13 Aban 1388 / November 4th, 2009 began with an early morning 4.9 earthquake near the southeastern port city of Bandar-e Abbas. But, 850 miles away to the north in Tehran, there were other tremors brewing beginning around 9:00 AM. Indeed, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, their Basij militia, and police had been preparing for it, cordoning off city squares, shutting down communications and threatening stiff reprisals for any who shouted slogans other than the officially prescribed “Death to America” or “Death to Israel”. In fact, early posters from Reformist sites promoted the event with one sign reading “Death to no one, day of respect for other nations grows” (the final word is also used with sabz, green, akin to verdant in English).
Even though the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran states in Chapter III, Article 27 that: “Unarmed assemblies and marches may be freely organized, provided that no violation of the foundations of Islam is involved”, permits are assuredly not granted, and furthermore, the last clause of that article leaves much leeway in judicial interpretation for such capital offenses as “Enmity with God” and the even more vague “Being Corrupt on Earth”. Such are the perks when your government is based on the rule in absentia of the occultated 12th Imam, represented by the Supreme Leader. Ergo, you disobey Khamene’i, you are at odds with God (not to suggest that the Supreme Leader, or rahbar, is in theory considered infallible like the Pope, though). This stumbling block over permits is why after the crackdown by security forces in July opposition rallies have exploited ideologically-reinforcing national holidays such as Qods Day on September 18th and November 4th. The Islamic Republic isn’t even comfortable with “Freedom Zones” — unless that’s now an Orwellian term for a cell in Evin Prison.
This day, but one of the many political holidays of the Islamic Republic of Iran, was the commemoration of the seizure of the American Embassy, or “Den of Spies” in 1979. At the time, it was also the 25th anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini’s exile by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and also the shooting of students the year prior by security forces at Tehran University. Motivations for the seizure of the compound by Leftist students can be found readily and I don’t feel a need to go in-depth into those here nor did I plan on doing a ‘444 days retrospective and what it means now’ piece. For any who do not know, this very same embassy was the planning center of Kermit Roosevelt and the CIA in ousting Mohammed Mossadegh, nationalist Prime Minister during the time of Shah Reza Pahlavi and the global energy hegemonic designs of Britain through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later British Petroleum). I would but also proffer of interest that during the Constitutional Revolution in 1906, more than 12,000 used the British Legation as asylum from the heavy hand of Mozaffar ud-Din Qajar. It must be stressed that ideas and events don’t occur in a vacuum, and this is particularly true in a land with thousands of years of continuous history. If there is something to be taken from this, it might be that the culturally sacrosanct concept of bast, or refuge, was violated not once, but twice (first time was February earlier that year in 1979), due to a legitimate historic concern, still very fresh, which rapidly got out of hand and became exploited by the reactionary wing of Khomeini.
So, it is with irony (much intentional), that this anniversary, marking Revolutionary student martyrs who died the year before, and the hostage takers themselves, should be used by the Green Movement, whom has its own student martyrs, symbolized by now immortalized names such as Neda Agha-Soltan and Sohrab Erabi. Not only that, but hostage takers in the 1979 Crisis have been among the most vociferous Reformists for many years, including Massoumeh Ebtekar, better remembered in the US as “Sister Mary”. Two are still in jail, Mohsen Mirdamadi and Mohsen Aminzadeh. Saeed Hajjarian, who also survived an assassin’s bullet through the head in 2000, was released a few weeks ago. The movement also intentionally utilizes Revolutionary themes and language, the Islamic color green, and the central Shi’i concepts enshrined into politics (or polluted by them, as the Iranian scholar Abdolkarim Soroush believes) such as Tyranny, Justice and Oppression, turned back on the regime. The chants of “Ya Hossein, Mir-Hossein” are a most striking example of this, in combining the chant “Ya Hossein” from during Ashura processions, the Shi’i observation (though it is hardly a passive event) of the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, with the name of Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Little is left to the imagination in its implications.
According even to Iranian state-run English language news, Press TV, they admitted at least several thousand protesters at 7 Tir Square, and an unspecified amount throughout the city, “dispersed” as it was so genteelly phrased, by police forces. Figureheads of the movement, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, along with former President Khatami and subtle figures such as Yaser Rafsanjani (son of the quintessential man-behind-the-scenes in IRI power politics, Hashemi Rafsanjani, whom has now receded from the limelight) were also in attendance, after rumors of house arrest circulated over Mousavi in the morning — such is the problem with the combination of both heavy restrictions on international reporting and the lightning fast spread of the Persian propensity to gossip. Confirming events or any accurate numbers are exceedingly difficult. This is more true outside of Tehran, where it is tentatively reported that demonstrations sprung up also in Isfahan and Shiraz, with rumors of more in Mashhad, Tabriz and even Ahvaz. In other words, throughout the country.
Back in Tehran, there appears to have been tear gas and bullets fired into the sky. More and more videos are coming out now showing the same familiar scenes from the summer of motorbike-mounted thugs and mindless brutality. Karoubi is reported to have been accosted (yet again), and an uncertain amount of demonstrators injured and under arrest. I even saw pictures of a rotund older man in typical muted khaki-colored clothes distinguished with a black and white checkered Palestinian style keffiyeh, the “uniform” of the vigilante militia known as the Ansar-e Hezbollah; the same group responsible for the terror and bloodshed in the dorms of Tehran University during the 18 Tir Student Protests of 1999.
Meanwhile, at Tehran University, marking the 30th anniversary of the takeover of the US Embassy, which happened years before they were born, 2,000 students are said to have outnumbered police forces and forced the police back, peaceably. As always though, information is sketchy. What is known is that ever since universities began the academic year a few months back, spontaneous mini student rallies have been recurrent and appearing on YouTube, in addition to the emblematic evening cries of Allah-o akbar. So much so that the government is beefing up its Basiji headquarters in the universities, and there has even been some talk from the IRGC commanders, archconservative mojtahids (clerics) and members of the majles (parliament) of shutting down the country’s schools, as they were during unrest in the last years of the Pahlavi regime and early years of the Khomeinist regime to purge and rewrite curricula. Historically, universities have been the hotbeds of dissent, and it is absolutely no accident the national Friday Prayers are held on the campus of Tehran University. Even in days recent, students at Sharif Technical University, which is situated near Azadi Square, were still chanting for Mahmoud Vahidnia, whom at an official gathering on October 28th walked up to the podium and to his face chastised Supreme Leader Khamene’i for twenty minutes on living in a bubble and the government’s reaction after the June 12th unrest. As to my knowledge, he is still safe. It all happened on state television, so an arrest or disappearance might be a little to early to expect if it is to occur. Khamene’i had to save face by posting it on his website, it appears.
Among the chants at demonstrations were “Khamene’i is a murder, his Velayat (Supreme Leadership) is void” and “Obama: are you with us or against us.” Of course, these rhyme nicely in Farsi and a lot is lost just there. With the first, it can be seen that this really isn’t just about the election, so all those so-called progressives calling demonstrators whiners or comparing them to bitter Birthers should understand that such uprisings have started with micro-issues no less than a tobacco tax or a rumor of a hike in tuition and ballooned to become much more, harnessing an outlet for long simmering grievances across the board. As to the Obama chant, I can hear Senator John McCain rearing his unwanted bellicose voice again (BFF and veritable GOP-mole, Joe Lieberman, is also upset that Obama canceled funding for the National Endowment for Democracy, i.e. fund for not-so-covert regime change), and every day something happens in Iran I am reminded how thankful Mr. “bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” is not Commander in Chief! But still I expect him and all Republicans to say that Obama is soft, that he’s dithering, whatever the talking point is. The Rushbots have been already been at it. Curious how they rarely ever express concern for the Iranian people but just take shots at Obama. As to the pangs felt when they chant to Obama, I feel them, but am reminded of this excerpt from Afshin Molavi’s book “Soul of Iran”,
On a couple occasions, Amir asked me, hopefully, “do you think America will save us? Overthrow these mullahs?” […] Another time, he said, “America ought to just leave us alone. We can make change ourselves.” All across Iran, I heard such contradictory remarks, revealing that the shadow of America still looms large in the Iranian psyche.
Yet it does raise another problematic issue. Our talks with the Islamic Republic over their nuclear program are partially successful due to Ahmadinejad’s vulnerability domestically (and by extension those whom he is supposed to legitimize and who actually call the shots regarding Foreign Policy). Among the myriad of reasons I sided with Obama over Hillary in the primaries was the promise to initiate rapprochement with the IRI. However; June’s events left me soul-searching. I think Reza Aslan has summed up my conclusion to this moral dilemma more coherently than I can encapsulate myself,
It is quite simple, really. The only way to punish a country for its bad behavior is first to have some kind of relationship with it. That is precisely what Obama is trying to do. By working toward the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Iran, Obama is laying the groundwork for real, meaningful, and lasting reform in Iran.
With Obama, a black man with the same middle name as the revered Shi’a Imam Hossein, which was much mocked by Islamaphobes on the right, what I realized at the time of the campaign and what they couldn’t see, still can’t see, is that this man, merely by being the President of the United States of America, deflates one of the main pillars, the raison d’être of the Islamic Republic: hatred of the hypocrisy of the West, primarily it’s emotionally charged nemesis, America. So too does his acknowledgment of the 1953 coup d’état in his Cairo Speech which halfway met one longtime demand of Iran, an apology. Remarking on the Islamic Republic’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of the US Embassy seizure, Obama issued this statement, again repeating what he said in Cairo, “We have heard for 30 years what the Iranian government is against; the question now is what kind of future it is for.” In Iran on the same day, speaking to the demonstrators, progressive Grand Ayatollah Montazeri said,
The occupation of the American embassy at the start had the support of Iranian revolutionaries and the late Imam Khomeini and I supported it too, but considering the negative repercussions and the high sensitivity which was created among the American people and which still exists, it was not the right thing to do.
The people on the streets in green know what they are for. When conservatives shouted “Death to America!” they shouted back “Death to Dictator!” Will we continue to see these fissures continue to rumble the foundations of the IRGC-dominated regime, or are they but aftershocks running out of steam?
Tehran has over a hundred fault lines underneath it say seismologists, and there have been proposals for the capital to be moved closer to Qom by the 2020’s. I don’t feel this decision is fully based in the physical sciences, though. I think that in one form or another dramatic reform within the Islamic Republic, or the Velvet Revolution that the IRGC commanders are so obsessed with, is inevitably drawn in the fault lines we see now within even amongst the leadership, whom always demonstrated a sense of tawhid, or unity, even during polite disagreements before. Theirs was once a common purpose, now there appears to be real cleavage. It might not happen this year, or the next; but the point to look at is that the vaunted “Children of the Revolution” Khomeini had wished for, have been orphaned by his flawed experiment, an experiment which is now but an ossified dream re-experiencing itself in the past, rather than moving forward and adapting. With approximately 70% of the population under 30 the demographics are shifting ineluctably, like tectonic plates, towards an ensuing, gradual, Green Tsunami. I only hope that this change is as peaceful as possible. Enough people have died for Revolution already. Every Iranian knows the name of Gandhi. Let them continue in that path. Let us but add to the historical sediment of dates to be remembered such as 13 Aban, more events like this to be layered over the old. Days where brave men and women, manteau and chador, young and old, rich and poor, risked the truncheon for a voice. As empty as the word can become in political rhetoric, they are risking beatings, prison, rape and the noose-crane for freedom – azadi. Will you join me in bearing witness, or have you lost interest like the media did, too?