Anniversary Time in Iran

With apologies for falling behind on blog posts/updates, I wanted to share some thoughts and developments inside Iran that have occurred in the last week. Consider more a general update than the article-style things I’ve been writing recently.

The next two weekends hold two significant anniversaries in Iran. This coming weekend marks the anniversary of Khomeini’s death (June 4th), and the regime will use this day as an opportunity to showcase its popular support and legitimacy, similar to the December pro-government demonstrations. The IRGC and Basij have already been mobilized and are slowly trickling into Tehran, with food and other goodies being stockpiled for pro-government attendees. Importantly, the Supreme Leader will give the Friday sermon this week. This will be his first time back in the pulpit since last June, when he essentially gave his explicit support to Ahmadinejad and through down the gauntlet, telling the opposition if they were hurt or arrested in protests it was their fault.
So what should we expect to see this weekend? Given the resources being utilized to shore up regime support, I’d expect a crowd similar to the one in December (during the ‘spontaneous’ expression of government support). I haven’t seen anything about the opposition trying to hijack these are try to pull another ‘trojan horse’ strategy–probably wise given how poorly this tactic worked in February–but the government is still paranoid about this possibility. They’re encouraging people to leave their cell phones at home when they attend these rallies/speeches since phones pose a ‘security problem’.

As for Khamenei’s sermon, I wouldn’t expect anything other than the usual. Last June some people thought he might make some conciliatory gestures towards the opposition, which of course he did the opposite of, and there’s absolutely no reason to think anything would change a year afterwards. I anticipate him harping on the seige mentality so prominent in Iranian politics of ‘us versus the world’, citing the rejection of the Iran-Brazil-Turkey fuel swap as evidence of this, and somehow weaving the Israel flotilla raid into this narrative (or at least the larger Muslim world versus the west one). What I will be looking out for is what, if anything, he says about the opposition leaders (or possibly Rafsanjani). Hardliners have been persistent in pressing for their arrest, and while I believe Khamenei is shrewd enough to not take them up on this and risk re-energizing the opposition, he may well issue some harsh words for them to appease those that want the ‘sedition’ crushed.

Moving on to the following weekend, June 12th is, of course, the anniversary of last year’s presidential election. The big question is whether there will be street protests and rallies on the 12th, and if so, how large they will be. Musavi and Karrubi, along with 8 other opposition groups and political parties, have put in an official request for a permit to hold a rally on this day, but unsurprisingly, have yet to be granted a permit. The authorities of Tehran Province wouldn’t accept the application, claiming they can only give permits for rallies in closed spaces, and the Ministry of Interior has yet to respond. There was some internet chatter last week about statements Musavi and Karrubi made that seemed to imply that if a permit was not granted, they would not formally call for protests, but this strategy will likely be made clearer as the date approaches.

The government, for its part, is taking steps to discourage people from participating in the June 12th protests. Heavy sentences and stern warnings have been handed down to student activists, political activists that were out on bail have been summoned back to prison, google and gmail have reportedly been shut down for periods of time, several newspapers have been ordered closed and others warned, and the moral/fashion police have been out in droves, particularly within the university. And then of course there’s the whole business of executing Kurdish political activists and confirming death sentences for post-election moharabeh crimes. State TV is also running a series of ‘profiles’ of political activists–some among the diaspora–trying to discredit and embarass them. These are coming on state TV after the nightly news, and feature high-production value ‘exposes’ that try to pain these activists as morally corrupt, anti-religious, and/or tied to exile groups like the MeK. Of course this type of propaganda is nothing new in the Islamic Republic, but one report on them claims that they’re being produced by the IRGC, who continues to expand its reach throughout all facets of the country.

With all that said, what should we expect on June 12th? This may disappoint people who are hoping for a repeat of last June’s massive rallies, but I don’t believe there will be a huge turnout. First off, with each iteration of street protests throughout the year, the number has slowly dwindled, and this trend is likely to continue. The government likes to portray this as evidence of a decline in support for the opposition, but this is more directly caused by the success of repressive and preventative efforts on the regime’s part. Second, and relatedly, unlike previous days (with the exception of the very first protests), June 12 will be the first day street protests will be planned that do not fall on a public or religious holiday. Official marches or demonstrations can’t be co-opted by the opposition, so basically anyone on the streets on this day will be a sitting duck. If it wants to–though it would belie its claims to be in control of the country–the government could declare martial law and institute curfews without having to cancel one of its own holidays. Lastly, and most importantly, the green movement’s strategy has simply shifted away from street protests. As the request for a permit by Mousavi, Karrubi, and others demonstrate the opposition is not completely beyond that, but after 22 Bahman (Feb 11) there has been a tactical decision to move beyond public rallies. (Interestingly, the same decision was made by the women’s movement several years before when they decided to re-focus their efforts on expanding their base of support, but that is a subject that deserves its own post.)

If a protest does happen and people flood the streets waving ribbons of green, chanting slogans and holding the V sign, fantastic. But if they do not, in no way should that be interpreted as a ‘failure’ or the ‘death’ of the green movement. And this is not setting the bar low or defining failure as success. It’s simply the reality of the situation for the opposition one year, scores of deaths, and hundreds of detentions, arrests, and beatings later. The opposition has passed the test of surviving despite all these obstacles. Now comes the harder part, of building itself into a lasting movement. And this simply can’t be measured in easily digestible news flashes or youtube clips. Though of course the challenge for the leaders and supporters is how then to measure success in this next stage.

So why even focus on June 12th if it’s not that important? Good question, but phrasing it in this way is missing the point. Just because a large turnout isn’t to be expected does not mean that June 12th is unimportant. If something big happens next Saturday–like an outpouring of opposition members in the streets, or the arrest of one of the ‘Big 3’ (Musavi, Karrubi and Khatami)–that would be momentous. But the back-and-forth, political maneuvering and statements back and forth in the lead-up to this day and almost as important as the day itself. That’s why a permit was put in to hold a demonstration, and why it has not been outright rejected yet except on a technicality like unfit outdoor venue. The constant jockeying for support and public positioning has the potential to attract supporters on both sides. It’s as much a public relations battle as it is an internal political one. And in a week and a half’s time we’ll see who’s gained the upper hand in this arena.

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One Response to “Anniversary Time in Iran”

  1. After the Anniversaries « HGU's Blog Says:

    […] HGU's Blog Thoughts on Iran « Anniversary Time in Iran […]

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