Confederation of Iranian Students (National Union)
Confederation of Iranian Students
My purpose is to make a documentary film about the Confederation of Iranian Students, an organization of expatriate Iranian students dispersed throughout the world but especially concentrated in the US and Europe Between 1960 and 1978, it made singular contributions to democratic practices and ideas among opposition movements. The Islamic Republic of Iran has eliminated any historical record of student organizations, especially secular, left, and nationalist movements. Although many articles and two books have been written about the Confederation, no documentary exists. Those founders who are still alive are aging, and if their accounts of the Confederation are early days are to be captured, time is of the essence.
In countries living under a dictatorship, where there are no independent political parties, trade unions, or civic organizations, student movements are often the force behind political activity. During the period in which it was active, the Confederation was the only organized opposition to the Shah outside of Iran. Inside Iran, the opposition was largely forced underground.
Limited opportunities for higher education in Iran, as well as a policy on the part of the Pahlavi regime of pursuing modernization through educating students in Western universities, led many students to go abroad. Despite the expansion of universities and colleges inside Iran in the late 1950s, and the number of Iranian students studying abroad exploded from 4000 in 1957 to 31,000 in 1965. By 1978 there were 100,000 students studying outside Iran. Among this expat student population there were many supporters of the Confederation. The organization was focused on events inside Iran: freeing political prisoners and human rights, as well as opposition to the death penalty. When it organized a demonstration, tens of thousands might show up.
From the beginning, the politics of the Confederation reflected the politics of opposition inside Iran. Later, the constituency of the Confederation became radicalized through a variety of factors aside from the ideologies of underground political groups in Iran; for example, guerrilla organizations, besides anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements in Europe, the anti-Vietnam War movement in the US, and the exposure of students to political ideologies from China, Cuba, and Latin America.
According to its initial charter, membership was a matter of individual affiliation, not a congress of the representatives political groups and parties, although it was known that members were often associated with political organizations; in order to maintain the independence of Confederation members, there was an injunction against parties’ recruiting in the organization. The other precepts were transparent and open communication and a platform of support for freeing political prisoners in Iran and human rights generally, including an end to the death penalty. As the Confederation became radicalized, it became harder to agree on a platform, and the organization split in different directions.
From the beginning of the Confederation, its participants embraced parliamentary procedure, and Robert’s Rules of Order became the standard for conducting meetings. Membership was based on an individual affiliation rather than membership through any political groups or parties, although these were also present. The Confederation was financially independent and costs were paid through member dues.
In 1965, an assassination attempt on the Shah by one of his guards became an excuse for the government to crack down on leftist students. They arrested six members of the Confederation who returned to Iran, and sentenced them to death. The Student Confederation sought the help of the United Nations to abolish the death penalty in international law, with the support of public intellectuals concerned with human rights such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell, as well as various human rights organizations. This was unprecedented for a student organization and brought the Confederation to the fore on the international stage where its success lent it prestige and legitimacy.
Besides the influence of the Shah’s repression of the regime’s political opponents, the political influences on Confederation participants derived from the politics of the eras in which it was active: the Vietnam War and the demonstrations in opposition to it, social movements, both in Europe and in the United States, such as the Women’s movement and the Civil Rights movement.
Various factors contributed to the end of the Confederation. The forces that led up to the Iranian Revolution made the Confederation redundant, but even before that there were splits in the organization.
Protests Against the Shah
In a 1967 protest in Berlin, during a visit by the Shah to West Berlin, the Confederation organized a large protest attended by thousands of people, in collaboration with the socialist German Student Union. The protest turned violent and a German student named Benno Ohnesorg was killed. Fifty protesters were injured and many were arrested. Some historians believe this incident had an important role in the birth of radicalism in Europe and, for example, in such factions as the Baader-Meinhof group.
Anytime the Shah traveled abroad, the Confederation students staged protests against him. On April 18, 1962, the Shah received an honorary doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The fact that the universities could be compromised in terms of their relationship to the Shah was a matter of contention for Confederation members and their supporters. For two decades, the Confederation and its allies played an active role in exposing, in an international arena, the human rights violations of the Pahlavis.
In the 1970s, Finland, Turkey, Italy, the Netherlands, Canada, and India were host to student protests against the Shah. In June 1976, students occupied the Iranian embassy in Geneva and found documents, later published by the American journalist Jack Anderson, which showed that SAVAK not only gathered information about its opponents in Europe, but also spied on European politicians, for example British MPs. The US Congress later established a commission to investigate these allegations.
In 1978, one year before the Revolution of 1979, the Shah and Farah were invited to the White House to meet President Carter. Iran under the Shah was a member of OPEC, and perhaps the motivation was to cement a relationship in a region that was in turmoil, though Carter knew of the 2,500 political prisoners and of the reputation for torture by SAVAK, the secret police. The Confederation organized a demonstration in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, attended by around 5000 Iranian students. The protest turned violent, and 100 demonstrators were arrested. Because of the tear gas, the Shah and Farah were photographed entering the White House with tears in their eyes, and the headlines read, “Crying Shah and Farah enter the White House.”
Women in the Confederation
Although female students were active in the body of the organization, as in other political parties of that era, they had no leadership role. Men monopolized the leadership of the organization. Patriarchal values were dominant in all aspects of the leadership.
Most members of the Confederation in the United States joined the organization because they were affected by the anti-War and Civil Rights movements. The feminist movement from the 60s to the early 70s also affected women activists within the Confederation. It is interesting to observe that the organizers of the largest student protest against the veil after the Islamic Revolution in Iran were the female Confederation students who returned to the country after the Revolution.
The insistence on women’s suffrage, as well as the practice of sending university graduates into rural areas to fight illiteracy, were two key demands of the Confederation that the Shah adopted in his “White Revolution,” which was a program of modernization for rural Iran.
Approach to Making the Film
The aim of this documentary is to bring the experience of the Confederation of Iranian Students to younger generations who did not witness it, to appreciate its contributions and, possibly, its limitations. This story will be told through narratives, archival footage, and interviews with approximately 30 former members, selected to represent a holistic view of the organization, with different geographic and national groups represented as well as women. The use of archival footage from conferences and demonstrations, photos, and interviews with supporters of the Confederation will be other resources contributing to the film.
Questions to be asked during interviews with the Confederation leaders identified as the spokespeople for this history will be prepared around various topics and will depend on my research into their participation. The discussion points taken up during the interviews will be based on the circumstances of their participation. If more than one interviewee can be present, a dialogue between participants might be constructed to allow the audience a window into the process of arriving at a record of this historical period. As a filmmaker, I approach each prospective interviewee with a series of questions, but allow for an open dialogue and conversation.
To capture interviews with thirty influential members of the organization who live in eight to ten cities worldwide will take some time, so it is urgently important to begin this process within the next year.