Anti-regime student protests erupt after jet disaster

Undeterred by oppressive regime tactics, university students in Iran have put up a gradual yet defiant show of resentment towards the ruling religious elite with their latest protests triggered by the shooting down of a passenger plane outside Tehran by the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), killing all 176 on board, many of them students.

The regime in Iran took several days to admit responsibility for the tragedy which occurred on 8 January, fuelling protesters’ anger and distrust at the country’s leaders.

Among the 176 victims of the Ukrainian passenger jet shot down by the IRGC were dozens of Iranian and Iranian-Canadian students and academics who were on their way to Canada via Ukraine.

The latest round of robust street demonstrations in Iran also comes on the heels of the United States drone strike in Baghdad in Iraq on 3 January which killed the country’s top military general, Qasem Soleimani – the architect of a vicious web of mainly pro-Iran Shiite militias in the entire region.

Vigils for the 16 Iranian students who died in the air crash were held on Saturday and Sunday 11-12 January at various university campuses in Tehran, Mashhad, Kermanshah, Tabriz, Rasht, Isfahan, Shiraz, Qazvin, Ahwaz, Yazd, Semnan and Amol, and eventually turned into protest gatherings calling for regime change in Iran.

“The events of the past two months have been a clear testimony to the complete incompetence of the regime ruling over Iran, a regime whose only answer to every crisis is to resort to force. It is our duty today to direct all our efforts at the totality of the system of suppression, whether in the form of an oppressive government or an imperialist power,” said a statement issued on 12 January by students demonstrating at Amirkabir University of Technology (sometimes also referred to as Tehran Polytechnic).

Thousands of students took part in one of the largest university protests at Amirkabir expressing many Iranian people’s frustration with those in power, both in Tehran and Washington.

According to reports from Iranian exile groups in the West, IRGC fired at Amirkabir students and many dispersed to continue their protests at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran.

On 14 January, the fourth day of the protests, the Iranian Justice Department confirmed the arrests of some 30 protesters.

Protests already underway

The student-led agitation against the government’s authoritarian economic, political and social policies were underway even before the latest escalation.

A number of Tehran-based university students, clearly fearful of a brutal crackdown by Iranian security agencies, told University World News on condition of anonymity that the youth in major urban centres across the country were infuriated at the ‘Akhunds’ (religious clerics) at the helm of affairs.

“There is a growing general sentiment that the ‘Akhunds’, with their stubbornness, are leading the country towards calamity after calamity,” said one student.

“Our geniuses are killed, and replaced with ‘Akhunds’,” was among the slogans chanted during the latest demonstrations.

“We don’t want the regimes of the guards [IRGC],” was another, heard in the viral social media videos of the demonstrations.

Iran-based writer and artist Farhad Haidari told University World News the regime in Tehran is exploiting Iran’s antagonism towards the US for its own interest in shoring up pro-Iranian sentiments.

“The threats by [US President Donald] Trump have also infuriated the Iranians and the rulers in Iran have grabbed this opportunity to project and define it in their own interests,” he said, referring to Trump’s threats, in the wake of Soleimani’s killing, of further possible attacks.

Social media reports filter out

Iranian authorities have dismissed reports of police torture and use of force against protesters.

There are strict restrictions on public mobility and mainstream and social media all over Iran. Nevertheless some news is emerging via social media.

Author and political analyst, Sadegh Zibakalam, professor of political science at the University of Tehran, is among the credible voices under such circumstances.

“It is understandable though bitter to see special unit troops near the Polytechnic, Sharif, Tehran, [Shahid] Beheshti and Allameh [Tabataba’i] universities. But seeing special units in front of Imam Sadiq University is still bitter but not understandable, as they are carefully selected. Do they need to be watched too?” he tweeted in a veiled criticism of state policies.

Imam Sadiq University is known for its pro-regime students who often take up posts in the Iranian foreign ministry and intelligence ministry after graduation.

Dozens of protesters were arrested on Sunday 12 January in various cities including Tehran, Babol, Kermanshah, Amol and Tabriz – where 10 students were arrested on Sunday but were freed later, according to social media reports.

Restrictions on the internet have already been confirmed by NetBlocks – a non-governmental organisation that monitors cybersecurity and the governance of the internet. “Confirmed: Drop in internet connectivity registered at #Sharif University, Tehran from 11:50 UTC where students are protesting for colleagues and alumni killed on flight #PS752; national connectivity remains stable despite sporadic disruptions on third day of #Iran protests,” it tweeted on Monday.

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.