Radicalization of the Pre-Revolution Student Movement Abroad

Presented at the Third Biennial Conference on Iranian Studies

Washington, D.C.

May 25-28, 2000

Over the last fifteen years, I have attempted to come to grips with aspects of the history of the Iranian student movement abroad. In three books, one dealing with the evolution of the first large-scale Iranian student organization, called the Confederation of Iranian Students, the second and the third each covering the political life and struggles of two of the prominent leaders of this movement, using extensive interviews and the documents of the movement, and finally relying on my own experience as a participant-observer of this evolution, I have come to some early and tentative conclusions about the origins of Iranian student radicalism abroad. What I will offer here today is a brief synoptic account of my conclusions about this important moment of Iranian political and intellectual history.

Contrary to the common perception, the origins of the Iranian student radicalism abroad do not go back to the 1953 coup that toppled the government of Mossadegh. In the years leading to the war, a number of Iranian students living in France and Germany began to form loosely organized student groups and fought against Reza Shah’s despotism. Some of Iran’s leading communist and social democratic leaders, amongst them Taghi Arani, Iraj Eskandari, Khalil Maleki, and Morteza and Bozorg Alavi, were from the ranks of these early student organizations.

In the aftermath of World War II, the political landscape changed not only in Iran but amongst the relatively small number of Iranian students studying in Europe. The consequences of the Cold War and the ever-present question of oil made Iran a theatre for great power rivalry, particularly between the Soviet Union and the U.S. Containing Soviet aggression was to be a main pillar of U.S. policy in Iran for the next four decades. At the same time, the Soviet Union, through the creation of the Tudeh party, tried to increase its power in Iran. In the midst of this battle, Mossadegh came to lead the popular movement to nationalize Iranian oil, and thus as Iran was caught in deep political turmoil, the Iranian students in Europe also began to reflect these political tensions.

In the early post-war years, students sympathetic to the Tudeh party, were the main force in politicizing the Iranian students living in Europe. Following the pattern of a Soviet-style Communist party, Tudeh sympathizers began to create student organizations that were ostensibly only pursuing the academic and financial demands of the students, but were in fact political in nature. These early front organizations fought for such simple issues as the amount of foreign currency allowed each student and the help provided by the embassies in facilitating the students’ life and education. In March of 1941, the first organization of Iranian students was formed in the city of Bonn, in Germany.