The Revival of Iranian Student Movement: A Sociological Analysis

In the course of Islamic Revolution of 1978-79 a de facto alliance between the Marxist and Islamist student organizations played an instrumental role in the downfall of the monarchy. Following the clerical capture of power, however, this fragile alliance came to an abrupt end. Fifteen months into the revolution, the Islamic regime had yet to consolidate its power in Iranian universities and other centers of higher learning which had become the hotbed of both Marxist and Islamist groups. In April 1980 government forces attacked campuses in various cities following which the government closed down the universities for a three-year period. It took another fourteen years, roughly around 1997, when the new post-revolutionary student movement reappeared on the political arena.

This essay will make an attempt to provide a sociological analysis of the revived student movement in Iran. Utilizing some of the most recent theoretical perspectives on social movements, notably "resource mobilization" and "political opportunity structure", the analysis will focus on the following interrelated factors in the reemergence of the movement.

  1. The role of university campuses, acting as centers of interaction, mobilization, and political socialization of a new generation of Iranian student activists;
  2. The respective roles of various student organizations in providing leadership for the politically active students;
  3. The election of Mohammad Khatami in May of 1997 which led to a limited political and cultural liberalization which in turn, facilitated the further expansion of the student movement; and
  4. The new reformist/legalistic tactics of the dominant student movement- tied to the reformist faction of the government- which has enhanced its resources.

The existing student movement is markedly distinct from both the Marxist-dominated movement of the 1970s as well as the conservative-Islamist student activists of the 1980s. The current movement, while predominantly Islamist in its worldview, is pro-democracy, reformist and mostly in favor of legalistic, institutionalized methods of social change. The future course of the movement, however, could be influenced by increasingly more vocal secular-nationalistic student groups.

Mehrdad Mashayekhi
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