Nearly ten years after a harsh crackdown ended Iran’s youth-driven Green Movement, sometimes called the “Persian Spring,” it appears university students have lost their appetite for political activism amid ever tighter restrictions on freedom of speech.
"Iranian students are reluctant to participate in political activities," said Hossein Salimi, the president of Allameh Tababaei University in Tehran, one of the largest universities in the country.
Speaking to the state-run Iran Students News Agency (ISNA), Salimi, a former cleric, said the main reason students have lost interest in politics is that they fear the consequences of expressing their opinions.
According to Salimi, 60-70 percent of the licenses his university issues for student gatherings go unused.
"Although nearly all of the students' requests to hold meetings are approved by the supervisory board, most of the licenses are not used," Salimi said.
Salimi, who was welcomed by students four years when he replaced a hardliner as the president of the university, says the era of “certain political activities” among Iranians is over. His countrymen, he says, have lost interest in expressing their thoughts and ideas at “emotional” meetings that lead to political instability.
However, Salimi argues there is no reason students shouldn’t be engaged in politics, as long as the “red lines” of the ruling establishment are respected, of course.
According to Salimi, if student political activities go beyond what is considered acceptable by the ruling establishment, "the managers of the universities lose control and other institutions (security and intelligence entities) step in, bringing a host of other problems.”
The Iranian student associations, once highly active during the presidency of reformist Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), are currently under the close supervision of different intelligence and security organizations, and are effectively silenced.
Hundreds of "starred" Iranian students have been kicked out of their universities for raising their voices. A star next to a student’s name in official university records in Iran means a partial or complete ban from state universities. Although President Hassan Rouhani formed a committee in to resolve the issue of starred students, the fate of an unknown number of them is still in limbo.
Furthermore, hundreds of students' rights activists were arrested after the nationwide anti-establishment protests that swept the country in late December 2017 and early January this year. Most of those arrested were not involved in the protests but were taken into custody as a “preventative measure.” Many were given long prison sentences and some are still awaiting a verdict.
All these developments have led to a significant decline in Iranian student participation in political activities. Even conservative student groups supportive of the ruling establishment have reason to be cautious.
Last week, an ultraconservative student group asked Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to attend a gathering at Tehran University and take questions from students about the performance of the Islamic Ruling System since its inception nearly four decades ago.
However, days later, under heavy pressure, the group withdrew its request, signaling that the ruling establishment prefers students, even those who support them, stay out of politics entirely.