A former Tehran University student, Behzad Bargheri, spoke to 50 people at a public meeting on Iran on July 20.
Bargheri told the meeting in Melbourne that during the 1980s the Islamic Republic regime took “harsh and bloody measures” to suppress the left. Many thousands of leftists were arrested, tortured and murdered.
The universities were closed for several years. When they reopened they had been purged of leftist students.
Islamic student associations acted as student unions. Initially these associations were pro-government, but by the 1990s this began to change as new generations of students began demanding freedom of speech, association and the press. The Islamic student associations became a base for the Islamic reformist movement that began to emerge in Iran.
When Mohammad Khatami was elected president in 1997, reformists became part of the government. However, the Islamic student associations became disillusioned with the reformists in power, because they collaborated with the conservatives in carrying out repression. For example, Khatami refused to support a proposed law on freedom of the media.
Protests for media freedom grew in 1999, led by Islamic associations. They were violently repressed. Students were jailed or killed, and some leaders were forced to “repent” on TV.
Students became more radical, and radical left groups began to emerge on campus once again.
In 2004, when Bargheri came to Tehran University, there were three left-wing newspapers circulating on campus. He became involved with Khak, meaning soil.
At that time, with the reformist Khatami government in power, repression had eased. Khak was circulated openly on campus, but was restricted in what it could say. It could not directly criticise top regime figures or openly call itself Marxist.
It was constantly testing the boundaries. A criticism of the government’s neoliberal economic policies resulted in a formal warning.
The group held meetings on campus to discuss workers’ struggles. It established links with unions and groups campaigning for women’s rights.
In 2005, a bus drivers’ union was formed. Students supported strikes and ran study groups for union members.
The Khak group organised International Women's Day rallies on campus and took part in women's liberation protests outside the university. Demands included opposition to stoning for adultery, an end to the compulsory wearing of hijab (Islamic dress), an end to sexual segregation on campus, and equality before the law.
Khak was eventually banned. However, it continued to be produced for a time under another name.
Repression intensified after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in August 2005.
Numerous students, unionists and embers of women's organisations were arrested. Many activists fled into exile.
In retrospect, Bargheri thinks the student activists underestimated the seriousness of this increased repression. They continued trying to operate openly in a much more repressive climate, but this led to more arrests.
The result was that when the protest movement arose against Ahmadinejad over allegations of fraud in the 2009 presidential elections, it was led by reformists who did not criticise his neoliberal economic policies.
Today, Bargheri said, there is huge discontent in Iran, but people don’t have a way to express their anger, due to a lack of organisation.
Unions have been crushed. Nevertheless, there are strikes around economic issues.
Bargheri said that Iran is “on the verge of an explosion”, and that any spark could trigger rebellion.
He pointed out the hypocrisy of the Australian government, which has in the past criticised human rights violations in Iran, but now claims that asylum seekers from Iran are economic migrants.
The meeting was organised by Socialist Alternative and Iran Solidarity Melbourne.