Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Iran update: Tuesday, July 7th

* Opposition update: late last week three of the major opposition leaders, Musavi, Karrubi, and Khatami, issued long and strongly-worded statements saying they would still not accept the results of the election. Musavi’s and Karrubi’s were fairly similar to their previous ones—reiterating their disavowal of the election results, calling cautiously to continue opposition—but Khatami’s was uncharacteristically strong for the former president. As I’ve said before, the knock against him was that he lacked the political will to confront regime hardliners during his presidency. Compared to his usual demeanor he was somewhat outspoken during the post-election unrest, but his most recent statement was a notable departure from his usual mild manner. He even used a bit of rhetorical jujitsu against the regime and its constant labeling of the opposition as a Western-backed attempt at ‘velvet revolution’, stating that the electoral fraud "has been a velvet revolution against the people and against the republicanism of the system." Musavi also released on his website a 24-page opus detailing evidence of electoral fraud, which ran the gamut of members of the Guardian Council campaigning for Ahmadinejad, millions of extra ballots being printed, campaign workers being harassed, and incidents of money and other services services being exchanged for votes, among other complaints. Yesterday Musavi appeared in public for the first time in almost three weeks, though not at any political rally or gathering. There was a small gathering, about 200 people, at an art gallery of the Iranian Academy of Iran (which Musavi heads), and according to a few journalists present he again reiterated that he did not accept the results of the election. He didn’t, though, call for further protests and said that the opposition should work within the confines of the law.
* Rafsanjani and regime insiders: first, some bad news for the opposition. Larijani, who as I’ve detailed in previous emails, has been a rival of Ahmadinejad during the past 4 years and earlier didn’t show up at an Ahmadinejad victory part (along with dozens of other MPs), officially congratulated Ahmadinejad on his electoral victory. I’m not sure what the status is of the parliamentary committee Larijani had called to investigate the attacks on the Tehran University dormitories immediately after the election, but even if these are still ongoing Larijani recognizing Ahmadinejad is a symbolic blow to the opposition. On the other hand, Rafsanjani is moving closer to the opposition. Last Friday he again declined to give Friday prayers—the second time in a row he had declined this—and met with families of those detained during protests. During these meetings he made slightly less moderate, but still cautious, statements, basically saying that the Iranian people are not satisfied with the election, and this must be remedied for the sake of stability and security. Interestingly, just over a day after this Rafsanjani’s political party spoke out directly against the election, calling it ‘unacceptable.’ One portion of the statement they issued said: "We declare that the result is unacceptable due to the unhealthy voting process, massive electoral fraud and the siding of the majority of the Guardian Council with a specific candidate." For the opposition this is coming a week or two too late, but is still huge news given that this party is firmly in the center of the Iranian political spectrum.
* Another clerical group for the opposition? Many of you may have seen a front-page article in the NYT on Sunday about ‘the most important clerical group in Iran’ issuing a statement criticizing the election. There is some confusion about this article, though, mainly stemming from the difficulty in translating the names of these clerical groups. The NYT article cites a statement made by the “Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qom,” which if translated this way, is very close to the name of one of the most prominent, and by no means reformist, clerical groups. A few people whose Persian is infinitely better than mine, though, read the original statement and said that translation is not correct. Most likely it comes from another clerical group with a similar name “The Society of Scholars and Teacher’s of Qom’s Hawza”, which is in fact reformist-leaning and is not ‘the most important clerical group in Qom.’ (As a side note, the problems with these groups and translating their names are completely understandable. Many of the names don’t translate well into English, and their names after overlap. For example, there are two with the phrase “combative clerics” in them, one of which is moderate and the other reformist). Regardless, even this clerical group had remained silent until now, and the few clerics and clerical groups that are speaking out have been doing so in favor of the opposition. As a note of caution, though, I’d be careful when reading any stories talking about clerical groups. There are over 200,000 clerics in Iran that are known for their quarreling and factionalism, so some clerical groups are bound to deviate from the official line. There are certainly some that are more prominent than others and whose possible criticism of the election would be significant given their close proximity to the state, but keep in mind the heterogeneity of the religious establishment when reading about clerical politics.
* Regime update: on the regime side of things, various people and groups have been calling for harsher treatment of Musavi and other opposition leaders. The student wing of the basij said that Musavi should be charged with acting against national security (an offense that would warrant 10 years in prison). An important aid to Khamenei, Hossein Shariatmadari, said that Musavi and Khatami should be tried, and the hardline Kayhan newspaper, of which Shariatmadari is editor, said that Musavi’s actions were ‘treasonous.’ Although the groundwork for arresting Musavi and others is being laid by hardline clerics, newspapers and MPs, Khamenei has stopped short of acting on this. In a recent speech where he blasted Western interference in Iran, he urged patience and caution in dealing with Musavi, saying something along the lines of ‘our friends should not be treated like our enemies just because they make a mistake’. With Musavi’s recent statement emphasizing opposition ‘within the legal mandate’ Khamenei will likely not risk provoking more protests by arresting or trying Musavi. This could all change if Musavi escalates the opposition again and calls for protests, or perhaps takes bold steps such as trying to join a gathering or protest, but he seems to be planning for the long run, as evidenced by desire made last week in one of his statements to form a political party to continue the opposition.
* Arrests and detentions: news is now starting to seep out about harsh treatment and torture of people inside Iran’s prisons. For the most part people have unable to contact their families—groups of mothers and wives have been assembling outside the infamous Evin prison to ask about their sons and husbands—but the reports that have come out are quite gruesome. People have been subjected to psychological pressure like sleep deprivation, sensory techniques and mock executions, and physical torture like being hung upside down and whipped, having nails pulled out, and other tactics that have unfortunately become commonplace inside Iran’s prison facilities. I read a few stories reporting that six people had been executed several days ago, but I haven’t seen that confirmed yet in any Western or state-run press. There are still some prominent opposition leaders in prison, such as Saeed Hajarian, who as I said in an earlier emails, was left partially paralyzed after a failed assassination attempt against him in the 90s. Iran’s national police chief said 1032 people had been arrested, but a human rights NGOs thinks the number of current detainees is around 2,000. There have also been further televised ‘confessions’ where people say they were influenced by Western media like the BBC or Radio Farda, or were agents of the exile group MeK. I should also note that in the face of mounting eyewitness accounts and picture/video proof of violence on the part of Iranian security forces, the regime blamed this on vigilantes who stole uniforms and disguised themselves as members of the basij. In other words, the basiji in those pictures and videos weren’t real basij. Lastly, one regime member (I forget who) said that they were working with Interpol for a warrant to arrest the doctor who tried to help save Neda. (He has since fled to England and spoke out against what he saw there, including the circumstances around Neda’s shooting). A spokesman with Interpol, though, said they had received no such request from Iran and were not at all involved in arresting the doctor.
* What’s next? The next three days are an official religious holiday, and the opposition, similar to what it did last Sunday with the gathering at the mosque in northern Tehran, is trying to piggy-back on top of this holiday and turn legally permitted gatherings into their own. The opposition, Musavi included, also asked people to go on strike during these three days to show their support for the opposition. This is a rather clever move on their part, since the way this holiday is observed is mainly by people staying home and using the time for silent prayer or meditation. This way people can ‘strike’ without subjecting themselves to the response of the regime. On top of this, the regime has for years (with limited success) urged people to honor this holiday through silent prayer and other such actions, so in emphasizing this the opposition can further claim it is not anti-Islam or anti-regime. On the other hand, the choice of the strike on a day when everything is supposed to be closed raises the question “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around…..?” For their part, the opposition also said people can take more visible part in the strike by shunning commercial centers and even withdrawing money from banks. Given the nature of the holiday it would be difficult for the opposition to claim victory if everyone is at home, but this is a good way to continue to get people involved through ways other than street protests, especially given wave of repression the regime unleashed on the protestors after Khamenei’s Friday sermon.
* Two final notes about the three day holiday. State media announced the closure of government offices and other such services because of high levels of ‘air pollution’ in Iran. This sounded extremely suspect at first, but right now in Tehran the air is filled with dust from extremely strong winds coming from the West of the country. Somehow the sand from the deserts of Iraq and Saudi Arabia have made it over the mountains that surround most of Iran and is now blowing around the plateau on which most of Iran sits. Given the odd weather conditions in Tehran, it will be even harder for the opposition to claim a successful strike. Lastly, the final day of this three day holiday is the 18th of the month of Tir. I’ve mentioned this in previous emails, but this day marks the anniversary of the regime’s brutal repression of the student movement back in 1999. At the time the five-day protests leading up to the 19th of tir (July 9th) were the largest in Iran since the revolution, and hundreds, if not thousands, of students were arrested after security forces raided and attacked students in their dormitories. This Thursday will be the 10 year anniversary of these protests, and the security forces will be present in even greater numbers than other years. In fact, the regime seems to already be gearing up for them. After several days of SMS service being restored, it’s back down again, and I suspect will be—as well as internet service—in the coming few days.

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