TEHRAN (Reuters) â€” Iran’s university campuses are falling silent. Student activists, once at the vanguard of a movement seeking political and social change in the Islamic Republic, say they are increasingly afraid to speak out.
“I used to take part in so many protests. I was arrested twice, once in 2001 and once in 2003,” said student Mehdi Aminzadeh, describing his role in rallies during the tenure of pro-reform former President Mohammad Khatami.
“The situation has changed a lot since that time. The pressures have pushed us to be more cautious,” said the 29-year old, who says he has been barred from registering for a masters in political science.
Since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took power in August last year vowing a return to Islamic revolutionary principles, activists say 181 students have been summoned to university disciplinary boards and 105 of them were suspended.
Most have been reinstated but Aminzadeh is among a handful who activists say are still barred from registering to study.
Many students, who wanted more radical change to Iran’s system of clerical rule than reformist politicians proposed, became disenchanted even before Khatami left office in 2005.
Reformists, when in power, failed to deliver on many promises.
Critics say the authorities, since Ahamdinejad’s election, have been slowly tightening the screws on rivals, not in sweeping gestures, but with measures that send a clear message about the cost of opposition and silencing activists.
As well as clamping down on students, critical professors say they have been pushed into early retirement. A leading pro-reform newspaper has been shut. And Western diplomats say their cultural events or exchanges are facing obstacles.
The government dismisses such charges, saying they welcome criticism and encourage free speech. University officials say students are only being punished if they break rules.
“Some students have committed acts that are inconsistent with religious, national and university standards,” the head of Tehran University, Abbas Ali Amid-Zanjani, was quoted as saying in September by the daily Farhang-e Ashti.
“We have to deal with student offences so they will not recur. We shall not be too harsh, of course,” he added. But critics say the appointment of Amid-Zanjani, the first cleric to head Tehran University and seen as a presidential ally, shows the government is filling educational establishments with its own people.
Ahmadinejad has called for students to denounce professors sullying the Islamic Republic’s universities with “secularism”.
“People like Ahmadinejad genuinely believe ideas presented to students and by students to the people can corrupt religious people,” said one Iranian analyst, who asked not to be named.
Two prominent reformists, Saeed Hajjarian and Mohsen Kadivar, have been sacked from their posts as university lecturers, Iran’s student news agency ISNA reported last week. “The head of philosophy group of the university has told me that he has been under pressure because of my presence in the group,” Kadivar, a cleric, told ISNA. “The pressure has been because of our beliefs and our critical positions.” In Khatami’s era, such pressure sent students out into the streets or at least campus protests.
In 1999, when the judiciary shut the reformist Salam newspaper, students started the worst unrest since the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution.
When Sharq, Iran’s leading reformist daily in recent years, was shut in September there was only a deafening silence.
Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a cleric who was a vice-president in Khatami’s administration, told Reuters reformists have little power now to support students. But he said students â€” who have called for boycotts of past elections â€” would vote in next month’s local council elections..
“They have to pay heavy price if they want to be politically active,” he said. “It does not mean they will not participate in the (forthcoming) elections.