Two weeks after the unrest that swept across Iran in late December and early January there is still no reliable report on the number of university students security forces jailed during the protests.
The arrests were made by the country’s two main intelligence organizations: the Intelligence Ministry, which is part of President Rouhani’s administration, and the Intelligence Organization of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), which is closely controlled by Supreme Leader ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Anecdotal accounts put the number of university students jailed during the protests between 90 to 140. Officials have admitted that 3,700 arrests in total resulted from the demonstrations, and some have put the number even higher.
The Ministry of Science and Higher Education, which has been following the student arrests, reported in late January that 90 percent of the students jailed during the unrest have already been released. The report went on to say that in such situations “Intelligence and security organizations usually arrest a large number of university students, keeping only a small number of ‘problematic cases’ in custody and releasing the rest within a few days.”
Most of the students arrested during the protests live in Tehran and study at the city’s universities, including Tehran University, Allameh Tabatabai University, Sharif University, the University of Science and Technology, and Tehran Polytechnic, the report said.
The students’ arrests drew criticism from parliament, Science and Higher Education Ministry officials, and university chancellors, some of whom called on the hardline judiciary and intelligence organizations not to prolong the students’ imprisonment.
The Rouhani administration’s response to the arrests was marked by contradictions. While the Science and Higher Education Ministry lobbied for the students’ release, the Intelligence Ministry was involved in the arrests and interrogations.
Despite their efforts on the students’ behalf, young Iranians on social media accused the Science and Higher Education Ministry and university officials of not showing enough concern for the students’ rights.
There has been no official explanation as to why students in particular were targeted for arrest during the protests, with officials only characterizing the arrests as a “preventive measure.”
As the unrest swept across the country, both hardliners and reformist parties distanced themselves from the protests. Students, however, showed overwhelming support, with most of the rallies in Tehran taking place at or around the Tehran University campus. The university’s monumental gate became a symbol for the protests. Students then became one of the main targets of suppression when security forces working under President Rouhani or Supreme Leader Khamenei’s office decided to squash the protests.
The confrontation had two main objectives: Preventing the student movement from reinforcing the protests and ensuring universities would not become focal points of unrest, which would have strengthened and prolonged the protests and made them more difficult for the security forces to suppress.
Due to the large scale of the crackdown, many students who were not involved in the demonstrations were swept up in the arrests. But from the perspective of the security forces, a few unjust arrests were worth it if they prevented an alliance between university students and the economically underprivileged who made up the base of the demonstrations, and if they sent a message that public dissent won’t be tolerated.