Monday, December 28, 2009

Iran update (12/28)

It’s been several months since my last Iran update, but since I thankfully have some brief time off during the holidays, and more importantly, Iran has been in the headlines again (for non-nuclear issue matters), I wanted to offer some brief updates and thoughts for anyone curious. As before, feel free to forward this along but please delete my name and email if you do so.

Background: A lot of the articles and reports I’ve seen on what has happened in Iran during the last two days have focused almost exclusively on the past two days (Ashura and Tasua), but there is some important background information to take into account. First off, close to three weeks ago was the 16th of Azar (or Student Day) in Iran. This was one of the public holidays that the regime normally uses to hold pro-government rallies and shore up regime support (the holiday marks the death of 3 students by the Shah’s security forces back in 1953). Like similar ones since the election the opposition used this against the regime and basically tried to co-opt their demonstrations into their own. The actual turnout at these demonstrations was again smaller than the post-election ones, and even smaller than some in the opposition had hoped and planned for, but the protests and actions of that day showed what in my opinion was a turn to the radical on the part of protestors. Their chants against the government, specifically Khamenei, crossed red lines that had not previously been crossed, and there seemed to be a palpable anger or impatience from some of the things I’d read and seen. Granted those who attended these were mostly students, who generally are more radical than other opposition members, but these people had been at previous rallies and didn’t cross these red lines beforehand.

Second, the death of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri set the stage further for the past two days. As you might have read Montazeri was once Khomeini’s hand-picked successor to be Supreme Leader until he publicly disagreed with the founder of the Islamic Republic, was passed over for Khamenei, fell from grace with the regime and lived under virtual house arrest for his last years. He was one of the strongest and most public critics of the regime’s actions after the elections, and on top of that, has more religious credentials than all but a handful of other ayatollahs throughout the Middle East (including Khamenei). I don’t think it’s correct to say he was the spiritual leader of the opposition, since large portions of the youth who now make up the opposition are not particularly observant Muslims, but he was still a huge figure for reformists.

The regime’s reaction to his death was, perhaps unsurprisingly, callous and short-sighted. Public statements from official news agencies and people like Khamenei offered grudging condolences, and people were prevented from attending his funeral. Security forces even attacked people during his funeral parade and mourning ceremony. Aside from the anger that this heavy-handedness produced in some people, the 7th day after Montazeri’s death—an important day (along with the 40th) in Shia Islam—fell on Ashura.

I won’t go into huge details about Ashura and Tasua, but the main point is that Ashura marks the height of the 10-day period of mourning during the month of Moharram when the 3rd Shia Imam, Hussein, was killed in a battle where he and his forces was severely overmatched against the illegitimate Yazid. He and his followers were brutally executed and martyred, and on Ashura every year (Tasua is the day before this) there are passion plays, parades, and other gatherings where people mourn the death of Hussein, a martyr who died at the hands of an illegitimate ruler. Obviously these parallels to present day Iran were not lost on the opposition.

What happened? On Ashura tens of thousands of protestors came out into the streets and once again turned a public holiday (this time a religious one) into their own. There were protests all throughout Iran, including Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan, Najafbad (Montazeri’s hometown), Arak, and Mashhad, among others I’m sure we’ll learn about over time. It was the largest showing for the opposition since the regime began its brutal crackdown a week after the election, and clearly showed that the opposition was down but not out. Again the regime deployed paramilitaries and thugs that used brutal force on the protestors—killing at least 8 according to the Iranian National Security Council (the real count is likely higher)—and arresting over 300 (according to the Tehran police). A nephew of Musavi’s was killed, and there were some more high-profile arrests, including Ebrahim Yazdi (who was arrested after the election and then released), the son of former reformist minister and presidential candidate (from 2005) Mostafa Moin, the head of a reformist clerical group, and two top Musavi aides.

Two important takeaways from what happened on Ashura. The first is that some members of the security forces refused to obey orders to shoot upon crowds in Tehran. There is one picture that is going around of a policeman wearing a green headband given to him by demonstrators who basically defected and joined the crowds. There’s no way to psychoanalyze people like this who refuse to attack the protestors, but my personal opinion is that aside from the sheer brutality of this, firing upon people—in the Islamic Republic—on the most important religious day of the year was too much. Of course not every policeman and security force refused to carry out these orders, and the number of dead on the day of Ashura is larger than any other day since the June election. But it is telling that there are defections like these.

Second, and most importantly, is that the protests were far more radical than before.
It is not just the chants and signs that were more radical, but the actions of the protestors themselves. They scuffled and fought back against basijis in a way they had not done before. Police vans and motorcycles were taken over and set on fire, members of the basij were bloodied and beaten by protestors themselves as they fought back and took their batons and shields from them, and a police depot was even taken over by demonstrators. The protestors pushed back against security forces in a way that had no done before, and amazingly, in numerous cases they won.

What now? Predicting what will happen in Iran is dangerously uncertain, but from what has gone on in the past week I think Iran has reached another turning point. On the opposition side, it showed it was still alive and would not bow down to repression. After smaller showings at previous holidays-turned-demonstrations—which I think was partly due to the opposition needing to regroup after massive arrests—the opposition came out in full force. It is increasingly becoming more radical and opting for tactics of civil disobedience. As has been the case before and is becoming increasingly clear (which if you’ve read my recent article you know!) is that this is going on without the major leaders. Musavi and Karrubi were nowhere to be seen. Khatami gave a speech on Tasua that was interrupted by basijis and was later seen driving through Tehran on Ashura, but aside from that no presence on the streets. The protests are grassroots-driven and as such, will be all the more difficult to stomp out.

On the regime side, its reaction to Montazeri’s death and tactics on Ashura and Tasua really show, in case there was any doubt, that they hold few things (if any) sacred in the Islamic Republic. They have ramped up their own repressive tactics—firing into crowds, beating protestors, dragging them out of hospitals, etc—and have no intention of backing down or compromising in the least. Even if it means making a few martyrs on the day of Imam Hussein’s own martyrdom, the regime thinks this is better than showing weakness and caving in to the opposition in any way.

One commentator I read said that this could be the beginning of the ‘Iranian intifada’. I hope this does not turn out to be the case, but from the events of the last two days it looks like both sides are becoming more radical, digging in their heels and gearing up for the long haul.

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