Thursday, June 18, 2009

Nighttime again in Iran

Nighttime again in Iran, so here’s my daily update. As always, feel free to forward but make sure to take off my name.

First, what’s happened:

* more protests: there was another protest today that by some accounts was as well attended, if not more so, than the one on Monday. With foreign media banned from covering these it’s difficult to tell, but The Guardian said it could have been as many as a million, and Iranian State TV even admitting it was in the tens of thousands. Whatever the number is, the important thing is that they show no signs of stopping. Musavi and his wife both attended and spoke at today’s rally, which he called (loose translation) “a sea of green in black silence.” Like yesterday’s it was a silent protest where people mourned those who have been killed so far in the protests. Thankfully, so far there have been less reports of violence from today’s demonstrations, though I don’t doubt that plainclothes officers were still beating people in the streets. Musavi has called for a candlelight vigil tonight, and the protests now have taken on an explicitly mourning theme, much as happened during some of the protests during 1979.
* Tomorrow’s events: with the magnitude of what has happened so far it is difficult to call any one day more important than another, but I believe tomorrow will be perhaps the most important day thus far, and could very well determine how the rest of these events play out. The reason for this is because tomorrow, Friday, is the Muslim Holy day, which is when Friday prayers are given in mosques and where state-sponsored political messages are disseminated to the public. According to one report I’ve seen, tomorrow Khamenei will give Friday prayers in, of all places, Tehran University. People are already being bused in from outside the city to shore up support for the regime and bolster its numbers. Khamenei might maintain the line that the elections were legitimate and the protests are illegal, or he might soften his stance and promise some sort of recount. Either way, I don’t see him making any sort of grand gesture to the opposition, and if he does speak more of an accomodationist line, it will likely be to buy more time to diffuse the situation. On the opposition side, Musavi has again called for mourning and silent protests, and urged people to march from one large public square to mosques to attend Friday prayers. Both Musavi and Karrubi will attend the events tomorrow. Jumping ahead to Friday, a clerical group that I mentioned in previous emails, the Association of Combative Clerics, has asked for official permission to hold a protest and rally on Saturday. I read a few reports that another, more centrist clerical group has issued a statement supporting the protests, but nothing I can call definitive.
* Government response: one expert who I link to below said that so far the government has had no clear strategy in how to deal with these protests. I couldn’t agree with this more. After the first few days the government has dispatched security forces including the Revolutionary Guards, Basij, Hezbollah, etc, but without a coherent plan on how to deal with the protestors. Their strategy initially seemed to be to scare the protestors with arrests and violence, but that has clearly failed so far and the protests continue to gain momentum. There has not been—and hopefully will not be—a massive show of force like the rolling in of tanks at Tianamen, and police, army, and even some revolutionary guards do not seem willing to crack down on the protests. There were reports today of basiji wearing masks because they were afraid of the repercussions which is significant, but I have seen photos of them arresting people in previous years donning black masks. This and what appears to be a decrease in violence perhaps shows the security forces waning will to deal with the protestors (or alternatively, the government backing off its earlier strategy). Also, the interior ministry tried again to paint protestors as supporting a foreign-backed coup when they claimed they uncovered was a ‘foreign-backed’ plot to bomb mosques on election day.
* Soccer protests: some of you may have seen this already, but yesterday Iran played South Korea in a World Cup qualifying game. Six of the players wore green wristbands for the first half, and one kept his on for the second half after being told to take them off. If any of you have seen the movie Offsides, you know that soccer in Iran is massive and by far the most popular sports in the country. People were undoubtedly watching this and the courageous stand the players took on national TV was not lost on the population. On the downside, Iran tied Korea 1-1 and is now eliminated from the next World Cup, something that further angers Iranians (Ahmadinejad actually spoke about improving the soccer team in one of his campaign appearances).
* Summoning ambassadors: Iran has so far summoned 6 ambassadors in Tehran, including the Swiss one to discuss “US interfering” in Iran’s internal affairs, and also the Canadian one for similar reasons.
* Legal update: the latest news out of the Guardian Council is that they are now looking into 646 submitted electoral problems and, as reported on state TV, have invited the 3 losing candidates to discuss the election with the 12-member body. Rezai’i, who was a conservative challenger to Ahmadinejad who initially did not denounce the election results, has no done so since he wanted the GC to finish with its recount by the end of yesterday. He, along with Karrubi and Musavi, may speak to the GC as early as Saturday. Tellingly, before the GC invited these three to speak with them and was beginning its “recount,” the Interior Ministry’s electoral commission said by law they could not show the contents of ballot boxes to the presidential candidates, so they essentially had to trust them that an actual recount was going on. These are the kind of non-solutions that have been proposed so far, though Saturday may see a change in that (though this is doubtful, given the composition of the GC). Also, Musavi and Khatami have issued a joint statement to the Judiciary asking for the release of those who have been arrested during these protests.
* Parliamentary investigation: the parliament’s investigation into the attacks on the Tehran University dormitory began and ended in a fistfight. MPs who convened the investigation asked why plainclothes officers had been sent here without official orders, and also questioned the Treasury Ministry as to why “shares” of money were given to Ahmadinejad before the election basically to dole out to people on his campaign stops. When the questioning of the attacks continued some of their staunchest supporters in parliament began arguing with those asking questions, and eventually the verbal fight turned physical. I highlight this just to show that while support for the regime and such tactics may be waning, it is nevertheless still strongly held by an amount of people that should not be discounted.
* Some rumors: I mentioned yesterday that there were rumors some senior members of the Revolutionary Guards had been arrested for siding with the opposition. I spoke to a few of my Iranian friends who confirmed this and said it was in some reliable Persian-news sources, but no conformation of this from official government channels or Western media. Soon after the election some rumored ‘real’ numbers were released by a supposed dissident member of the Interior Ministry that showed Musavi winning more than 50% (I forget the exact numbers). This person was apparently killed in a car ‘accident.’ Again, the same goes for this as the Revolutionary Guard arrest story, though the Iranians I’ve talked to (admittedly partisan in these matters) believed both to be true and confirmed from their own sources. Lastly, there’s a rumor that several members of the Interior will soon write to the GC themselves saying they found widespread problems with the election. We’ll see if this does happen, but for now just a rumo

Some thoughts:

* Pro-Ahmadienjad poll: I mentioned this in one of my previous updates, but there was a pre-election poll carried out by an NGO called “Terror Free Tomorrow” that some of you may have seen mentioned in various articles (they defended their poll a few days ago in the Washington Post). The poll was taken via telephone and purportedly showed Ahmadinejad was twice as popular among the respondents, which is now being cited to show that Ahmadinejad did win the election, and the cries of fraud are unwarranted. I’m including the link to a full debunking of this poll below, but there are 2 major problems with this poll. First, methodologically, the phone survey was of a little over 1,000 people, and just only 57% answered definitely. The rest either said “no comment” or were undecided. That’s a large number of unanswered, and when you weigh that with the percentage that said they did support Ahmadinejad, you get a far less overwhelming endorsement of him. Second, and more importantly, there are political problems with this poll. This poll was conducted around a month before the election, and before the official campaign time began. Unlike American, Iran has no strong political parties, and people will not just vote for someone—say, like Musavi—because he’s a member of the party they identify with. Opinions change and undecided sway much more in Iran than in American. Musavi had been out of the public eye for almost two decades before the official campaigning began, so it’s no wonder he didn’t have more support when this poll was taken. On top of this, his campaign really built steam later in the campaign period, particularly after his June 3rd televised debate with Ahmadinejad when the latter attacked numerous members of the establishment such as Rafsanjani’s family, Musavi’s wife, and others. If you want to read more about this poll, check:
* Revolution? (again): One important aspect of the protests we’re seeing now that people have mentioned but I have failed to include in my updates is the class component of them. What we’re seeing now, in contrast to protests such as 1999 and 2003, is the conspicuous presence of the middle class. Like I said yesterday, it’s not just students vs. regime, but a large collection of groups, including the ‘new’ middle class, against some (but not all) of the regime. The videos and pictures from the protest show a wide diversity of people taking part in the protests that really brings to light how much legitimacy the regime has lost and the various groups and sectors of society it has alienated. Again, this is far different from previous protests, and similar to ones from 79. With that said, and I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves and see this as a repeat of the revolution three decades earlier. I’m copying a link to the best analysis I’ve seen of this, but one of the major points he makes is that unlike 79, the opposition now does not have a clear leader driving the movement. Musavi is at least the symbolic head of these, but in many ways he’s “catching up” to the protests rather than driving them. Anyway, read the whole thing:
* Obama: Lastly, as the protests pick up steam Obama is being urged to take a more definitive stand in support of the opposition. Some republicans like McCain have been urging him to do so, but some Iranians I’ve talked are agreeing with this. The European Union in fact came out in support, but I’m not sure if any individual countries have followed suit. This is an extremely complicated question and one I’m still unsure about. My default position is to listen to Iranians on the ground themselves and respond to their wishes, but I still believe Obama fully supporting the protests just plays into the hands of the regime and lets them paint the opposition as foreign puppets. Obviously he should continue to support the peaceful right of assembly and speak out against the violence, but perhaps he should take more of a stand on electoral transparency. Again, a tricky question, but I’d urge caution.

PS, check out this picture. One of my favorites:

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