Playing Politics with Martyrs

Executive Summary:

–          The Islamic Republic of Iran will hold its next presidential election in four months time. Former president Mohammad Khatami has withdrawn from the presidential race, leaving a contest between incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and former prime minister Mir Hossein Moussavi.

–          There have recently been protests at Iranian universities over a new government scheme to bury martyrs of the Iran-Iraq War in university campuses. Numerous students have been arrested, and many sent to the notorious Evin prison in Tehran, which is used to detain political prisoner.

–          Khatami, Moussavi and other ‘reformist’ politicians have remained silent, and have not given vocal support to Iranian student groups over this issue. This silence has highlighted the reformists’ main weakness: their indecisiveness.

–          The Islamic Republic’s hardliners have succeeded in leaving the reformists in an awkward position and exposing their weakness to the Iranian population. The reformist camp will have to become bolder and more willing to speak out if there is to be positive change in Iran. In the meantime, the United States should listen to and engage with the Iranian student movement, which seeks to challenge the Islamic Revolution.

In four short months, the Islamic Republic of Iran will hold its next presidential election. For a while it looked like that the two main candidates were incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and former president Mohammad Khatami. But when Former Prime minister Mir Hossein Moussavi entered the ring and announced his candidacy, Khatami, in a move that shocked and surprised many of his supporters, withdrew his name. It is not clear what effects, if any, this move is going to have on the so-called reformer camps. But whatever the effect of Khatami’s move might be, if you thought that the presidential campaign was warming up, you should look at Iranian universities, which are already red hot with protests.

According to the Office for Fostering Unity, one of the main student organizations in Iran, twelve students have already been arrested at the universities of Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan and Hamedan, in the last few weeks. Many more have been arrested in recent months in an attempt to intimidate the students, who are becoming increasingly restless and vocal in their opposition to the policies of the Islamic regime. Iranian University restlessness came to a head-on collision with the authorities when the Islamic regime announced a new campaign to bring the remains of unknown Iran-Iraq war martyrs for burial in campuses around the country.

Students all across Iran staged demonstrations to voice their opposition to the announcement. At Tehran’s Amir Kabir University, already known for student protests, students carried banners complaining that their campus was being turned into a cemetery and that, in turn the Evin prison in Tehran was being turned into a university. Security forces that arrived at the scene appeared to have taken their message. 10 of the students, according to Human Rights Watch, were sent to Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. Radio Farda reports an additional 70 university students detained on February 23 for protesting the state-sponsored burial of five soldiers who died during the Iran-Iraq.

Shortly after the events in Amir Kabir University, students at other universities issued statements in solidarity with the Amir Kabir Students, pledging to resist and not to allow similar burials to take place on their campuses.

The obsession of the Islamic regime with death is quite remarkable. Thirty years ago and after returning from exile, Khomeini gave his first speech in Tehran’s vast “Beheshte Zahra” (Zahra’s Paradise) cemetery. In an accusatory tone he blasted the late Shah for building nice modern cemeteries while ignoring the development of the rest of the country. Now thirty years on, the Islamic regime seems to be obsessed with turning the whole country into symbolic cemeteries, even University campuses!

It is not even clear why, twenty years after the war, the Islamic government still possess the unburied remain of soldiers. But whatever the reasons might be, many students believe that it is yet another organized campaign by the regime to intimidate and suppress them. However, there could yet be another explanation.

Both Khatami and Moussavi along with the so-called reformers have remained silent about the recent events and have not openly sided with the students. In fact, these events have placed them between a rock and a hard place. If the reformers side with the students they will be accused by the hardliners for not honoring the memory of the martyrs. If they side with the hardliners and defend the state-sponsored burial, they will infuriate the students and lose whatever support they have left from the student movement. Hardliners, who never had a stronghold in Iranian Universities, have been successfully able to put the reformers in a lose-lose situation.

As is typical of reformers, they have chosen the third option. They have chosen to remain silent about the whole affair. But this strategy is not without risk for it reminds Iranians of what they despise most about the reformers: their indecisiveness.

The State-sponsored burial of Iran-Iraq war martyrs in University campuses, just prior to the presidential election, seems to be a clever move on the part of the hardliners. Although it is not clear if they will be successful in suppressing the students once more, they have at least succeeded in showing their rival’s weakness.

The reformers have always preferred calm over turmoil as well as avoiding a confrontation with the hardliners. However, they may have done themselves a great disservice by remaining silent. For as Dwight D. Eisenhower said: “History does not long entrust the care of freedom to the weak or the timid.” The reformers are timid and as Thomas Jefferson famously said, “Timid men prefer the calm of despotism to the tempestuous sea of liberty.” The recent burial protest should serve as a reminder that it is the Islamic revolution that the students wish to burry and not any martyrs from the past. As it seeks to engage Iran, the US should listen more carefully to these voices.

Nir Boms is vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East. Shayan Arya is an Iranian activist and a member of Constitutionalist Party of Iran.

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