Letter from Tehran
by CONTRIBUTOR in Tehran
22 Jun 2010 16:17
Where the Green Movement stands one year after the electoral coup.
Friday Prayers marking the 21st anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, June 4, 2010. Photo by Gabriela Maj from her upcoming photo essay.[ comment ] "The most stable and democratic country in the world." Thus Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the man who last year was "reelected" (many say "selected") as president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, described his nation at a recent press conference in Istanbul. Ahmadinejad, of course, is hardly renowned for well-considered, precise, statesmanlike observations. In fact, he is notorious for quite the opposite: making off-the-cuff statements whose substance bears little relation to reality. Yet the depiction of Iran in such terms days before the June 12 anniversary of the vehemently disputed presidential election was an extraordinary distortion of the truth, even by Mr. Ahmadinejad's loose standards. The truth of his statement, needless to say, was tested on the anniversary.
As expected, "the most stable and democratic" government on earth failed miserably. It denied permission to the opposition to hold a simple peaceful rally in order to commemorate last year's election -- even though, according to the Iranian Constitution, such gatherings do not require government approval to begin with. For weeks, security and other officials had warned that the regime would not tolerate any protest rally on June 12. The Interior Ministry, raising some ludicrous technical excuses, refused the permit, as it had done similarly on numerous occasions in the past.
By contrast, government-sanctioned rallies and ceremonial events, such as the one that took place on June 4 -- the 21st anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic -- enjoy the regime's full support and sponsorship. On that occasion, hundreds of thousands, many of them members of the Basij militia, were mobilized throughout the country to travel, at government expense, to Tehran to attend the commemoration and listen to the Friday Prayer sermon delivered by Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, Khomeini's successor as Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. This particular event was to be a showcase for the power and "popularity" of the regime in advance of June 12. The initial plan was thus to assemble about two million people from throughout Iran for the event. By independent accounts, the regime fell far short of its goal.
Just a couple of days prior to the election anniversary, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, two of Ahmadinejad's rivals in last year's election and the de facto leaders of the Green Movement, the popular reform movement that emerged following the rigged vote, announced that because of their concern for people's safety they would cancel the rally they had planned. They asked their supporters to pursue their struggle for change through means less risky than participation in a public protest that the government was determined to violently suppress.
Given that most opposition political figures and activists have been imprisoned or rendered inactive over the past year, and that many political parties and civil society organizations have been banned, there are few avenues available to those opposing the regime to communicate with one another and organize en masse. The few Reformist newspapers face heavy censorship and are under constant threat of closure if they cross the government's ambiguous "red lines." Foreign news and analysis broadcasts, like the popular Persian services of the BBC and VOA, are routinely jammed -- especially when an important day, such as June 12, approaches. The Internet is often strangled and access to most sites with uncensored information is systematically denied through a pervasive filtering system (though many have by now learned how to circumvent it). In short, the regime exerts its full power to deny people the means and even the hope of organizing peaceful protests, short of risking their livelihoods and their very lives.
Nonetheless, the message somehow spread that a silent protest would be held in Tehran from 4 to 8 p.m. on June 12, a Saturday. It was understood that Mousavi and Karroubi, as responsible leaders, could not ask their supporters to jeopardize their lives by attending a formally declared rally. Yet people concluded that they could make their presence felt and in the process expose the regime's true anti-democratic nature, its illegitimacy, and the extent of its fear by simply "strolling" peacefully and silently from Imam Hossein Square to Azadi (Freedom) Square. The route, around ten kilometers long, was chosen in part because along it lies Ferdowsi Square and Enghelab Square, where two major universities are located.
To facilitate its response to the event, the government ordered most of the shops along the route to shut down and diverted traffic. On what turned out to be a scorching hot afternoon, one could see thousands of women and men, of all ages and walks of life, some "armed" with small water bottles, walking peacefully and quietly. They were in small groups of no more than four people, apparently to avoid giving the agents of oppression any excuse for a crackdown. Any visible filming or other documentation of the event was out of the question and exposed one to immediate arrest.
To counter the "army of strollers," the regime had imposed a sort of state of siege, including the massive deployment of forces in the area where the rally was anticipated. At every main intersection, hundreds of anti-riot forces in full gear were stationed. In between the intersections, there were multiple smaller groups assembled every few meters. Plainclothes Basijis and other (in-)security forces were deployed alongside them. Some of the plainclothesmen inconspicuously, and even not so inconspicuously, blended among the crowd of strollers and bystanders. Uniformed and plainclothes forces on motorbikes traveled at high speed on the street -- and often on the sidewalks, with little regard for people's safety -- in packs of ten bikes or more. On each bike, behind the driver, a second man brandished a club or other weapon.
And these visible forces were only a portion of the total deployment. Many parking lots, school yards, government compounds, and even the nearby Shiroudi Stadium were filled with a huge number of reinforcements, including Army conscripts and teenaged Basijis, many of them apparently brought in from other cities. The regime was clearly determined to fill up the streets and overwhelm any potential protesters.
The peaceful nature of the "army of strollers," however, appeared to have created a dilemma for the insecurity forces. There was no legal justification to use violence and arrest people who were simply walking on the sidewalks. But, as is the norm in contemporary Iran, when it comes to repressing opposition to the regime, the insecurity forces do not need to bother with legal formalities. In an evident attempt to create an environment of fear and discourage the crowd from getting larger, the insecurity forces would pick on people seemingly at random and arrest some for no apparent reason. In a couple of instances, it appeared that people were targeted for nothing other than wearing a green shirt or scarf.
That night, Ahmad Reza Radan, deputy commander of the national police, announced that a small number of "suspicious people" had been arrested in Tehran. HRANA, a news source linked to Iran's human rights activists, reported that more than 900 people, at least 300 of them women, were arrested. Their families were not informed where their loved ones were taken nor of the nature of the charges. HRANA also reported that around 2 a.m. Sunday morning, 30 of the young arrestees, aged 20-25, were dropped off by a van at Enghelab Square. Kalameh, a site close to Green Movement, reported that 400 of those arrested were transferred to the notorious Evin Prison, the primary site for the incarceration of political prisoners.
A Regime in Fear, Relying on Fear
Since February 11, the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, the regime has been using this tactic of overwhelming force with the clear intention of smashing any act of popular resistance. The intensity of the mass protests on the last Day of Ashura (December 27, 2009), when some areas of Tehran fell out of government control for hours, shook the regime to its core. The ensuing use of massive, brutal violence has admittedly paid off for the regime, at least at the most obvious level -- for many people, the risks associated with public protest have become too costly to bear.
At the same time, the tactic exemplifies the contrast between, on the one hand, a crude, cruel regime with a medieval mindset that assumes rulers can still govern by instilling fear, and on the other hand, a sophisticated, modern, civilized populace that seeks political and socioeconomic changes through peaceful, evolutionary means. As history bears witness, brute force often wins in the short run in such situations. Consequently, it appears as if Iranians have come to terms with the reality that Ahmadinejad is the president of the country for a second four-year term. On the surface, it may well seem as if the country has returned to calm and normalcy. Ahmadinejad can thus presume to claim that Iran is "the most stable" country in the world, and Kayhan newspaper, a staunch supporter of the president and the electoral coup that kept him in power, could recently publish a front-page banner headline declaring "The Green Movement Is Finished."
Yet such assertions are either deceptive, or delusional and self-deceiving. In either case, they are superficial and gravely flawed. Underneath their current "calm" and apparent "resignation," the majority of Iranians, struggling with many hardships, are suppressing their anger and frustration with the regime. A volcano is building force; sooner or later, it will erupt. If the regime pushes this civil and civilized society to the brink, the ensuing eruption could be so destructive as to eliminate the possibility of a peaceful transition to a genuine democratic system. Surely, Ahmadinejad and his cohorts must have access to the information that makes clear the mounting danger, though their statements seems entirely divorced from the realities on the ground. Otherwise, how could the president of the world's "most democratic" government -- who claims to have received 63 percent of the votes in a record high turnout -- not dare to grant his few, "unworthy" opponents permission for a simple rally? If Ahmadinejad is truly assured of his popularity and legitimacy, why would his security apparatus resort to the massive use of force anytime there is the slightest challenge to his government? The fact of the matter is that the regime knows full well how profoundly isolated and endangered it is.
The behavior of the government demonstrates many classic symptoms of siege mentality. The Ahmadinejad regime seems to perceive itself as an alien, occupying entity -- indulging in the thrill of absolute power and extravagant wealth -- that hunkers down in a fortress surrounded by a sea of hostile native people. An emblematic event on the eve of the June 12 anniversary perhaps demonstrates why the regime is so deeply frightened of the Green Movement and the gravity of the crisis that it faces.
As a safer alternative to the formal Saturday rally, banned and canceled, the opposition asked people to shout "Allah-o akbar" (God is great) at 10 p.m. on the Friday night before. This was one of the effective means by which popular opposition to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's monarchy was expressed during the 1979 Revolution. The regime feels extremely threatened by this slogan, which undermines its supposed source of legitimacy -- that it represents God and embodies Muslim virtue. It has thus tried hard to intimidate and stop people from using the slogan. Given the infiltration of Basijis and other government informers in residential neighborhoods, many are now afraid to shout "Allah-o akbar" in protest on the rooftops or even in their own homes.
Around nine o'clock that night, I and three others went to the rooftop of our building, enjoying the fresh air and cooling down after a long hot day. Ten o'clock arrived and the neighborhood was still quiet. Yet one could sense that there were many people just waiting for someone to give them the encouragement to start. A few minutes after ten, a few brave ladies down the street started to shout "Allah-o akbar! Allah-o akbar!" Iranian women have been in the forefront of the struggle against the regime; once again, they demonstrated that they are indispensable to it. Within a couple of minutes, the whole neighborhood was giving voice to the protest cry, and soon one could hear it echoing from greater and greater distances. It spread like a wildfire, in the process proving that the Green Movement -- though tactically restrained at the moment -- is alive and vibrant.
Here perhaps lies the core reason for why the regime is to afraid to tolerate even the slightest indications of protest and defiance. It knows that once the flame of popular resistance and reform is ignited, the house of cards built by the regime maybe engulfed in flames in no time. Accordingly, it is taking no chances, granting no opportunity for its opponents to gain any momentum. And so, at least on the surface and in the short run, it has "succeeded."
The rooftops of Tehran conveyed news both good and bad for the regime that Friday night. The good news for it was that the tactic of instilling fear was still paying off. Perhaps three out of every four people were too afraid to shout "Allah-o akbar!" The bad news was that those three resent the regime just as bitterly as those who did shout, and they would join a popular opposition movement any moment they feel safe enough. This regime has chosen to rule by the sword. How long can it rely on the sword before falling on it?
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