Radicalization of the Pre-Revolution Student Movement Abroad

It is not clear why the Iranian government decided to make this move at the time. It was apparently part of an over-all offensive against all opposition groups inside and outside the country. It has often been said that the increased influence of leftists in the Confederation, and the stark inability of the government to co-opt into its ranks Iranian students in the West, accounted for the government’s decision. Of course, for many years before this declaration, the government had pursued a policy of carrot and stick against activist students. Sometimes it would refuse to renew the passports of activists, other times it would delay the departure of students who had gone back to Iran for summer vacations, and at all times, it was ready to reward handsomely, anyone who in fact became an apostate.

Whatever the motives, the new policy created something of a crisis in the Confederation. Were vast numbers of students going to heed the government’s threats and rescind their ties with the movement? Was it not wiser to nominally dissolve the Confederation and re-organize it under a different name? Was it not necessary to develop a new policy that clearly stayed within the bounds of the Iranian constitution and thus freed the students from the possibility of prosecution? Or was the answer a more resolute struggle against the regime?

The 12th congress discussed, at some length, all of these possibilities. It made some superficial changes in its policies to at least ostensibly make it congruent with the constitution. But ultimately, the regime’s decision seems to have further radicalized the students, and helped the fortunes of those forces who had been advocating fighting to overthrow the regime has to become part and parcel of the Confederation’s struggle.

Late in winter of 1971, shortly after the end of the 12th congress, the events in the village of Siahkal, where for the first time Iranian partisans fought an armed battle with the police, suddenly changed the political landscape amongst the Iranian students of the Confederation. What had began with the defeat of the 1963 uprising, in other words the belief that only armed struggle can lead to liberation in Iran, had now become part of reality. There was a sudden surge of support for the groups fighting this kind of battle in Iran. The Iranian student movement was irrevocably changed and further radicalized as a result of these developments.

The advent of armed struggle in Iran brought about a debate in the ranks of the Confederation about the role students must play in relationship to this new form of struggle. For the subsequent two congresses, answering this question became the central problematic of the Confederation. The 13th and 14th congresses witnessed fiercely fought political and theoretical battles around this very question. For the next few years, endless hours were spent on polemics about the guerrilla movement in Iran, as well as the foreign policy of People’s Republic of China, which had, in a surprising turn of events, begun supporting the regime in Iran. Unity was a thing of the past. Units of the Confederation began to pursue independent policies, ignoring the directives of the Secretariat.

What only added fuel to this already raging fire was the question of whether the Confederation should now put language in its by-laws indicating its commitment to the overthrow of the regime. The improvements made in the daily lives of people in Iran, as well as the growing stature of the Iranian government in international arena had forced on the Confederation to reconsider its raison d’être. The fact that the Confederation could no longer justify its own existence by talking of poverty in Iran, the fact that it could no longer reasonably talk of starvation in Baluchestan, and of children surviving on animal feed made politics as usual impossible. Faced with these dilemmas, some of the leaders of the Confederation saw further radicalization as the panacea. Demanding the overthrow of the regime would ensure that regardless of reforms in Iran, the mandate of the Confederation would live on. But a sober discussion of this question, and the serious contemplation of acknowledging the fact that improvements had been made in Iran, required the kind of atmosphere that the Confederation could no longer offer. It was enough for someone to even a hint at the possibility that things have changed in Iran for the person to become branded as a traitor. Reality was no longer the measure of things; debate all revolved around abstract theoretical articulations. The radical turn in the student movements in France, United States and Germany further nudged the Confederation towards a more radical path. So immersed was the Confederation in events in Moscow and Peking, in Albany and Cuba, and in Mozambique and Angola, so infatuated it had become with obtuse theoretical minutia that the concrete reality of Iran was forsaken. Emotional slogans, and supposedly polished theories became the prime commodities of the day.

The founders of the Confederation belonged to a generation that had experienced the struggles of the post-war years. They brought with them a wealth of historic experience. The new younger generation of members lacked this experience and more than made up for it with intense emotions and affect and the bombast of theory. Many of them came from the ranks of poorer social classes, with a tradition of anti-intellectualism, and a kind of cultural poverty that took its toll on the over-all atmosphere of the Confederation. The temptation of radical models proved overwhelming. Gradually, an organization that had come into existence in defense of freedom, fair elections, women’s rights and human rights for all became a critic of liberal democracy, attacking it as a superficial form of democracy, detrimental to the interests of the toiling classes. In spite of the noble ideals and dreams that motivated this generation of Iranian students, a complicated set of circumstances, both national and international, led the once fierce defenders of democracy to loose sight of the reality of Iran, and instead become proponents of a dictatorship—dictatorship of ideas, of a party or the proletariat.