Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Iran Update: Wednesday, July 1st

As always, feel free to send or post this, but please omit my name and email.

> By now you’ve probably all seen the two most important developments since last Friday—Rafsanjani finally speaking in public and the Guardian Council officially endorsing the election results—but I still want to include some other, less-reported updates from the past few days, and of course to talk about the major two events.
> * Rafsanjani speaks: after close to two weeks of silence and endless speculation and rumors about what he was doing in Qom, Rafsanjani finally appeared and made his first public remarks. Speaking to parliament Rafsanjani gave muted praise for Khamenei’s decision to grant the Guardian Council a five day extension, and also stated that he hoped the GC would carefully study the complaints of irregularities brought to them. On the other hand, he repeated the usual regime canard that the events after the election were the work of foreign conspiracies aimed at dividing the people. Specifically, he said “The recent events were a complex plot by suspicious elements that wanted to create a gap between people and the establishment and was aimed at people to lose their confidence in the establishment,” and somewhat cryptically, “whenever people have entered the scene such plots have been neutralized.” I’ve read a few pieces saying that he caved to Khamenei, but I don’t believe this to be the case. He praised a decision by the Supreme Leader and not the Supreme Leader himself, and the decision of course was one of (limited) concession to the opposition. Those that were hoping for a full-blown critique of Khamenei were surely disappointed, but this was never going to happen in the first case. Rafsanjani has been one of the most powerful men in the Islamic Republic for its three decades of existence, and he has maintained his stature through careful and calculating alliances, not by publicly confronting people in such positions as the Supreme Leader. He’s been charged as being an opportunist—indeed, he is only recently an ally, and barely one at that, to reformists—and it would be naïve to think he would make such a bold and risky move as to come out publicly against Khamenei. We may never know what he was doing in Qom—or if he was even there—but if he was in fact trying to rally clerical support to get the Assembly of Experts to replace Khamenei as Supreme Leader, his speech to parliament shows that he clearly failed in this. He would only have come down on the side of the opposition if he was sure that would be the winning side. I hope my previous emails didn’t give the sense that an impending clerical coup was on the horizon, but until we know more about what happened in Qom during these two weeks it’s hard to tell how close, if at all, such an event may have been.
> * Guardian Council approves election: in a much less surprising move, the other day the Guardian council officially approved the results of the election. I’m not sure what the purpose of that five day extension was other than to bide time and hope to outlast popular momentum, as even on Sunday spokesman said to state tv “We have had no fraud in any presidential election and this one was the cleanest election we have had.” On Friday they proposed establishing a special commission of six people of their choosing, plus representatives from the losing candidates, for a recount of 10% of the ballots, possibly to be broadcast live on TV, but Karrubi and Musavi both rejected this. In the end the GC went ahead with without the opposition participating and conducted a recount of 10% of votes coming from all of Tehran’s 22 electoral districts, as well as other outlying provinces. The one surprise that did come from this was that the recount found that Ahmadinejad’s vote was actually slightly higher that Musavi’s. Finally, I can’t vouch for the veracity of this since my Persian is not very good, but people are now pointing to pictures of ballots—taken during the recount—published on Iranian state media showing “Ahmadinejad” written with the same handwriting on various ballots. Rezaiis spokesman actually complained about this as well, but I’m skeptical that the election rigging took place at this level of voting rather than at the counting and reporting level. Perhaps these ballots were created afterwards for the 10% ‘random’ recount, but again, my Persian isn’t good enough to match handwriting.
> * Small Protests: in the past several days protests continued to wane, but there were a few notable ones that are worth mentioning. Voice of America reported that on Friday around 13,000 people met at Behesht-e Zahra cemetery (the largest cemetery in Iran) to grieve, but they were quickly dispersed. As I said before, many of the large protests that led up to the revolution of 1979 started off as mournings or funeral processions, so the regime is determined not to let these repeat themselves. Sunday was a holiday in Iran, commemorating the deaths of around 72 (I believe) people who died in a bombing in the early days of the revolution (among those killed was a very high-ranking cleric, Ayatollah Beheshti). Ceremonies and events were planned to remember this day, and protestors cleverly tried to take advantage of pre-existing legal rallies and turn them into their own. They planned on meeting at a mosque in the north of Tehran where a ceremony was being legally held, and according to the reports I saw there were about 3,000 people there, many of them in green and holding their fingers in a “V.” Musavi was prevented from attending but spoke to the crowd through a cell phone held up to a loudspeaker, but his wife, Karrubi, and both Rafsanjani’s daughter and wife were there, as well as several other prominent reformists. They succeeded in marching for 10 minutes down a large street in Tehran but were eventually dispersed by riot police and basijis. If you’d like to see a video from inside the mosque when people were gathering before starting their march you can see it here: Finally, people planned to form a human chain on Tuesday but this was quickly broken up. I’m sure there were other gatherings and incidents with security forces, but these are some of the major ones I read about. Security forces were out in droves once the GC made their announcement to prevent any sort of gathering from taking places, and I expect this type of tactic to continue whenever the regime makes a decision that might spark a protest. Also, I should say that that the Iranian calendar is filled with holidays like the one this past Sunday, and I expect the opposition to continue to use these to try to hold further events. It’s clear permits for demonstrations will not be approved, so the opposition will have to use and try to co-opt pre-existing ones.
> * The arrested: with much of the media basically writing off Iran’s protests and putting them below issues such as the nuclear program, it’s worrying that the fate of all those arrested will now go unnoticed. I suspect it will take even longer to figure out just how many people have been arrested in these two weeks, but one French human rights NGO is reporting that the number could be as high as 3,000. Thankfully all but one of those arrested a few days ago from Musavi’s campaign headquarters/newspaper have been arrested, but many more remain in prison. I’d written before that members of parliament and the security forces had made public statements that Musavi should be found criminally liable for the violence, that those arrested should be punished severely, and other such sentiments, and it looks like the regime is planning to deal with those it has or will arrest brutally. For example, on Friday the hardline cleric Ahmed Khatami (not to be confused with the reformist president Khatami) gave the Friday sermon at Tehran University and said "I want the judiciary to punish leading rioters firmly and without showing any mercy to teach everyone a lesson." Khatami isn’t a particularly high-profile cleric—in fact, in the past several days more high-ranking clerics like Grand Ayatollah Shirazi, Grand Ayatollah Zanjani, and Ayatollah Ardebili urged leniency with protestors—but Khatami is a member of the Assembly of Experts, and went as far as to say that some of the protestors could be tried for mohareb crimes, or crimes against God, which is punishable by execution. The intelligence minister said that those who have been arrested are divided into three camps: 1) those caught up in the atmosphere of protests who have already been released, 2) those who took part in and organized these protests, who will be released in due time, and 3) anti-revolutionary forces, who they have no plans yet to release. I’m still trying to find out more information on the special court they have established to deal with such detainees, but apparently they have appointed Saeed Mortazavi to be the lead prosecutor for these. Mortazavi is known as the ‘butcher of the press’ for the dozens of newspapers he shut down in the 90s when Khatami first came to power. More worrying is the treatment and threats imprisoned journalists underwent during that time, which some people say came from Mortazavi himself.

> I know I usually have more bullet points and themes in my updates, but news, and even reliable twitter updates, have been lacking in the past few days. What I’ve said above is mostly what happened in the last few days, but I’d like to write out separately what I think the implications of all of this is. Not just the implications of the last 4 days, but the last two weeks. I’ve tried to include these in each email, but with Rafsanjani’s public remarks, the GC’s decision, and the regime’s brutal quashing of protests, it now seems apparent Ahmadinejad will serve a second term as president. As I’ll write tomorrow I do not see this as the end but rather the beginning of a longer and more gradual process. Something like Musavi’s arrest could yet spark a huge event, but with most of the major questions decided it’s more important to focus on “what now?” rather than “what happened?” With that said, if you have any questions about anything feel free to shoot me an email.

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