Protests Bring Hope, Concern for Harvard's Iranian and Iranian-American Students

A world away, students harbor hope for reform in Iran as violence escalates

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Associated Press

In a photo provided by the campaign of Iranian reform candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, the opposition leader addresses supporters at a demonstration in Tehran on Thursday. Government bans have hampered efforts by foreign media outlets to photograph protests

After a week of mass protests in Iran over a disputed presidential election in which the country's officials declared incumbent hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the overwhelming victor, Harvard’s Iranian and Iranian-American students continue to express doubts about the election's results but remain hopeful about the prospects for democratic reform.

While protests in the days following the election have been largely peaceful, violence escalated over the weekend as riot police and paramilitary forces used batons and tear gas to confront demonstrators. Images of protests in recent days have shown hundreds of thousands of Iranians rallying in Tehran, the nation’s capital, to protest what many suspect was a rigged election.

To show solidarity with demonstrators in Iran, students in Harvard's Iranian community say they have been closely following and reposting news of events in Iran on the Internet. One student said he even helped organize protests in Boston.

"What [Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah] Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are banking on is that we'll stop paying attention, and then they can sweep in," says Sahand, a Harvard junior whose parents immigrated to the United States from Iran. He asked his last name be withheld to protect his family members still in the country. "I’m hopeful, and I feel...as long as we pay attention and make this an issue, it’ll make it harder for them to go in and do what they want."

OUTRAGE IN IRAN

As the Iranian government seeks to suppress demonstrations and restrict communication in the country, supporters of the opposition movement have increasingly depended on Internet blogs and messaging services such as Twitter to spread news. But the events of recent days have been brought even closer to home for some Harvard students who have family in Iran.

One undergraduate, who asked to remain anonymous because they wished to avoid political repercussions for themselves and their family in Iran, recently traveled to the country and returned to the United States only after protests began to erupt.

"I saw a lot of the pre-election rallies...the streets would be completely filled with young people and students, and the atmosphere was more celebratory than anticipatory," says the student. "[People] felt as if [opposition leader Mir Hussein] Moussavi had already won."

So when election results were released and Ahmadinejad was declared the victor, people reacted with mixed emotions, the student says.

"Most people saw the election as a referendum on Ahmadinejad, so they were surprised," the student says. "But then they also said they weren't surprised, and that was part of their cynicism. Whenever something fraudulent comes up, they're outraged but [are] also accepting that this is part of the system."

The following day, protests began in Iran's capital, the student says.

"Around 4 p.m., all of a sudden on the street outside my hotel...we look outside, and the road was completely filled with cars," says the student. "Traffic was at a standstill, honking had taken over, all you could hear was honking, and we couldn't hear our own voices. Around 9 p.m., we noticed some flames, and all of a sudden, four or five very large fires popped up. People were feeding them with everything from trash, traffic cones, tires, to cars, and people started shouting 'Death to the coup d'état!'"

Neagheen Homaifar ’10, co-President of the Harvard Persian Students Association, says that students at the college her cousin attends in Iran ripped up their exams to show their anger with the election results.

"People realized that this idea of democratic agency, which they have in voting, was taken away," Homaifar says.

REACTION IN AMERICA

Seated in front of his computer, Pouya P. Alimagham says that he is following news about Iran minute-by-minute and is posting information from the Internet, TV, and radio on his blog, http://www.ipouya.com/, with his own comments.

Alimagham, who recently completed his Masters degree in Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard, says he was born in Tehran and moved to the United States when he was two and a half. From California, Alimagham voted for Moussavi last week, although he says there is a good chance votes in the United States were not counted.

"My medium of protest has been online, so I’ve been spending most of my time gathering information," Alimagham says.

He adds that he believes the massive media coverage of the election in the West, though not always accurate, is ultimately a good thing, considering that a lot of democratic movements in the Middle East are not reported at all.

Sahand, who is also an inactive Crimson business editor, similarly stressed the need to sustain media coverage of the current tumult. The longer the media and people pay attention, he says, the more likely that things will turn out to be good. He says he has been following news on The New York Times, the Huffington Post's live blog, Andrew Sullivan’s blog on the Atlantic's Web site, and some Farsi sites.

Some students are even looking beyond the media and Internet to spread the news about Iran's election and to generate international support for the opposition.

Arash, an Iranian student at the Graduate School of Design who requested that his last name be withheld for safety reasons, organized three protests in Boston this past week.

"All of my friends are there [at Tehran University]. They are being beaten and get injured," Arash says. "We want to tell them that they are not alone."

Arash says that he does not think the protests will die down, even though Khamenei warned against further demonstrations Friday morning and said that the election was not rigged.

'FEARFUL AND HOPEFUL'

Azadeh Pourzand, a current Kennedy School student studying public policy, says she came to the United States with her mother at age 17, shortly before Iranian authorities jailed her father, a journalist there, for "undermining state security."

"I think I would describe my current reaction to what is happening in Iran as both fearful and hopeful," writes Pourzand in an e-mailed statement. "I only hope that whatever the outcome may be, the violence does not take on an even larger turn."

And while massive protests and international attention on Iranian elections continue, students in Cambridge with ties to the country watch each day's events unfold with uneasy uncertainty.

"People believe that real change is happening, but Iranians do not want another revolution," says the Harvard undergraduate who was recently in Iran. The student noted that many people in the country have been referencing Czechoslovakia's non-violent "Velvet Revolution," a series of mass protests in 1989 that resulted in the nation's then-Communist government relinquishing power. "They want change brought by revolution but without violence."

The student also noted that, based on first-hand accounts, many people in Iran also do not know what will emerge from the unrest. Unlike the Islamic Revolution 30 years ago when Iranians were eager to depose the Shah, this time around many protesters do not have a concrete goal, says the student.

Pourzand says while she was initially fascinated by the determination of the young people in recent rallies, she has since become more concerned after talking to her mother, a prominent Iranian human rights activist and lawyer who Pourzand said seems to be caught between excitement and grave fear.

"The fear, I think, comes from the fact that her generation has either witnessed or participated in the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and thus they are well familiar with the kind of violence and potential collective depression that could sometimes follow massive expressions of dissatisfaction and the quest for change," Pourzand writes.

Pourzand's mother, Mehrangiz Kar, was a visiting fellow at the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School this past year. In 2001, she was convicted and imprisoned in Iran for "acting against national security" after calling for constitutional reforms and secularization. Her husband, now in his 70s, is currently living under a loose form of house arrest in Tehran.

"My parents have been trying to ask for more freedom in Iran and, while their work has affected many in Iran, the authorities managed to make their personal life very tough at an old age," Pourzand writes. She says that while she is somewhat optimistic about Iran's future since many citizens are now standing up for their rights, she continues to worry about oppression and violence by authorities in the country.

Despite the uncertain outcome, Homaifar, the Persian Students Association co-President, seemed confident that the current uprising would have long-term effects.

"What I am convinced about is that the reaction of [these] millions of people is setting the stage for social and political change, whether that comes now, in the next four years, or the next eight years," Homaifar says. "The protesters are enlightening the world about the social, economic, and political frustrations Iranian people have been feeling for many years."

—Peter F. Zhu contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Weiqi Zhang can be reached at wzhang@fas.harvard.edu.

REDACTION: The last name of a student quoted in the story was later redacted as part of an agreement with the individual—identified by his first name Sahand in the piece—who said he did not want his words to endanger family members still in Iran.

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