The significance of 18 Tir
05 Jul 2009 12:35
By JASON REZAIAN in Dubai | 5 July 2009
The many tools implemented by the Islamic Republic to sedate its populous are the same ones now being used as detours around restrictions of public assembly. I've often wondered, over the years, how Iran gets anything done with its endless series of public holidays honoring the births and deaths -- mostly deaths -- of important figures of its history, both ancient and modern.
Public art in Iran, the naming of streets and squares, and its political discourse are all wrapped up in a package laden with heavy doses of mourning. Ironic, as Iranians are notoriously lovers of all things living and lively.
What has become a dominant part of the social landscape is finally being co-opted by the people of Iran. Mourning rituals, once thought of as arcane practices of the second class, are now being used to mobilize the masses.
Over the past month and a half many of these moments have felt historically convenient. Perhaps it's just that Iran has so many flashpoint dates in its old Islamic, as well as revolutionary history book. Regardless, these anniversaries keep popping up.
The next one, and perhaps most pivotal to the current movement, happens to fall on Thursday of this week: the 18th of Tir (or 9th of July.)
On that day in 1999 students protesting the closing of the reformist newspaper Salaam were attacked in their dormitories in Tehan and Tabriz. Six days of protests ensued, which began with several hundred students and blossomed into thousands of people from all walks of life supporting the demonstrations. They were the biggest display of anti-regime sentiment in the Islamic Republic's then twenty-year history, and they were put down by the regime with a mandate by the threatened leadership to stop the unrest "at any cost." Sounds familiar.
The difference between then and now is that ten years of small victories and heavy setbacks for reformers have left them disillusioned, but also hardened and more fearless. I have been in Iran on the 18th of Tir several times over the past eight years, and have seen firsthand that security is always heightened that day. The regime knows that in its love for anniversaries, they've created a volatile beast that may need taming. It's interesting to note that I've also twice witnessed the same security increases on the anniversary of September 11.
Through the events of the past month it's become very clear that deep cracks within the establishment exist, and they are now visible to everyone. A group of influential clerics in Qom have gone so far as to use the imagery of loss and mourning to begin to compare the recent death of protestors to those killed in the revolution and the war with Iraq. In a statement issued on the 4th of July, they asked to save "the dignity that was earned with the blood of tens of thousands of martyrs." While such comparisons may seem early to some observers, the authors of the letter fully understand their intentions in making such a bold proclamation.
So far it's unclear how this 18th of Tir will be marked. I've heard from friends still in Tehran that "something big" is in the works, but no one has any details yet. This is partially because they don't want to broadcast their hand to the security forces, who will undoubtedly be prepared to defeat the crowds. Perhaps more troubling though is that, as with the original 18th of Tir protestors, so many of the current movement's leadership has been detained or otherwise silenced.
Mass emails have begun to circulate, and I know of Iranians abroad planning to return to Tehran to participate in the protests. This is a marked difference from anti-regime protests of the past, many feebly fueled by calls from disreputable satellite channels beamed in from Los Angeles by self interested, self-proclaimed exiles.
No, this is something else entirely, and it will help separate those with the genuine goal of constructing an Iran that simultaneously respects its ancient past but also its goals for the future, from those callous opportunists who differ little no matter on which continent they perch.
Kudos to Marjane Satrapi for perfectly encapsulating what many have wanted to say for the past 30 years, but few have had the conviction or eloquence to do so.
"Once you leave your homeland, you can live anywhere. But I refuse to only die in Iran. I will one day live in Iran... or else my life will have had no meaning."
Now the question is how many people making these pronouncements from abroad are ready to follow through, by making the simple gesture of returning to Iran.
The protests in Iran of the past month have become an issue of global importance to Iranians and non-Iranians alike. Thursday may prove very telling as to whether future generations will look back on the 18th of Tir as a day of celebration or just another in the long list of mourning.
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau