By Ardeshir Moaveni
On June 10, Iranian students began demonstrating against a plan to
privatize universities. By the end of June, the Iranian authorities
reported that over 4,000 people had been arrested, including hundreds
of students, in connection with what had developed into the most
violent unrest in Iran since July 1999. The protests have opened new
fault lines in Iran's already fractious society.
Monarchist-oriented satellite television channels based in the United
States helped fan the protests in Iran with intensive coverage of the
upheaval. Protests ebbed by June 20, but the violence opened a window
on the tug-of-war occurring within the country's political
establishment. This volatile atmosphere has prompted reform-minded
supporters of President Mohammed Khatami's administration and their
conservative opponents to strive to develop new political tactics in
Iran's ongoing domestic leadership struggle.
Khatami has titular control over the Law Enforcement Agency and
Ministry of Intelligence. However, conservative forces have developed
parallel institutions that, as recent events underscore, are capable
of acting beyond the administration's control. The Revolutionary
Guards and the Judiciary Department's security corps, which are both
loyal to conservative forces, have formed a loose, burgeoning network
of plainclothes operatives, informers and interrogators. They maintain
their own jails, courts and interrogation chambers.
On June 15, the Law Enforcement Agency filed an unprecedented claim
against pro-conservative plainclothes agents for attacking Allameh
Tabatabai University students in their dormitories. This charge broke
a longstanding taboo against prosecuting security operatives linked to
conservatives. However, the move prompted an immediate riposte.
Quasi-autonomous security bodies, euphemistically called `parallel
security centers,' reportedly acting on orders from conservative
officials, rounded up activists and student leaders.
On June 27, Saeed Mortazavi, Tehran's conservative prosecutor-general,
raised the stakes by indicating that students had named several
members of parliament as accomplices, possibly clearing the way for
the lawmakers' arrest. Mortazavi also told the Iranian Student News
Agency that his office was investigating the conduct of several
newspapers in connection with the protests. This high-stakes game
underscores the inability of reformists and conservatives to
The detention of students by conservative-oriented vigilante groups
appears to contravene a June 11 edict issued by the Supreme National
Security Council - legally the country's highest decision-making
office concerning security matters. That measure gave the country's
Ministry of Intelligence the authority to make arrests in connection
with the unrest.
Initially authorities did not reveal information concerning the number
of those arrested and their whereabouts. Under mounting pressure from
President Khatami and his political allies, Iran's Prosecutor-General
Abdulnabi Namazi disclosed that as of June 27, over 4,000 people had
been detained, roughly 2,000 of whom were still in custody at that
time. Speaking at a news conference, Interior Minister Abdolvahed
Mussavi-Lari formally protested the way these detentions occurred.
Criminal proceedings against detainees could begin in the coming days
and weeks. In the meantime, reformists have expressed concern that
conservative authorities may exert pressure on detainees to make
forced confessions implicating reformists and `foreign forces' in an
elaborate plot to overthrow the government. Such confessions could
strengthen the conservatives' efforts to hinder democratization
initiatives supported by many Khatami loyalists. The unconfirmed
reports of videotaped confessions, and hardliners' swift efforts to
bar reporters from the protests, have reinforced this suspicion.
Reformist leaders are divided over political strategy. Some,
including the five-member Students' Caucus in parliament, want to
closely align with the students' cause. Another faction, led by
Parliament Speaker Mehdi Karrubi, maintains that too much solidarity
with students could hamper reformists' overall efforts to gain
concessions on free speech and independent media from the
While Khatami and his allies struggle with tactics, some political
observers suggest that important elements in the conservative camp are
reluctant to press on with the crackdown, fearing that if events
turned bloody Iran could find itself more vulnerable to foreign
interference. In supporting their contention, the observers point to a
June 12 call for restraint made by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei, whose word carries the weight of law in Iran. `I call on the
pious and the [conservative cadres] not to intervene whenever they see
riots,' he said on state television. Two days later, the Basij militia
- a right-wing volunteer force with chapters at many universities -
pledged not to take part in the street skirmishes.
Editor's Note: Ardeshir Moaveni is the pseudonym for a freelance
journalist specializing in Iranian political affairs.