Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Iran update Wed 6/24

* Waning but continued protests: a protest was planned for today at 4 PM in a public square near the parliament, but there was some confusion heading into this as to whether it was sponsored by Musavi and whether he would appear there. As evidence of just how difficult it has been for Musavi to communicate effectively with the opposition since Khamenei’s Friday sermon, his website may have been hacked into and for a short time issued a statement telling people not to show up. Regardless, a few thousand—the numbers are almost impossible to verify now—showed up and were quickly attacked and dispersed by basijis and plain-clothes officers. From the reports and statements I have read the violence here was quite bad, with one person possibly being killed, and many others beaten with batons and arrested. One Iranian managed to speak to CNN about what has happened in rallies like today, which you can listen to here: Yesterday I wrote that there was some planning for a national strike, but that did not materialize today, partly because is has not been officially called for by people like Musavi or Montazeri. Instead, there are calls for public mourning that could act as de facto national strikes by figures such as these, or statements like ‘if I am arrested, the nation should strike,’ but still no explicit calls to escalate things to this level. I’m not sure if this is because they are still hoping for some sort of compromise or legal settlement, or because they lack the political will to move things to the next level, but what is clear is that since the crackdown after Khamenei’s Friday sermon Iran has been, in the words of Musavi’s wife, under ‘martial law’ and large protests and demonstrations have been prevented. The calls for a national day of mourning for those killed so far during these protests has also been postponed to next week, but like in previous days I expect people will independently organize the same types of smaller demonstrations they have been. With that said, the chants of ‘Allah-u akbar’ are still going on every night—some people say they get louder with each day—and it’s unclear what will happen in the Iranian streets once security forces are pulled back (their presence now is simply unsustainable for a long period of time).
* Opposition leaders update: the regime’s strategy of weakening Musavi’s power by depriving him of his top advisors and leaders continued today when his main legal advisor was arrested, as well as around 70 university professors who had been meeting with or connected to Musavi. On top of this, a newspaper and campaign headquarters aligned with him was raided last night and most of its staff arrested. Musavi himself remains under de facto house arrest and is only able to issue short, period statements on his website. Karrubi, though, issued another statement decrying the election results where he called the government ‘illegitimate.’ Although he fared much worse than Musavi in this election, Karrubi has actually been more outspoken recently, though this could be because the regime doesn’t see him as large as a threat and is allowing him more leeway. The 4th loser of the presidential election, Rezaii, officially dropped his complaints about the election today. I wouldn’t take this as that large a blow to the opposition, since Rezaii was always the conservative alternative to Ahmadinejad anyway, and only very accidentally in the opposition, but it was an advantage for the opposition to have someone like him tentatively allied with them, however loosely it was. Lastly, there were two more people who spoke up in support of the opposition today that are worth mentioning. The first is Abdullah Noori, a reformist cleric and former ministry of the interior in Khatami’s administration, who issued a statement in support of the protestors’ rights to demonstrate peacefully. The second, the current mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Qalibaf, is a moderate conservative who people were speculating would be the conservative alternative to Ahmadinejad in this election—he has been critical and a rival of Ahmadinejad for several years now—who didn’t necessarily speak out against the election results but did say that permits should be issued for protests and demonstrations so violence would be avoided. I haven’t seen anything aside from unconfirmed rumors of Rafsanjani and his possible statement on Friday, but it’s likely he’s still in Qom working behind the scenes.
* Khamenei digs in: today Khamenei spoke to the parliament and reiterated his hard-line stance against the protestors, saying that “The security of the nation and the will of the faithful people of the Islamic Republic will not bend under pressure.” I imagine he will echo similar sentiments in his Friday sermon. It’s important to note here that Khamenei and other powerful members of the regime have personal experience managing and dealing with social unrest, not just during the existence of the Islamic Republic but dating back to the days of the Shah. They were themselves active in the protests and movement that brought down the Shah, and learned first-hand the lessons of how to manage such things. They saw how the Shah’s gradual compromise and weakening stance in dealing with the movement against him ultimately led to his downfall, and they are not going to repeat it. I know that I’m as guilty as anyone else of speculating that Khamenei might have entertained some sort of regime-saving compromise by ‘throwing Ahmadinejad under the bus,’ but it’s becoming increasingly clear that he’s just going to stick with the hard-line tactics and dig his heels in. If some sort of compromise or bargain with the opposition comes—and the possibility of this is becoming slimmer and slimmer—I don’t see it coming from him but from elsewhere, like the Assembly of Experts. On another note, the types of statements about Musavi on state TV I mentioned yesterday gained ground in the parliament. The head of the parliament’s judicial committee raised the possibility of legal action against Musavi and said that he could be held criminally responsible for the violence and damage that has come out of the recent unrest.
* Neda: state TV is claiming that Neda’s murder was staged to make the regime look bad, and was the work of the MeK/MKO. Sadly, her family no longer lives at their old home and apparently have been forced to move out of Tehran. The doctor who was trying to save her in the video has also fled from Iran, and sent an email to a friend that was posted on the web giving his flight information and saying that if he is not at the London airport at the scheduled arrival time ‘something has happened’. On a more encouraging note, Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Prize winning human rights lawyer said that she would represent Neda’s family in court.
* International reaction: by now most people have probably seen Obama’s recent statements on Iran where he issued his harshest denunciation yet of the recent violence in Iran. Ban Ki-Moon also issued a statement where he expressed worries about the level of violence, which I know many activists inside Iran were hoping for, as this type of high-ranking, international statement (especially not one from America, which can be twisted to the regime’s liking) helps their cause. Obviously I wouldn’t expect the GA or UNSC to issue any sort of statements about the violence, but Moon’s is a good start. I should also not that Iran expelled 2 British diplomats and are reportedly now contemplating downgrading their ties with the UK. State TV is continuing to blame the BBC (and Voice of America) for instigating protests, and has even aired ‘confessions’ by Iranians who claim they were inspired to do so from these media sources. Lastly, the US had made the unprecedented step of inviting Iranian diplomats in foreign countries to July 4th celebrations, but that has now been rescinded (although no Iranian diplomats had actually taken the US up on this offer).
* What’s next: with media and access in Iran so restricted and people like Musavi kept virtually incommunicado it’s difficult to make any predictions about where the protests are headed. My update today may have seemed more pessimistic than previous days, but that’s largely because the regime has succeeded in silencing leaders like Musavi without any drastic, protest-provoking action like arresting him, as well as the security forces brutal tactics in suppressing and preventing any large gathering from happening. Although Musavi was in a sense always playing ‘catch up’ (which he even acknowledged) to the opposition and was never a driving leader of this, without a clear leader or figurehead, however accidental, to rally around, call for demonstrations and speak at large rallies, it’s extremely difficult for this movement to maintain momentum. Still, it’s a testament to the opposition that they continue to function on their own without clear central leadership and are still going into the streets despite the regime’s brutality. With that said, given the regime’s success in preventing further massive demonstrations with the heavy security presence, I think the next step for the opposition on the streets would need to be a national strike or large-scale civil disobedience. In order for this to happen, though, people like Musavi, Khatami, Karrubi, or Montazeri will need to explicitly call for one. We’ll see what happens in the next few days and how the regime treats Musavi—for example, if they make good on the threats floated around that he could be arrested—but for now they seem content to pressure him by taking out his support system and stall for time, hoping the opposition will lose momentum. What’s missing from this analysis, though, is Rafsanjani. Some Iranians friends who I’ve spoken to are very skeptical about the success he will have with the Assembly of Experts and despite his leading role within this body, still view the assembly as a Khamenei proxy. I still think it’s telling that they haven’t issued any collective statement thus far, and that Rafsanjani is still mysterious working behind the scenes, but it would be an unprecedented move for them to actually remove the Supreme Leader. Regardless, as one commentator who knows much more about Iran than me has said, this will be a marathon, not a sprint.
* Lastly, I wanted to direct your attention to two fascinating pieces. The first is a really interesting interview with pro-Ahmadinejad cleric. Read the whole thing, but he really expressed the sentiment given by state TV, and interestingly hasn’t heard about some news like Larijani’s criticism of the GC and statement by Montazeri. I link to this not to point out the laughable opinions of one side, but really to show the kind of obstacles and ideas the opposition has to take into account: Second is an account of a 17-year old’s arrest and torture during the recent unrest, and there are quite graphic pictures that accompany this story. The tactics he describes are consistent with accounts from political prisoners and activists I’ve read or heard of from their experiences in prison before the election protests, so this is unfortunately common practice:

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