Dutch town of Delft is center of a new Iranian activism

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 6, 2010; 10:38 PM

DELFT, NETHERLANDS - A dreamy university town in the Netherlands known as the birthplace of 17th-century painter Johannes Vermeer has become a major center for Iranian activists abroad.

Over 1,000 Iranian students, the majority fresh arrivals from Iran's best universities, are taking classes such as applied physics and aerospace engineering at the Delft University of Technology, and meeting during evenings in cafes that line the city's canals.

The university hosts one of the largest communities of visiting Iranian scholars in Europe, and many are involved with the Iranian opposition movement.

For many, Delft's Iranian student community represents the emergence of a new breed of Iranian opposition activists abroad that is more individual, shuns ideology and promotes debate over conflict. Many here say they want an Iran that is connected to the world, but they also support nationalist causes such as Iran's right to nuclear energy.

"This place has become a think tank on the future of Iran," said Sohrab, who is pursuing a master's degree in engineering and arrived here less than a year ago. Like many others here, he said he was rejected by U.S. universities in part because of sanctions related to Iran's nuclear program. Sohrab spoke on the condition that his last name not be used.

The ongoing exodus from Iran of talented students has mushroomed after a harsh government clampdown on universities, following protests that erupted after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed election victory in June of last year. Delft was flooded with Iranian graduate students, many of whom participated in protests in Iran.

Born after the 1979 Islamic revolution, these students came with what they say are more pragmatic and realistic perspectives on the future of their country. They are calling for reforms, rather than an overthrow of the system.

"We need to change many things in our country - but we don't need another terrible revolution," said Sohrab. "We are a new generation that is looking for answers, instead of forcing solutions upon others."

Using Facebook and phone calls for daily communication with friends and family in Tehran, the Iranian students of Delft are in close contact with their former classmates in Iran and beyond. There is an active Iranian students club, which organizes meetings with exiled dissidents and politicians. Children of Iranian opposition figures study in the city; many have siblings, fiancees or friends who have been arrested in Iran.

The influx of these young activists has spurred conflict with more traditional, ideological opposition groups that have been demanding a regime change in Iran for the past 30 years. The Delft activists' more gradual approach to change has attracted many European-born Iranian youths, who have grown tired of hearing their parents speak of a revolution that never seems to come.

"I used to avoid other Iranians," said Nima Emami, a philosophy student who lives in Delft but just finished a year at the New School in New York. Emami preferred his Dutch friends over often bitter and cynical Iranians who fled the country after the 1979 revolution.

"But this new generation of students thinks, dresses and acts like me," said Emami. "We can't change Iran overnight - there is no magic solution."

For European politicians who often deal with Iran, the newly arrived students offer a different perspective on the Islamic Republic, a nation which they are rarely able to visit.

"I prefer to speak with activists, journalists and bloggers who left Iran three months ago. They are more realistic and act more as individuals than in groups compared to those who have been living here for a longer time," said Marietje Schaake, a Dutch representative to the European Parliament.

Still, others who are active in Iranian opposition movements in Europe distrust the newcomers. "Many of these kids are from wealthy North Tehran. They are close to politicians in Iran who are merely calling for reforms instead of real changes," said Shahin Nasiri, the spokesperson for an opposition group called Iranian Progressive Youth.

Nasiri, along with a group of likeminded friends who came to the Netherlands in the last decade, said he feels obliged to say what others in Iran can't say. "There is a lot of potential in Delft, but we think many of the students there are passive," he said. "They should not allow this regime to get any legitimacy."

Radicalism is not the solution for Iran, Sohrab and other students in Delft stress. "Such people have lost touch with Iran," he said while sipping iced tea on a terrace in the center of Delft. "We don't want to overthrow the system - but we want to be heard by it. That would be a realistic start."

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