Unlike November demonstrations, an important focal point for the new demonstrations were the universities. The newcomers drastically changed on ground elements.
November protests began against a gasoline price hike, while the new wave of protests began with direct demands of the regime’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, to step down as commander in chief of the armed forces, and the regime’s supreme leader. The latter was compared to the Shah, while both monarchy and the Islamic republic were rejected by demonstrators.
At the same time, repressive forces serving the regime were aimed, with IRGC and its paramilitary Bassij forces in the crosshairs. Huge posters of Qassem Soleimani, slain IRGC’s Quds force commander was torn or burnt nationwide, and the IRGC was compared to the ISIS.
The maturity of political slogans chanted by the students surprised even the regime’s authorities. One of the leading state newspapers even claimed those slogans came from Albania, a direct reference to the regime’s main opposition MEK which is residing, since 2016, in Albania.
But how did the universities affect so profoundly the political aspect of the country’s demonstrations?
Historically, universities have played a vital political role in Iran when it comes to popular demands. Under the Shah, universities were painted by the SAVAK- Shah’s dreaded secret police- as focal points of trouble and unrest against the regime.
Back in the 1950s, following the military coup of August 19, 1953, which ended Dr. Mohammad Mossadeq’s popular government and brought back the dismissed Shah to the country, Tehran University became a stronghold of resistance against the new tyrannical rule of the Shah. On December 7, 1953, the Shah’s army attacked Tehran University, and three students of the Engineering faculty were killed when soldiers opened fire on the students. December 7 became thereafter the unofficial “student’s day” in Iran’s university, to be celebrated with anti-Shah protests every year.
The influential role of the universities was a constant worry of the Shah and his SAVAK. Every important university campus in Iran had a special repressive guard force in constant alert for suppressing political unrest before it would pour over into the society. Troublesome institutes of higher education were moved outside the city centers and in virtually remote areas so any disorders by students would not affect big cities.
With the Shah’s downfall, Tehran University’s Engineering faculty was named Badizadegan Engineering faculty, in memory of MEK’s founding member Ali Asghar Badizadegan, once a student of the faculty, and executed by the Shah in 1972. The other important engineering college of the capital, Aryamehr University, was renamed Sharif University in memory of MEK was a slain member, Majid Sharif Vaghefi.
Conscient of the unique role of the universities in mobilizing the people against tyrannical rules, Khomeini did not give higher education systems of the country more than a few months before oppressing them hard. Hardly a year after seizing power, he began attacking university campuses through “unofficial” armed thugs and then repressive police and military forces. Then he closed universities for three years, purging hundreds of professors as well as thousands of students suspected of sympathizing with the MEK and acting against the regime in power.
In order to make sure the universities would not act against the theocratic rule, quota systems were installed to give priority of access to higher education to members of the IRGC’s paramilitary Bassij members and soldiers have served in the armed forces of the regime. Thousands of such “students” were thus introduced into the country’s universities, where they were charged with forming students’ associations close to the regime’s reactionary systems and acting as an instrument of repression against other students.
During the years, although student uprisings occurred in universities from time to time, universities did never have the role they played against the ruling power under the Shah.
The week of anti-regime popular protests following the downing of the Ukrainian airliner brought the country’s universities and university students back to their influential social role, which would no doubt play an important role in future movements against the regime.