Authorities move to prevent protests at universities

Iranian youth, particularly university students, are finding themselves caught between a rock and a hard place as the regime in Tehran battles tough Western sanctions over the disputed nuclear programme.

On the heels of a nationwide protest drive, which began on 15 November, mainly against a hike in fuel prices, the far-right regime in Tehran rounded up scores of protesters, including many university students, in the capital Tehran over the weekend.

According to the Iranian Intelligence Ministry, “leading members of a group planning disturbances at universities” in Tehran and in other parts of Iran on the country’s annual students’ day on 7 December have been arrested.

An internet shutdown lasting seven days has affected college entrance tests and university applications as well as affecting international research collaborations.

Pattern of unlawful killings

Grim social media videos combined with eyewitness testimony from people on the ground and information gathered from human rights activists, however, revealed a harrowing pattern of unlawful killings by the security forces, which have used excessive and lethal force to crush largely peaceful protests in more than 100 cities across Iran sparked by a hike in fuel prices.

According to Amnesty International, more than 100 protesters in 21 cities have been killed.

On 25 and 26 November, the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), an independent Iranian human rights news website, reported that officials had announced the arrest of at least 97 people as “leaders” or “influential actors” in what the government described as “riots”, accusing them without evidence of causing damage to public property.

But the Iranian state media has only reported a handful of protester deaths, as well as the deaths of at least four members of the security forces.

According to the official IRIB news agency, during these protests, the group had planned to draw students off the campus of the University of Tehran to create unrest.

In conversation with University World News, a Tehran-based journalist, David Abbasi, said young people are feeling the heat of the flared-up situation caused by the latest United States sanctions and resistance by the Iranian regime.

“In the middle of such a situation there has been a push, mainly by the youth, for increased self-reliance as a way out. This also includes indigenous web-based applications for services and goods. But the situation has taken its toll on the youth,” he said.

Last week several students demonstrated in California in the US to raise awareness about the government-initiated internet blackout in Iran and its effect on students. The protest, organised by a small group of Iranian and Iranian-American students, was meant to criticise restrictions imposed on Iranian citizens by their government, including a week-long internet blackout that authorities initiated on 16 November.

The blackout, which cut up to 95% of all internet traffic in Iran, according to the internet advocacy group NetBlocks, had global consequences for students and scholars, protesting or not.

The National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a non-profit organisation representing Iranian Americans, urged universities to extend application deadlines after receiving reports that college tests were cancelled due to the recent unrest in the region.

“Such circumstances render it impossible for Iranian nationals to take standardised tests, … secure transcripts and send in application materials in advance of forthcoming deadlines,” Jamal Abdi, president of NIAC, wrote in the press release.

Undergraduate applicants affected by the blackout can request an extension by phone or email once services are restored, Claire Doan, a spokesperson for the University of California Office of the President, wrote in an emailed statement. UCLA has asked graduate departments to extend deadlines for affected applicants, said Alison Hewitt, a university spokesperson.

Hours before this protest, the US imposed new sanctions on Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi, Iran’s telecommunications minister, for the internet blackout.

“Iran’s leaders know that a free and open internet exposes their illegitimacy, so they seek to censor internet access to quell anti-regime protests,” US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a press release.

Iran has previously blocked Telegram, a popular internet-based messaging app used by more than half of Iran’s population, and cut access to the internet in parts of the country to stymie protesters in early 2018. In response, multiple human rights experts from the United Nations condemned all communication blackouts as a violation of fundamental human rights.

The Tehran-based journalist told University World News a change in Iran can only be brought from within, bottom to top.

“Sooner or later, the officials would also be compelled to pave the way for change and reforms. We hope the youth in much greater numbers would be able to make it into parliament in the upcoming elections in March to change things for good,” said Abbasi.