Footage of Student Protests Taken from Ministry of Interiour
It was an event that shook Iran, rattling the nascent reform movement and reconfirming the utility of repression for the sentinels of the theocratic system. The forces that sparked the upheaval and shaped the regime’s response continue to haunt Iran, whose current president (Rouhani) — elected only a year ago with the fervent support of students and reformists— is the same man who advocated and helped authorize the violence against their ranks in 1999.
The events of July 1999 began with the closure of the path-breaking reformist newspaper Salaam, for its revelations about an Intelligence Ministry terror campaign against dissidents. The closure came only days after the parliament’s ratification of a regressive new press law. Student groups organized protests on university campuses in Tehran and several other Iranian cities.
On July 9, or 18 Tir by the Iranian calendar, security forces raided a Tehran University dormitory to break up the demonstrations. The ensuing violence devastated the reform movement’s popular base, especially the student leadership. Fifteen hundred students were arrested, hundreds were injured, and several killed. The dormitory raid only fueled the fire, as thousands of young Iranians took to the streets of Tehran and other cities. Rioting and street fights among protestors and hard-line thugs ensued. It was the most severe and sustained civil violence since the 1979 revolution, and the first time that unrest had touched the heart of Tehran, the country’s political nerve center.
Mohammad Khatami, the reformist cleric whose symbolic bid for the presidency had produced a surprise upset victory two years earlier, made a futile bid to steer a middle course. Khatami decried the upheaval, expressed sympathy with the students, but appealed for the protests to end and offered only token gestures of official remorse. Khatami’s unwillingness to personally champion his most dedicated constituency bred frustration with the man and the movement, whose trademark prudence appeared little more than cowardice.
Both leaders’ themes were echoed by Hassan Rouhani, then deputy speaker of Iran’s parliament and secretary of the Supreme National Security Committee. Rouhani was one of the head-liners at a well-scripted counter-demonstration organized by the regime one week after the dormitory raid. To a large, enthusiastic and well-compensated crowd, Rouhani inveighed against the protests, calling the organizers “bandits and saboteurs” and promising that Tehran would “resolutely and decisively quell any attempt to rebel.”
Rouhani was not the only Iranian official who achieved newfound prominence during the crisis. Also notable during this episode was the role of the Revolutionary Guard and senior military commanders, who issued an unprecedented warning to Khatami. The threat of military intervention proved a harbinger of things to come, as the Revolutionary Guard transformed into a political and economic powerhouse.