Iran is a complex country with a vast, rich and expansive history. It’s a nation with numerous ethnic and linguistic groups, with a population of some 86,758,00 across 1,648,195 km², and has Tehran as its capital. Its history from prehistoric to early modern times is absolutely fascinating, but it is its more recent history that has been dominating the headlines these days, fuelled by the horrible events of 16 September 2022, when Mahsa Jina Amini (22) was murdered.

The VUB International Relations office sat down with three Iranian VUB students to get a better contextualisation of Mahsa’s death, the protests that followed, and are still ongoing, and the impact on the lives of everyday Iranians, including their own and that of their families back home. They will of course remain anonymous throughout this article. “The roots of what is currently going on in Iran date back to pre-1979, and to the Revolution of 1979. Everything changed then. Not that everything was perfect before. It wasn’t, but it is nothing compared to what Iran’s terrorist government has put the country on track to become: the North Korea of the Middle East.”

And the term ‘terrorist’ has not been used lightly by our students, they explain: “The Iranian government is helping Russia in its war on Ukraine by providing drones; recently an Iranian government diplomat was charged in Belgium with planning a terrorist attack on an opposition group. It might all seem like foreign news from a faraway country, but it impacts people here, in Europe, in Belgium.”

The 1979 revolution and the changes

Until February 1979, Iran (then the ‘Imperial State of Iran’) was a monarchical technocratic dictatorship ruled by the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. He set up very close ties with the US and other foreign governments, and set about the modernisation of Iran running it as a secular state. The middle class people of Iran prospered and overall fared well under his rule, but during the 2nd half of the 70s, inflation hit the country, corruption became rampant and economic recession led to a spike in unemployment, with more and more people discontented. The government’s corrupt hold on the economy tightened further, leading to waves of protests which were brutally crushed by the imperial guard and the intelligence service (SAVAK). In the midst of this, Ruhollah Khomeini, a radical Muslim cleric, saw an opportunity. He’d already vocalised his opposition to the Shah’s reforms and had been exiled. But by 1978, protests grew louder, ultimately bringing the country and its economy to a standstill. A referendum was held, after which Khomeini returned from exile, the Shah fled to the US and eventually settled in Egypt, and the new ‘Islamic Republic of Iran’ came into existence.

It’s from that point onward that we see the big changes: like the rise in Islamic terrorist groups; the rise in antisemitism; the surge of refugees across the region. Shia Islam became the one acceptable religion of Iran then, and the constitution was changed to reflect this. What followed, few people outside of Iran know: universities across the country were closed down for three years, in order for the government to ‘clean up’ its education system, and gradually from that point onwards, the country has evolved more and more into what it is now: a closed country, where media is state-controlled, with a brutal ‘over-zealous’ morality police, and of course the security forces who are prevalent everywhere.”. There had been multiple waves of protests and demonstrations before: in the 1980s, 1999, 2009, 2010, 2017,2018, 2019, but the brutality with which Mahsa Jina Amini was killed for allegedly ‘not wearing her hijab as it should be worn’, has instilled a wrath among especially the younger generations in Iran, who simply have had enough of the repression. “Put this against the backdrop that simultaneously Iran was given a representative seat at the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women, it shows how blind the world has been to what has been going on for a while in Iran.”

Iran today

People in Iran are suffering: there is no gas for food or heating in major parts of the country; there is an ongoing stream of executions against anyone who might even almost blink the ‘wrong way’- case in point: the rapper Toomaj Salehi. Demonstrators are getting shot, arrests are made totally at random, and in most cases torture is part and parcel of those arrests. On top of that, you really do not know who to trust, and that goes for people in Iran, but also for those of us who live abroad. It makes it very difficult for the Iranian community for instance here in Belgium to get together: anyone could be a spy for the regime. It also impacts our actions as a community.”

There is a genuine fear for the families and friends of those of us who have left Iran. Check the example of US-based Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad. Besides the fear of mixing with spies and retaliations on our families back home, we’re impacted in other ways too. For starters, we can’t go back. If any of us set foot in Iran, we’ll most probably be arrested and tortured, or worse. On top of that, due to the sanctions against Iran, we’re of course prohibited from studying certain programmes like nuclear and aerospace studies. We have limitations on which countries we can go to, as more and more, Iran ends up on a blacklist.

The changes are happening in Iran now very quickly: internet access is getting more and more difficult. Finding uncensored foreign published books is almost impossible, and you can’t do any more language tests in Iran itself, so you need to go abroad to take them. And of course you need those language tests to be able to study abroad. In addition, getting a copy of your Iranian university diploma is becoming extremely expensive. Soon, it’ll be impossible for young Iranians to get a copy of their diploma, and again, they need this to be able to study or work abroad. This is what we mean when we say it is becoming the ‘North Korea of the Middle East’.”

The personal impact

We ask our three Iranian students how they are personally impacted by all this, and how they want to help. One of our students – a woman – explains that she was at the demonstrations in 2009, “It all led to nothing. Nothing changed. So I left. I’ve also made the decision – the very tough decision – that I will not hide. I was arrested twice by the morality policy while I still lived in Iran. I will not go back. I know my family back home is at risk, but I feel it is my duty to be vocal. I now demonstrate here in Europe, as often as I can, and I’ve made my Instagram (IG) account public, because I want to spread the word, and use my voice at protest marches in Berlin, in Brussels, in Paris, anywhere I can get to.”

The second of our students left Iran a good 5 years ago. All of his siblings had already left Iran to study in different countries across the world and never went back. There are relatives back home whom they have never met or will never meet again. His plans are to find stability, here in Belgium. He wants to settle down, graduate and get a job, and ultimately wants to raise funds and help Iranian youth come abroad for cultural and educational exchange. “The flare of hope we have today is owed to the youth and their awareness; they are the future of Iran!”

Our third student admits he comes from a privileged background in Iran, but he left the country a good 4 years ago, and also knows he cannot go back. He couldn’t even go home when his father was dying. He has profound issues with the current Iranian culture of toxic masculinity, sexism and patriarchy. “The way forward is for Iranians in exile to work together along with the academic diaspora via grassroots movements. It’s already happening in Canada and the US. Europe needs to follow. These are the people who can investigate what a New Iran could look like, so we are ready for that change, when the time comes.”

What do our Iranian students want from us, the VUB community, Belgium, Europe?

We want the EU and governments in Europe to stop supporting the regime, to stop helping the Iranian government, and to actually put them on the terrorist watch list, and to close down the embassies. We’re working with Amnesty International in the hope of achieving this.”

As to VUB, and all universities in Flanders or Belgium, we’d like to ask for support for incoming Iranian students, to help offset the various mechanisms the Iranian government is installing to essentially hold its (future) scientists, artists, etc hostage. For instance, an application fee waiver, accepting informal credentials. We’d like all new incoming Iranian students to get support from the universities here in the same way it was (rightly) accorded to the Ukrainian students. We’re from outside Europe, so our costs and fees are higher and with, as mentioned above, language tests having to be taken outside of Iran, and the Iranian government not really giving out diplomas, the situation for young Iranians is becoming very hard.”

We’d like the local student and staff community at the VUB to be aware of our situation here and back home. To understand that life in Iran is like living in a tight hold, 24 hours a day. We ask our fellow local students and staff members at VUB to help support the flow of correct information, to help spread the word of what is happening in Iran, to be present and support us at protests whenever they occur. We ask our fellow students to stand by us, for women’s rights, for freedom of speech, and for just freedom itself.”