Monday, July 11, 2011

July 1999 Student Uprisings in Iran and its consequences for Iranian governing Institutions

It is difficult to keep up with all the "anniversaries" in Iran these days.    Whether it is in the form of demonstrations against the Islamic Republic's policies,  or  government organized celebrations meant to mobilize the regime supporters,   it is impossible to write about post-revolutionary Iran without addressing the importance ( or lack of importance) of  certain political developments.   For  some Iran observers,  the student uprisings of July 1999 does not deserve serious attention since it did not evolve into broader urban-based movement and was crushed by the regime's repressive forces.   Although the students managed to create enough chaos to scare some of the  officials,   the regime successfully calibrated its counter-offensive in such a way that it did not allow it to broaden beyond the student base.

Nevertheless, the students were successful in  dragging the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei into the conflict just enough to the process of  exposing him as belonging to the conservative faction opposed to any reforms in the Islamic Republic.  Chants of "death to Khamenei" started with the student uprisings leading   a communique signed by 20 Revolutionary Guards commanders that threatened to overthrow the reformist government of Mohammad Khatami.  The students inflicted  major damage to the institution of the Supreme Leader,   weakening the position of Khamenei and forcing him to surround himself with military figures loyal to the Islamic government.   Although many of the student leaders are either in jail or have fled abroad,   the regime has not been able to stymie the growing dissatisfaction to its policies.  

Although their base was limited to students and their supporters ( although this could have been different if Facebook and Twitter had been available to these students ),   the uprisings was the first national challenge to the regime putting the fear into the clerics that their future is numbered.   Pro-regime clerics, Friday prayer leaders,  members of the Assembly Experts, and  judiciary and intelligence figures all felt the anticlericalism unleashed by the students.  Khatami's weakness and inability to stand up for the principles that got him elected in 1997  contributed to the growing anticlericalism in the country.  It is not surprising that Iran's president is a non cleric today,  the Speaker of the Parliament is a non cleric,  and Ahmadinejad himself is now leading the anticlericalism started in July 1999.    If one thing is certain about Iranian politics today is that even conservative technocrats have had with the clerics today, leading them to think about whether  the Islamic Republic can transform itself by gradually separating the clerics from their power positions.