Student protests in Iran pose a challenge to the Raisi government

Protests in Iran have spread to universities and high schools as the new academic year begins, breathing fresh energy into a week-long, nationwide movement demanding more rights and prompting a brutal crackdown by authorities.

The involvement of young students seeking more freedoms adds a new dimension to the rights movement that has erupted in Iran since the death on September 16 of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody for allegedly violating Iran’s strict Islamic dress code. Protesters initially called for more freedom for women, but those demands have since morphed into broader calls to topple the Islamic Republic, posing one of the toughest challenges yet to the country’s ultra-conservative clerical leadership.

In videos recently posted on social media, schoolgirls were seen removing their mandatory headscarves, or hijabs, in defiance of the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code.

Many universities moved classes online in an attempt to contain the protests, but demonstrations continued. A violent crackdown earlier this week at one of Iran’s top educational institutes, Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, has become a rallying call on social media for many students across the country.

“Right now, schools and universities are the biggest challenge to the regime,” said Saeid Golkar, an authority on Iranian politics who teaches at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. “At this age, you’re not afraid.”

Protests continued across Iran over the death of a young woman who was taken into custody for allegedly violating the country’s strict Islamic dress code. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said the incident was under investigation. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

In Sharif on Sunday, members of a paramilitary force and plainclothes police on motorcycles surrounded the university campus and began firing pellets, balls and rubber bullets at the protesters, according to some students who were there.

The paintball marks were later used to identify and arrest some of the protesters, the students said. Those who tried to leave the campus were beaten with batons, they added, leaving some seriously injured. Many were arrested.

Meanwhile, the US Treasury Department on Thursday imposed new sanctions on seven senior Iranian government and security officials the Biden administration said were responsible for the violent crackdown on the protest movement.

The officials are already subject to sanctions by other authorities, but the targeting of the interior and communications ministers, Iran’s cyber police chief and several other security officials provides Washington with another opportunity to publicly criticize the Iranian government for a period of repression that has caused. widespread international condemnation.

The action falls short of calls from US lawmakers for measures that would inflict more economic pain on the country, but comes as the administration struggles to secure a nuclear deal with Tehran.

On Thursday, facing criticism at home and abroad over the crackdown, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi sought to deflect blame, resorting to a familiar regime tactic of accusing the US and other opponents of fomenting the unrest.

“America … and other enemies of the country tried to pursue their anti-Iranian and anti-revolutionary goals inside Sharif University,” Mr Raisi said during a meeting with university officials to discuss the incident, according to the state news agency. IRNA. .

At the same time, the president appeared to strike a conciliatory tone with the students, calling them noble. He said universities remain the best environment to discuss important issues of society, but students should not allow outsiders to influence them.

The crackdown on protesters at Sharif University has seriously injured many students, according to some students. Several of Sharif’s students were taken to Evin prison, according to protesters, a detention center known to house political prisoners.

“Initially, the protests were about the compulsory hijab and the general neglect of women’s rights,” said one of the students who was among the protesters. He and other students said those calls quickly turned into broader anti-establishment protests.

Sharif’s demonstrations have sparked a tense standoff with members of the paramilitary group, called the Basij, which is supposed to support the Islamic Republic’s political and social system and has representatives in most public institutions.

Tensions had been rising for days in Sharif before Sunday’s clashes between protesters and members of the Basij, according to some students.

Write to Benoit Faucon at [email protected]

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