1999 Student Protests
When student demonstrations erupted across Iran in July 1999, Rouhani sided with the hardliners, while “reformists” backed the students.
Events began on July 9, 1999, when some 200 students at Tehran University organized a brief rally outside a dormitory to protest the Justice Ministry’s closure of Salam, a daily newspaper that strongly supported President Mohammed Khatami. Students also protested against legislation supported by hard-liners to further limit media freedoms. Days earlier, Salam, a had published details on the Ministry of Intelligence and Security’s role in the death of Iranian intellectuals.
In response, Iranian police and “hard-line activists” [Hezbollah] attacked a dormitory late at night, beating students with clubs. Witnesses said authorities broke down doors and shattered windows, fired tear gas, and set a room on fire. Two students were killed, more than 20 were injured, and scores were arrested.1 (In some news accounts, five to eight students were killed.)
An estimated 10,000 students amassed in front of Tehran University to protest the police crackdown. Students waved a blood-stained shirt, shouting “Shame on the police” and “End this despotism.”
President Khatami labeled the attack an "ugly and bitter incident" and expressed "deep regret."2 The Higher Education Minister condemned the police raid. “The tragic incident of the security forces entering Tehran University campus and their beating up of innocent students at midnight on Friday…is not acceptable under any basis,” he said. Hours after issuing the statement, he tendered his resignation.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s personal representative to Iranian universities condemned “members of law enforcement forces and irresponsible elements” who stormed the dormitories.
The protests continued. On the third day they spread to the other cities of Shiraz, Mashhad, Isfahan, Tabriz, and Hamedan. In Tehran, more than 10,000 students, many wearing masks, demonstrated against the crackdown. President Khatami called the assault on the dormitory an “ugly and bitter incident” and expressed “deep regret.” Two of the security chiefs responsible to the attack were fired.3
A crowd of more than 25,000 students and supporters took to the streets on the fourth day – the largest mass demonstration since the ’79 Revolution. The students demanded the resignation General Hedayat Lotfian, the police chief who ordered the crackdown.
About 5,000 people, including 2,000 university staff, staged a sit-in at Tehran University. In the streets, students chanted “Freedom” and “Down with Dictatorship.” They demanded the resignation of Supreme Leader Khamenei. Others called on the mullahs to end the clearance process that restricts who can run for office, and lifting restrictions on the press.
Unwilling to allow the peaceful demonstrations to continue, police on the next day blocked access to Tehran’s central square. Police in helicopters used loudspeakers to demand demonstrators vacate the streets, warning of arrest. The students were then attacked by riot police and baton-wielding gangs called “Islamic vigilantes.” Crowds were dispersed with tear gas. Two demonstrators were killed, scores were injured, and more than 1,000 people were arrested.
That evening President Khatami turned against the students. In a message read on state television, he said student leaders were guilty of “attacking the foundations of the regime and of wanting to foment tensions and disorder.” Student slogans had targeted “the fundamental principles of the government and political progress.”4
Khatami blamed students for damaging public property. He claimed three banks and two buses had been set on fire and a mosque ransacked. Students suspended further protests. A university student council issued a series of demands, including the firing of the national police chief, a public trial for the two police officers who were fired for ordering an attack on the student dormitory, and the release of the protesters killed in the rallies.
Rouhani Strikes Back
A government sponsored march was organized the following day to demonstrate support for the Islamic Republic. Workers were given the day off and bused to the “unity rally,” which totaled some 100,000 people.
The crowd roared “Death to America,” “Death to Israel,” and “Death to hypocrites,” a term used by the mullahs to disparage the PMOI. Others chanted, “Our blood is our gift to our leader.”
The Los Angeles Times reported the rally “featured senior clerics from Iran’s most conservative bodies - the judiciary, parliament, and security branches, all allied with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.”5
Rouhani was one of the featured speakers. He made no mention of the ruthless midnight raids and student deaths. Instead, he lashed out at the student demonstrators, telling the crowd, "At dusk yesterday we received a decisive revolutionary order to crush mercilessly and monumentally any move to these opportunist elements wherever it may occur. From today our people shall witness how in the arena our law enforcement force…shall deal with these opportunists and riotous elements, if they simply dare to show their faces”6
Rouhani called the demonstrators who had damaged public property “bandits and saboteurs.” He said “We will resolutely and decisively quell any attempt to rebel.”7
He said “Those who destroyed public property and went on the rampage and committed aggression against the Islamic system will be tried in our courts as mohareb and mofsed (opponents of the republic).”8 Those found guilty would be hanged.9
Rouhani stated, “Our revolution needs a thorough cleanup, and this will help advance the cause of the regime and the revolution."10 Government authorities subsequently arrested student leaders while at their homes and an Iranian court sentenced four of them to death.11
Rouhani's harsh words and demands for retribution were not those of a moderate, but of a hardline conservative. The students were protesting the hardliner's decision to shut down the pro-Khatami newspaper and further restrictions on media freedoms. Rouhani sided with the hardliners and against the students and pro-Khatami faction.
Prior to his candidacy for president, the news media regularly described Rouhani as a “hard-liner” and a “conservative.”
* “On 4 April, the Secretary of the Supreme Security Council – Hassan Rowhani, a noted conservative – said that while Iran is against the Middle East peace process, it will do nothing to thwart it.”12
* “Instead, Supreme National Council chief Hassan Rowhani – a conservative close to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – was charged with handling the issue.”13
* “But its secretarial board which issued the ban is headed by conservative Hassan Rowhani.”14
* “Mr. Rowhani is a pragmatic conservative and is reasonably well known in the country.”15
* “The board is headed by conservative Hassan Rowhani, but the full council is normally chaired by the moderate Khatami.”16
* “The Council's strong-man, ayatollah Hassan Rowhani, kept his job as the organization's secretary.”17
* “Both clerics, Rowhani and Rafsanjani are also seen as pragmatic conservatives.”18
* “Those responsible for violent clashes with the security forces here on Monday and Tuesday are "bandits and saboteurs," said Hassan Rouhani, the conservative deputy speaker of parliament.”19
* “Among the conservative heavyweights to lose their seats in 2000 was Hassan Rowhani, now head of the Supreme National Security Council and being promoted as a possible new figurehead for the conservatives.”20
* “Hassan Rouhani, a conservative cleric and secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, told state radio on Saturday that the lifting of sanctions on non-oil luxury items was an improper attempt to reward certain forces inside Iran.”21
Repugnant and Unacceptable
Rouhani joined political hard-liners in attacking a speech in 2000 by US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in which she invited Tehran to enter a "new relationship" with America.
The Clinton Administration was seeking a rapprochement with Iran's mullahs. By making concessions to Iran, it hoped to bolster then President Khatami and open the door to better relations.
Albright's speech was not all rosy. She voiced America's concern about the involvement of Iran's Revolutionary Guard and the Intelligence Ministry in terrorism attacks.
Khatami's Administration described America's overture as a "positive step and a prelude to a new situation."22 It said it would respond by allowing imports of grains and medicine from America.
Mohammad-Javad Larijani, a conservative member of Iran's parliament and Deputy Chairman of the Foreign Policy Committee, described Albright's speech as "interesting." He said here statement was "something new and, as such, merits careful examination."23
Rouhani aligned with the hard-liners, describing Albright's speech as "only a tiny step which appears positive but is in fact completely negative."24 He said, "We must condemn this new and flagrant interference in our affairs, this repugnant and unacceptable statement."25
Rouhani said Albright's speech was "full of irksome, threatening and interventionist elements which call our institutions into question."
When Rouhani traveled to New York in 2013 to deliver a speech at the United Nations, Rouhani hosted a dinner at the One UN Hotel, where the Iranian delegation was staying.
One of the invited guests at the dinner was anti-Semitic leader of the Nation of Islam Louis Farrakhan. The previous year Farrakhan dined with then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejed.
1) "At Least 20 Injured in Iran University Clash," Associated Press, July 9, 1999.
2) "Iran in Turmoil After Three Students Reported Dead in Clashes with Police," Agence France Presse, July 10, 1999.
3) "Iran Fires Security Chiefs Responsible for Dormitory Raid," Associated Press, July 11, 1999.
4) "Khatami Vows to Put Down Student Protests in Iran," Agence France Presse, July 13, 1999.
5) "Iranian Hardliners Hit Streets: Conservatives Gain the Upper Hand with Touch Measures," Calgary Herald (reprint of Los Angeles Times article by Robin Wright), July 15, 1999.
6) "Iran's Moderate President?" National Review, June 17, 2013.
7) "Rally Backs Iran's Clerics," Chicago Sun-Times, July 15, 1999.
8) "Iran Hard-Liners Show Strength Over Reformers with Massive Rally," Associated Press, July 14, 1999.
10) "Iranian Hard-Liners Take Over the Streets; Crowd May Mean Trouble for Student Reformers," Orlando Sentinel, July 15, 1999.
11) "4 Activists Are to Die in Iran, More Could Face Death After Pro-Democracy Protests, a Judge Said," Reuters, September 13, 1999.
12) "Government in New Diplomatic Gestures," World Markets Analysis, April 7, 2000.
13) "Conservative Election Victory Will Simplify Engagement with Iran: Diplomats," Agence France Presse, February 18, 2004.
14) "Islamic Iran Plunges into Deepest Political Crisis Since (sic)," Agence France Presse, July 11, 2002.
15) "The Political Scene: Local Attention is Turning to the Presidential Election," Country Report Select, November 18, 2008.
16) "Iran Reform Paper Suspended for Reporting Cleric's Resignation," Agence France Presse, July 13, 2002.
17) "Iran Opts to Tough It Out," Intelligence Online, July 18, 2003.
18) "Prominent Iranian Hardliner, Reformist Join Presidential Race," Agence France Press, January 3, 2005.
19) "Arrested Persons to be Considered "Counter-Revolutionaries," Agence France Press, July 14, 1999.
20) "New Elections May Undo Reformist Sweep of 2000," Agence France Presse, February 15, 2004.
21) "Albright 'Throws a Rock in Troubled Iranian Waters,'" Mideast Mirror, March 20, 2000.
22) "Iran Accuses US of 'Lack of Honesty' in Latest Overture,'" Agence France Presse, March 21, 2000.
23) Iran Gives Qualified Welcome to US Easing of Sanctions," Agence France Presse, March 18, 2000.