Students among hundreds arrested during protests

People across Iran, including university students, have taken to the streets in widespread economic protests initially directed against price hikes of basic food supplies and gloomy economic prospects. They later included criticism of the political establishment.

The demonstrations appear to have been the largest since mass protests over the disputed 2009 presidential election.

By 3 January at least 21 people had been killed and hundreds arrested in the wave of protests. They began on 28 December in Mashhad, the country's second-largest city and a holy site for Shiite pilgrims, according to reports, and eventually spread to dozens of cities and towns.

On 30 December, hundreds of students and others joined a protest at Tehran University, with riot police massing at the university’s gates as they shut down surrounding roads.

Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the United States-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, or CHRI, said Tehran was under lockdown with huge occupation by security forces, particularly since 2 January, and recent protests had only continued in the smaller towns.

“The presence of security forces in the universities in the big cities is very heavy,” he told University World News on 3 January.

“The students were not the instigators of this uprising but in Tehran in the beginning students were driving much of the momentum. All the protests were by students inside the universities – it was the loudest and most impactful gathering in the first few days. The [University of Tehran] gates were shut but people outside the universities were joining them.”

CHRI says it has learned of nearly 100 arrests in the city of Neyshabour and at least 20 others in Sabzevar, in Razavi Khorasan Province.

According to an Iranian Ministry of Interior official quoted on 1 January in official media, some 450 were arrested in Tehran in the first three days of protests. The official said some 90% of those arrested were young people, with an average age of 25.

Frustrated graduates

“There are a lot of university students and graduates among the protesters because university education grew tremendously in the past two decades in small towns and it seems to me a lot of the protesters are graduates from these university programmes that have absolutely no job prospects. They are jobless and hungry and frustrated, and they are fed up with corruption,” Ghaemi said.

Muhammad Sahimi, an Iranian professor and chemical engineer at the University of Southern California in the US, told University World News: “As usual Iranian universities play a leading role in the present protests, for which economic stagnation, deep corruption and losing hope in the political system are the main reasons.

“Iran has millions of educated young people who need jobs, housing and, most importantly, hope for the future, but they sense that they are not getting what they need.”

Economic austerity, high inflation at 15%-20% a year for several years, inequality and high unemployment – up to 50% among the college-educated – is hurting young people in particular in a country where 70% of the country’s 80 million population are under the age of 35.

Pirouz Azadi, a San Francisco-based Iranian-American professor, told University World News: “The 2 million plus current university students, plus the over 10 million university graduates are disillusioned with the gloomy prospects for earning wages [that could support] an honourable existence.”

Protests have been reported in some 66 cities and towns across the country since the end of December, said M Ali Kadivar, a sociologist at Brown University in the US, who is researching protests and democratisation in the Middle East and Iran. He was referring to reports compiled from social media.

“The geographic spread of the protests is significant. In terms of number of participants, though, they have not been very large at this point,” according to Kadivar, tweeting on 1 January. Chants and slogans escalated quickly from socio-economic demands to political ones, a common progression in authoritarian contexts where people lack institutional channels to voice their grievances, he said.

Universities’ leading role

Among the hundreds arrested are 15 Tehran University students, detained during protests on 31 December and 1 January, the University Trade Unions’ Council of Iran, or UTUCI, said in a 1 January statement. Security forces also arrested four members of the council’s branch at Tehran University.

“After a joint meeting between members of the Tehran University Trade Union Council and the chancellor to seek the freedom of students detained during the recent protests, four members of the council were arrested by the security forces as soon as they left the room,” the UTUCI statement said. “The remainder of the council’s members stayed in the room to demand the release of the detained students and protest the lack of security.”

An unnamed source, quoted by CHRI, revealed that four students – Kasra Nouri, graduate student in human rights studies at Tehran University; Faezeh Abdipour, a student at Allameh Tabataba’i University, Tehran; Mohammad Sharifi Moghadam, a student activist at Sharif University of Technology, Tehran; and another student Mohammad Reza Darvishi – started a hunger strike on 30 December after being detained on 29 and 30 December by Intelligence Ministry agents and held in Evin Prison in the capital, usually used to house political prisoners.

Earlier protests

Earlier protests were held at several universities in Tehran in early December, beginning at the University of Tehran. They spread to other campuses in the capital, including Sharif University of Technology, Allameh Tabataba’i University and Shahid Beheshti University.

According to news reports, they were organised by a confederation of more than 30 student union groups and called for:
  • • An end to the privatisation of student services;
  • • The reinstatement of state subsidies for students for food, housing and transportation;
  • • The reinstatement of independent student groups and students who were expelled for political reasons;
  • • An end to gender discrimination on campuses;
  • • Access to higher education for ethnic and religious minorities.
Students also protested at unnecessary security on campuses in the capital. “On the eve of this year’s Student Day, students were summoned over the phone and warned not to take part in protests,” student activist Moghadam told CHRI before his arrest. “The authorities have made it more difficult to organise unions to seek better living conditions for students. The climate for political activities now is even worse than before.”

In previous years student protests had erupted against oppressive measures on campuses and lack of basic rights for students. But, according to Moghadam, in recent years the demands of the student movement have shifted to “economic issues, which society as a whole is grappling with”.

“Students are protesting because everything from the cost of food to dormitory accommodation and tuition is making it very difficult to continue pursuing education,” the activist said.

At an earlier rally by female students at the University of Tehran on 27 November, which lasted three days, students demonstrated against gender discrimination, excessive enforcement of the hijab, and the rising costs of student housing.

Shafigeh Shirazi also contributed to this article translating from Farsi.