Saturday, June 20, 2009

Iran update 6.0 (Saturday, June 20th)

Apologies for the late update but I was waiting for news to get out of Iran, which was harder to come by today with the crackdown. With that said, here’s what’s going on and some interpretation/speculation interspersed:

* Street clashes: the announced plan for today was for people to march from enqelab (revolution) square to Azadi (freedom) square, but there were conflicting reports—which people pinned to hackers on opposition sites, including their facebook accounts—of whether these were cancelled. Eventually the plans were more or less confirmed as still being on, and people tried to make it to the march. The head of police in Terhan went on TV ahead of the scheduled protests and warned people not to take part in these ‘illegal’ demonstrations. The security inside Tehran was far above and beyond what was seen in recent days. There were riot police and basijis with clubs, tear gas, water cannons, and live rounds blocking off almost every conceivable entrance to Azadi square and preventing people from assembling on large streets. The metro was shut down so people couldn’t get into central Tehran, and student dorms were surrounded so they couldn’t leave. Helicopters flew overhead and gave tactical support to the security forces, and in short, all the stops were pulled out and crowd control was exercised to the maximum extent. Still, people dared to come out and tried to demonstrate in the streets. The numbers were far less than in previous days, but in Terhan in the thousands. They began with silence but when attacked fought back the basiji with rocks, bricks, throwing back tear gas, and from several youtube videos, you can see them actually forcing the basiji to retreat (which was greeted by the roar of the crowd). The violence unleashed upon them was more brutal than ever before. It’s still unclear but there have been reports of around 20 dead and 50 or so badly beaten. I won’t link to them here, but there are several widely circulated videos of a woman being shot dead in the protests, a middle-aged woman being beaten with batons by several basiji while people around her curse at them. Apparently the water cannons being sprayed at people was more than water and some sort of a mix of water and chemicals that burned the skin. People were again scared of being taken to hospitals and several European embassies were accepting injured people. Almost all the footage I’ve seen is from Tehran, but there were reports of riots in Tabriz, Mashhad, Ahvaz, Isfahan, and Shiraz.

* Musavi: Originally today’s protests were supposed to be attended by Musavi, Karrubi and Khatami, but they did not (or very possibly, could not) attend them. Musavi is not under arrest but is not allowed to speak near cameras or microphones, but later in the day there were numerous reports that he did make it onto the streets where he spoke to his supporters and said that he is ‘prepared for martyrdom’ and if he is arrested the nation should strike. Later in the day he released an official statement that you can read the English translated version of below, but in general he is not letting up and will not accept the results of the election. This is a much needed statement, given that some people were waiting for an appearance or statement from him. Still, as my previous posts should have made clear, despite his courageousness and emerging leadership, the opposition isn’t really about him. It’s about things larger and deeper than just the election. Anyway, here’s a link to his statement:
* Legal update: the Guardian Council said it would recount 10% of the votes, chosen at random, which was rejected by Musavi and Karrubi. Recognizing that dealing with this body was futile, these two didn’t attend the scheduled meeting to discuss electoral fraud today, while Rezai’i did (though to no resolved conclusion). Musavi also wrote to the Guardian Council complaining that there were plans to rig the election at least a month in advance. I’m sure he knows that nothing will come of this complaint, but he’s keeping the legal avenue open so that he can claim to be trying to work within the system to resolve these problems.
* Fake bomb: Iranian state TV reported that a suicide bomber struck one corner of the Khomeini mausoleum outside of southern Tehran, and claimed that 2 people were injured and the bomber killed. There was initially speculation that the regime may have been responsible for this so that it makes the opposition look like vigilantes, and also possibly that an exiled opposition group—which is reviled by people inside Iran, named the Mujahedin-e Khalq—could have been the perpetrators. They later showed footage of the bombing and it became clear than this was entirely fabricated. The ‘aftermath’ was essentially just a broken window. No damage, no blood, nothing, just a broken window. This just shows the desperate tactics the regime is resorting to, and also how haphazard and clumsy they are getting. Similar to this, State TV showed a few young people ‘confessing’ to traveling to the US so they could get training in guerrilla tactis and stroke unrest. It’s a typical regime canard and one that almost no one believs anymore. Also, state TV is showing parts of Obama’s statements on Iran, but mistranslating him as saying that he supports the protestors and wants them to continue protesting.
* Where’s Rafsanjani: there’s still no word on where Rafsanjani is. The general belief is that he’s still in Qom speaking to clerics and members of the expediency council, but he hasn’t been heard from or seen since the protests began. Late today there was one article that said the assembly of experts will issue a statement saying they fully support khamenei and his sermon from yesterday, but that is very likely the state’s further attempt at mis-information. Whether they eventually do come out and support Khamenei, it’s telling that they have taken so long and remained quiet for this amount of time at this crucial period of his tenure.
* More on khamenei: there’s an important point several commentators made about his Friday sermon that I didn’t include yesterday, that is, that it’s very rare for Khamenei to openly side with one faction against another. His traditional way of ruling has been to keep all sides and factions happy, and thus keep the regime’s support base as broad as possible. Whenever an unpopular decision has to be made that may alienate one faction, he usually delegates this to other persons or bodies such as the Guardian Council. In general he has tried to remain ‘above the fray’ from politics and prefers to work behind the scene, his so explicitly coming down on the side of Ahmadinejad is rather unique.
* Who won?: with everything that was building to this day, the question remains of who won, the opposition or the regime. I wish I could provide a more definitive answer, but I believe in the end both sides did. On the regime side, they prevented another massive gathering through both threats of and use of force. Musavi, Khatami and Karrubi were not able to address the crowds, and the regime made a point that this is how they will deal with such demonstrations in the future. However, on the side of the opposition, the fact that thousands of people were still willing to go onto the streets and risk—if not lose—their lives is an accomplishment. They exposed the brutal tactics of the regime, and people continue to be furious about the state-perpetrated violence. Many reports said that the ‘allah-u akbars’ are louder now than ever before, and at least for the time being, the opposition is not backing down. It’s been somewhat underreported just how many prominent members of the opposition have been arrested. Senior members of both reformist candidates, as well as members of reformist political groups and democratic activitist groups, have been rounded up and arrested, and yet the protests continue. The regime is hoping to render the movement immobile by taking out its limbs, but it’s become clear that the movement is not directed from above but is a truly popular movement that has no one center directing it. We’ll see tomorrow where this is headed. If people somehow came out in the numbers they have been the security forces would be unable to stop them from marching or assembling, but clearly this would result in massive bloodshed. Musavi and others do not appear to be backing down, and the prospect of a national strike could cripple the country, much as it did in the 1979 protests. I remain hopeful and in awe of the protestors, but whatever happens, Iran has experienced fundamental changes that cannot be undone, and the cleavages that have emerged will not go away any time soon.

As a last note, this is a must read from someone from the NYT on the ground in Tehran:

I should also say that I’ll be traveling for a few hours tomorrow for an interview so the update will likely come as late, if not later, than today’s, but I’ll try to send it out as soon as possible.

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