Overview: Reading 22 Bahman
by HAMID FAROKHNIA in Tehran
10 Feb 2010 17:28
[ analysis ] February 11 may mark a decisive day for the Iranian regime. Its leaders hope to prove to domestic and international audiences that they are in full control and that the protest movement that arose following last June's election is a spent force. To achieve their objective, they must make sure, in contrast to what took place on Ashura and other recent occasions, that protesters cannot congregate in large numbers and upstage the regime's well-choreographed processions. In turn, all the protest movement need accomplish to register a victory is to produce even a modest display of vigor and vitality.
Ashura (December 27) proved to be a pivotal day all around. First, it forced other governments, beginning with the Obama Administration, to reevaluate the prevailing view of the pro-democratic Green Movement as an ineffectual force. Second, it allowed the hardliners in Iran to claim that the Green Movement presented a mortal threat to the entire regime. Certain moderate conservatives and important traditionalist high clerics in Qom had previously been leaning toward some version of a grand compromise--a trend especially evident after the huge funeral march for the late Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri right in the heart of the holy city.
However, the militancy of the anti-regime protesters on Ashura changed those sentiments, at least temporarily. Many of the centrists were terrified, while others were forced into adopting strong positions against the protesters. Taking advantage of the situation, hardline forces who had been divided and demoralized hastily mounted a large counter-demonstration on December 30, in which calls were made for the immediate arrest of opposition leaders and the execution of those earlier detained. What made this development particularly ominous was the information that seeped out which pointed to the creation of death squads by forces specifically tasked with the elimination of opposition leaders and activists. The death squads would have taken the form of "independent," "spontaneous" lynch mobs claiming to represent ordinary Muslims outraged by the despoiling of Islamic values.
On January 9, Ayatollah Khamenei took a stand against this development, probably under pressure from Qom grand ayatollahs. "Any roguish activity helps the enemy," he told a visiting crowd from the holy city. "The involvement of those without legal status or responsibility only compounds the problem." The result has been an ongoing stalemate.
What is at stake
The main objective of the regime is to announce that on February 11 the people of Iran by referendum have cast their verdict against the protest movement and in favor of the current regime, reaffirming the message of the December 30 counter-demonstration. Once this occurs, authorities would move to arrest Mousavi, assuming that he hasn't already caved in on his own accord, and forcefully clamp down on the whole Green Movement.
To succeed, they must (a) contain the pro-democracy protesters, (b) fill the surrounding streets with their own people, and (c) make things appear calm and orderly to the state media and ideally to the international media (some foreign journalists and television crews have been allowed in for the event).
What is planned
The regime's hopes of maintaining full control over Thursday's events rest on a set of logistical plans. A complex scheme is to be implemented in which the routes to the northern and eastern sides of Azadi Square, from where protesters customarily emerge, will be blocked for several kilometers in each direction. People trying to make their way to the square via those routes will be diverted away from the eyes of the international press, who will be confined to designated areas within the square. The diversion strategy will be executed with dozens of Basij contingents from the provinces that have been brought to Tehran. Each group has been assigned to one section of the city's northeast quadrant, using Azadi Square as the reference point.
At the same time, supporters of the regime will be marshaled en masse from the western and southern ends of Azadi Square. Two days prior to the ceremonies, the square's famous inner ring was already sealed off by special partitions. In the early hours of Thursday morning, the plan is to fill the space with die-hard supporters while checking the bags and pockets of the others wanting to gain entry to the protected zone to make sure they don't carry any Green paraphernalia.
Campaign of Intimidation
In preparation for the February 11 event, a campaign to intimidate potential protesters has been conducted over the past two weeks. Elements of the campaign include:
(A) The execution of two political prisoners, the first such executions carried out in a long time. Nine others have also been given the death sentence.
(B) Tehran's police chief has on several occasions gone on record claiming that everyone's emails, telephone calls and text messages may be accessed, and that those engaged in anti-regime activities will be immediately arrested. Other top law-enforcement officers have claimed that many people have been arrested based on photos taken of them during the Ashura protests. Indeed, a wave of arrests has taken place in the past two weeks.
(C) Those taking part in protests are now referred to regularly as "mohareb," meaning they are engaged in war on God, an act punishable by death.
(D) The regime now asserts that it will respond very harshly to those protesting. It is hard to accurately gauge the exact impact of these threats and the actual use of violence on the protesters.
What the protesters may not realize is that most of the gestures are mere bluffs. Why? The government cannot simply choose to apply severe force on a large scale on February 11 -- after all, the Revolution whose anniversary is being celebrated was supposed to have inspired by the reaction to the violence and injustice of an oppressive regime in the first place. It would look monstrous, even to some supporters of the regime, if unarmed civilians were subjected to indiscriminate attacks recalling those seen in the films of the revolutionary period that have aired incessantly in recent days. On Thursday, up to 250,000 ordinary supporters of the Revolution may come out to the rally, including small children and the elderly. When the line between protester and supporter blurs, as is virtually certain, given such numbers, it will be extremely hard for security forces to throw tear gas and administer beatings.
It is important to know that the security forces have not used the same standard riot-control tactics for every protest action in the last few months. In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the issue of quelling unrest. For the security establishment, each protest has its own special dynamic.
For example, on June 20--after Khamenei's first ultimatum--the protesters were considered fair game. This was no official holiday or national day of ceremonies and the Leader had made his threat public. This day, on which Neda was murdered, saw the largest number of casualties of any day in the past eight months. By contrast, on July 17, the day Rafsanjani was the Friday prayer leader, the protesters had virtually full protection against the regime's predations until about one hour after the conclusion of Rafsanjani's sermon. On September 18, Qods Day, the official celebration of solidarity with the Palestinians, there was relative restraint for many hours. The large-scale employment of violent tactics against protestors in broad daylight on the streets of Tehran would have terminated the utility of the Qods Day once and for all. Of course, by mid-afternoon, after the pro-regime crowd had dispersed, it was an altogether different story. On the national students' day, the regime has traditionally tolerated some protest activity on the country's university campuses. During this year's event, held December 7, students were again able to protest and rally relatively unmolested on campus, but those demonstrating outside school compounds were mercilessly beaten and arrested.
Given this history and the circumstances of the February 11 event, severe, large-scale attacks on protesters are quite unlikely, at least until the regime's loyalists have left the demonstration area. That can be expected to take place around 2 p.m. In sum, despite the recent announcements by various government and senior security officials -- clearly intended to demoralize -- we should not in fact expect systematic violence in the early part of the day.
Aside from this, those recently arrested have all been under surveillance for quite some time and were picked up in the past few days only as an intimidation tactic. This had nothing to do with the police forces' alleged ability to monitor all phone conversations and emails.
Finally, the two executed political prisoners had been arrested before the June 12 election. Unfortunately, they were probably involved with a group connected to the bombing of a mosque in Shiraz last April, and their trial and sentencing were postponed for many months in order to implicate the entire protest movement in their rogue act.
The important fact is that there is no consensus within the regime for executing any of the protesters on death row for the crime of "mohareb" before February 11. Had such a consensus been reached, the regime would have almost certainly carried out the ghastly sentences.
However, the cumulative effect still may be to frighten the parents of the young protesters to stop their children from going out on Thursday. Aware of these maneuvers, Mousavi issued his sharpest criticism of the regime yet in an attempt to offset the impact of its terror tactics. Among many observations, he stated bluntly, "Dictatorship in the name of religion is the worst kind of dictatorship."
At this moment it is impossible to know what may happen on Thursday. All eyes will be on the turnout and the resiliency of the green-clad protesters. Will they defy the threats and fulminations of a desperate dictatorship, or will they remain in the safety of their homes while the regime's henchmen prepare for mass reprisals?
Hamid Farokhnia, who is using a pen name, is a staff writer at the Iran Labor Report.
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