Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Iran update (Mon 6/22 & Tues 6/23)

* Scattered protests continue: Sunday was perhaps the quietest day in Iran for over a week, but there were still scattered protests and street clashes in Tehran as well as other cities throughout Iran. One of the larger planned rallies was a demonstration for Neda, the woman killed by basij gunfire I talked about yesterday, which was supposed to take place in Haft-e Tir Square in Tehran. Between 1,000 and 2,000 security forces were in full force here to prevent people from assembling, and would break up any small group from forming and tell them to keep walking and not assemble there. Some reports I read said that people ended up circling around the square and kept trying to assemble, but every time they stopped and gathered in even small groups the basij would break them up. This seems to be the new tactic of the basij—prevent people from assembling in even the smallest groups to stop largescale protests or demonstrations from taking place. Still, a few thousand managed to gather in a few parts of Tehran, and as in previous days the basij dealt with them brutally (there’s a very, very graphic video some of you may have seen of a young man shot in the head being carried by people away from the fighting). State TV has urged people to call the police and report any demonstrations, and even take pictures of those in the streets and give them to the authorities. To counter this, in twitter and other outlets the opposition encouraged people to call in fake demonstrations and report make-up names and addresses to district the basij. Further examples of a very clever opposition that will not back down any time soon. State TV also reported that 457 people were arrested during protests on Saturday—the first day after Khamenei’s sermon—although the number is probably higher than that. Lastly, the revolutionary guards issued a harsh statement saying they would deal with protestors harshly.
* next steps: strike: with the huge number of basij and security forces in the streets trying to prevent any sort of peaceful protests, the next step is a nation-wide strike, which to return again to 1979, was one of the most important tactics used in bringing down the regime. Khatami issued a statement on Musavi’s facebook page where he called for people to go to the bazaars at 9am in droves dressed normally and not shouting slogans. If the bazaars become overwhelmed with people or bazaari merchants themselves agree to stop business the country’s domestic commerce will be brought to a complete standstill. This would be a huge blow to the regime domestically, but a more serious one would be if oil workers can be convinced to strike. As oil is by far the largest components of Iran’s exports this would harm the regime even more than a bazaar closure—in fact, this tactic was used successfully before the 79 revolution.
* Neda: just a quick note on Neda, who is becoming a symbol of the opposition. Most of her friends and family have declined to speak to the press about her, BBC Persia was able to get an interview with her fiancé the other day. He said that Neda’s full name is Neda Agha-Soltan, and she was born in 1982. She was shot through the heart by a basij from on top of a building and died before they could get her to the hospital. According to the fiancé she wasn’t a firm supporter of Musavi or any one candidates, and just wanted ‘freedom for everyone.’ Additionally, her family was prevented from holding a public ceremony for her for fear that it would turn into a large demonstration. Related to this, the basij have been much more careful about attacking women in the streets so they don’t have any more opposition-galvanizing images like Neda, but now when male protestors are being attacked by security forces Iranian women are surrounding the men being attacking and trying to get in the way of the security forces. I feel terrible for not commenting until now on the huge presence of women in these rallies, but this just goes to show you how active and on the frontlines they are in this movement.
* Media update: if you’re curious about how State TV is dealing with these protests, they’re basically trying to downplay their number and scale, but when they do discuss them, try to portray them as terrorists and rioters. They’ve ratcheted up their statements about Musavi, saying that his actions are criminal. Also, they’ve seized protests worldwide and are mistranslating signs and chants, claiming that people are saying stuff like “down with regime” and “death to Iran,” etc. Another tactic they use with these foreign protests is to say that they’re MKO-backed or organized. I believe I wrote about this already, but there’s an opposition group in exile called the mujaheddin-e khalq (MeK, or its English acronym, MKO). They were one of the many groups instrumental in the 1979 revolution, but when the new government started to take on an Islamic-bent they turned against this and attacked other groups and factions within the revolutionary forces (they were even responsible for a bomb that killed the president of Iran in 1981). Eventually they were pushed out of Iran, and found exile in Iraq, where they continued to support attacks within Iran and even sided with Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war. Taking the side of Iraq in the ‘war of holy defense’ cost them any legitimacy they may have had, and they have absolutely no support inside Iran, although they are quite organized and active in lobbying Western governments, particularly France, Britain, and the US. Iran has always complained about the US and other Western governments not labeling the MeK as a terrorist group—they have been very helpful with intelligence in Iraq during and after the overthrow of Saddam—and claim that the West is using the MeK to destabilize Iran. I don’t know if people actually state TV claims that the MeK is behind all these global protests, but it’s interesting to see how the regime has fallen back on its usual tactics of blaming the West for trying to destabilize and overthrow Iran.
* Opposition Leaders update: if people have been surprised that Musavi has not been as present in recent protests as he was right after the election, it’s because he’s not allowed to speak to any journalists, and virtually all of his campaign managers and 1st or 2nd level people have been arrested. On top of this, his campaign spokesman said they he is under 24-hour surveillance, which from what I can tell essentially amounts to house arrest. One quote worth mentioning comes from an interview with the spokesman, who, when asked whether the protests were losing steam, said “The regime, arguably, is losing ground, not the protests… Ordinary Iranians are openly rejecting the legitimacy and power of Ayatollah Khamanei. That is entirely new, unheard of." Probably for this reason Musavi was absent again from protests on Sunday, but on Monday day he issued a statement again supporting the opposition, saying “Protesting to lies and fraud is your right.” Also, he played down reports that he told his supporters he was ‘ready for martyrdom’, and called for a global day of mourning for those killed so far this Thursday. There was also an article in a hardline newspaper that was basically laying out the groundwork for Musavi’s arrest, but unfortunately I haven’t seen more about this or an English translation. This would be a risky move by the regime, since the opposition would have another rallying cry and cause to protest, but they might gamble that this is a better way to stifle the protests than risk him further encouraging them. To be honest the movement is larger than Musavi and he’s been held virtually incommunicado for days, so I don’t see this having much benefit for the regime. Karrubi issued another statement calling for new elections and criticizing the Guardian Council, and repeated his claims that there were 200 regions where the number of votes exceeded the number of voters. One political party/group that is allied with Rafsanjani called on Musavi to join with them to help undermine the ‘illegitimate’ government. This isn’t coming from Rafsanjani himself, but it’s still important that a more moderate group is explicitly calling for the support and alliance with a more liberal/reformist group. In recent history reformists have undermined their power by fighting amongst themselves, but not only have they been more united and disciplined leading up to the election, but apparently now they are joining up with moderate groups in a development that will seriously worry the regime. Hardliner elements have stayed in power through divide-and-conquer tactics, but this will be harder to maintain now in light of current events.
* Rafsanjani: according to some reports I’ve seen, Rafsanjani is going to speak on Frida after Khamenei’s sermon. I can’t overemphasize how hugely important this is. If he sides with Khamenei the opposition will be dealt a huge blow, and I’d unfortunately say that a re-vote or annulment of the election would be near impossible then. However, if he sides with the opposition, even if not explicitly so, the movement will have its most powerful and important supporter to date, and their immediate demands for a new election will be all the more likely to be met. Rafsanjani, like much of the regime establishment, is not prone to swooping changes or sudden changes in alliance, so I wouldn’t expect him to come down directly on any one side, but if he is planning on speaking, it will still have massibe implications for those on the streets. His whereabouts are still not directly known, but his son was interviewed about the arrest of some members of his family and said that his father would not bow to this kind of pressure—he was imprisoned for 5 years under the Shah, his son said, and he will remain strong. Finally, there are other reports and rumors I’ve seen—unfortunately not confirmed—that Rafsanjani could have the support of up to 40 members of the Assembly of Experts for annulling the election.
* Legal update: in somewhat of a surprise, on Sunday the Guardian Council admitted there were in fact more votes than voters in 50 districts, but that this would only amount to 2 million votes, and wouldn’t have affected the results of the election since Ahmadinejad won by 11 million. On Monday they ruled out the possibility of nullifying the vote—not particularly surprising—so that leaves only the Assembly of Experts left that can possibly call for a re-vote. Yet in a turnaround on Tuesday state TV reported that the GC will extend the period where they will assess election complaints by 5 days. Additionally, on Tuesday state media reported that Ahmadinejad will be sworn in as president in late July or early August, but I haven’t seen any official confirmation of this from the GC or Khamenei himself.
* Cracks in the regime: there’s more evidence of cracks in the regime, this time a more reliable report (but I still wouldn’t say confirmed) of a senior Revolutonary Guard Commander being arrested for not following Khamenei’s orders to deal with the protestors by force. There was an interesting comment I saw the other day that people have been overlooking Rezai’is role in all of this, mainly his ties to the Revolutionary Guards. Rezaii is a former head commander of the Guards, and I’m sure still has allies within the senior ranks, and this could be one of the reasons for their lack of willingness to crack down on protests. Regarding clerical splits within the regime, CNN posted some great footage of members of the clergy taking part in protests. While this is very significant, I would again remind people that the Iranian clergy are far from monolithic, and there are various opinions not just about this election but about the idea of the Islamic Republic as a whole among Iran’s many clerics and clerical students. Still, this does show evidence of the type of splits that have been rumored, but I just want to remind people that these protests—and the Iranian regime as a whole—is not a uniform ‘mullocracy’ ruling the people. I can’t find a direct link but its one of the newer videos on Ali Larijani, who I’ve mentioned before has been close to Khamenei but a rival of Ahmadinejad, is pressing for Musavi to have time on state TV to discuss his complaints about the election directly to the public. Additionally, a clerical group called the Association of Combatant Clergy—the same group that applied for a permit to protest on Saturday—issued a statement ‘strongly supporting’ Musavi and rejecting the results of the election.
* Protesting footballers: a few days back I wrote that 6 members of the Iranian national soccer team wore green arm bands in support of the protesters during their last world cup qualifying match (all but one, the captain, took them off after halftime). 4 of the 6 were ‘retired’ (including the captain), and there is no news about the other two. A few days after that there was a report that the 6 that wore the arm bands may have chosen to do so because they were the elder players on the team and were going to retire anyway. Except for one player who is 24, the other three players who were ‘retired’ were either 31 or 32.
* Two frightening stories: apparently the regime is establishing a ‘special court’ to deal with those who are arrested during protests. I haven’t seen any details about how these courts will work, but I can tell you from my own work on Iran’s judicial system that if they are in any way similar to the ‘revolutionary courts’ or ‘special courts for the clergy’—which they likely will be—trials will be short and behind closed doors, sentences handed down summarily and be harsh, and the accused will almost surely not have access to a lawyer (or even be able to be present at their own trials). I won’t bore you with details of Iran’s courts, but if you want more information let me know and I can send you my old research. Secondly, there was one story reported about a young man, aged 19, who was shot during a demonstration. When his parents went to pick up his body at first they weren’t allowed to take him until they payed a $3,000 ‘bullet fee’ for the ammunition used by the basij that killed him. Eventually they got the ‘fee’ waived—the father argued he was a war veteran and it was horribly unjust—but they still were made to bury him outside of Tehran and not have a public ceremony. I don’t know if this is an isolated incident or not, but its worth mentioning just to show the lack of respect for human life that’s been on display these past days.
* Neo-cons for Ahmadinejad: I’ve touched on this before, but there’s an unfortunately sizeable contingent of neo-cons or other commentators that, despite the fact that protests have gone on for over a week, still think that Ahmadinejad actually won the election and people in Iran, as well as the US, should ‘get over it’ and move on. I know that some people criticize these people for making this argument in bad faith, and basically wanting to have Ahmadinejad around for another term to justify a hardline stance towards Iran and eschewing any attempts at engagement. I think it’s actually quite simpler than this, and rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of Iran. For many of the commentators who actually believe Iran won, they simply can’t get their head around the fact that Ahadinejad does not represent the Iranian people. Their perceptions of Iran are rooted in the 1979 revolution, embassy takeover and hostage crisis, and they assume most Iranians are as anti-American and fundamentalist as Ahmadinejad To them, of course Ahmadinejad won---the Iranian people are just like him. Hopefully the continuing protests and calls for democracy in the streets will convince these people how untrue their stereotypes of Iranians are, but they’ve held this misperception of Iranians for three decades, and it will take time to change.
* Khamenei’s two-pronged battle: the longer the uncertainty in Iran goes on for, the more apparent it appears that Khamenei is fighting a two-pronged battle for his, and perhaps the regime’s, survival. On the one hand, there are the hundreds of thousands of people who have taken to the streets since the election who are furious at the blatant electoral fraud and attempts to remove the ‘Republic’ part from the ‘Islamic Republic.’ On the other hand, he’s also facing a mounting front within the establishment and clergy itself that is questioning his legitimacy and effectiveness as a leader. This group is of course led by Rafsanjani, and if the reports are true that Rafsanjani is gaining support within the Assembly of Experts, Khamenei’s days as Supreme Leader could be numbered. Interestingly, I think Rafsanjani and his clerical allies are upset with Khamenei for his attempt to take the ‘Islamic’ part out of the Islamic Republic. What I mean by this is that the role of Supreme Leader is supposed to remain above the political fray, and its main task is to ensure the stability of the regime by keeping factional differences and infighting to a minimum. As evidenced by his Friday sermon, Khamenei has clearly taken the side of Ahmadinejad, and in so directly aligning himself with one political faction, has sacrificed some of the mystique and legitimacy of the position of Supreme Leader. Most importantly, with the regime so closely taking sides with Ahmadinejad and his cohort, the regime’s image itself is tied direct to that of one particular faction. If and when Ahmadinejad’s administration fails to deliver, popular anger will be (as it has increasingly been) directed at the regime itself rather than the regime. The regime will no longer have a scapegoat for economic and political failures, and people may increasingly come to blame not just one politician but the system as a whole.
* How gov’t monitors internet: With help from European countries. Basically monitoring what everything is saying with keywords, etc, and can even hack into sites, which may be why gov’t has kept internet on but slow (deep pocket stuff slows it down). More advanced than china and working through one large hub.

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