Overview: Reading 22 Bahman

10 02 2010



[ analysis ] Feb. 11, 2010, may stand as a decisive day for the regime. Its leaders hope to prove to domestic and international audiences that they are in full control and that the protest movement which arose following last June’s election is a spent force. In order to do that, they must make sure that unlike Ashura, as well as other occasions, the protesters cannot congregate in large numbers and upstage the regime’s well-choreographed processions. In light of such a production, all the protest movement must achieve to avoid appearing vanquished is to show even a modest display of vigor and vitality.


Ashura (December 27) proved to be a pivotal day all around. First, it forced other governments (beginning with the Obama Administration) to re-evaluate their views of the Green Movement as a democratic but ineffectual force. Second, it allowed the hardliners in Iran to claim that the Green Wave movement presented a mortal threat to the entire regime. Prior to that, some moderate conservatives and some important traditionalist high clerics in Qom were leaning toward accepting the need for some version of a grand compromise–especially evident after the huge funeral march for the late Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri right in the heart of the holy city.

However, the anti-regime militancy of the protesters on Ashura changed those sentiments, at least temporarily. The centrist forces were either terrified or forced into adopting strong positions against the protesters. Taking advantage of a sudden opportunity, the hard-line forces who had now been badly divided or demoralized hastily mounted a large counter-demonstration on December 30, in which calls were made for the immediate arrest of the opposition leaders and the execution of those earlier detained. What made this development particularly ominous was the fact that information seeping out pointed to the creation of death squads by forces specifically tasked with the elimination of opposition leaders and activists. This would have taken the form of “independent” and “spontaneous” lynch mobs which would have carried out their ignominious task claiming to represent ordinary Muslims outraged by the despoiling of Islamic values.

On January 9, Ayatollah Khamenei famously made a stand against this development, probably under pressure from Qom’s grand ayatollahs. “Any roguish activity helps the enemy,” he told a visiting crowd from the holy city. “The involvement of those without legal status or responsibility only compounds the problem.” This meant that the stalemate continued unabated.

What is at stake

The main objective of the regime is to announce that (in continuation of the Dec 30 gathering) on Feb 11 the people of Iran by referendum have cast their verdict against the protest movement and in favor of the current regime. Once this occurs, authorities would move to arrest Mousavi (assuming that he hasn’t caved in by that time on his own accord) and forcefully clamp down on the whole Green Movement.

For this all to be successful, they must (a) contain the protesters on the 11th, (b) fill the surrounding streets with their own people, and (c) make things appear as calm and orderly to the state media and ideally to the international media (they have allowed some networks and journalists entry to Iran for Thursday).

What is planned

These are the specifics of what is planned:

A) a complex logistical scheme is to be implemented whereby the two sides of the Azadi Square from North and East (where the protesters always emerge) will be blocked for several kilometers in each direction. Those on these two sides will be diverted away from the eyes of the international press confined to designated areas within the square. At the same time, supporters will be marshaled en masse from the West and South ends of the square.

B) Two days prior to the ceremonies, the famous inner ring of Azadi Square has been sealed off by special partitions. On the early hours of Thursday morning, the plan is to fill the space with die-hard supporters while checking the bags and pockets of the others wanting to gain entry to the protected zone to make sure they don’t carry any Green paraphernalia.

C) Dozens of Basij contingents from the provinces have started arriving in Tehran with each group assigned to one part of the northeast quadrant of the city, using Azadi Square as the reference point.

Aside from this, for the last 9 or 10 days a deliberate campaign has been under way to intimidate and warn off potential protesters by: a) the first executions of political prisoners carried out in a long time. Nine others have also been given the death sentence. b) the police chief has on several occasions gone on record claiming that everyone’s emails, telephone calls and text messages may be pried open, adding that those engaged in anti-regime activities will be immediately arrested. Other top law-enforcement officers have claimed that many people have been arrested based on photos taken from them during Ashura protests. Just to prove their point, a wave of arrests has begun in the past two weeks. c) those taking part in protests are now referred to regularly as Mohareb, meaning they are engaged in war on God, an act punishable by death. d) the regime now asserts that it will respond very harshly to those protesting. It is hard to accurately gauge the exact impact of these threats and the actual use of violence on the protesters.


What the protesters may not realize is that most of the gestures are mere bluffs. Why? First, Feb 11 is clearly a day where the government cannot apply severe force on a large scale because the revolution was supposed to have been in reaction to the violence and injustice of an oppressive regime in the first place. It would look monstrous, even among some supporters of the regime, if innocent unarmed civilians were subjected to indiscriminate beatings and attacks just like the film footage of the revolutionary days aired incessantly in the last few days. Next Thursday, up to 250,000 ordinary supporters may come out to the rally along with all their families, including small children and the elderly. This would make it extremely hard to throw tear gas and administer beatings when the line between protester and supporter blurs.

It is important to know that the security forces have not used the same standard riot-control tactics for every protest action in the last few months. In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the issue of quelling unrest. For the security establishment, each day of the protests has its own special dynamic.

For example, June 20 — after Khamenei’s first ultimatum–the protesters stood as fair game. This was no official holiday or national day of ceremonies and the Leader had made his threat public. This day took the largest number of casualties of any other day in the last 8 months–it’s the day Neda was murdered. On July 17, the day Ayatollah Rafsanjani was the Friday prayer leader, the protesters had virtually full protection against the regime’s predations until about one hour after the conclusion of the prayer-speech. On September 18, the so-called Qods Day (day of solidarity with the Palestinians) there were not overly aggressive tactics on a large-scale used against the protesters since this day was supposed to be all about the beatings and physical attacks meted out on unarmed Palestinians. A repeat of such tactics in broad daylight on the streets of Tehran would have terminated the utility of the Qods Day once and for all. (Of course, by mid-afternoon, after the dispersal of the pro-regime crowd, it was an altogether different story.)

On December 7, the national day of students, since traditionally the regime had tolerated some protest activity on the country’s university campuses, the students were able to protest and rally relatively unmolested but those demonstrating outside the campus compounds were mercilessly beaten and arrested, etc.

Along these lines, one should not expect severe and massive attacks on protesters on Thursday, at least not until the regime loyalists have left the premises. That would be roughly by 2 pm or thereabouts.

Therefore, if the foregoing is an accurate picture of the situation, we should not see bloody reprisals as has been repeatedly announced by various officials and senior security officials in recent days.

Aside from this, those arrested in the last few days have all been under surveillance for quite some time. They were arrested only now as a terror tactic. This had nothing to do with the alleged ability to listen in to all the phone conversations and read all the emails.

Third, the two executed had been arrested before the June 12 election. Unfortunately, they had been involved with a group connected to the bombing of a mosque in the city of Shiraz last April. In fact, their trial and sentencing were postponed for many months in order to implicate the entire protest movement with that act.

The important fact is that the regime has no consensus for executing any of the protesters on death row for the crime of “mohareb” before February 11. Had it reached that kind of consensus, it would have almost certainly carried out the ghastly sentences.

However, the cumulative effect still may be to frighten the parents of the young protesters to stop their children from going out on the 11th.

Aware of these maneuverings and clearly intending to offset the impact of the regime’s terror tactics, Mousavi issued his sharpest criticism of the regime yet. This came in a 20-plus-point question-answer format. Among the points he raised were: “Dictatorship in the name of religion is the worst kind of dictatorship.”

At this moment it is impossible to know what may happen on Thursday. All eyes will be on the turnout and the resiliency of the green-clad protesters. Will they defy the threats and fulminations of a desperate and mendacious regime, or will they remain in the safety of their homes while the regime’s henchmen are preparing for mass reprisals?

Hamid Farokhnia, who is using a pen name, is a staff writer at the Iran Labor Report.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau




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