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Khirad On March - 3 - 2010

February 1, 1979. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fourteen year exile was finally coming to an end. From Neauphle-le-Château where he had spent only a few months after being kicked out of Najaf by Saddam Hussein (accounts differ on the Shah’s role in this) he had chartered an Air France 747 and was finally entering Iranian airspace. On board were a cadre of Western journalists, including Newsweek‘s Elaine Sciolino, who wrote of this exchange between ABC’s Peter Jennings and Ayatollah Khomeini in her book, Persian Mirrors:

“Ayatollah, would you be so kind as to tell us how you feel about being back in Iran?”

Hichi,” the ayatollah replied. “Nothing.”

Hichi?Ghotbzadeh asked him. Even he seemed incredulous at the response.

Hich ehsasi nadaram,” the ayatollah said for emphasis. “I don’t feel a thing.”

While stoicism is characteristic of a mojtahed of his rank, this laconic reply has nonetheless been the subject of  debate and speculation to this day. (Unbeknownst to me at the drafting of this writing, someone thought of the same opening for their short piece. So, I’ll briefly add that Elaine Sciolino says Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, Khomeini’s aide and translator, innocently flirted with her).

A month earlier, after losing several close confidants and seeing the tide of history mounting against his crumbling regime’s edifice, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi announced the decision to name long time opposition National Front politician, Shapour Bakhtiar as Prime Minister and invited him to form a new government. It was a desperate concession of an autocratic monarch in failing health to salvage his dynasty.

Prime Minister Bakhtiar promised to disband SAVAK, relax martial law, and did lift restrictions on the press and free political prisoners and further promised to hold free elections and determine the future of the monarchy. On the 16th of January, Bakhtiar convinced the Shah to go on holiday. The Shah would never see Iran again; and with him, 2,500 years of royalty was banished. Yet all this was for naught. Too little, too late. And all was made moot by his most fateful mistake: relenting in allowing Khomeini’s plane to land at Mehrabad Airport. After arriving, Khomeini went to Behesht-e Zahra cemetery (sort of like a mix of Père-Lachaise and Arlington) to honor martyrs whom had lost their lives in confrontations with the Shah’s security forces. In a speech before a large crowd there, he vowed to “smash in the mouth of the Bakhtiar government.”

Four days later, Ayatollah Khomeini declared technocrat, Mehdi Bazargan, as the “true” Prime Minister of a provisional government. Of Bakhtiar, Khomeini said in a radio address, “Why do you talk of the Shah, Mossadegh, money? These have already passed. Islam is all that remains” (without any sense of irony that Bazargan was also an admirer and former public servant of Mossadegh). The demonstrators on the streets chanted to effect that Bakhtiar was a servant with no power. They were right. He had alienated both the most loyal military royalists and his erstwhile revolutionary comrades, whom had expelled him from the National Front as a traitor for dealing with the Shah.

To this day some in the Iranian diaspora bemoan President Carter for not supporting Bakhtiar more; but I have doubts there was anything to be done, and fear much of this is emotion (though understandable). On the 4th of January, General Robert “Dutch” Huyser had been dispatched to Tehran. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski had advocated a coup (I know, right?!). In the weeks he was there, General Huyser concluded and reported back that with troops peeling off at nearly a 1,ooo a day to desertion and defection and the officer corps divided, no such military reassertion of power was practicable.

The evening of February 9, Bakhtiar decided to air the Peter Jenning’s interview to discredit Khomeini. It backfired. At Doshan Tappeh Air Base, southeast of Tehran, Homafars (Air Force cadets and technicians) rebelled. Word reached the Feda’iyan and Mojahedin guerrillas, whom helped fend off the Imperial Guards. After this routing, Tehran became a war zone and the next two days were spent opening up armories and prisons, and overtaking police stations and military bases in Tehran and provinces. There were over two-hundred casualties. At two p.m. General Abbas Gharabaghi declared the Army’s neutrality and they pulled back to their barracks. Around four hours later the national radio station was seized and the victory of the Revolution declared, “in sedaye enghelab-e mardom-e Iran ast” (this is the voice of the Revolution). It was 22 Bahman 1357, the day which would be in symbolism the “4th of July” of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

22 Bahman 1388. Thirty-one years later, this celebration would also occur eight months after protests first erupted in the wake of the contested reëlection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Since the Ashoura protests, the pressure and preparation had been mounting from the security forces and hardline politicians, with principlists issuing similar warnings to lesser and varying degrees; executions, rounding up and detaining opposition, etc. Much of this I outlined in my previous article and won’t go into much depth again here. Although Jason Shams did an excellent summation on the government’s gearing-up,

It tries to deny our existence in the provinces far from the cities, with oil dollars, Chinese tear gas, and Russian hackers helping make the point; telephones are tapped, activists imprisoned, a stroll down the street and we are faced with gangs of Basij and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iranians can watch MTV and pornography on satellite television, but the BBC and Voice of America have been jammed. The Internet has been reduced to a trickle, newspapers shut down.

Many in the diaspora were hyping this up to be the last stand. Even Reza Aslan miscalculated. I demur that I may have not made this clear, but I had my skepticism and worry and generally agreed in tone with Geneive Abdo’s prediction. Of all days on the Iranian calendar, the government was not about to be humiliated on this day of all politically charged days. The Greens also risked being too easily  branded counterrevolutionaries. In the weeks that have followed, it has been difficult for me to figure out just what transpired that day in confirmed protests in Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, Mashhad and Ahvaz (see videos). Ali Arouzi, reporting for NBC, says he was transported straight from his bureau to Azadi Square for Ahmadinejad’s speech, not allowed to talk to even pro-Government supporters, and driven straight back. Other journalists gave the same account.

So what really happened? I still don’t know. I would agree with Scott Lucas at Enduring America though, that “The Regime Won Ugly“,

There was nothing hopeful in the rows of security forces who, having been prepared after the humiliations of Ashura, were not going to countenance another retreat. There was nothing of glory or Islamic value in the confrontations with Mehdi Karroubi (wounded, his son missing), Zahra Rahnavard (beaten), Mohammad Khatami and Mir Hossein Mousavi (forced into retreat), let alone the thousands of encounters in which chains, batons, and flying-squad detentions trumped hope and determination.

Muhammad Sahimi from Tehran Bureau, added his own positive spin,

First, the very fact that on the thirty-first anniversary of the Revolution, the hardliners had to saturate Tehran and other large cities with security forces just to prevent peaceful demonstrations by the opposition represents a significant victory for Green supporters. This is the day when the people are supposed to come out freely and celebrate the establishment of the political system that the hardliners claim they support, and yet there was an unofficial state of emergency, with tens of thousands of security forces patrolling the streets.

While I wouldn’t call it a “victory” for the Greens (maybe a tactical retreat, at best), this all, of course, make the Leveretts jump for joy. I and other Green sympathizers are often chided to go and join those in Iran. I shoot back that the armchair Basiji fan club have no place telling us that. I’ve been to pro-Green demonstrations here in the states. Maybe for them to show solidarity they could come at us with tear gas and crack a few of our skulls; or take pictures, track us down, and intimidate our friends and family?

As Mir Hossein Mousavi recently said in his first comments since 22 Bahman on February 28th, “this year’s rally was engineered” and,

The green movement missed a historic chance because the regime eclipsed its presence,” he said. “However, it was much more harmful to the regime than the movement because covering up the reality will never result in [the movement’s] elimination. I’m sure that this massive crackdown will deepen and broaden the movement.

Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mohammad Khatami were prevented from joining protests, or for only a brief time. Khatami’s brother, Mohammad Reza Khatami and his wife Zahra Eshraghi, the granddaughter of Ayatollah Khomeini, were detained then released after trying to join protests. Mehdi Karroubi’s car was again attacked and he is reported to have shed blood. Karroubi’s son, Ali, was allegedly beaten in a mosque after trying to protect his father, whose security detail never showed. His other son, Hossein Karroubi gave an interview expanding upon that here. Further, there was word of shots fired in Sadeghiyeh Square north of Azadi Square, where opposition was to meet, but whose numbers were disappointing.

IRIB, the official media organ of the Islamic Republic broadcast this helicopter footage. The original did not, of course, have that pro-government hip-hop, which struck me in similarity to this techno infused Mousavi campaign song. In any case, most rap is banned, especially under Ahmadinejad, so forgive me if I roll my eyes at that. State media also reported the day saw fifty million regime supporters demonstrate according to this live-blog. Iran’s population is approximately seventy million. If I were to define this day as celebrating the overthrow of the Shah or just enjoying a picnic with family and friends, well, that’s not hard to believe. I don’t think that was the expressed intent nor implication though.

From the Green sites now. A video with text commentary, from inside Azadi Square during Ahmadinejad’s speech. There are several significant things in it, including a man sitting on a picture of Supreme Leader Khamene’i and at the end, the Coat of Arms of the IRI, is cut out of a flag and on the ground. Most notably, this (zoom) satellite image went viral:

It was taken when Ahmadinejad was giving his speech, as seen on state television. Compare camera angle there with the picture above. Pro-government supporters contest that these are doctored (by the usual suspects: Hypocrites, Monarchists, Zionists and American Imperialists, of course). This rings hollow with me from those whom cite IRIB and post their own videos with Persian rap, though. A dose of skepticism is always healthy, on both sides. But having said that, IRIB and IRINN’s coverage was suspect most notably in one regard. No live sound. Instead, they played patriotic songs, and their “live” coverage was very canned. This was reported by more than one observer, but Pedestrian gives the most entertaining account (if I can even use the ‘e’ word regarding state propaganda).

Setting up loudspeakers to drown out any eghteshahgar, “attention seekers creating disturbance”, doesn’t match up with a secure government who brushes off the opposition as marginal elements, with decreasing numbers due to “radicalization” (which is admittedly a worry to keeping broad support on the streets, and not confined behind proverbial Persian Walls). Numerous accounts abound of security forces searching people for any green contraband or cell phones and rounding them up into alleys and whisked away. Truth is, there is no telling how many opposition supporters actually made it in and around Azadi Square, and any guesses one way or the other is mere speculation.

There is also the possibility, that given the five day weekend this year, that many more affluent went to Dizin (a ski resort) or the Caspian coast. Of course, there are class undertones in these assertions, but they are not altogether untrue. On the other side, were pictures such as these:

These are the infamous buses the government uses to bring in pro-Ahmadinejad and otherwise conservative supporters to regime rallies and events in Tehran from outlying villages. These supporters are what are pejoratively referred to as sandis. The term comes from a fruit drink handed out to regime supporters by Pasdars and others. The condescending implication here is sometimes that they are poor and are bribed to come to these events with a lunch and drink. Aside from the appeal of a free meal, I would say that’s the wrong way to look at it. This hospitality is common to the Middle East, and Iran is no exception! Except for the fact that while the so-called sandis get refreshments, anyone with green gets a beating (or worse).

Ahmadinejad’s ramp up to this day was full of talking about sanctions, nuclear rights and a failed rocket launch into space. Some speculate that this focus on issues that unify all Iranians could have had an impact in softening opposition. His speech, replete with a rocket centerpiece (paging Dr. Freud), had little of substance. Blame Israel, blame America, blame MeK, and cartoonish gholov (braggadocio), yada yada. He also declared Iran a “nuclear state” boasting they’d reached capability to enrich uranium to medical isotope levels of 20%. Funny thing though, they appear to be having trouble with this. Even Robert Gibbs said that,

“The Iranian nuclear program has undergone a series of problems throughout the year. We do not believe they have the capability to enrich to the degree to which they now say they are enriching.”

For once, when not complicit in manufacturing cable news hysteria and pandering to AIPAC & Co. hawks, the White House had a moment of honesty which was in line with such differing experts as David Albright, Flynt Leverett and Reza Aslan on PBS Newshour, during which Reza Aslan said,

But we have to under — we have to recognize that the statement that Iran is going to start enriching uranium at 20 percent, that it’s going to build 10 more enrichment plants in the next year, are, frankly, laughable. I mean, it took Iran years to build its one site in Natanz. It can barely keep that up and running.

So, this is not just for domestic consumption, but, more importantly, it’s designed to get a response from the West, because, if there’s one thing that all people in Iran, despite their politics or piety, whether in the Green Movement or the pro-government movement, agree on is Iran’s inalienable right to enrich uranium.

Of course, the cable news networks seized upon the “nuclear state” headline like addicts to a crack pipe. Rudi Bakhtiar, former CNN and FOX News anchor now with the Public Affairs Alliance of  Iranian Americans (and niece of Shapour Bakhtiar) being interviewed on CNN called out their coverage and said what I have said so many times. In so many words, she basically accused CNN and other networks of collaborating with Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad counts on this response, and instead of keeping the focus on the Green Movement and human rights, they take the bait every time, and muddle the message. I almost stood up and clapped when I saw her do this.

The “Green defeat” analyses have been endless. Juan Cole is included in those that were blunt about it. The government seems to have finally caught up to the calendar battle, and the asset of online social networking and SMS communication has become a liability through monitoring and phone tapping (though this has been overblown, as word still spreads like fire the old fashioned way from alley to alley). This includes exiles like former regime insider Mohsen Sazegara publishing detailed protest routes; and, Karroubi calling to meet at Sadheghiyeh Square and march towards Azadi Square. Security forces just had to close off such routes and again prevent the opposition from forming any large group. From here on, broadcasting rallying points and plans has to be reëxamined and alternatives found.

On the eve of 22 Bahman, amid sporadic Allah-o Akbars (view World Press Photo of 2009), Hashemi Rafsanjani leaked a letter on his personal website which he had sent leader Khamene’i before the June ’09 election day. In it he warned of Ahmadinejad’s lies (most likely referencing presidential debates, which hearken back to the 2005 presidential election), and against potential election fraud. Before moving forward, I’d like to take a brief excursion back to over a dozen years ago.

On May 16, 1997, a week before election day, delivering his sermon at Tehran University Friday Prayers, Rafsanjani warned, “treachery is an unforgivable act, and I do not consider any sin greater than someone giving himself the right to rig the votes of the people.” Goaded by Rafsanjani, Khamene’i assured a free and fair poll. The following needs to be quoted in full, from Geneive Abdo and Jonothan Lyon’s 2003 book, Answering Only to God,

But Khatami and his aides were well aware that pressure was mounting steadily on President Rafsanjani and the leader to prevent him from winning a clear majority in the first round. They worried that a second round would allow plenty of time for dirty tricks, sabotage, or even a coup by hard-liners in the Revolutionary Guards and their volunteer auxiliary, the basij. If the establishment were ever tempted to defraud the voters, then this was surely the moment; the threat from Khatami to the social, political, and theological order that had settled over the country since the revolution appeared simply too great.

These Khatami aides telephoned Rafsanjani to ensure the integrity of the count on election day. His daughter, Faezeh, arrived at the Interior Ministry with a retinue of armed security to ensure no shenanigans (though this could be interpreted as one in itself, she can handle herself. Watch this recent verbal confrontation with Basijis where she is cornered). In elections, while counts are taken locally, a second counting is undertaken when they are collected at the Interior Ministry (which does not have to match up with the first form’s tally). Before this year’s count, there were allegations from officials in the ministry warning of the possibility of tampering and pointing to a supposed fatwa from Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, Ahmadinejad’s spiritual advisor and member of the Assembly of Experts, that rigging the vote was okay for the greater good of preserving the Islamic system (this would correspond to rumors that he is part of the Hojjatieh, an anti-democratic “C Street”, it might be put).

The Interior Ministry’s count is then validated by the Guardian Council. The Guardian Council is notoriously conservative. It is made up of six clerics, appointed by the Supreme Leader, and six jurists, nominated by the Head of the Judiciary, who is himself appointed by the Supreme Leader. Notice a pattern here? (It is also the Guardian Council which selects candidates in the first place.) To claim that their recount was impartial begs incredulity; quis custodiet ipso custodes? And, finally, the Supreme Leader can nullify the results. Mohsen Reza’i, then still Chief Commander of the Pasdaran had hinted in 1997 he was prepared to crush an uprising should Khamene’i have asserted this power.

This past election, as a candidate himself, Reza’i expressed initial doubt over the election results. An additional irony to all this is that I am not one of those convinced Ahmadinejad necessarily couldn’t have actually won. The institutional power and stacking of provincial power and influence in the Interior Ministry involved in administering elections did nothing to engender confidence though. Nor did the clumsy handling of election announcements. Any ‘Zionist instigation and sowing of doubt’ would frankly be redundant, and those claiming this is part of the imperialist MSM demonizing the IRI need to do their homework to disabuse themselves of this adolescent reductionism. Correcting all these institutional inequities in the system constitutionally have been core planks of the Reform platform since its inception, as the name would imply.

What now though? Questioning the election results are now regarded as a “sin” by Khamene’i and hardliners. Even conservative foes like MP Ali Motahari, opposed to Ahmadinejad have suggested Mousavi drop this issue and stop protests altogether, additional overtures of allying against Ahmedinejad and addressing compromised solutions to the problems, blaming both sides of stubbornness. This, of course, would remove leverage which Mousavi gets from the streets. Also to be taken into account is the eternal pragmatist, Rafsanjani, who in his recent praises of the Supreme Leader and condemnation of “sedition” cast a little worry, though one must consider the art of Persian riddle talk that I’ve mentioned before. It may be triangulating, hedging and deal making behind-the-scenes to be read here. It is widely assumed that Rafsanjani still covets the title of Supreme Leader for himself. Ousting Khamene’i via the powers invested to the Assembly of Experts, which Rafsanjani chairs, is not happening. Rafsanjani is playing his own game, where the opposition serves not only his more moderate positions, but perhaps more importantly, his own ambition. Mousavi is still safe, and Rafsanjani’s fingerprint can be assumed in that circumstance.

My humble advice would be to sideline the election issue, as Mousavi has done, and focus on the human rights and constitutional violations of the past eight months. There is plenty of material to work off of here, as outlined in this lengthy Iran Human Rights Documentation Center Report, “Violent Aftermath: The 2009 Election and Suppression of Dissent in Iran” (PDF). Just recently, this video from June 15th, thought to be leaked, came out capturing a Tehran University dormitory raid (one can only wonder what may come out in months and years to come). Regime defenders are more comfortable debating numbers and math, rather than blood. Even the now ubiquitous, “I didn’t vote for Ahmadinejad, but…” posters on the internet (taking a cue from arch-apologist and Leverett BFF, Tehran University professor, Dr. Mohammad Marandi) try to compare riot control tactics of the West and Iran, or Iran under the Shah. The crackdown isn’t as brutal as under the Shah, and therefore this isn’t a real movement (only they use the straw man of “revolution”), goes the line of reasoning. How facile! You think veterans of the ’79 Revolution don’t know what affect a public massacre like Black Friday has?!  The riot comparisons can be interesting, though, and I take note of the valuable perspective. But stretched too far and ignoring the broader societal context can take it to levels ad absurdum. Kent State, Seattle 1999 and G20 crackdowns of free assembly are not to be celebrated, and the deflection employed by the IRI hardly lives up to their utopian boasting. What are they trying to say? That they’re Western-lite and still backwards in their repression? In addition, we’re not talking about sound cannons here, and the backdrop is of a much more authoritarian state apparatus. Patriot Act? eat your heart out. Freedom of Information Act? …Hold on, let me stop laughing. Sorry, but no, it’s not the same thing.

One of the more interesting articles on riot tactics compares 2009 Iran with 1960’s America. This suits me just fine, as my contention is not to think of this movement as about sore losers, but the election as a spark for a long simmering civil rights struggle and shifting demographics of the Children of the Revolution, as Hamid Dabashi contends in his series of webcasts, “This Week in Green,” and as was written in an article by Ian Morrison, “An Iranian Civil Rights Movement?” which pivots to economic policy,

Aside from comparisons to the Civil Rights Movement, one finds in the discourse on Iran a great deal of squabbling about the class character of the Green Movement protesters and what that means for its future. Early on, Ahmadinejad sympathizers heaped scorn on the Green Movement, claiming that protesters were all from the affluent neighborhoods of northern Tehran. This account is parochial at best; while nobody has contested that people from northern Tehran participated in various demonstrations, the Green Movement has an amorphous and complex makeup that belies easy classification along the lines of this or that political allegiance, especially given the suffocating repression of the Iranian state. Calling the demonstrations “middle class,” as though this alone amounts to a “political analysis,” circumvents any consideration of the potential for working class and labor issues to be taken up by the movement over time.

Indeed, when discussing where the movement goes from here, everyone looking back to the years of 1978-1979, look to the crucial aspect which organized labor played through strikes. Ian Morrison previously did a piece entitled “Iran’s New Labor?“, an interview with trade unionist, Homayoun Pourzad, who described Ahmadinejad as “profoundly anti-Left and anti-working class.” Four labor organizations listed ten minimal demands before 22 Bahman with the reminder that,

A nationwide strike lead by workers at the National Oil Company, the vanguard of the Iranian working class, shut down oil pipelines, ultimately tearing the despotic regime asunder. Masses of people chanted, “Our oil workers! Our resolute leader!” Power fell to the people.

This is a not so subtle reminder of the Left’s crucial role in overthrowing the Shah. On February 19th, 600 workers at Bandar-e Abbas went on strike for a common complain: unpaid back wages. Other strikes can be found in Hamid Farokhnia’s “Ahmadinejad’s import mania” which has this passage full of symbolism,

Today, even women’s traditional attire like chador comes from abroad, all government agencies have been instructed to use imported food staples for employees’ meals, and many Chinese goods are cheaper in Iran than anywhere in the world outside China itself. No wonder domestic producers can no longer effectively compete with the flood of foreign goods.

Ahmadinejad is importing to offset inflation and benefits from an artificially high exchange rate for the rial. As such, the article points out only 9% of tea is domestically produced (Iranians take great pride in their tea), and over the past four years sugar production has been halved. Such hard numbers are hard to come by, though, to substantiate this, and economics generally makes my eyes glaze over. The article’s title of “import mania” though, is a reference to the same phenomenon of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in the 60’s and 70’s. One should be aware of trying to draw too many conclusions in attempts to make comparisons for an agenda. It doesn’t make it untrue though. It would also explain what jumped off of my computer screen as a stretch when I read Reza Aslan’s review of 22 Bahman,

If the mullahs and the merchants begin joining forces with the protesters, even as the Revolutionary Guard becomes more entrenched in the political sphere, a civil war may be inescapable.

While I’d ask Reza to watch it with loaded talk of civil war (his track record is still pretty good though), he points to an article by Jamsheed K. Choksy about Ahmadinejad moving more from the clerics and doing triangulating of his own. Ahmadinejad is a maverick, and shrewd politician, whom has cultivated real appeal to a good segment of Iranians. From Choksy’s Newsweek article,

As a result, together with the IRGC and Basij (a volunteer paramilitary group that has attacked opposition protesters), Ahmadinejad and his ilk are turning to totalitarianism, rather than the fundamentalism of Shiite clerics, to suppress the steadily growing democratic aspirations of the Green Movement. Yet the mullahs have strong allies too, not only in the legislature, led by Ali Larijani (who hails from a family of well-known clerics), but even among the president’s own clan, whose members remain divided on abjuring theocracy.

I realize I’ll need to decode all this economic factionalism. Let me try to piece this together. As Nikki R. Keddie put it in Roots of Revolution,

Governmental favoring of nonbazaar trade and industry and various plans of “modernization” or dispersal of the bazaar … were partly designed to weaken the bazaar’s politico-economic cohesion.

That was during Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s reign. Now consider the following from Robert Baer’s The Devil We Know in light of Ahmadinejad’s “import mania”,

[T]he Revolutionary Guards are, in a sense, a state within a state. They own more than a hundred companies and control as much as $12 billion, possibly more, in assets.

Reza Aslan contends that it was part of the Obama Administration’s strategy, in targeting the Pasdaran (which may control as much as a third of Iran’s economy) in sanctions, to send a message to bazaaris (traditional merchant class). The bazaari-ulema (merchant-clerical) relationship is deep, their networks complex, and go back centuries. Along with the intellectual-professional class and labor on the Left they formed the indispensable Right flank that brought down the Shah. Clerics often come from the bazaari class, and mosques are often situated in or near bazaars at the heart of a city.

The bazaari-ulema constituency is most often associated with the principlist conservatives like Speaker of the Majles Ali Larijani or commercial pragmatists like Rafsanjani. The first general bazaar strike since the Revolution occurred in 2008 in response to a proposed tax by Ahmadinejad. Taken all together, Aslan’s view is a good angle to take on deciphering the purpose of these new sanctions. Because, other than appeasing AIPAC and hawks in both the Republican and Democratic parties who want to “be tough” on Iran for domestic consumption (even if only with empty and counterproductive measures), the sanctions will likely have minimal effect on an organization which operates significantly like a mafia; on the black market. However; even if words of Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey (whom Press TV always subtly has a prominent picture of) to the effect of helping ordinary businessmen over a “select group of insiders” never makes it past the filter of Iranian state media (unlike Secretary of State Clinton’s “military dictatorship” comment and Iran’s response), at least Obama’s policy team is sophisticated enough to get the internal dynamics of Iran when they’re not concurrently pursuing the same old failed Washington-Tel Aviv-Riyadh line. As Shirin Ebadi suggested, sanctions on Siemens Nokia Networks would also be appropriate, even if sanctioning a Finno-Germanic venture is less palatable to US lawmakers.

Of course, Newt Gingrich compares the policy of the Obama Administration to the appeasement of Hitler. If anyone is Neville Chamberlain, it is George W. Bush, who created the political vacuum with which Iran could implement the Lebanon model of proxies and utilize long established Shi’a political allies (many who were exiled in Iran under Saddam). The upcoming Iraqi elections will be a good measure of the level of their success in effectively annexing the chunks of the country in all but name. In any case, Newt, take it up with Iranian-Americans, who in a PAAIA poll conducted by Zogby International, approve for the most part of Obama’s tact.

My cautionary take in regard to the bazaari-ulema class is to see it through the prism of parliamentary factional maneuvering and not to put too much hope in a general strike, and certainly not in them joining the ranks of the Green Movement (at least not any time soon). Such is reminiscent of speculation that the Artesh (regular army) might step in in the height of the summer protests. To their credit, they have remained professional and neutral, honoring Khomeini’s injunction on the armed forces (unlike the Pasdaran).

In any case, aside from fundamental sociological factors, looking back upon the ’79 Revolution, which 22 Bahman commemorated, as a blueprint for another revolution is specious. What the Green Movement represents, officially, is a simple aspiration for there to be respect of a plurality of opinion and civil society within the framework of the Islamic Republic. This is expounded by Mousavi in his most recent interview published on his personal site, Kaleme. While pointing out that bussing in supporters was done by the Shah among other repressive tactics, the headline was when Mousavi stated that “[t]his is the rule of a cult that has hijacked the concept of Iranianism and nationalism.” I would highly recommend reading the full translation.

He also echoed Karroubi’s request that dueling rallies be allowed (I even recall the suggestion that they could be held outside the city) and a referendum on the Guardian Council’s role in future elections. The translation cites Art. 54, but I believe it is Art. 59. This would mean going through Art. 177 to change Art. 99, if I am not mistaken. That requires going through Khamene’i, Ahmadinejad and the Expediency Council after which, a Council for Revision will be formed (which is required to consist of members of the Guardian Council itself, among representatives from every other key institution and branch of government) to discuss the proposal. Then, the Supreme Leader approves of the referendum, to be put to the people to vote on (how many problems could you count in that formula?). This was only done once before in 1989, at the behest of Khomeini, who tailored it to his successor who had neither the charisma, following, nor religious credentials he had. Members of that council included Karroubi and Mousavi. They are posturing here. They know full-well the hurdles and equilibrium of power is decidedly set against them. But, so do those whom identify with the Green Movement. Maybe the task here, with this specific goal, is to unify the movement in pressuring the Supreme Leader to entertain it or implicitly highlight the faults in the current system to the most ardent and apathetic alike and mobilize them around a coherent message.

As to the Supreme Leader jettisoning Ahmadinejad, in what was from the start of his first election, an awkward alliance, I would ask this: can he afford to do this without further risking the legitimacy of his own position? It would be tantamount to a concession and desperation mirroring Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s scapegoating of Prime Minister Hoveyda in 1977. It would be possible, I suppose, to hold Ahmadinejad in breach of Art. 113, stating that the president must be held to uphold and protect the constitution, and under Art. 130 “voluntarily” issue his resignation. But, since elections are “divine tests” of Allah’s will, and the Supreme Leader is Allah’s proxy on earth who already validated the election, how could he pull this off? And, more importantly, is the Supreme Leader really in complete control anymore? It goes to the core of the inherent contradictions of a Theocratic Republic, which is critiqued at length by Islamic scholars such as Mohsen Kadivar, and bemoaned with sad regret by the writers of the original draft constitution from the liberal Freedom Movement like Nasser Katouzian, whom had their work mangled and the exaltation of the position of Vali-ye Faghih enshrined beyond symbolic mediator and into a turbaned shah. I have a pet theory on why since Banisadr, no president has ever lost reëlection, but it’s more of the musing category, and I don’t really feel comfortable sharing it in this piece. There are also other perfectly reasonable explanations regarding state media and elections being personality-driven.

But, if the opposition’s goals seem doomed, then what does that leave us with? On CNN Newsroom, Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment and Trita Parsi of the National Iranian-American Council were interviewed by Don Lemon (for a humorous look at this pairing read this!). Trita Parsi made this point,

And the mere fact the game continues is in and of itself a defeat for the government because eight months, nine months after the fraud in elections this is still going on. Sometimes demonstrations are bigger, sometimes they’re smaller. But any sense of normalcy the government is yet to be able to find.

With all the talk of disappointment, or squabbling over the true size of the movement, perspective is lost. Even by the most conservative estimates, this is the largest social upheaval and challenge to the institutional establishment of the IRI in certainly twenty years; the length of Khamene’i’s tenure. Larger than the original 18 Tir student protests in 1999 or their commemoration in 2003. Comparisons to anti-war demonstrations starting in the spring of 1985 which intermittently continued until 1988 (when Mousavi was Prime Minister, by the way) as the Iran-Iraq war needlessly dragged on before Khomeini drank the “poison chalice” would be more tenuous. But it would validate Mohsen Kadivar who said in 2000 that, “if more Iranians are willing to suffer, the establishment will have to give in.” Except, in that case the suffering was more immediate and affected everyone. As I said, tenuous comparison, and hardly an analogous circumstance. Although, it sapped the original revolutionary zeal in the public which Ahmadinejad and his coterie of mid-ranking Pasdar allies pledged to restore in 2005.

For additional perspective, one only need look at Mousavi’s history itself, such as in this article from The New Republic by respected scholar of Iran, Abbas Milani; or this one from Tehran Bureau’s Muhammad Sahimi. Who would have thought that Mousavi; a soft-spoken regime insider selected by the Guardian Council to run, would have stood up to his old rival Khamene’i this long? And can they afford to arrest him? Apparently their current line, from an Assembly of Experts’ statement is that the “sedition” is crushed and are more successfully changing the subject yet again with the capture and “confession” of Jundallah leader, Abdolmalek Rigi (this is actually newsworthy, unlike most manufactured distractions). Jundallah is a Sunni Baluchi terrorist group, which has had support from America in the past. Figure out the implied message here. And yet, Mousavi will not be cowed.

In Mousavi’s Kaleme interview on the path forward, he was asked about the floated idea of using Cheharshanbeh Souri, a secular sublimation of the Zoroastrian Jashn-e Sadeh (links of which I included at the bottom of my last article “Keeping the Fire Burning“). It is an evening celebration like Guy Fawkes Night mixed with Halloween. Bonfires are made, and jumped over saying “sorki-ye to az man, zardi-ye man az to” to the fire (your red color is mine, my sallowness is yours). Any reader of the Golden Bough or with any knowledge of similar Indo-European practices will instantly recognize parallels here. In present day Iran, it is one of the few times the sexes can freely interact socially and includes a Persian version of trick-or-treating. It also involves fireworks and has developed a reputation as a night of mischief and tragedy, reminding me of scenes of Devil’s Night in The Crow. Blogger Pedestrian thought it a horrible idea, and Mousavi concurred,

The ritual on this day reminds us of the defeat of darkness by light. But the supporters of the Green Movement, while respecting such national and religious occasions, do not want them to be used to harass and hurt the people, especially since those who oppose the Green Movement may have planned to use the occasion to bring the Movement into disrepute.

However; the grand Iranian holiday which it precludes offers hope. While 22 Bahman commemorated a Revolution which occurred before approximately 70% of the population was even born; Nowrouz, the Persian New Year, will provide a test of the Green Movement’s creativity and vigor, and is more ideal in its timeless ancient symbolism than any revolutionary anniversary.

Robin Wright, interviewed by Council on Foreign Relations,

[There’s] the graffiti that is showing up on walls and fences and buildings that berates the regime or calls for a new public demonstration; posters that go up in the dead of night with pictures of political detainees demanding their freedom; and shouts at the subway stations [and] in soccer matches that erupt spontaneously, shouting, “Death to the dictator,” or “Down with Khamenei.” These things are playing out on a daily basis. There is a lot of energy behind this movement, not just on the days that people turn out on the street. It is arguably the most vibrant and imaginative civil disobedience campaign anywhere in the world today.

With more creativity to be seen, hopefully, as in the “wall dialogues” mentioned above (1), (2), or as in the fluidity of Persian Rap:

Ghogha ft. Shahin Najafi – Enghelab-e Tafakor

As always, my disclaimer. I am not an expert. I do my best to interpret current events in Iran, that is all. Corrections are welcome. And nothing is more appreciated than questions on anything Iran-related (even if you don’t make it through the whole article). To prove I don’t take myself too seriously:

Appendix: BBC’s helpful flow chart on the political system of the IRI to help you follow parts of this article.

18 Responses so far.

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  1. Khirad says:

    Iran’s Ahmadinejad: Sept. 11 attacks a ‘big lie’

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/35739295/ns/world_news-mideastn_africa/

  2. Khirad says:

    For cinephiles.

    The Iranian Shrek and the American Kiarostami do not represent, in their new homes, what they represent in the film worlds where they originated. In fact, the American Kiarostami is just as American as the Farsi-dubbed Shrek is Iranian. In each location, they become convenient foreign elements against which domestic film production can more clearly distinguish itself as domestic.

    Read more: Watching Shrek in Tehran

  3. AdLib says:

    Remarkable piece, Khirad!

    One would think that the ongoing support for the Green movement in itself is a victory and sets the stage for change down the line. As it becomes taken for granted by the Iranian public that this movement is part of their society now, efforts to oppress it become more of an attack on Iranian society itself.

    It’s disappointing that justice has to often be such a gradual and circuitous path, injustice is so much swifter in achieving its goals.

    The undermining of their economy sounds very familiar, we know what that leads to when an economic disruption occurs. An economic turn of events could make change more possible there as it was here, don’t you think?

    • Khirad says:

      Yes, AdLib. In fact, one of the ironies of the government’s branding the opposition as part of a “Velvet Revolution perpetrated by George Soros (read: American Jew)” they have themselves made them increasingly anti-IRI, rather than merely Reformist.

      If there’s one thing these countries are good at, it is repression. It does work. That is why I was always more sober in my prognostications.

      Ahmadinejad first came into office promising to bring the oild money to the people’s tables. Since then he has mismanaged the economy and helped the Revolutionary Guards and Bonyads further consolidate capital. If people had really voted on the economy, he would have lost by that standard alone. Iran is not immune to the global recession, not by any means. And yes, while numbers regarding the Iranian economy can become part of a propaganda war (some have said for 30 years that the economy would collapse and the regime end soon); it really doesn’t look good. Not Greece bad; but bad. Given Iran’s oil, there’s little excuse for this mismanagement of the economy. One of Mousavi’s accomplishments was stewarding the economy during the Iran-Iraq War considering the circumstances, and virtually non-existent oil production. He ran on that. Ahmadi had to run on doctored histograms detailing his “successes” (mainly in giving subsidies to his political bloc).

  4. Chernynkaya says:

    Khirad, that was exhaustively (and exhaustingly) awesome.

    Our president got himself into a bit of a pickle with his Iran policy, but it appears he got it right.

    Right off the bat, and during his campaign, he offered to negotiate with Iran over nuclear issues without the Bush preconditions. But the Reptilian political forces felt this was an example of Obama

    • Khirad says:

      Yes Cher, you’ve pretty much got the gist of things. A few points on your good comment, which I don’t really have much to add to (I guess I lied, funny how that happens).

      1) There is no reason not to still pursue normalization measures, even as Nixon did with China. We kept contact with the Soviets until they fell. We must deal with the leaders there are, not the leaders we want. But yes, the situation complicates things, and the Obama letter to Khamene’i promising not to interfere in elections only stokes suspicion in Persian Paranoia -- or at least can cynically be used that way. However; it is more “na

  5. KQuark says:

    Another exceptional piece for sure. I have to go over it a little bit more to give you any type of intelligent response.

  6. Chernynkaya says:

    Khirad, now that I finally finished my last installment on the Hate in America series, I can sit back, relax, and enjoy your post!

    More to come…

  7. SueInCa says:

    Another informative and insightful piece Khirad. To allow religion to rule a government is antithema to us, however the religious right nearly had that with the regime of Dubya. They made great strides into various government agencies to favor evangelical religious groups for grants and such, while turning down Muslims, Jewish and Liberal Protestant groups for grants. If they ever reach the pinnacle of power again, they will try to finish off what they have started.

    • Khirad says:

      Yes, that’s what ticked me off about Bush’s faith-based initiative. The constitutionality I still find sketchy, but I don’t find it necessarily objectionable as long as all religions are included (oh and I do mean all! -- except $

  8. escribacat says:

    Khirad, I had a close Iranian friend (and his group) during the revolution. They were so thrilled (the political ones were anyway) to get rid of the Shah. I don’t live there anymore and lost touch with my friend. I’ve always wondered if he became disillusioned. Living in No. Cal., he had become awfully “liberated.” I can’t imagine him living in an Islamic society and I’m willing to bet he never went back home.

    BTW, I think I need therapy after watching that Single Ladies video.

    • Khirad says:

      Well, e’cat. Depends on if he had family or not. At the very least, he likely has been back to visit. Also, it can be “bearable” in northern Tehran depending on his class status and where he was from (I’d actually be interested if you remember the city). Armenians provide the alcohol, smugglers the music and drugs, money buys off the local morals police. It’s all still very risky though. Authorities can be capricious.

      And yes, I thought about including a warning not to watch that spoof video before going to sleep!

      • escribacat says:

        I think he was from Tehran. He told me that the Shah tortured (something about hot hard-boiled eggs) and killed his uncle. Come to think of it, he never mentioned his family back in Iran. Last time I saw him, he said he wanted to move to Turkey.

        • Khirad says:

          Umm, okay, say no more. I know exactly what he was referring to with the eggs. You’re not gonna be able to tell me this, but I wonder what group his uncle may have been in.

          I’m not sure he’d be in Turkey. Turkey is not safe. Especially going through an airport. They can get you going through customs. Main reason to be there is on your way to Europe or America, or to be close to family who can come see you easier. Khatami would turn a blind eye on Iranian Jews visiting Israel via Turkey, as well. But; that neither is safe any longer ever since Ahmadinejad came to office; and, I digress… 😉

  9. javaz says:

    Wow, Khirad, another exceptional piece about Iranian history.

    Thank you so much for your hard work and research in enlightening us.

    The lesson we as 21st century Americans should learn from Iran is the regressive, inhumane results of allowing religion government control.


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