Iran update (2/17/2010)

Last Thursday, Feb 11th (or in the Iranian calendar, the 22nd of Bahman), was a really important day in the ongoing political turmoil in Iran, so I wanted to offer my not-so-brief updates/analysis of this day.

What Happened?

To begin with, a little about 22nd of Bahman. Since the Iranian calendar is full of almost monthly political and religious holidays, it may sound a bit like a broken record to call each holiday a watershed moment for the future of Iran. (Given that the Islamic Republic is undergoing its most serious domestic crisis ever some hyperbole, though, should be excused.) Regardless, the 22nd of Bahman is the most important political holiday in Iran, and there was more hype and build-up to this than any of the other previous days since the June election. The reason for this is that the 22nd of Bahman is Iran’s July 4th: a celebration of the victory of the Islamic Revolution, and as such, the establishment of the Iranian state as we know it today. Previous political holidays like Qods day, Student’s Day, Palestine Day, etc, are all smaller-scale holidays used to drum up regime support, but each celebrate specific events that that led up to the eventual victory Islamic Revolution. The 22nd of Bahman then is the day when the largest pro-regime rallies take place and Iranians show (or at least supposed to show) their support for the Islamic Republic. You can see then how much was at stake for both sides on this day.

Leading up to the 22nd of Bahman the regime took pains to ensure that there was no repeat of Ashura and gatherings of green-clad opposition members to distract from the day’s government-sanctioned marches and speeches. As I noted in my previous update, the opposition was told in no uncertain terms that protestors would be dealt with swiftly and brutally, as evidence by the execution of two charged with mohareb crimes stemming from post-election demonstrations, and 9 more being charged shortly thereafter also with mohareb crimes (thankfully at present none of these 9 have been sentenced to capital punishment). More and more student activists, journalists, and both friends and family of prominent opposition members were detained or arrested. Iran now has the dubious honor of being home to the most imprisoned journalists in the world.

In addition to intimidation tactics the regime also took strategic measures to handicap the opposition’s activities both leading up to and on 22nd of Bahman. Internet speed was reduced to painfully slow levels, even by Iranian standards, and email was virtually inaccessible on some days. The official reason for the slow internet speed, and I am not making this up, is that a ship in the Persian Gulf dropped anchor directly on a fiber-optic cable that provides Iran with its internet, which disrupted internet throughout Iran. (I read some sarcastic remarks about how some in the Iranian establishment boast that a Western or Israeli attack upon would be futile but but are somehow unable to protect the country from a lone ship’s wayward anchor). Gmail was reportedly blocked on the 22nd of Bahman, and text messaging was also inoperable for several hours (corresponding roughly to when Ahmadinejad was giving the keynote speech in Azadi square) on this day.

On top of cyber-battling the opposition, loudspeakers were installed along major roads where demonstrations were planned that blared pro-regime and religious chants to drown out potential pro-opposition ones. There were even some pictures of new concrete trash bins being installed along critical road arteries. On previous holidays non-concrete trash bins were set on fire and used as blockades by the opposition. In short, the regime did its homework and tried to remove any potential for embarrassing showings of opposition sentiment on Iran’s Independence Day.

The events on the day itself showed just how much effort and resources the regime put into carefully controlling the events of 22nd Bahman. People were bused in from the provinces outside of Tehran and begin arriving the night before the 22nd. Security forces and small blockades were set up far in advance to control entrance to Azadi square and to make sure opposition protests didn’t make their way into the main area.

On the day itself, according to some accounts I’ve read, there was not just a higher security presence than previous days, but also a higher amount of undercover agents interspersed throughout the crowd. People who showed any semblance of green or didn’t join in \ro-government chants or slogans were pounced on by plainclothes or undercover agents and questioned, beaten, and in some cases whisked away to detention. Police and basiji shot paintballs at opposition supporters on the streets in order to identify and arrest them later. In short, there was a much more organized government response to the protests than previous holidays. Possibly because of this there was less violence than previous days, particularly Ashura, but protesters were still beaten indiscriminately and hundreds of people were arrested in Tehran alone.

Leading up to 22nd Bahman, the main opposition leaders—Mousavi, Karrubi and Khatami—directly called on people to come out (not explicitly saying to protest, though it was not to subtly implied) and said they would join the people in the streets. This was the first time all three have actually attempted to come onto the streets to join protestors since immediately after the election, and even then it was rare (if indeed this has ever actually occurred) that all three would be out at the same time. Unfortunately all three were prevented from realizing their plans.

Karrubi was attacked in his car on his way to Sadeghieh Square (where he was to gather with oppositionists) and had to turn back. His bodyguards were attacked and briefly detained, and his son was arrested. It has now emerged that Karrubi’s son was badly beaten and threatened with rape during his detention (part of which took place inside a mosque). Pictures showing his bruises were posted online and his mother wrote a letter to the Supreme Leader about her son’s treatment, but not so surprisingly officials have denied he was ever arrested on 22nd Bahman. Mousavi tried but was prevented from joining the protests on Azadi street and his wife, Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, was attacked at Sadeghieh Square and forced to leave. Khatami was also forced to turn back and his brother, the former chair of the reformist Participation Front, was arrested along with his wife, who herself is a granddaughter of Khomeini. Rafsanjani, not exactly a reformist but a potential ally, was out in public marches on 22nd Bahman but took part in government-sponsored ones.

What does this mean? And who won?

I put off writing this update for a few days for two reasons: 1) news had been really slow to get out of Iran and I wanted to wait for things to gradually trickle out, and 2) the initial responses I read all seemed to say, in varying degrees, that 2nd Bahman was a failure for the opposition and I wanted to have some more time to assess things in the proper context. With that said, I don’t think the regime “won” or the opposition “lost” on 22nd Bahman. It was a disappointment for opposition due to very high expectations, but the events of this day do provide some important lessons that in the long-term can help the opposition.

To begin with, the government of course claimed 22nd Bahman to be a victory for the regime. The regime mobilized hundreds of thousands of people for pro-government marches and rallies, and filled a large portion of Azadi square for the main rally and Ahmadinejad’s speech. They also succeeded in preventing any large-scale opposition gatherings from breaking out in Azadi square or other areas to detract from their show of ‘public support.’ Both of these are correct, but I don’t believe are cause for celebration of a regime ‘victory.’

First, masses of people did come to the pro-regime rallies, but many of these people were bused in from outside Iran. If they were employed by the state (as huge numbers of people are in rentier state such as Iran), they were not given much of a choice as to whether or not they would attend. There’s no question the regime does in fact have sizeable public support, but measuring support for government versus opposition support by the number of people in the streets is problematic when one side is given free transportation to their events while the other is brutally beaten for attending theirs. Some insider accounts I read also claimed that there was less enthusiasm at these rallies than in previous years. Some people who attended government-sanctioned ones were only half listening to Ahmadinejad’s speech or the slogans emanating from the loudspeakers and instead were using the day off to mingle with friends and catch up on gossip.

Second, the regime was able to succeed in preventing gatherings of opposition supporters waving green ribbons or chanting pro-reform slogans, but at what price? Police and paramilitaries had to be bused in from outside Tehran and lock down the city in de facto martial law to keep protests down. They simply do not have the resources to maintain this type of pressure for every potential opposition rally. Related to this, the type of brutality that is used on people is not lost on ordinary Iranians. A regime that is supposed to be based on popular and religious legitimacy should not need to keep its sons and daughters in line through force. Attacking leaders like Karrubi, Musavi, and Khatami (as well as their families) only further undermines their claims to the moral high ground, not to mention giving these leaders more street credibility among the rank-and-file oppositionists.

On the opposition side, 22nd Bahman was to some degree a loss and showed some tactical failures on the part of the opposition. First and foremost, there were very high expectations for what would actually occur on this day. The relative success (though not without its physical toll) of Ashura led many people, myself included, to think that 22nd Bahman would be a repeat of Ashura, but on a much larger scale. That prediction turned out wrong, for reasons like the intricately planned security presence and tactical errors I’ll go into below. There has been a fair share of criticism thrown at the exile community after 22nd Bahman for hyping up this day as the potential downfall of the Islamic Republic and trying to direct protests from the outside. I share some sympathy for this criticism but think there are some charges leveled that them that are unjustified for reasons I’ll go into at another point in time. But regardless of who started the echo chamber and built up this day, many commentators, press outlets and Iran watchers—both outside and inside Iran—expected much more from the opposition on 22nd Bahman. Still, saying the opposition failed to get the rumored 1 or 2 million people into the streets, and not taking into account how tight security was in Tehran or how much intimidation and arrests had led up to 22nd Bahman is looking at the events on that day too simplistically.

Aside from the security lockdown, there are several reasons for why 22nd Bahman saw only limited protests. First and foremost was a tactical error on the part of the opposition. Anticipating tight security on this day a strategy called “Trojan Horse” circulated through opposition blogs and sites. The idea was that would-be protestors would dress like a conservative supporter of the regime, hide their green articles of clothing and opposition signs, and after sneaking into Azadi square unveil them when the time was right. (The ultimate purpose, according to some Trojan Horse strategists, was to get in front of some of the foreign news cameras during Ahmadinejad’s speech and unveil their green symbols and protest signs.)

This strategy failed on multiple fronts. For one, text messaging was suspended for several hours, including a large chunk of time when Ahmadinejad was giving his speech. Even if enough people made it into Azadi Square they had no way of communicating with one another about when the zero hour was. People were also searched for any hint of green clothing or ribbons stashed in their pockets, were picked out of street marches for not joining in pro-regime chants, and some just couldn’t pull off the disguise well enough. Most importantly, though, is that people were simply couldn’t tell if they were surrounded by allies or not, and couldn’t rely on strength in numbers to protect them from batons and tear gas. With security forces lining the streets and vigilantly watching every passer-by, thinking you are alone in a sea of political opponents is not conducive to expressions of opposition.

Another reason that has gotten some but not enough attention is the Ashura protests. Not only did some people stay home on 22nd Bahman out of fear of similar or worse treatment of protestors, but I also think there has been some political fall-out from this as well. On Ashura the protests did take a radical turn, not just in tactics but also in direction, and some people may have been alienated by this. Some of the slogans and actions, specifically ones directed at Khamenei, give rise to the belief—with a huge helping hand from the state propaganda machine—that the opposition wants an overthrow of the Islamic Republic. I say this not to pass any judgment on whether the opposition should or will move to that position, but the more the opposition becomes identified with this the more people who want to reform the system from within are alienated. Leaders like Karrubi, Mousavi, and Khatami have gone to pains to emphasize that they are trying to reform not rebuild the system and help the Islamic Revolution realize its initial goals.

Lastly, and related to this, is the question of leadership within the green movement. The opposition has been able to survive and withstand the mass arrests and detentions due to its horizontal structure. Even the perceived leaders of the opposition like Musavi have on more than one occasion acknowledged that they are followers rather than drivers of this movement. Yet this decentralized, leader-less structure is both the opposition’s greatest strength and weakness. There was somewhat of a unified plan to try to Trojan Horse strategy, and areas for protesters to gather were announced ahead of time, but in the aftermath of 22nd Bahman more and more people who were on the streets are lamenting the lack of centralized leadership. When the Trojan Horse strategy failed and Karrubi, Khatami, and Mousavi were turned back from joining the protests, people simply didn’t know what to do. Granted if a better strategy was tried the lack of organization may have been less of a problem, but the fact remains that a political movement is inevitably going to experience these types of shortcomings. I think it would clearly be a mistake to completely abandon its current structure and move to a strict hierarchical organization, but the opposition needs to (and thankfully already is) re-thinking how it is going to function in the future.

On a related and self-promoting note, I talked about exactly this problem in my two most recent articles. In the last one I said that the leadership void was a problem, but not a fatal one, that the opposition will ultimately need to address. While lack of leadership is still an issue, as evidence by 22nd Bahman, I still believe that first and foremost the question of direction should be decided before that of leadership. You can’t have leaders unless they know where they are going. The movement has defied the odds and eight months after the rigged presidential election is still alive and strong enough to warrant a security clampdown on 22nd Bahman that borders martial law. But at the same time, eight months after its inception simply defying the odds and continuing to exist may no longer be enough if it wants its demands to be realized. The first task then is to articulate exactly what these demands are.

Leftovers

Both leading up to and after 22nd Bahman there were some interesting updates regarding regime insiders and conservative challenges within the establishment. First, Alireza Beheshti, a top reformist advisor and son of one of the revolution’s founding clerical leaders, was unexpectedly released the day before 22nd Bahman. One can only guess the exact reasons behind his release, but one is that Rafsanjani personally intervened with the Supreme Leader. Word went out that Beheshti wife was to be arrested, and she fled her home and was able to get in touch with Rafsanjani to tell him of this. Rafsanjani, normally a man who treads lightly and cautiously, was upset enough by this to take his case directly to the Supreme Leader. Apparently they had a very tense meeting where they discussed this, and 2 days after this Beheshti was released. On top of this, a high-ranking Ayatollah (Mousavi-Ardebili), traveled to Tehran and met with Khamenei for the first time in 17 years. News of their meeting leaked out and allegedly Mousavi-Ardebili expressed his displeasure at the way the Supreme Leader had handled affairs since the election, and brought up Beheshti’s case as an example. Beheshti was released once before only to be hauled back into detention again, but hopefully with this high-profile lobbying he’ll remain out of prison.

Second, there have been more conservative criticisms of Ahmadinejad in both parliament and media, one of which comes from the prominent conservative MP Ali Motahari. Motahari called on Mousavi and Karrubi to cease their opposition, not because they were wrong or illegal, but because it was distracting for the conservative faction that is trying to take on Ahmadinejad. This appeared in a newspaper aligned with another conservative rival of Ahmadinejad, Ali Larijani, who, if you remember from the last update, was reportedly in a meeting with Qalibaf and Rezaii to plot conservative strategy for dealing with the president. This type of criticism, especially with the government’s new budget pending (and overdue), will only increase in the next few months.

Finally, I should mention the nuclear issue. I fully recognize that security trumps human rights and democracy in the minds of most people, and to be honest if I wasn’t so interested in the internal wranglings of Iranian politics that would probably be the one issue I’d care most about too. Still, I put this issue last because in comparison to everything that happened on 22nd Bahman it was the least important. And I know it’s become almost cliché to blame the media, but I was severely disappointed that after 22nd Bahman most of the talk revolved around Ahmadinejad and the nuclear issue.

If there’s one thing you take from this long and disheveled analysis it should be this: Iran is no closer to producing a nuclear bomb today than it was 2 weeks ago. Just because Ahmadinejad makes a public appearance on a stage flanked by missiles and claims that Iran is now a nuclear state does not make it true. He does not set nuclear policy, does not control nuclear policy, and does not drive nuclear policy. Most of all, there is no cause-effect relationship between his proclamations and actual nuclear capability. Saying that Iran will not enrich to 20% levels and open a dozen nuclear facilities does not change the fact that scientists can barely keep half the centrifuges in one facility spinning. And if you read his words carefully, he actually intimates that Iran would still be open to a deal involving the purchase of 20% uranium from abroad. Unfortunately this detail was lost in most reports.

If the above paragraph is a bit blunt it’s because buying into this is directly buying into the regime’s politics of distraction. Whenever the regime needs international attention to focus away from its domestic problems they can use Ahmadinejad to make statements like this and send people into a frenzy that Iran is one centrifuge away from nuking Israel. Even Iranian politicians, from both reformist and conservative camps, criticized Ahmadinejad for focusing on this instead of issues that are far more important to Iranians like jobs and the price of consumer goods. Why can’t people outside of Iran realize this too and not fall victim to the politics of distraction?

Again, I fully realize the importance of nuclear proliferation and don’t mean to trivialize it in the least. But the day after 22nd Bahman the only two Iran articles in the NYT were about Ahmadinejad and nukes. For their part they did keep up a live blog of the events of 22nd Bahman on their website, but with great reporterss with direct experience in Iran like Roger Cohen and Nazila Fathi, why not give them the lead articles and report on important development rather than empty proclamations?

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