Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Iran update: July 16th

* Continued protests: As I mentioned in my update last week, the opposition’s plan to have a 3-day national strike, coinciding with a national religious holiday, culminated on the 10th anniversary of the 18th of Tir. Unfortunately I didn’t see very much about the strike and whether it was successful, but there was a fair amount of news about protests on the 18th of Tir. Reports said that there were around 3 or 4 thousand people out in the streets protesting, the first time in over a week street protests had resumed. Security forces were out in large numbers, and the protestors anticipated this and planned out 9 different routes for people to march to Enqelab (Revolution) Square. Ultimately the people were not successful in gathering en masse in the square, but they did show that the protests were still not going to die down, and importantly, were able to get a lot of pictures and videos of the day out to the media. From what I’ve seen and read the protests were filled with the usual death to the dictator, pro-freedom and allah-u akbar chants, but interestingly there were a few that were specifically aimed at Mojtaba Khamenei, the son of the Supreme Leader who, as I’ll discuss below, is rumored to be behind the crackdown. The protestors also encouraged people to show their support by driving around and honking their horns, as well as flashing the V-sign with their hands out of the car windows. Two other important facts about these protests: 1) they took place not just in Tehran but in other parts of the country, and 2) they were planned independently of Musavi. Musavi did support them but was not involved in the planning stages, and from what I saw, wasn’t actively promoting them on his website or facebook page. I’m nor whether he was unwilling or unable to do so, but this just goes to show yet again how these protests have become larger than just one person
* Arrests and detentions update: Earlier, Iran’s Prosecutor General said that since the election 2,500 people had been arrested, and 500 of these remained in jail to be tried in court. I don’t believe he specified the court these people would be tried in, but it will likely be the special court set up for those arrested in the post-election aftermath. In a speech one fairly high-ranking ayatollah, Ayatollah Ardabili, said many of the detainees would be released next week, but I haven’t seen any confirmation or updates on this. There are still many prominent opposition leaders and activists in jail, but the one I’d mentioned in previous emails that is still there is Saeed Hajjarian. He remains in Evin prison, and the other day his son was arrested (though subsequently released), reportedly after Hajjarian’s family refused the conditions of Saeed’s release. Additionally, there is another martyr figure, similar to Neda, that has emerged in recent weeks. His name is Sohrab Arabi, and he was only 19 and was killed from gunshot wounds to his chest, although the exact details of his death are still unclear. He disappeared after a protest on July 15th, when he was apparently shot, but was pronounced dead on July 19th by prison authorities. It’s still not known what happened to him during this four day period—whether his injuries were left untreated, causing him to die, or whether he was tortured during this time—but his mother spent weeks asking prisons and hospitals for news of her son. She finally learned that he had died 26 days after he initially disappeared, despite the fact he was pronounced dead after 4 days in custody. This story has been causing a furor in the Farsi-language media, and Musavi and his wife actually met with Sohrab Arabi’s family the other day. Similar to Neda’s story, authorities made sure Sohrab’s funeral did not turn into a cause for protest and prevented a large gathering from occurring. Finally, last week 20 people were reported to have been hanged in Evin prison. These weren’t protestors but were people in jail on capital offenses such as drug trafficking, but their hangings were likely done to send a message to those still in detention.
* Opposition Leaders update: last Friday Rafsanjani again declined to lead Friday prayers, but he will do so this week (more below). Last Monday Karrubi, Musavi, and Khatami all met together for the first time and they apparently met to talk about a coalition to deal with election complaints and arrests. The idea of forming a political party and a coalition to deal with these detentions has gained steam since then. Musavi has appointed some veteran opposition leaders to take charge of the committee dealing with arrests, and he remains committed to the idea of forming a new political party. I’m not sure exactly what this means for Khatami’s National Front, but the new one would likely absorb this, since Khatami’s party never really grew into a nation-wide organization that kept his reform movement alive. They did of course succeed in gaining seats in Parliament, but possibly due to the problems and recriminations that emerged at the end of his 2nd term as President, this was never an all-encompassing reformist party. If Musavi and others can succeed in forming such a broad coalition this will be hugely important. Reformists have been harmed by their division and factionalism—the regime thrives on divide-and-conquer tactics—so this is integral to the future of their movement. One hardline paper, Kayhan, has already started attacking the possibility of such a party, quoting a prominent member of the Principalist (pro-ahmadinejad) faction saying that such a party would not be allowed to form. However, Rafsanjani is allegedly supportive of this, and if they could attract moderate support from important power-brokers they would have a good chance of having a legal one approved (I should note, though, that they likely won’t have permission to hold mass rallies like other parties).
* Regime update: Last Tuesday Ahmadinejad gave a televised speech on IRIB where he blamed the post-election unrest on foreign powers, but took a fairly conciliatory tone (for himself) and asked for ‘unity and solidarity’. As a quick humorous aside, during the speech there was a large moth flying around him that he unsuccessfully tried to swat away. The clip was all over youtube within minutes, and a joke made the rounds that the moth had been arrested and is being held in Evin prison on charges of espionage. On a more serious note, there’s been a few stories in the past week about the Supreme Leader’s son, Mojtaba. There’s very little known about him—he’s barely ever been photographed—but he was very much a driving force in Ahmadinejad’s first election in 2005. In the first round of the 2005 election Ahmadinejad was not the preferred choice of the Supreme Leader, but according to some reports Mojtaba was able to eventually convince his father to throw his support behind Ahmadinejad, and the rest is history. Mojtaba has very strong ties to the Revolutionary Guards and is rumored to have taken control of the basij forces after the election. Some people worry that he is being groomed to be the successor to his father as Supreme Leader, but whether this is true or not I sincerely doubt this would actually happen. Mojtaba has even less religious credentials than his father, and importantly, there is no unifying, charismatic leader like Khomeini to push through a weakly qualified nominee for Supreme Leader.
* Clerical politics: one of the most fascinating but opaque area of Iranian politics is clerical politics. I’ve been trying to get information about what’s going on in Qom for several weeks now, but it seems like there’s very little written about this topic in English, and only a handful of people who specialize in this area. There have been some contrasting reports over whether the clerical establishment supports Khamenei or not. One article I saw posted on a normally very reliable website said that Qom has been on lock-down for several weeks, and that there was a sit-in by members of the Office of Islamic Guidance after they were fired for supporting Musavi. On the other hand, another person who is probably the leading expert on Shia religious politics recently wrote an article saying that the majority of the clerical establishment support Khamenei, and that the only ones that have come out in favor of the opposition are those with very little ties to the state, and whom were insiders during Khomeini’s time but have since drifted away from the state. Personally, I think it’s more likely that the clerical establishment does support Khamenei, or at least doesn’t support Musavi, if for nothing else than their quietist nature and aversion to any widespread changes. On top of this, in two decades as Supreme Leader Khamenei has done much to bring what were once independent organizations and seminaries into the state’s realm, so with these bodies now firmly entrenched within the state it’s unlikely they’re jumping at the chance to bite the hand that feeds them. With that said, there have been a few noteworthy updates with regards to clerical politics. Ayatollah Ostaadi, a conservative cleric from the Association of Seminary Teachers, gave a Friday sermon last week where he criticized another cleric (not by name) for using the state’s resources to campaign for Ahmadinejad, and also said he would stop delivering Friday sermons, allegedly for health reasons. Ostaadi is a conservative member of the clergy with ties to the state so this is noteworthy, but he’s not a Grand Ayatollah (there are about 15 in Iran, and around 1,000 ‘regular’ ayatollahs) or marja (‘source of emulation’, of which there are only around a dozen in Iran. Lastly, Ayatollah Montazeri issued a series of fatwas where he called the current Supreme Leader illegitimate. In contrast to Ostaadi, Montazeri is a Grand Ayatollah and marja, but he has been under house arrest since 1997 and out of favor with the regime for even longer, so I’m not sure how much of a following he now enjoys within Iran given that he’s been unable to give sermons or communicate much with his supporters.
* Legal updates: there are a few legal updates from the past week that are worth mentioning. First, Tehran’s interim Friday prayers leader said the majils should revise the current presidential elections law so that the events of recent weeks don’t repeat themselves. This idea first came from the current mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Qalibaf, who is a conservative rival of Ahmadinejad. We’ll see if this idea gets any traction in the majlis, but I think the problems with the election stemmed more from the spirit rather than the letter of the law. Secondly, on Sunday the Expediency Council—a body that resolves disputes between the majlis and Guardian Council—upheld a law that banned people from serving on the Guardian Council while being employed as a government official. This would mean that two hardline members of the GC would need to either resign from the GC or from their other governmental positions. Those angered by this decision said that it should apply to Rafsanjani as well, since he is the head of both the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council, but under current law this does not apply to the Expediency Council so Rafsanjani can keep his two positions. Finally, yesterday it was reported that Ahmadinejad will be sworn in on August 2nd, and will propose a new cabinet on August 6th. Ahmadinejad had significant problems getting his first cabinet approved by parliament—he had to settle on his 3rd choice for oil minister after the others were voted down—and during his term either 9 or 10 ministers resigned or were fired. I’d expect a lengthy battle in parliament over his new cabinet choices. (NB: some of the more important cabinet positions, like Minister of Justice and Minister of Interior are made by the Supreme Leader, not Ahmadinejad).
* What next: this Friday should be a very interesting day in Iran. Rafsanjani has finally agreed to lead Friday prayers, and both Khatami and Musavi will be in attendance. I’m unclear as to whether this is coming from Khatami and Musavi themselves or not, but the opposition is planning on attending the Friday prayers as well, so this could be the largest showing of the opposition since Khamenei’s crackdown a week after the election. I haven’t seen anything reporting on what Rafsanjani will say, but given his cautious nature I wouldn’t expect any sweeping indictments of the regime. It’s more likely he’ll call for unity, perhaps offer support of the people’s right to protest, and maybe even offer veiled criticism of a few hardliners. More than what he says, I think just having Rafsanjani giving the Friday sermon in the presence of Khatami and Musavi will show his support, however tacitly, for the opposition, and could help to solidify their support from more moderate elements within Iran.
* Just for fun: This is too good not to include. Iranian state media ran a picture this week with two pictures of Ahmadinejad next to each other where one was from when he began his first term and the other a current one. Next to each other you could see that his beard had turned white over the course of his first term, and below the picture there was a caption saying that his beard had turned white because he “worked so hard for justice.”

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