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On The Scene

Iranian students lose hope in president's reforms

By Kasra Naji

CNN correspondent Kasra Naji
CNN correspondent Kasra Naji

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start quoteWe call on you to prevent turmoil before it is too late. Otherwise, you must act bravely by resigning from your post so as not to legitimize the policy of repression.end quote
-- Student leaders to Iranian President Mohammad Khatami

TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- When university students in Iran took to the streets last month for seven nights in a row to demand democracy, many of them also called for the resignation of President Mohammad Khatami.

"Khatami, Khatami, resign, resign," they shouted as vigilantes attacked them with knives, chains and machetes and thousands of security forces stood by.

In the past six years, Khatami has twice been voted into office by a huge majority of university students and other young Iranians pinning their hopes on his promise to bring about democractic reform.

They are now highly disillusioned. In their eyes, the reformists, led by the president, have failed to rein in the hard-line conservative clergymen who are responsible for widespread repression in Iran.

After last month's protests, thousands of demonstrators were arrested and thrown into jail. Student leaders wrote an open letter to Khatami demanding he defend the right to protest -- or else resign.

"We call on you to prevent turmoil before it is too late. Otherwise, you must act bravely by resigning from your post so as not to legitimize the policy of repression," the letter signed by more than 100 student leaders said.

In his first statement after days of silence on the subject, President Khatami confirmed their worst expectations. Instead of defending the right to protest, as the students had demanded, he chose to be even-handed with both the students -- and their technically-illegal protests -- and the vigilantes who attacked them. All who break the law have to be dealt with equally, he told journalists in an impromptu news conference a few days after the protests had died down.

Many university students -- once the bedrock of support for Khatami -- lost faith. Students wrote to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan urging him to intervene.

They listed a catalog of atrocities, murder and torture of opponents, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and other violations of human rights committed, they say, by Iranian leaders.

"We want to ensure civil and social rights and liberties, and we want a democracy. But the students have lost any illusion that working for reforms within the system can bring this about," says Saeed Razavi-Faqih, a student leader, in an interview with the publication "Middle East Report."

"We believe now that the core of this regime is fundamentally authoritarian, and that it will continue to block all attempts to make ours a more flexible system which respects citizens' rights," he is quoted as saying.

Razavi-Faqih was arrested on July 10, two days after giving the interview. He is one of the leaders of the Office for Consolidation of Unity -- a student organization linked to the reformist movement. The O.C.U., which has been the target of hard-line attacks over the past several years, has been divided into at least three factions.

Those factions seem to be gathering support.

So now the questions are: Will the students part ways with Khatami and his reformist movement? How will they confront the hard-liners who have Iran's all-powerful spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, as an ally" These hard-liners control Iran's armed forces, many security outfits, the judiciary, and the council that has the constitutional role of ratifying parliamentary bills.

In Iran, university students frequently have been an important force for social change. Their alliance with the resourceful traders and merchants in Tehran and the workers in the oil exporting industry eventually led to the Islamic revolution in 1979 that toppled the powerful regime of the Shah.

While some support the idea, others in Iran argue the students' separation from the reform movement would be an ominous development. It may deal a severe blow to the movement and leave the field even more open to the hard-liners.

Students say they have been greatly encouraged by the support they received from the public in the recent protests.

Tens of thousands joined the demonstrations, albeit from the safety of their cars. They formed big traffic jams around the university dormitories in a show of civil disobedience. More than a dozen towns and cities in the country experienced unrest. The protests were the clearest indication of the discontent among Iranians and their desire for change.

Some 350 reformists, intellectuals, lawyers and journalists wrote a letter to Iran's spiritual leader Ayatollah Khamenei this week urging him to end repression.

"Resorting to violence, crackdowns, and authoritarian methods, as we see today toward students, will bear no result, and will only exacerbate the crisis," the letter said.

In the past, President Khatami has threatened to resign if he was unable to push forward his reforms. But few believe his resignation would improve conditions in Iran or make the transition to democracy any easier.

For Iran, after more than six years of attempts to initiate democratic change, it seems it's back to square one.

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