two notable instances of such protests occurred in December 2017 and January 2020. In the first case, students played a significant role in shaping the protests and particularly in popularizing the slogan “principled & reformer, the time is over for you.” During the second instance, they raised the banner of seeking justice for the Ukrainian plane tragedy across universities nationwide, chanting to the government, “The Islamic Republic must be destroyed.”
However, following the tragic murder of Mahsa/Jina Amini and the onset of the women’s revolution, the entire Iranian society underwent a profound transformation, and the student movement emerged as one of the primary actors and driving forces behind the revolution. This marked the first women’s revolution in history, originating in Iran, and it was the young people, students, and women in the streets, universities, and schools who bore the weight of its protests.
During the months of September and October 2022, over a hundred universities across the country went on strike, boycotting classrooms, while dozens of universities held passionate rallies day after day until the middle of October, keeping the revolutionary spirit alive for months. For the first time, students played a significant role in macro-political developments on such a grand scale, both by advancing the political discourse of the revolution and by organizing protests and strikes.
Student protests against mandatory hijab and death sentences in the past mounts.
This development led to a significant increase in the students’ popularity among the general population, and the importance of their work in the ongoing revolutionary process, as well as their ability to organize beyond the confines of the university, became evident to society as a whole. Simultaneously, the experience of the autumn of 1401 had a profound impact on the Islamic Republic, making it acutely aware of the grave threat posed by the universities to the advancement of the revolution. Consequently, the authorities of the Islamic Republic resorted to any means necessary to suppress the universities. Leaked bulletins and documents from this period clearly demonstrate that during the autumn of 2022, the repressive forces of the entire government bowed before the students and sought to control the university environment.
The subsequent months were characterized by a wave of arrests, torture, student suspensions, and bans on entering the university, all orchestrated by the government. These measures were aimed at rendering the university atmosphere passive and imprisoning the organizing forces among the students, severing the bond between the students and the wider society. The government employed these oppressive tactics in a desperate attempt to buy a few more hours of life for itself.
The response from the Islamic Republic has been one of fear and suppression. The government recognized the immense power held by the students and sought to control and undermine their influence through repressive measures. Arrests, torture, suspensions, and bans on entering the university became tools employed to stifle dissent and maintain control.
Yet, these oppressive tactics have not extinguished the spirit of resistance. The bond between the students and the broader society remains resilient, even in the face of adversity. The leaked documents and bulletins from the authorities lay bare the government’s desperation to maintain its grip on power.
As we reflect on the Iranian student movement, we witness a profound struggle for freedom, justice, and change. The students have demonstrated their ability to challenge the status quo and push for a better future. Their actions have inspired hope and awakened a collective consciousness that refuses to be silenced.
The story of the Iranian student movement serves as a testament to the power of grassroots organizing and the resilience of those who dare to challenge oppressive systems. It is a reminder that even in the face of repression, the seeds of revolution and transformation can find fertile ground.