By Sacha Ismail
As the left campaigns against a US war on Iraq, we should not ignore recent events in Iraq's eastern neighbour. Since the start of November, thousands of students at universities across Iran have taken part in pro-democracy meetings, rallies and demonstrations, by all accounts causing widespread panic among the rulers of Iran's Islamic Republic.
These are the largest such demonstrations since July 1999, when an enormous wave of student protest combined with working-class militancy to shake the regime to its foundations. Now, increasingly dissatisfied with the record of Iran's "liberal" President Mohammed Khatami, students are calling for the release of political prisoners and the lifting of the death sentence passed against academic Hashem Aghajari.
Aghajari's case illustrates perfectly the vicious, theocratic obscurantism of the Islamic Republic - he was convicted for blasphemy after arguing at a public meeting that human beings are not monkeys and do not have to imitate anyone (this conflicts with the Islamic fundamentalist emphasis on taqlid or religious imitation). As a letter sent by protesting students to the Iranian socialist group Workers' Left Unity points out: "on paper the constitution guarantees the rights of communists in Iran, yet even Islamic scholars are not free to express their opinions".
The demonstrations began on Saturday 9 November when a group of about 500 students lit a bonfire outside the campus gates of Tehran University and began to chant "Political prisoners should be released" and "Our problem is the judiciary!" The following Monday thousands of student rallied at Tehran, Tarbiat Modarres, Hamadan (where Aghajari delivered his "blasphemous" lecture), Kerman, Isfahan and Tabriz universities. At Tehran a lecture boycott beginning on Tuesday quickly developed into a demonstration against Iran's clerical supremo Khameneii, with one student leader declaring that the regime could "cut out our hearts
but not capture our hearts" to widespread applause.
As in 1999, the protests have resulted in widespread repression, with the arrest of dozens of student leaders - in a country where 65% of the population is under 25, the Iranian government cannot tolerate a fresh growth in student radicalism.
In 2000, supporters of Solidarity organised a successful campaign to elect jailed Iranian student Ahmed Batebi as Honorary Vice-President of NUS. The Iranian students are no less deserving of solidarity now - not only because they are fighting for democracy against a theocratic dictatorship, but because their protests represent a very hopeful development in the increasing bleak political landscape of the Middle East.
If there is one place where democratic alternatives to fundamentalism are likely to take root, it is the country where fundamentalists have ruled for the last twenty years. The Islamic Republic is one of the most reactionary, brutal and anti-working class states in the world - yet in the past some western socialists have tried to present it as a progressive alternative to imperialist domination of the region. There would be no better way of making amends for this sorry record than by helping to build a serious campaign of solidarity with the student, pro-democracy and labour movements in Iran.
The National Union of Journalists and Workers' Left Unity are launching an Iranian solidarity campaign. For more details e-mail Simon Pirani: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information about developments in Iran see the Workers' Left Unity website: www.etehadchap.com
For a model motion of solidarity for your student union, contact the Student Campaign Forum: 07811 370 727 or email@example.com
Alliance for Workers' Liberty Forum
Is Iran heading for revolution?
Wednesday, 15 January, 7:30
University of London Union, Malet St
Speakers: Workers Left Unity (Iran)
Sacha Ismail (Workers' Liberty)