After the Anniversaries

The two anniversaries I wrote about earlier came and went, both with fairly low media coverage (bans on foreign journalists will do that), so here’s an overview of what happened and what it means:

June 4: Anniversary of Khomeini’s Death
This past commemoration of the death of Islamic Republic’s founder was very closely-controlled and more privately attended than in previous years. Normally this would be a massive event, with crowds outside his mausoleum and politicians from all stripes in attendance, but not so this year. They did not allow for the usual overflow crowds, made very, very sure no one attending would try to pull the ‘ol Trojan Horse trick, and kept parallel events to a minimum. This isn’t to say the orators were speaking to an empty hall. Quite the opposite. The auditorium was at capacity, but quite a few attendees were miffed that the prime front-row seats went to basij members who were bused in bright and early to beat the crowds (yes, pun intended). Neither Karrubi nor Musavi were there–they were basically told it would not be safe to attend–despite the fact that they would normally be there front and center, and are currently arguing that it is they and not Ahmadinejad who are the rightful heirs of Khomeini.

The day was fairly uneventful–no massive, government-orchestrated rallies of support for the regime, and speeches full of the boilerplate government-line–but there was one incident whose effects are still being felt more than a week later. Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of Khomeini and keeper of his estate, was shouted down by basij members during his speech. For those keeping score, Hassan has more or less directly aligned himself with the green movement, and has been subject to verbal attacks from hardline elements of the establishment. For example, his speech was drowned out by chants of things such as ‘The real grandson of Khomeini is Nasrallah’ (in reference to the spiritual leader of Hezbullah), and articles about the incident in hardline papers afterwards referred to him as ‘Hassan Mostafavi’ (using a secondary last name) rather than ‘(seyyed) Hassan Khomeini’. Even better: the story was put out that after the event there was a scuffle between an infuriated Hassan and some of the event’s organizers, which ended in the Imam’s grandson slapping the Interior Minister in the face and punching him in the nose several times, which ended with the minister spending the night in the hospital. Who says religious establishment politics are boring?

Judging by the fact that the thousands of basij bused in from across Iran arrived the night before the event, and the highly-orchestrated nature of their attacks, it seems likely that the heckling of Hassan Khomeini was pre-planned. Before anyone rushes to judgement, it’s likely this came from not from the Supreme Leader but from the higher ranks of the basij or one of the hardliner’s clerical backers like Mesbah Yazdi. Indeed, a photo surfaced of Khamenei after the event angrily chewing out one of the event organizers. (Interesting related note: normally this event is run wholly by Hassam Khomeini, who is, after all, the keeper of the mausoleum. This year, though, coordinating duties were split between him and the more reliably pro-government Mohammad Ali Ansari. To say there were tensions emanating from the two’s scopes of work would be putting it mildly…)

In the end, reformist and moderate politicians and clerics came to Hassan Khomeini’s defense to decry the treatment of the founder’s grandson. I wouldn’t go as far to say that this incident pushed some fence-leaning people towards the reformist cause, but it is further evidence that the hardliners/principalists/neo-conservatives–whatever label you attach to the group–that rose to power with Ahmadinejad are an unruly bunch that, to use the cliche, play by their own rules (or at least nominally by Khamenei’s).
June 12, Anniversary of the Rigged Election
Almost one week after the commemoration of Khomeini’s death was the one year anniversary of last year’s rigged presidential election, and correspondingly, the one year anniversary of the birth of the green movement (although some people put the date at June 15, the date of the largest post-election protest). Although in my previous post I tried to downplay the importance of protests, the big question was whether there would be street demonstrations. Musavi and Karrubi–along with several other reformist groups–put in a official request to hold a rally. I’m still unclear on whether the request was officially denied or was just dismissed on technicalities. The latter would allow the regime to save face, since they never officially said no to the permit request, the requesters just filled out the paperwork wrong. Regardless, in the end, two days before the anniversary, Musavi and Karrubi called off the protest.

So why the about-face by Musavi and Karrubi? The reason that made its way around opposition websites, blog posts, and of course tweets, is that they discovered the regime had plans to inflict widespread violence, riot and loot the city, and then blame it on the opposition. Basically think the Ashura protests but worse. Musavi and Karrubi didn’t want to expose their supporters to that level of brutality, and didn’t want to risk the potential blowback from government-sponsored, opposition-blamed rioting, and called off the rally.

I realize this may be disappointing for people who were hoping for another million-strong showing of green-clad protesters, but I’m sympathetic to the decision to cancel the protests. I believe the movement has and should move beyond  public demonstrations as their main activity, and I certainly can’t blame the two for wanting to avoid any more fatalities. Maybe they should be more brave and be willing to put their (and others’) lives on the line; maybe they are unwilling to truly stand up to the regime; or maybe they simply realize after a year of arrests, beatings and deaths, even if they wanted to engage in a game of chicken with the security forces, they don’t have the numbers to do so effectively.

Regardless, June 12 did not pass without incident. Nightime cries of ‘allah-u akbar’ were heard from rooftops again leading up to and after the anniversary. On the day itself the streets were on lock-down, with an extremely heavy security presence that broke up any semblance of groups gathering. From several of the videos I saw some parts of Tehran were eerily quiet, with virtually no passers-by and only security personnel out. Although plans for a major rally were rescinded, small protests did break out both throughout Tehran and in the rest of the country, particularly in universities (most notably Sharif). The government of course played down the day. There was no mention of anything related whatsoever to last year’s election in any government outlet, and the commander of Tehran’s security forces calmly stated that only 91 people were arrested on a day when “nothing particular happened in the capital.” One opposition group claimed that the number arrested in Tehran was 900, and there was another report from an opposition site that protesters had temporarily taken over one of the state media buildings and disrupted its broadcast.

To be honest, after reading numerous articles, reports, and insider accounts I can’t say for certain how many people ended up on the streets. Some sources talk about gatherings with ‘hundreds’ while others mention ‘thousands.’ There were only about a dozen videos I saw of gatherings that made it out of Iran, and with the virtual ban on all foreign media (with very few exceptions) makes it near impossible to tell. That anyone was willing to come out, especially on a day that is not a public or religious holiday, so any demonstrators will be sitting ducks, I’d say is a victory in itself. Not to sound like a broken record, but the green movement’s successes and failures cannot and should not be measured by the number and size of protests.

Personally, I believe the events since June 12th have been equally if not more important than that day itself. Protest broke out at Tehran University on June 14th, the day when student’s dormitories violently were raided (and video of the raid eventually found its way to BBC Persian). Yet the big news was out of Qom, the religious capitol of Iran. On Sunday the 14th Karrubi went to Qom to visit the homes Hassan Khomeini and Ayatollah Sane’i. Sane’i has been perhaps the most vocal critic of the government from amongst the clergy, and has stepped in as the lead opposition Ayatollah since the passing of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri. When Karrubi went to visit Ayatollah Sane’i a large crowd assembled outside the house and began chanting slogans against them, using words such as ‘dirty’ and (morally) ‘corrupt.’ The masses went on to trash Ayatollah Sane’i’s house, smash up Karrubi’s car, and then attack the residence of late Grand Ayatollah Montazeri where Karrubi was having his next meeting (photos of the damage here). When he emerged from the house the crowd was still there, and was only able to escape to safety with the help of–wait for it, the Revolutionary Guards.

That the IRGC helped Karrubi escape is not as unlikely as it may seem. For one, the government does not want to create a martyr, particularly on a day so close to the anniversary of the founding of the green movement. The hardliners may loathe the ‘little sheikh’, the moniker used to belittle him, but they’re not stupid enough to gift the opposition another rallying point. Second, there is some misunderstanding of the IRGC in some analyses of Iran. True, no one has benefitted more from Ahmadinejad coming to power as the IRGC. They are growing rich off of no-bid contracts, are expanding their reach over more and more parts of the state, and are one of the driving forces behind the acceleration of the nuclear program. But the rank-and-file of the IRGC is more reflective of Iranian society as a whole than one would think (one oft-cited study said that 70% of the IRGC voted for Khatami in 1997, but the methodology of this is not very clear). The people chanting against Karrubi and trashing the homes of Ayatollah’s are more likely basij members than IRGC. The basij tend to be more ideological, more hardline than the other quasi-government groups, and Ahmadinejad himself emerged from their ranks. I’d venture to say Ahmadinejad enjoys widespread support amongst the IRGC rank-and-file, but they are more trained, less fanatic than their basij.

What next?
With one year now passed since the birth of the green movement, and the movement’s leaders calling off rallies, what comes next? Musavi and Karrubi have said they will release a statement on the 16th outlining the future of the green movement, but if previous statements and declarations are any indication, I wouldn’t expect this to answer all the questions and solve all the problems the green movement now faces. The answer to where the green movement goes deserves it’s own, very, very lengthy post, but let me provide one brief thought: the green movement must learn from the women’s movement.

When the recent stage of the women’s movement in Iran began, they focused mainly on street protests, rallies, and public demonstrations. They were very successful in doing these things, but eventually the government struck back. Its leaders were arrested, barred from engaging in politics, and protests were attacked or disallowed. After some soul-searching the women’s movement decided to turn its focus away from protests and work instead on a single, identifiable goal: the repeal of gender disciminatory laws from the Iranian constitution and penal code. The Million Signature Movement was launched as a vehicle to do this, to expand their base of support to outside of Tehran and even to include males, and work towards that specific end. To date the women’s movement has not succeeded in overturning these laws, but it has succeeded in recruiting news members and staying active despite the government’s efforts to stop it.

This is exactly that the green movement needs to do. It needs to set clear, identifiable goals, and work towards them. Immediately after the election it had one: investigation and/or overturn of the election results. Now it’s stuck in a morass claiming to be the true heirs of the Islamic Republic, wanting to reform the state from within but with no discernible changes to the letter of the law itself, and a de-centralized nodes of support impatient with the top brass. This latter point is doubly important, since the structure of the women’s movement is the forerunner to that of the green movement. They were able to work through problems of organization, generational differences amongst members, and a period of uncertainty following one of rapid progress. Now they have one of the strongest women’s movements in the entire Islamic world. If the green movement is wise, they will learn from the women’s movement and perhaps in due time can even boast of the Middle East’s strongest democratic movement.

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One Response to “After the Anniversaries”

  1. Persian2English Says:

    Hello, may you please contact Persian2English.com please? editor@persian2english.com

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