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Remembering Iran's Student Protests, Fourteen Years Later

A Tehran billboard with the images of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The half-life of a news meme regarding Iran seems to have been reduced to almost nothing these days. After all, the conventional wisdom on Iranian politics has lurched from despair to hope in the span of a mere month or two, and even now it is rapidly heading toward cynicism. And so perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that today, the fourteenth anniversary of an episode that rocked the Islamic Republic to its core, passed with little commemoration, either in Iran or elsewhere in a world consumed with chaos and upheaval in other Middle Eastern capitals.

July 9, or the 18th of the month of Tir on the Iranian calendar, marks fourteen years since the violent denouement of a series of student protests that represented, at the time, the most dramatic anti-regime upheaval in many years. The demonstrations began as a response to the government’s closure of a ground-breaking reformist newspaper, Salaam, and the parliament’s approval of a regressive new media law days earlier. Security forces and hard-line thugs charged a Tehran University dormitory to break up the protests, resulting in at least one death, hundreds wounded, at least 1,500 arrests, and days of fierce upheaval in the heart of the country’s capital and several other cities.

The Islamic Republic had seen turmoil on plenty of previous occasions, including a sustained period of civil war during the early years of the revolution, and a near perpetual barrage of protests that occasionally morphed into public rioting against government institutions. Still, the July 1999 upheaval transpired at a moment of flux for the regime, just as the reform movement seemed to be cresting, and its objectives were political rather than the economic grievances that had fueled prior unrest. The episode proved a more lasting turning point in the evolution of Iran’s domestic politics— breeding popular frustration with the reformers, emboldening the hard-liners and their embrace of violent tactics to forestall liberalization, and providing one of the first post-war openings for the Revolutionary Guard to assert itself against the civilian government.

As a result, the date remained a seminal milestone on the political calendar for Iranians, as well as for those outside Iran who sought to advance a democratic future there. Each year in July, Iranian security forces would gear up to preclude any hint of a repeat or commemoration, while U.S. policymakers in the administration and the Congress would seek to outdo one another in their fulsome support for the democratic aspirations of the noble Iranian people. Eventually, the 2009 election upheaval and the emergence of a serious opposition movement overshadowed the memories of 1999, and today much of Iran’s political establishment appears determined to move beyond both ruptures in hopes of preventing the collapse of the regime under the pressure of factional polarization and sanctions-induced economic crisis.

So there were no vigils or dramatic U.S. government statements today, just a few reminders via social media. Still, I cannot help remembering July 9th each year, as I had the strange experience of arriving in Tehran that day, hours after the dormitory attack. It was my second extended stay in Iran for language study and doctoral research, part of an exchange program borne of the optimism among academic institutions as well as their government funders in both countries in the heady early years of the reform movement. I learned of the events at Tehran University through conversations on the street, as young people stopped an obvious group of foreigners to share the news.

At the time, the internet had not yet come to Iran in a broadly accessible fashion, and so I supplemented the scant and slanted coverage in the Iranian press with faxed copies of news reports sent by worried family members. My own perspective of this period is unavoidably skewed, as that of any half-literate foreigner would be, but what struck me most at the time was the general unease sparked by the outbreak of violence. Among many Iranians, hopes for the kind of gradual reform that the reformists, under the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, promised had not yet been totally quashed, and there seemed to be a palpable angst that the protests and their repression had derailed a path for change in its incipient moments.

Unfortunately, those forebodings proved all too accurate, although it seems equally persuasive that the path was an unattainable one from the outset. In the aftermath of the July 1999 protests, President Khatami predictably sought to steer a middle course. He used the institutional mantle of the Supreme National Security Committee to decry the upheaval, express sympathy with the students, appeal for restraint and offer a modest concession or two. The communique satisfied no one, and the failure of the president to personally champion his most dedicated constituency bred resentment and a sense of Khatami’s personal weakness. For his part, Khamenei briefly struck a slightly softer tone, calling the police assault on the dormitory “this bitter incident [that] has broken my heart” but also inveighed against the CIA and what he described as “hidden hands behind the scenes directing this,” an allusion to his ongoing fixation with foreign conspiracies as the regime’s most profound vulnerability.

Also notable during this episode was the role of the Revolutionary Guard and senior military commanders, who issued an unprecedented warning to Khatami:

“We can see the footprints of the enemy in the aforementioned incidents and we can hear its drunken cackle. You should understand this today because tomorrow will be too late. If you regret this tomorrow, it will be impossible to retrieve the situation. O noble Seyyed: Look at the speeches made by your so-called friends and insiders at the gathering of students. Is what they said not tantamount to encouraging chaos and lawlessness? …Mr. Khatami: Look at foreign media and radios. Can you not hear their joyful music? Mr. President: If you do not make a revolutionary decision and if you do not fulfill your Islamic and national mission today, tomorrow will be far too late. It is unimaginable how irretrievable the situation will become. In the end, we would like to express our utmost respect for you excellency and to declare that our patience has run out. We cannot tolerate this situation any longer if it is not dealt with.”

The warning was contained in a letter sent privately to Khatami, but quickly leaked and initiated a debate among the political elite nearly as intense as that provoked by the protests themselves. The threatened intervention of the military proved a harbinger of things to come, as the Revolutionary Guard emerged over the course of Khatami’s second terms as a political and economic force to be reckoned with.

The episode marked a turning point whose implications were not immediately obvious. Khatami sought to use the episode to remind his supporters that aggressive tactics would backfire. Initially, it appeared that neither his reform initiative nor the associated efforts to promote a better relationship with the world were manifestly impacted by the events. The stock exchange merely hiccoughed in response to the upheaval, and the largest British trade delegation since the revolution arrived in Iran just a few weeks after the week-long upheaval.

Some conservatives sought to link Khatami’s tentative handling of the crisis with his broader agenda, such as hard-line newspaper Shoma used the episode to indict the Khatami administration as “impotent in its entirety,” contending that “an interior minister who is unable to protect his ministry’s gate against rioters...and a central bank governor unable to stabilize the currency, what more do they have to say to the people?” Among the hard-liners who opposed Khatami, the events of July 1999 revealed that his strategic and temperamental inclination toward moderation was his Achilles’ heel, which informed the increasing forcefulness of their own efforts to take on the reform movement.

Ultimately, the July 1999 upheaval confirmed for many of Iran’s highly politicized youth the fundamental inadequacy of the reform movement itself and the sheer impossibility of advancing a gradualist moderation of an absolutist system. This sense of despair left a lasting rift among the reformist activists themselves, as well as between the population and the movement’s leadership, one that has only become reinforced by the events of 2009. In the aftermath of the protests, Iran remained very much on edge. The popular aspirations that had animated the reform movement— and were in turn reinvigorated by its initial victory— continued to roil Iran. However, the attack against the students deflected any further impetus among the most influential reformist activists to use street demonstrations as a means of advancing their political agenda.

Fourteen years later, the legacy of July 1999 remains intensely relevant. Incoming president Hassan Rouhani served at the time as the secretary of the Supreme National Security Committee that rebuked the students and authorized the security forces’ repression of the student protests that continued in the wake of the dormitory attack. His enthusiastic endorsement of that decision at a public rally at the time has been used to undercut the significance of his victory, and highlight the appearance of hypocrisy in his more recent embrace of reformist rhetoric. Whatever disquiet this might provoke must be mitigated by the fact that the second highest vote-getter in the presidential contest was Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqr Qalibaf, who was one of the signatories to the IRGC warning letter and who openly boasted during the campaign of his role in personally participating in the July 1999 repression.

Ironically, Rouhani faces something of the same dilemmas that Khatami and the reformists did fourteen years ago – how to take advantage of public demands for policy moderation without eliciting a hard-line crackdown or eroding the regime’s dominance. The answers are no easier today than they were fourteen years ago, and with sanctions mounting and the threat of U.S. military action still looming over the horizon, the stakes are even higher today.