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 two most important security organizations in the conservatives' control are the Security Section of the Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Justice Department's Security Branch. These form a burgeoning network of plainclothes operatives, informers and interrogators. They maintain their own jails, courts and interrogation chambers. It was these two organizations that arrested most of the students and demonstrators and so far have refused to deliver them to the relevant authorities.
On June 15, the Law Enforcement Agency filed a claim against pro-conservative vigilantes for attacking Allameh Tabatabai University students in their dormitories. 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.
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, represented by the parliamentary spokesman Mehdi Karoubi, believes too close an association with the students could open the reformists to charges of conspiring with the rioters and law-breakers.
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.
Ardeshir Moaveni is the pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian political affairs.