- The Washington Times - Friday, August 28, 2009

Back to school in Iran may mean back to mass protests - a prospect that could lead authorities to delay opening university classes in Tehran and other major cities.

While Iranian officials denied plans to delay the scheduled Sept. 23 opening, the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council issued a statement last week suggesting that many universities might stay closed to avoid outbreaks of swine flu. The council is in charge of educational institutions.

The son of an Iranian academic and member of the council - who asked to be identified only by his first name, Mehdi, to avoid government retribution - told The Washington Times that his father had attended a council meeting at which the consequences of a probable shutdown of universities was discussed.

He said the council was concerned that students would protest the June 12 elections, which gave a tainted victory to incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Classes did begin this week in the southern city of Shiraz, with security guards on every corner and leaflets warning students about political activities.

Universities traditionally have been centers of protest in Iran since before the 1978-79 Islamic revolution. In 1978, the government of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi postponed classes until the beginning of November; campuses immediately erupted in clashes between students and security forces, according to “Inside the Iranian Revolution,” by former U.S. diplomat John D. Stempel.

The shah fled the country in January 1979 and his last prime minister fell in February.

From 1980 to 1983, Islamic authorities kept universities closed to pre-empt anti-Islamic and pro-communist demonstrations and to carry out a purge of liberal professors and academics who opposed the imposition of strict religious restrictions on dress, conduct and subject matter to be taught.

In 1999, students at Tehran University protested the closure of a reformist newspaper, touching off clashes with security forces that led to the death of at least one student and nearly brought the resignation of President Mohammed Khatami. They were the biggest popular disturbances until those after the June elections.

Students in Tehran said there have been rumors of a decision to postpone the fall semester. The students said they have observed delays in the registration process in arts and engineering faculties.

An engineering student at Sharif University - who asked to be identified only by her first name, Aliyeh - said the authorities fear that with the start of semester, the students may orchestrate new demonstrations against Mr. Ahmadinejad and his administration.

Millions of Iranians have protested the re-election of Mr. Ahmadinejad and think his chief opponent, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, won the June vote. However, the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has endorsed the results despite widespread evidence of fraud. Security forces have cracked down harshly on demonstrators and reformist politicians, more than 100 of whom are now on trial for sedition.

“We believe that this administration is illegal and we cannot stand it,” Aliyeh said. “We will protest daily until we get our votes back.”

She added that “universities are the best places to gather and considered as hubs to organize students for anti-Ahmadinejad rallies.”

Students were prominent in this summer’s street protests ,and the Iranian government closed university dormitories in an effort to curb the unrest.

Amir Hossein, a student at Azad University in Tehran, said, “We are being told that the country’s universities will start the next semester as usual, but many of our professors are still in custody and the rest are not willing to teach in the absence of freedom of speech.”

If the government does allow the universities to reopen, students say, they fear that large numbers of plainclothes security agents will be sent to campuses to prevent or crush demonstrations.

“The challenge to elections has challenged the roots of the Islamic system,” including the notion that a supreme religious leader should have the final say on government policies, Mr. Stempel said. “That challenge will come up through the universities as soon as they are opened.”

Barbara Slavin contributed to this report.

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