At twenty-six, Akbar Atri had inherited a legacy too great for his years, too great for any age. But this was the story of his generation: living the best years of their youth under war, hardship, scarcity, and isolation, imposed on them by the choices that others, their predecessors, had made a decade earlier. Atri had realized that the Iranian revolution of 1979, hailed in his country as one of the greatest revolutions of the century, had gone wrong. And it was for him, and his generation, to repair it.
Atri was the eighth child in a family of eleven, born to a farmer father and a housewife mother in a small village in Sarab, a town in the remote northern province of East Azarbaijan. (1) He was only six years old when the revolution of 1979 swept through Iran. Sarab is 636 kilometers from Tehran, the capital, and 130 kilometers from Tabriz, an important industrial city in the northeast region of Iran. Situated between the high mountains of Bozquosh and the peak of Sabalan, Sarab is one of the oldest and most historic settlements of Azerbaijan. Protected by the mountains, the majority of the residents raise their children as faithful Muslims far away from the corrupting influence of the larger cities. Akbar’s father was always suspicious of mullahs and conveyed his mistrust of the clergy to his children. As a child of the Islamic revolution, Akbar grew up with the political rhetoric of the Islamic Republic but remained wary of the cause. He still remembers how the mullahs spread their propaganda campaign against the Shah, telling villagers that the king and his family used milk instead of water to bathe.
In 1979, the entire country was captivated by the charismatic Ayatollah Khomeini, the indisputable leader of the revolution. The mullahs in Sarab tried to convince the villagers that the image of Ayatollah Khomeini appeared in the moon. When the young Akbar expressed doubts during a gathering of villagers who were looking at the moon, the mullah got angry and said that only bastards would not be able to see the imam’s image on the moon. Akbar was quick to see it after that insult.
The revolutionary honeymoon didn’t last long for the Atris. Akbar’s father passed away, and the family had to move to Tehran to escape economic hardship. The young Sarabi boy grew up in Tehran during the years of war with Iraq and a worsening economy. Like many others in working families struggling to make ends meet, he worked in the daytime and went to school at night. Atri remembers those difficult years well: “I was absent during the revolution but was there to inherit the disastrous consequences.”
By the end of the 1980s, Iran’s economy was plagued with high unemployment; double-digit inflation; a large budget deficit; a wide balance-of-payments gap; materials’ shortages; air pollution, particularly in Tehran; and overpopulation. Rural migration to the cities had continued, and military expenditures showed no signs of decreasing. (2) Atri’s family was not immune to all these pressures. The young Akbar had to work hard to support his family, and he had to postpone his high-school graduation. But eventually, by 1995, he had completed his obligatory army service along with his high-school diploma requirements and managed to get accepted to Alama Tabatabai University to study political science.
The Rise – and Fall – of Student Activism
The universities have always been a hotbed of political activities in Iran. They were the place where the anti-Shah movement began in all the large urban centers. Controlling the politically active leftist students was a dilemma for the new revolutionary regime as well. The new regime relied on the recruitment of radical Muslim students and used these energetic youths to isolate and destroy other activists. Soon after the 1979 revolution, Societies of the Islamic Students appeared in every university. The Islamic Students launched daily physical attacks on other student activists. The new regime and its Revolutionary Guard collaborated and supported the Islamic Students, contributing to tension and chaos. The continuous unrest in the universities created a pretext for the ultimate invasion and occupation of all universities by the Revolutionary Guard, which led to the shutdown of all the institutions of higher education in Iran for two years under the label of “Cultural Revolution.” Another group of Islamic Students leaders attacked and occupied the U.S. embassy, forcing the resignation of the liberal provisional government and consolidation of power in the hands of clergy.
Akbar Atri remembers the Islamic Students of the first decade of the revolution with disdain and mistrust: “They were the oppressive arms of the state. The student movement leadership of the first decade—people like Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, Abbas Abdi, and Mohsen Mirdamadi—were involved in the takeover of the U.S. embassy, and they aided the consolidation of the power of the clergy. But the 1990s witnessed the emergence of a different Islamic Student organization. This was in large part due to the consequences of the Islamic regime’s policy to start many new universities.”
Islamists’ Education Plan Backfires
In post-cultural-revolution Iran, the clergy and their economic agents sought to profit from the institution of higher education. The state allowed the formation of what were termed nonprofit universities under the umbrella name of Azad University (Free University). Small universities mushroomed all over Iran. Contrary to their name, they were not free for the public, nor were they nonprofit institutions. Azad Universities charged tuition in a country that had until then experienced free education. Despite the tuition charge, the children of the middle class embraced these schools. In the years when unemployment was nearly 60 percent for young people, many took refuge in these universities. As Akbar Atri observed: “The Azad Universities rapidly increased the total number of university students and contributed to a widespread political awareness in the country.”
A decade after the failure of the promise of the Islamic revolution, a new Islamic Student organization had emerged, with followers in every university across the country. The new Islamic Student Societies were the only national organization that elected their representatives in a free election. These representatives gathered in the capital to vote for election of a body that had been known since its early years as the Office of Consolidated Unity (OCU). With its open procedures, democratic elections, and horizontal structures, the OCU was one of the first institutions that reflected the changing Iranian society. (3) The OCU of the 1990s bore no resemblance to its 1980s predecessor. While the OCU of the 1980s was ideological, revolutionary, and fundamentalist, the OCU of the 1990s was concerned with issues of democracy, human rights, and criticism of the Islamic power structure. The new generation had shed the ideological cover and advocated nonviolence as a method of achieving political goals.
The new student movement reached a crescendo in 1998 with the election of the popular reformist Mohammad Khatami as president of Iran. Young Atri had been active in the new student movement only since 1997. But, within a short period of time, he showed impressive leadership and organizational skills. By 1999, he had been elected to the central leadership committee of the OCU.
The victory of a reformist president had suddenly released many forces of civil society. The writers’ union was organizing after years of being dormant. Labor unions were reorganizing under new leaders and exerting pressure. The independent press was hard at work exposing years of corruption and despotic Islamic rule. In a context that was increasingly viewed by many foreign observers as a democratic transition, the reactionary and conservative forces of the ruling elite felt threatened and took swift action. Arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, and extrajudicial killing of activists increased on a daily basis. Young Atri was arrested for the first time in 1997 and then again in 1998. Both times, he suffered through a short period of torture and was lucky to secure release. But the main blow to the student movement was delivered in 1999, when the army, paramilitary forces, and security police attacked a student dormitory in Tehran. The memory of that bloody attack and the atrocities committed against the students remain in the collective memory of the student activists to this day.
The last five years have witnessed an increasing number of arrests, disappearances, and extrajudicial killings of student activists. For the young Islamic students, this encounter with the Islamic regime has been shocking—indeed, bitterly eye opening. Atri reported on his last arrest: “The interrogators knew my father had died, and I was emotional and sensitive about his death. Therefore, when using foul language, my father was the primary target. They also were keenly aware that my mother was ill and could not get out of bed. When they wanted my collaboration, they would threaten that they would kill her after they tortured her with the news of my death. This was shocking to me. They pretended to be religious but showed no ethics at all. Their sadistic manner and language had nothing to do with Islam. It was clear that religion was a mask, an excuse to have power and to exert it to rule and profit.”
Students rebelled against the regime again in 2003. This time the regime answered the OCU activists with even harsher measures. Some of the OCU leaders, like Ali Afshari, spent nearly two years in solitary confinement. Abdollah Momeni
and Reza Ameri Nasab were severely tortured. Many of the non-OCU students and student leaders remain in prison under difficult circumstances. Activists who survived the new wave of oppression went underground or left the country. Atri initially went to Turkey. Given his prominence in the movement, he could have asked for refugee status, but he refused. “I have to go back. I need to be able to go back soon. My friends need me.” It looks as if that may not be possible for the near future. For the time being, Atri has secured a tourist visa to come to the United States to lecture and visit his friends in exile.
Atri’s view has changed dramatically over the last ten years. He believes that Islam needs serious reforms, but that, regardless of the success of these reforms, Iran needs to separate the institution of religion from that of the state. As for the reformists, he feels they failed because “They pursued the reforms within the system.” Atri does not think that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 had a negative impact on Iran. He tells a story to demonstrate his point: “A teacher tells his student, you have five dollars and your father gives you five as well. How much do you have now? The student says five. The teacher says you don’t know your math. The student responds, ‘No. I know my math. You don’t know my father.’” Atri insists that those who think the Iraqi invasion was a setback for the reforms just don’t know the mullahs. “The pressure of this administration on the mullahs helps a great deal.”
In the last fifty years, Iran’s student movement has repeatedly risen from the ashes of defeat. Atri is hopeful for the future: “The student movement will rise again. This is just the beginning of our struggle for a democratic Iran.”
1. Personal Interview with Akbar Atri, February 2005.
2. Jahangir Amuzegar, Iran’s Economy Unde the Islamic Republic, rev. ed. (London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 1997), p. 312.
3. Ali M. Ansari, Iran, Islam and Democracy: The Politics of Managing Change (forthcoming).
* This article, coauthored by Ramin Ahmadi, originally appeared in the June-July 2005 issue of Free Inquiry