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Newsnight Wednesday, 9 July, 2003, 16:14 GMT 17:14 UK
Iran's students

Protesters have been out on the streets of the Iranian capital, Tehran to mark the day four years ago when police and right wing vigilantes raided a student dormitory.

That triggered days of violent street riots. In the past month, protesters have been staging renewed late-night demonstrations against the Islamic regime.

The authorities have clamped down, closing Tehran university campus, to head off trouble.

Foreign TV journalists operating in Iran are usually greatly restricted. But a team has been filming secretly, talking to students and activists and Newsnight has had unique access to their footage. Robin Denselow reports.

Dominated by the grim faces of clerics, Tehran has become a city that's stifled and frustrated. There's deadlock in the battle between reformers and hard line Islamists as to who controls the country. And today in the streets, reports of a three-sided battle, as Islamic vigilantes and police fought against students. There were reports of fist fights, and police firing tear gas. The authorities had banned all gatherings at Tehran University and student leaders were arrested.

AMERI NASSAB: (Islamic Society of University Students) (TRANSLATION)
All we wanted to gain was the permission to object. They have arrested us and our friends and taken us to prison saying that they don't want to tolerate any form of objection. I really don't know where in the world you can see such behaviour.

This is what the students had wanted to commemorate, and the authorities were desperate to prevent happening again. Four years ago today, a student was killed in an attack on a Tehran hostel. The demonstrations that followed were the largest and most violent since the Iranian Revolution, and highlighted the splits that now exist within the Islamic state. Nima Namdari and his wife Nasreen were both there back in '99. Nima saw her for the first time during a demonstration.

I saw a girl making a speech and insulting everyone in the government. At the end of her speech she said, "We should all leave this country". Then she started crying. Her teary eyes had something special in them. They were so special that I couldn't forget them.

Now, married and living in Tehran student lodgings, they debate what went wrong with the supposedly reformist government of President Mohammed Khatami. Like many young Iranians, they were his staunch supporters when he came to power in '97 and had hoped he would bring change.

I gave three years of emotional support to him. I even went to court and to prison for him during those three years. Khatami says the recent events are not very important. That the foreigners exaggerate them. That there were disturbances which were quietened easily. Is Mr Khatami really not able to understand what's going on in the streets?

Nima is studying engineering at the university, but travels across town to work part-time as a journalist. He argues that the current student unrest is just part of a far wider economic crisis.

If you take a look at people's faces on this bus you will find that they're tired, anxious, sleepy. They have no time for recreation, they just work and work and work. A lot of the people who participated in the recent protests are people who don't have anything to lose. Some of them don't even have bread on the table. These people that were on the streets, call them hooligans, or whatever you like, they don't care. These people have reached the point where they can't do anything. The only thing they can do is riot.

Last week, young Iranians sat the entrance exams for the country's universities, knowing that only a fifth will actually get through. Success here is considered crucial. A good education is vital in a country where unemployment is 13%, but probably far higher, and which now has the highest rate of brain drain in the world. Many of the best, and brightest young Iranians simply leave. Outside, worried mothers prayed for their children's success. Iran is a young country - two-thirds of the population are aged under-30 and so most Iranians only know of life under the control of the clerics who took power after the Islamic Revolution of '79. For many, these mullahs have failed to deliver.

More than one million take entrance exams to get to university, but just 200,000 are accepted each year. If they do go to university, they're worried about finding a job but the Iranian economy cannot produce enough jobs for them. Young people's hopes to participate in the future of our society go unfulfilled.

Newsnight can be seen on BBC Two at 2230 BST 2130 GMT, or in Real video, either live or on demand, by clicking on the latest programme button.

Robin Denselow
reports on student protests in Iran
See also:

09 Jul 03 | UK News
09 Jul 03 | Asia-Pacific

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