A sermon by powerful cleric and opposition supporter Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani reignited Iran’s simmering protest movement Friday, heartening thousands of supporters who braved tear gas and club-wielding militiamen to march and chant slogans across Tehran.
In a highly anticipated speech, Rafsanjani slammed the hard-line camp supporting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, criticized the June 12 election results and promoted several key opposition demands. Analysts said his description of the unrest as an ongoing “crisis” was a signal to keep the pressure on Ahmadinejad and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
His speech, as well as the ensuing pitched clashes between security forces and supporters of opposition figure Mir-Hossein Mousavi, suggested that the political firestorm surrounding the marred vote would continue and that the movement it had inspired remained strong. [continued…]
When an authoritarian regime approaches its final crisis, but before its actual collapse, a mysterious rupture often takes place. All of a sudden, people know the game is up: they simply cease to be afraid. It isn’t just that the regime loses its legitimacy: its exercise of power is now perceived as a panic reaction, a gesture of impotence. Ryszard Kapuściński, in Shah of Shahs, his account of the Khomeini revolution, located the precise moment of this rupture: at a Tehran crossroad, a single demonstrator refused to budge when a policeman shouted at him to move, and the embarrassed policeman withdrew. Within a couple of hours, all Tehran had heard about the incident, and although the streetfighting carried on for weeks, everyone somehow knew it was all over. Is something similar happening now?
There are many versions of last month’s events in Tehran. Some see in the protests the culmination of the pro-Western ‘reform movement’, something along the lines of the colour-coded revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia. They support the protests as a secular reaction to the Khomeini revolution, as the first step towards a new liberal-democratic Iran freed from Muslim fundamentalism. They are countered by sceptics who think that Ahmadinejad actually won, that he is the voice of the majority, while Mousavi’s support comes from the middle classes and their gilded youth. Let’s face facts, they say: in Ahmadinejad, Iran has the president it deserves. Then there are those who dismiss Mousavi as a member of the clerical establishment whose differences from Ahmadinejad are merely cosmetic. He too wants to continue with the atomic energy programme, is against recognising Israel, and when he was prime minister in the repressive years of the war with Iraq enjoyed the full support of Khomeini.
Finally, and saddest of all, are the leftist supporters of Ahmadinejad. What is at stake for them is Iranian freedom from imperialism. Ahmadinejad won because he stood up for the country’s independence, exposed corruption among the elite and used Iran’s oil wealth to boost the incomes of the poor majority. This, we are told, is the true Ahmadinejad: the Holocaust-denying fanatic is a creation of the Western media. In this view, what’s been happening in Iran is a repetition of the 1953 overthrow of Mossadegh – a coup, financed by the West, against the legitimate premier. This not only ignores the facts (the high electoral turnout, up from the usual 55 to 85 per cent, can be explained only as a protest vote), it also assumes, patronisingly, that Ahmadinejad is good enough for the backward Iranians: they aren’t yet sufficiently mature to be ruled by a secular left. [continued…]
The open defiance by thousands of opposition supporters around Friday prayers at Tehran University on 17 July 2009 is but a surface indication of the heaving anger below. The gathering heard a call by the former president and influential figure Hashemi Rafsanjani for those arrested in the protests to be released. It is a significant intervention in a delicate phase, when factions within the regime as well as millions of disaffected Iranian citizens are positioning for the even more decisive confrontations ahead.
If past performance is anything to go, the exertion of state violence since the election is only the beginning. In a pattern familiar from earlier phases of the Islamic Republic – as also occurred during the Shah’s regime – opposition members will continue to be brutalised in prison and then forced to engage in televised “confessions”: acts of deliberately preposterous humiliation designed not to reveal the truth (about “foreign conspiracies” or whatever), but to terrorise and break the will of the regime’s opponents.
More ominous is what may follow this phase of detention, mistreatment, and humiliation. Many precedents, including the repression of the liberal and left opposition in 1979-81 in particular, suggest that once foreign correspondents have been expelled from Iran and international attention has moved on, the actual killing in prison of opposition members can proceed. In the past, such killings followed fake trials where executions were justified under the catchall charge of “waging war on God”, or in supposed attempts to escape. [continued…]