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Iranian Youth Demand Political Change - 2002-11-27


In Iran, more than two weeks of student protests over the death sentence of a pro-reform history professor also included demands for free speech and political reforms. The unrest once again underscored the potential political power of Iran's youth.

From the start, student leader Arash Pahlevan-Nassir of the University of Science and Technology emphasized the protests went beyond simply calling for Professor Hashem Aghajari's release from jail. The outspoken history teacher was condemned to death for questioning religious rule in Iran.

"Our Islamic Revolution was founded with the blood of thousands of martyrs fighting for freedom of expression," he said, "but now freedom of expression gets you the death sentence."

Professor Azar Nafisi of the Washington-based Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies used to teach at Tehran University. She says the student's complaints resonate in other sectors of the society dissatisfied with the slow pace of President Mohammad Khatami's promised reforms.

"I think the most important thing about this student movement is how progressive it has been, how sympathetic it has been, not only to its own demands but its links to other groups," she said. "So its slogans are freedom of press, freedom of all political prisoners. And the slogans have changed from being religious-oriented or addressed to President Khatami, to a more secular, more democratic slogan with what they want: a free and plural Iran."

Iran expert Ali Reza Nourizadeh says the students also are venting the public's frustration over the souring economy. Mr. Nourizadeh runs the Center for Iran and Arab Studies in London.

"Next year, we are going to have more than four to five million out of work people and most of these students are coming out of university find no jobs," he said. "So the parents are worried and the students are worried."

Two weeks of street demonstrations earlier this month raised alarms through the conservative factions of Iran's religious leadership. They have not forgotten the influence of youthful street protests during the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled Shah Reza Pahlevi and brought them to power.

Several years ago, protests at Tehran University over the closure of a pro-reform newspaper quickly spread beyond the campus to other parts of the country. In the end, the demonstrations were crushed by a bloody police crackdown.

Since then, Mr. Nourizadeh says the government has tried to curb the youth movement or remold it along more conservative political lines.

"For the past three years, the authorities used all tools and forces in order to destroy the student movement in Iran." he said.

Why? The political power of Iran's youth cannot be underestimated. In a population of 66 million, seven out of 10 Iranians are under the age of 30. Pro-reform President Mohammad Khatami owes his election victories in large part to the youth vote.

But Professor Nafisi says the conservative leaders of the Islamic revolution believed they could mold the country's youth in their own image.

"This regime had banked so much on those the called 'children of the revolution,'" he said. "They were hoping that those who grow up under Islamic regime would have more sympathy for it and realize the ideals of the revolution."

Instead, she says, those children now are out in the streets shouting slogans against the revolution.

Ms. Nafisi says Iran's youngsters pose a threat to stability if they grow impatient with peaceful ways of expressing their frustrations.

She says Iran's leadership cannot ignore the country's youth. But, she says, it has discovered it cannot really control them either.

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