It has been 20 years since an attack on a student dormitory in Tehran on July 9, 1999 sparked six days of demonstrations.
The chain of events started when the Special Clerical Court closed down the reformist newspaper Salam on July 6 after it published a confidential letter regarding new parliamentary legislation to curb press freedom. The letter, to Intelligence Minister Ghorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi, was written by the minister's advisor, Saeed Emami.
On July 8, students from Tehran University held a demonstration to express their anger over the closure of Salam. Then, at midnight on July 9, plainclothes agents and vigilantes from the paramilitary Ansar-e Hezbollah (“Supporters of the Party of God”) attacked the students’ dormitory, beating up students and ransacking and even destroying their rooms. Clashes on the streets of Tehran lasted for five days and, according to the Human Rights Activists in Iran group, led to the deaths of at least seven students and the arrests of dozens.
One of the most iconic photographs published during what became known as the Students Dormitory Attack was that of a young man holding up a bloody shirt, a photograph that brought the student movement in Iran to the world’s attention. The young man in the picture was Ahmad Batebi, a student activist who was arrested soon after it was published. The court sentenced him to death for holding up the blood-stained shirt, a sentence that was reduced to 15 years in prison on appeal following international outcry. After serving nine years of his sentence, Batebi was given a temporary leave of absence due to poor health, a result of mistreatment in prison. He used the opportunity to escape Iran, leaving via the border with Iraq. In 2008 he arrived in the United States, where he was given asylum.
IranWire talked to Ahmad Batebi about his experience, and how it has shaped his views today.
It has been 20 years since the attack on the students dormitory. Has anything changed regarding your feelings and your views when you look back on those days?
That event has become part of my identity and character. I was a youngster at the time and there was no internet or social networks or satellites. In the 1980s, they killed all political activists from the previous generation who had participated in the revolution. So in the second half of the 1990s, there was nobody to talk to us and give us advice on how to conduct a social protest. There was nobody who could convey their experience to us. We were absolutely ignorant and, in that situation, we knew that something was happening but we did not know how to manage the event or even how to put forward our demands in a logical form.
For instance, I witnessed a group of young people who were not students but were around the same age as us suddenly start destroying the portal to Tehran University. “Why are you doing this?” I asked them. “We are protesting,” they said. “Don’t you watch TV? Didn’t you see how students protest in South Korea?” In other words, we did not even know how to protest.
I entered the fray with a young and passionate spirit but without any experience. For me every moment, from the protests to the prison to the interrogations, was a case of trial and error. So I cannot say that July 9 is only a memory for me. For me, it was a step in building my identity and my character. All these years I have been going through a learning period and now I believe in what I do and I believe it is the right thing to do.
What is the first image that comes to your mind when you hear the phrase “July 9” or “Students Dormitory Attack”?
The filled-out interrogation forms that the interrogator put in front of me so that I would falsely confess that the July 9 movement was launched with the help of the US and Israel. One of their scenarios was that the People’s Mojahedin Organization (MEK) had sent a truckload of arms and a Kurdish student by the name of Khaled had given me the arms and I had distributed them at the university. “Fine,” I would say. “Suppose I confess to this. Where are you going to get the truckload of arms?” And they would say, “don’t you worry about that.”
Another scenario was that I should confess that reformist figures were involved in destroying public property or even in murdering students. And yet another one was that I would make a TV confession, admitting that the bloody shirt in that picture of me was a lie and that I had used tomato sauce or the blood of a sheep to make the shirt red with the intention of pushing propaganda against the regime. But I did not agree to sit in front of the camera and say these things.
What is your biggest regret about those days?
My biggest regret is that, in a period of contemporary Iran, changes for the better were possible but did not happen because of procrastination, inefficiency and the broken promises of one group of people. At the beginning, the reformist movement had popular support and many, including me, paid the price. I do not want credit for what I am saying. I was tortured to say that the reformists were involved in street riots. I was tortured so that I would say that Mostafa Tajzadeh [Minister of Interior under President Khatami] had ordered us to destroy public property. Or to accuse many of the prominent figures of the reformist movement of wrongdoings so that they could trump up charges against them.
But I resisted all of this and never signed anything against them because, at that time, I felt that they really believed in reforms. I believed that freedom, democracy and change were their priorities. Had I accepted and confessed, I would have not spent nearly a decade in prison.
What changed your mind about the reformists?
I realized that their priority was not democracy, freedom and reforming the society. Their only priority was the preservation of the regime. Many of the reformists and [conservative] principlists are relatives [of people in power] and they benefit from preserving this regime. The priority of these gentlemen was not change or reforms but protecting the regime and its continuity.
Do you remember how you felt and where you were when the court verdicts regarding the events in the student dormitory were published? What did you think when you heard the name of Orujali Babrzadeh [a draftee working for Tehran police who was sentenced to 91 days in prison for stealing an electric razor belonging to an imprisoned student]?
The newspaper Kayhan was the only paper that we received inside the prison. I was at the Anti-Sabotage Joint Committee’s prison, which was renamed Tawhid Prison. I kept telling myself: “We must resist. Khatami would not allow the rights of the students and the people to be trampled.” We were such simpletons.
We were sentenced to death and we saw that a draftee was sentenced to prison for stealing a razor. It was Ansar-e Hezbollah who, with help from the police, was responsible for destruction, for beating up the students and for killing them. In other words, even the police played a secondary role. But not only were none of the main culprits arrested, some were even promoted. The most insulting thing that they could do to the people and to the students was to ignore all this and then punish a soldier for stealing an electric razor. This showed that the regime was incapable of reform, and this was proven when the reformist government [of President Mohammad Khatami] did not defend the rights of the people and of the students. Instead it moved in lockstep with the regime and allowed this insult to take place.
Many people believe that the student movement suffered a devastating blow after July 9 and never regained its momentum. What is your opinion?
Students have a few characteristics that teachers, workers and others do not. Student movements are temporary. You can be in a student movement for four or six or, at most, eight years because afterward you graduate and leave the university. The second difference is that a student movement is a poor movement because it is deprived of financial support. A student must either work to pay his expenses or is dependent on his family’s help. He cannot embark on big projects like holding big ceremonies such as [the ones] political parties hold. So students must either use government resources — as does the Student Basij or the pro-government branch of the students’ Office for Strengthening Unity — or turn the movement into a satellite of a bigger movement.
This is exactly what happened to the student movement at the time. The movement was a satellite for the Islamic Iran Participation Front [a reformist political party] and the Participation Front used the movement for its own goals.
If you see that the student movement has slumped at the moment, it does not mean that it will remain on its knees forever. New students have arrived that, considering the economic conditions of the country, have to deal with a lot of problems. If the economy improves and the students have a chance to think beyond their basic needs, there can be no doubt that the student movement will find a new lease of life.
You were a reformist and a member of the student movement. Today you are in the US, you support the Republicans and have leanings that are more to the right. Why?
I consider myself a Republican because, unlike the Democrats, the Republicans take responsibility for what they do. Take abortion, for example. Democrats say that a woman’s body is her own and she is free to do it, but the Republicans say: you must accept responsibility before you get pregnant, meaning that you must go back two steps, teach women and give them the means to prevent pregnancy so that there will be no need for abortion. But the Democrats do not accept responsibility for what they say and hide behind words like liberty and democracy.
The same goes for foreign policy as well. The Republicans are much more serious than the Democrats in how they think and make decisions about Iran. They really believe in democracy for Iran. I believe that the businessmen and those for whom democracy has no meaning, and who only think about US-Iran relations in term of their own profits, adopt the identity of a Democrat. But the Republicans’ priority is freedom and democracy for the Iranian people.
Your reasons for supporting the Republicans sound like answers that a partisan devotee would give. It is generally believed that the Republicans are more allied with business that the Democrats. And when you talk about abortion, you use arguments that have been subject to numerous criticisms.
Let us look at history. Whenever Iran suffered a disaster, it was the Democrats who were in power. They were in power during the 1979 Revolution. When the Green Movement wanted to change things, President Obama was president and he ruined things. So, whenever Democrats have been in power, they have followed a weak policy in regards to Iran.
Do you approve of war with Iran?
No, I do not agree with war. Nobody wants war. The question of war is a means for political grandstanding. Everybody wants to say that he is a good guy, so he accuses somebody else of warmongering and puts himself on the opposite side.
But which war are we talking about? For many reasons war is not going to happen unless the Islamic Republic itself starts it. The American government is deep in debt and, financially, lacks the means to enter a full-scale war. And American public opinion does not favor a war. If during the Gulf War people were ready to pay the costs and start a war, it was because of 9/11, when thousands of innocent people were killed. Then you need another 9/11 to start a war and that is not going to happen.
War can start only if the Islamic Republic starts it. Those who pose as anti-war and accuse the Republicans of warmongering can offer no solution for controlling the Islamic Republic, a crisis-creator government that is attacking oil tankers and shooting down drones.
What you say now has caused your critics, some of whom are your old friends, to accuse you of warmongering and of lacking patriotic feelings.
This is what democracy means. Anybody can say whatever he wants about me. One of the things that I have learned during all these years is that when you enter politics you cannot make all people like you. This would mean abandoning the truth and doing whatever is necessary to be popular. This is what makes a person useless and I do not want to be useless. I take all the curses that history and my old friends might throw at me, but I support putting sanctions on the Revolutionary Guards, on Ali Khamenei and on the the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. Let history decide.
Some say that we are placing sanctions on the Iranian people. No, we are putting sanctions on the Revolutionary Guards terrorist organization and [we have] succeeded. We are also after putting sanctions on the IRIB and entities like the Martyrs Foundation, Astan Quds Razavi and the Endowments Organization, which annually handle billions of dollars. We are for sanctions until the point when the Iranian government will not be able to take the money that belongs to the Iranian people out of Iran and spend it on the Yemen’s Houthis, Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi [Popular Mobilization Forces], the Lebanese Hezbollah and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
So let them curse me!