Fresh Iran Protests Highlight Dormant Opposition

BY Joanne Elgart Jennings  February 15, 2011 at 2:24 PM EDT

The show of force by tens of thousands of Iranians on the streets of Tehran Monday and early Tuesday has demonstrated that the opposition movement is still alive, despite the government’s violent efforts to suppress it over the last two years.

Thousands of anti-government protesters crowded the streets of Tehran in what began as peaceful protests in solidarity with the success of Egypt’s protest movement, but turned violent as police fought back the crowds using batons and tear gas.


Protesters in Tehran, Iran, Feb. 14 (Source photo via AFP/Getty Images)

One person reportedly was killed and dozens others injured in the biggest demonstrations in Tehran since the government cracked down on the opposition movement in December 2009.

The demonstrations had been called last week by Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former presidential candidate, and former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi. Both are regarded as de facto opposition leaders in Iran. Karroubi has been under house arrest since last Thursday and Mousavi was also blocked from leaving his home early on Monday.

Members of Iran’s parliament on Tuesday called for the executions of the two opposition leaders, along with Iran’s former reformist president Mohammd Khatami. According to Iran’s state news agency IRNA, the legislators shouted, “Death to Mousavi, Karroubi and Khatami!”

Iranian expatriate Hadi Ghaemi, who is director of the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, said journalists were being warned not to cover the protests. “The journalists we talked to got calls from the Intelligence Ministry, telling them they are being watched and they should not move around,” he said.

Protesters filed their own reports via various social media outlets. Videos of people chanting “death to the dictator” were posted on a Facebook page called 25 Bahman named for Monday’s date on the Persian calendar.

“The most important message of today is that Iran’s protest movement is not dead,” Ghaemi said. In 2009, millions of people under the label the Green movement protested the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Those demonstrations were eventually quashed followed by a series of arrests and executions. Ghaemi’s organization tallied 95 executions this year.

“I think people are too quick to say something is dead or to call Iran’s Green movement battered and defunct,” said Kelly Niknejad, editor of the Tehran Bureau, an independent news organization that works in conjunction with PBS’s Frontline and has been reporting on events in Iran since November 2008.

“In a country like Iran, change doesn’t come overnight,” she said. “The situation in Iran is very different from Egypt and Tunisia, but the fact that Mubarak fell when most people didn’t expect him to – that emboldened Iranians. In this age of sound bites, we’re often too quick to reduce something very complex to a simple slogan, which is not a reflection of reality.”

Still, many have drawn parallels between Egypt and Iran, including Wael Ghonim, the Google executive and Egyptian protest leader. In an interview with the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, he said, “I tell all Iranians that you should learn from Egyptians because we learned from you guys, that at the end of the day with the power of people, we can do whatever we want to do. If we unite our goals, if we believe, then all our dreams can come true.”

Robin Wright, a former journalist who covered the Middle East and is now a senior fellow with the U.S. Institute of Peace, said, “The interesting thing is that a lot of my Egyptian friends said they were inspired by Iran’s protests of 2009. If you can protest in a place like Iran, which is tougher than Egypt, then it began to change the formulation of what was possible. The impossible became possible and so it’s quite fitting that the Iranian opposition is now inspired by the Egyptians. We’ve come full circle.

“Egypt was important not just because of Mubarak’s ouster by peaceful means. It was also the first time in Egypt’s case, in 6,000 years, that power was transferred from elites, who constitute 10-15 percent of the population to the majority; and that’s what Iran’s 1979 revolution was about too, but it got hijacked by the clerical elite and people are now taking to the streets in Tehran because they want their own revolution back,” she said.

The ruling elite in Tehran have tried to make the case that the protest movements in Egypt and Tunisia were simply following in the footsteps of Iran’s Islamic revolution. Last Friday, while fireworks erupted over Cairo’s Tahrir Square as Egyptian protesters celebrated the departure of Hosni Mubarak, loyalists of Ahmadinejad gathered in Tehran’s Freedom Square to commemorate the Islamic Republic’s 32nd anniversary.

Ahmadinejad told the crowd, “A new Middle East is emerging without the Zionist regime and U.S. interference, a place where the arrogant powers will have no place.” Speaking to Egyptians, he said, “It’s your right to be free. It’s your right to exercise your will and sovereignty … and choose the type of government and the rulers.”

Such pronouncements are hypocritical, said Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Esfandiari was detained in solitary confinement in Iran’s Evin Prison for more than three months in 2007 when she was visiting her ailing mother.

“On the one hand, Ahmadinejad and (Ali) Larijani (speaker of Iran’s parliament) praise the Egyptian people, but on the other hand, they don’t allow their own people to come out and demonstrate. It shows they are really scared and they won’t be able to control the crowds. … If they were wise and intelligent, they would have embraced calls for demonstrations in solidarity with Egypt”

According to Ghaemi, “The most interesting and frightening part for the government is that when they have detained so many opposition leaders and their surrogates who serve as bridges to the larger masses, still, so many people came out to protest on their own accord. It showed that there is a strong sense of dissatisfaction in Iranian society. Where it will go from here is hard to tell.”

On Tuesday’s NewsHour, we’ll have more analysis of Iran’s protests. View more international news on our World page and follow us on Twitter.