On July 7, 1999, the Iranian government banned the popular reformist daily Salam. The next evening, students at Tehran University staged a peaceful demonstration against regime censorship. In the early morning hours of July 9, hard-line vigilantes,

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On July 7, 1999, the Iranian government banned the popular reformist daily Salam. The next evening, students at Tehran University staged a peaceful demonstration against regime censorship. In the early morning hours of July 9, hard-line vigilantes, backed by Iranian police, attacked the students' dormitory, beating many and killing at least one. In the days that followed, students across the country poured into the streets, demonstrating for freedom and rule-of-law. The international press descended on Tehran. "Student Protests Shake Iran's Government," The New York Times headlined.[1] "Iranians Oppose Hard-Liners; Thousands of Students Demand Resignation of Ayatollah," The Washington Post declared.[2] The most famous image of the protests came from The Economist.[3] Its cover featured a photo of 21-year-old Ahmad Batebi, waving the bloody shirt of a brutalized peer.

In the ensuing crackdown, Iranian authorities targeted Batebi, whom The Economist had transformed into a potent symbol of the Iranian freedom movement. Thrown in Tehran's notorious Evin prison, Batebi was condemned to death for soiling the Islamic Republic's image.[4] His sentence was later reduced to fifteen years in prison.

Batebi is an unlikely hero, thrust into the spotlight by chance rather than design. "Whether I want it or not, I am in prison as a representative of the student movement, and I will have to carry this burden as honorably as I can," he told a reporter during a brief furlough. "There is not a second that I don't wish I was a free man." [5] Batebi's furlough did not last long. Iranian security returned him to prison after he spoke with a United Nations human rights envoy.[6]

Batebi has suffered in prison. His lungs have deteriorated, and he has lost some eyesight and hearing as a result of prison beatings. In an open 1999 letter, he complained that, "They beat my head and abdominal area with soldiers' shoes … [They] held me under [a drain full of excrement] for so long I was unable to breathe and the excrement was inhaled through my nose and seeped into my mouth."[7] After suffering abuse and torture at the hands of the Islamic Republic, the once-religious Batebi has begun to question his faith. "I learned that I have to depend on myself and no other power to survive."[8]

President George W. Bush has given rhetorical support to Iranian reformers. Speaking before the National Endowment for Democracy in November 2003, Bush said, "In Iran, the demand for democracy is strong and broad … The regime in Teheran must heed the democratic demands of the Iranian people, or lose its last claim to legitimacy."[9]

A gap exists between rhetoric and policy, though. Tim Guldimann, the Swiss ambassador who between 1999 and 2004 represented U.S. interests in Tehran, has said he did not meet a single dissident during his tenure. Nor have State Department officials publicly called for Batebi's release.

There is nevertheless some hope for democratic change in Iran. Half of Iran's population is between 15 and 24. Born after the Islamic revolution, and too young to remember the Iran-Iraq war, this satellite television generation is inclined toward systematic change.[10] For this generation, Batebi—imprisoned for having his picture taken while demanding democracy—is a cause célèbre. Unclear, though, is whether Washington will take up his plight.

Suzanne Gershowitz is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.

[1] July 11, 1999.
[2] July 11, 1999.
[3] July 13, 1999.
[4] Azad website, Dec. 11, 1999, in BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, Dec. 13, 1999.
[5] The New York Times, Dec. 14, 2003.
[6] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Nov. 21, 2003.
[7] "Iran: The Case of Ahmed Batebi," Amnesty International, accessed Dec. 24, 2004.
[8] The New York Times, Dec. 14, 2003.
[9] George W. Bush, remarks at the National Endowment for Democracy, Washington, D.C., Nov. 6, 2003.
[10] The National Review Online, May 25, 2004.