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National student protest in Iran

Babak Yektafar: It’s significant that thousands of students demonstrated despite threats from Rev. Guard

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, in Washington, DC. About a week ago, thousands of Iranian students defied the Iranian government’s threats, intimidation, and possibility of arrest and went into the streets. Here’s some of the footage. Now joining us to analyze these events is Babak Yektafar. He is the editor of Washington Prism Magazine. Thanks for joining us.

BABAK YEKTAFAR, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, WASHINGTONPRISM.ORG: Thank you for having me.

JAY: So what happened?

YEKTAFAR: Well, basically, again there was an occasion about a week ago, which was called the Student Day, National Student Day, which goes back to 1953. And since the Revolution it has become a day where, supposedly, students would go out and protest imperialism in the world, and particularly the usual chants that we’ve heard—"Death to US and Israel" and so on and so forth. But, however, this term, it was turned around because of the protest that’s been ongoing since the presidential election in Iran on June 12, and once again it became an occasion for the students and some other people—it’s not just students; we should mention that—to go out and protest, despite the fact that they were warned by the clerical regime, but particularly by the security apparatus in Iran, the Guardians, not to come out and that they would be dealt with harshly. The fact that they did, the fact that they have been going out on a number of occasions, to me is probably a more fascinating aspect of what is going on.

JAY: First of all, how big was it? How much of the country was involved?

YEKTAFAR: Well, originally, what took place on Monday, I would say about seven or eight of the major cities you had mass protests, particularly in universities. Again, this was a student day, so this was a place for them. Universities and centers were a place for them to gather, again, under pretext of protesting as they do normally and annually. But, again, this turned into a situation where we’ve seen some of the taboos being broken, such as tearing up the pictures of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. On one occasion, of course, there was a situation where supposedly they, somebody, or students, or—they’re still not sure exactly who tore up the picture of the founding father of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, which has caused a massive uproar by them.

JAY: So talk a bit about that uproar.

YEKTAFAR: Well, there are various sides to it. Most of the students that we have talked to, I have talked to, and we’ve heard from, they maintain that no one, particularly no one within this so-called green movement, would ever do such a thing. The notion is that none of these people at any given time since the protests began after the election have called for regime change. When you go to that extent, when you actually start tearing up the picture of the founding father of the Islamic Republic, then in some ways you’re saying that you do want regime change. That not what they have called for; that’s not what they’re calling for right now. They maintain that either (A) this was something done by people affiliated with the supreme leader or with the IRGC, the Guardians.

JAY: As an agent provocateur type of thing.

YEKTAFAR: Exactly, exactly, to say, here we go, we’ve told you that this is not any, you know, civic-minded green movement, but actually they are after overthrow. Or some are maintaining that if the regime itself cannot and has not been able to control this tense situation and calm it down when you have this kind of environment and atmosphere, something like this is bound to happen. Some may have a personal agenda or for whatever reason, but this is not an action of those who have been protesting for the past six months.

JAY: So how widespread is the opposition to the tearing of the poster?

YEKTAFAR: I think that’s the one occasion that we’ve found since the uproar over the elections where all sides are unified in condemning such an action, the action of actually defiling the picture of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic.

JAY: So what are the slogans of these protests? What are they demanding?

YEKTAFAR: I think originally, of course, this all started, as you remember, because of what they accused of vote-rigging. You know, there are some. I think we have discussed the issue in the past as well. I think the issue was not necessarily whether Mr. Ahmadinejad wanted a second term or not. He would’ve asked the majority of experts, they would have told you that in all likelihood he would win a second term. The way that it was done and the way the regime, and in a particular the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, in a rather unprecedented move, kind of swooped in and essentially said that’s it, you know, he’s won, go home, forget about everything, everything’s fine, the way they stifled the uproar that some of the people were feeling about this issue, it really set this whole thing—.

JAY: Meaning thousands of arrests and a few people killed.

YEKTAFAR: Exactly. I mean, originally we’re talking about at least a couple of million people pouring out on the day after the election. And then you had this massive uproar from the security apparatus—beatings, beating-ups, and arrests, and the show trials that went on. And all of this kind of points into this direction that—.

JAY: So go to the point you made earlier. It’s quite remarkable, actually, given the level of intimidation, how many people came out last week.

YEKTAFAR: I think that’s fascinating. I think it’s gone beyond the issue of vote-rigging. It’s gone to a point right now that a lot of grievances that the population as a whole has had for so many years is really coming out. They’re demanding now for human rights. They’re demanding for change. They’re demanding for justice. They’re demanding for the ability to participate more and more, and be engaged in civic engagement, and to be able to decide on their own a sort future of the country. Essentially, as we’ve maintained, as I’ve maintained in the past, for 30 years this regime in particular, despite all the rhetoric, really hasn’t had much to show for, particularly for its own people. And I think it’s gotten to a point that is definitely beyond just a protest against the election results. It’s now—.

JAY: Now, what is the composition of who’s demonstrating? Just back at the time of the elections, it was called a middle-class phenomenon. Now, particularly, ’cause these are students, it’s called again the middle class. How broad—?

YEKTAFAR: But I think originally it was across the board. For those who came out after the initial election results came out in protest, this was one of the first times—I mean, we’ve had some protests 10 years ago, in 1999, but that was strictly a student protest. This one pretty much engulfed basically all sects of the society and all over the country. It wasn’t just concentrated in the capital city of Tehran. But after the intimidation, obviously, a great many of those people, the workers and so on, they kind of moved out of the way, just observing what was going on. And then, of course, a lot of the experts and Iran-watchers essentially maintain that after awhile all this protesting is going to go away. But what has happened, I think, historically, the students picked up the mantle that students have been involved with in the past. You look at the past 50, 60, 100 years history in Iran, you definitely see student participation in all kinds of protests, be it against the monarchy and the Shah, or in this particular case being against the Islamic regime.

JAY: What classes get to go to university in Iran? Is it primarily a middle-class phenomenon, or is it broader than that?

YEKTAFAR: It’s not. It’s not. After the war, and particularly—.

JAY: Do universities cost money to get into? Or are they—?

YEKTAFAR: Some do. Well, the one thing that I do have to say is that our universities are difficult to get into. You have this sort of a national exam they call Konkur, and you have to finish at a certain level.

JAY: But is it based on merit for financial capacity?

YEKTAFAR: Well, there’s a small number that’s based on merit and possibly financial capabilities. But what has happened is that since the Iran-Iraq War ended, a big chunk of space has been reserved for the family members of those who were killed during the war. This also is one of those points that’s highly debated and hotly debated in Iran as to, you know, some people who are not necessarily that suited to go into higher education do get these places. There are some who actually, you know, sell these spots in black market and profit from it and so on. So there’s been a big space reserved, a large space reserved for this group of people as well. And that’s why, I think, all level—.

JAY: But are children of the working class, then, going to university? So is this a middle-class phenomenon? Or is it more [inaudible]?

YEKTAFAR: [inaudible]

JAY: One thing is, I mean, everyone talks about this being a middle-class phenomenon like it’s something negative, but most of the antiwar movement in the United States [inaudible]

YEKTAFAR: Mostly it is. What I would say is that this is not just the northern Tehran or northern any major city with affiliation to the West, relatives in the West, and so on. This is not that phenomenon anymore. It’s not those people being upset at the fact that they can’t go out, boys and girls, hand-in-hand, and things of that nature. This is way beyond that. And it does engulf, you know, all sects of society, all classes of society. Even among the security apparatus that we’ve just talked about there is major disagreement. As you know, what we label as IRGC, the Revolutionary Guard—which I think is a misleading term. It’s they’re Guardians of the Revolution, and it’s misleading because there is really nothing revolutionary, or Islamic for that matter, about these members. The head of IRGC a month ago came out and said that the survival of the regime is more important than your daily prayers, than Namaz. Muslims have to have—five times during the day they have to do Namaz, and that’s one of the tenets of Islam, and he’s saying that the survival of the regime is even more important than your daily Namaz.

JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about the rising power of the Revolutionary Guard, or the Guardians of the Revolution, or Guardians of Themselves, perhaps. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Babak Yektafar.