16 Azar, or National Student Day is a commemoration of December 7th, 1953, when three students at Tehran University were killed after protesting the visit of Vice President Nixon to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, seen as a congratulation for the coup d’état against Mohammad Mossadegh and the return of the shah upon the Peacock Throne barely months before. While chanting “death to the shah”, security forces of the shah stormed the campus and brutally attacked students. The day after, they moved in on the faculty of engineering, which was seen as the locus from whence the demonstrations were organized. There they opened fire with machine guns and killed three students, Mostafa Bozorgnia, Ahmad Ghandchi, and Mehdi Shariatrazavi (for more on this event, see this fabulous article by Muhammad Sahimi).
Naturally, this event, which was a long observed anniversary, was seized upon by the new Revolutionary government of the Islamic Republic of Iran as a national holiday for, what else; stoking anti-American fervor. But, after the 18 Tir student uprising of 1999, with the storming of Tehran University dormitories by Ansar-e Hezbollah thugs and the demonstrations, injuries, deaths, disappearances and mass arrests that followed, it was now irretrievably an anniversary to be co-opted by the Reformist movement. This is the background to this monthly round of what has been termed the “calendar battle”; that is, using national holidays to take to the streets, bypassing the un-Constitutional restrictions on their right to assembly.
The preparation for this round was undertaken weeks prior by both sides. Campus morals enforcers, known as herasat, targeted young men with hair too long and women wearing too much color and showing too much of their figure, including hair. In addition, they’d beefed up their campus Basij organization and enlisted pro-Ahmadinejad student informers to keep watch for any with opposition sympathies, even taking photos, and turning them in for “suspicious” behavior. Over a hundred prominent student leaders were arrested or expelled (with a couple going on hunger strike and one whose body was found a few days ago, according to a Reformist source). Another less severe practice (in effect before the recent troubles of the summer) has been to give politically active students “stars”, upon which receiving their third, they are banned from all universities, so writes Shirin Mohammadi. Nevertheless, the universities remain hotbeds of activism, as they were during the shah’s reign.
Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i was the former director of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, (VEVAK) under Ahmadinejad’s first term who was made Prosecutor General of Iran after some mild controversy in the wake of the protests during July by Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, the head of the Judiciary (this post is reserved only for mujtahids, or clerics versed in shari’a — wonderful, no? knowledge of secular law isn’t necessary). Mohseni-Eje’i said last week that “from now on, we will show no mercy” and that “families are responsible, too, if their children are arrested,” plus numerous warnings issued throughout the state media echoing this following refrain from the police, “any gathering or ceremony outside the designated places will be considered illegal and police will take necessary steps.”
The day before the scheduled protests (which also happened to be the Shi’i holiday of Eid-e Ghadir), more students were detained, Reformist papers (many of which continue to be banned) warned of “sowing seeds of division”, a forced confession from journalist Abdollah Momeni aired on TV, foreign press were texted that their licenses were being suspended for three days (in addition to already being limited to the confines of their offices), internet and cell phone service was shut down, and 29 mothers were arrested for mourning their children martyred during the unrest.
Of course, those “designated places” mentioned by the police above were the campuses themselves. They were locked down, pro-government banners covering the view within to outside observers, cordoned off completely by police to prevent anyone on the streets joining up. Essentially, they were treated as lepers on islands. Obviously a tactical move by the regime to contain a venting, much as Mir-Hosein Mousavi has been treated. On the morning of National Student Day, 30 to 40 plainclothes Basijis on motorbikes showed up outside his office at the Academy of Fine Arts to prevent him from joining the protests. He reportedly said to them, “if you are on a mission to kill, beat or threaten me, go ahead,” reported his own Kalameh website. After a few hours, they left. This is what also reportedly happened on 13 Aban (sometimes I wonder if this is all choreographed, though). His, wife, Zahra Rahnavard, did attend a protest to speak. She was shadowed by Basiji women, and, when she confronted them, they denied following her, then insults were exchanged, whereupon they escorted her away and pepper sprayed her face from point-blank range, according to Gooya News. Another source said she had been prevented from speaking by the din of angry demonstrators.
The government wasn’t the only one issuing intriguingly brazen statements. In addition to Karoubi’s and Grand Ayatollah Montazeri’s bold comments throughout this unrest, Mousavi has stepped up his rhetoric, to the surprise of myself. In this, he gives credence to the changing nature of the movement, of which he is in fact accommodating (and sheltering from stiffer reprisals in my view), but certainly not the impetus for. Even back during the campaign this was largely the case, where his platform seemed led and dictated largely by his followers. Why he might succeed in being a political survivor, is what Khatami lacked, credentials. Khatami was an unknown, an obscure cleric whose highest position was that of a liberal Minister of Culture. Mousavi ‘s résumé is more prestigious. He was Prime Minister (and last to hold the office before it was abandoned and replaced by the position of First Vice President) from 1981-1989, is member of the Expediency Council and Supreme Council for the Cultural Revolution, and has deep ashnas (connections) which are ever important in Persian culture, especially in regards to the power structure. Hardliners in the Majles (parliament) and more recently Mohseni-Eje’i have talked of arresting Mousavi. The problem with arresting and trying him, Karoubi and Khatami (and do I ever wish they would be that stupid!), is unleashing massive demonstrations like in June. The other conundrum for the Hardline leadership is that more so than the other two, removing Mousavi would be like removing a tricky Jenga block from the base of the IRI establishment. His main advisor, Ali Reza Beheshti, is also the son of a pivotal Revolutionary Grand Ayatollah who was assassinated by the Mohajedin-e Khalq. Never say never, but this is about as politically bullet-proof in the IRI as you can get.
Mousavi, for the Supreme Leader and the Hardliners, is much trickier to sideline than Khatami and his associates were, even though the latter was president. Perhaps because of this, and this is proof that this movement is not going away and has broadened its purpose, he said recently in an internet statement, “They ask us to forget about the election results as if the problem is only the elections … The problem of our people is not who the head of the government is or who is not. The problem is that this few are bolstering their egos to the shame of a great nation.” In other words, da’va sar-e een nist, that’s not what this fight is about. He’s making an implicit attack on Ahmadinejad, Pasdaran and even Khamene’i, who said questioning the results of the election was a sin. Ahmadinejad, by the way, has in fact probably been muzzled, as I had suspected. Another comment like calling the protesters a “bunch of rubbish,” could bring real meaning to the Farsi idiom, which translates more literally as chips and shavings (tinder).
Add to Mousavi’s statement that of Rafsanjani’s in Mashhad (an important pilgrimage city in northeastern Iran) at a Ghadir speech, “If the people of Iran want us to govern them, then we may stay. If not, then we should step aside.” In terms of both Farsi ambiguity and IRI-speak, this could be construed as a most direct warning that the rift in Iran has become so potentially volatile that it threatens rending the nation asunder, and Rafsanjani is prepared to go down with it. It also signals intent? Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi has recognized a need for national reconciliation, as well, “we should sit together and negotiate and the precondition to that is the creation of a calm atmosphere,” he has said. Of course, the state media organs downplay all of this and insist there is no problem. I do not wish to suggest that the IRI’s demise is imminent. Even in the heat of the June and July protests, I had little doubt whom would prevail (though I kept it largely to myself, not wanting to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm, including my own shred of hope), at least in the short term. But, while my optimism remains cautious, this is the longest challenge and threat to Khamene’i’s power in his rule as Supreme Leader. And there have been red lines crossed, which had never before been trespassed without severe consequences. The envelope continues to get pushed.
On the events of Student Day, students demonstrated on campuses across Iran, estimated at 10,000 by one source, though honestly, a number is impossible to ascertain. Cities where significant opposition gathered included: Arak, Gilan, Hamedan, Hormozgan, Ilam, Isfahan, Karaj, Kerman, Kermanshah, Mashhad, Najafabad, Qazvin, Rasht, Shahr Kord, Shiraz, Tabriz, Tehran, Yasouj, and Zanjan. The night before some of these cities echoed and shook with the rooftop cries of “Allaho Akbar”, while during the next day, the chants included some familiar standards with new ones put into the mix – targeting the Basij and Khamene’i with more singular focus and ferocity: “death to the dictator,” “students would rather die and never put up with suffering”, “Basiji go home — no free meal today,” “get lost, mercenary,” “what happened to the oil money? It was spent on the Basiji,” “guns, tanks, Basijis are no longer effectual,” “death to the oppressor, whether it’s the shah or the leader!”, “Khamene’i should know, he is on his way out,” “Khamene’i is a murderer, his Velayat-ship is void,” “pathetic dictator, the game goes on”, “our curse, our shame, our incompetent leader!”, “We’re not [like] the people of Kufa to stand behind Yazid,” “my martyred brother, I will avenge your blood,” “the cry of our nation: politics is separate from religion!”, and “this government is Fascist, it must stop at some point.” As if this didn’t drive the point home, Iranian flags sans the stylized martyr’s tulip spelling Allah in the center were waved, and, instead of being used as “shields” like they were during the big Azadi Square demonstration on June 15th, portraits of the Supreme Leader were being burnt and ripped apart. Ahmadinejad’s, as well (pffft, almost forgot about you).
The students outnumbered the police and Basijis in some cases, forcing the security forces to draw back, content to take photographs of the ‘scofflaws’ from the sidelines to be used later. Undaunted, many clashes were inevitable, and were sometimes said to have been instigated by students. It could not be limited to the students, though. The Washington Post reported one occasion where, “Passengers riding buses on Enghelab Street, which runs alongside the sprawling campus, joined in chants against the government as security forces beat people waiting at bus stops, witnesses said”. People from the streets also tried to gather and join up with the students (on 16 Azar Street, for one, the only entrance open to the students), but there was a full presence throughout the capital city. One person described it as almost martial law. At the end of the day 169 men and 39 women were arrested. Many more were dispersed by batons, shots in the air, tear gas, and paint balls (!), but flash crowds frustrated the police and all demonstrators were hailed with a deafening peal of honking horns from passing cars. There are no deaths reported. The government forces have been careful and efficient in this regard, which also is another conundrum for them. They are conscious that an unrestrained bloody crackdown could be the accelerant which burns their house down. They seem to be trying to neutralize agitators through quiet assassinations, and achieve a certain containment through arrests and intimidation. I wouldn’t be surprised if we find out more “suspicious deaths” are occurring than we know about right now at a later time, though. Then again, maybe I’ll be proven wrong. I certainly don’t wish anyone’s death.
All these student’s views, I should caution, very well may not represent the wider view of the Green Movement. There is some worry, that I share, that a more aggressive movement, aside from inviting reprisals from the government, might alienate what is really a broad coalition of opposition which runs the gamut in goals from mild reform, to overthrow of the whole government. I know I promised a more detailed analysis of what exactly the Green Movement is, but I’m asking my dear readers for an extension on that assignment. I’m trying to be thoughtful about it, and not project what I want them to be about. I also have the task of sifting through many, many differing opinions, anecdotal evidence and dubious polls (as all polls in Iran are). What I do know, is that it is evolving, and graffiti like this has been springing up in cities.
What is also new, is that the Kurds appear to be getting into the mix. According to Juan Cole, light armor have been dispatched to quell the situation in Iranian Kordestan (which has a long history with Tehran) after the region being relatively quiet for some time. Kurds joined in protests in the provincial capital of Sanandaj, which sent alarm bells a’ ringing. This is a region which itself declared independence following the shah’s flight and has continued to be a thorn in Tehran’s side ever since, much as Kurds have been in Ankara’s and Baghdad’s, as well. The Kurdish regions of Iran have been victim to a series of outrages by heavy handed Iranian armed forces. On this note, a Kurd studying in Tehran went missing (this along with the case of Ehsan Fattahian, mentioned in my last article). The Azeris are also becoming more active (and the Azeri are a driving force behind a good deal of revolution in Iranian history). I even saw a claim that the Qashqa’i tribe has threatened to move into Shiraz (maybe someone is playing me on historical themes?!). If this is all true, taken with the ongoing Balouchi problems (and one reason for strained relationships with Pakistan), it would mean that these ethnic groups with long-held grievances sense a weakened central government. They aren’t the only ones though. Even outside Iran, the Arab world, there appears to be increasing disenchanted, including Lebanese Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, sounding concerns. And speaking of beyond Iran’s borders, not only is the IRI stepping up surveillance internally, but the diaspora is reportedly being sent anonymous threatening e-mails and more. Is it from official elements within the IRI? I’m not sure, but I’ve seen enough of this type of behavior on Iranian site message boards, and at the Huffington Post to be fairly convinced intelligence is watching and has a cadre of bloggers to disseminate misinformation, choosing more often than not to merely dissemble and spread a general fog over all discussions on the political turmoil in Iran.
Instrumental to this fog is their effort to suppress the free press. One of many international lists the sorry IRI tops is that it is second only to the People’s Republic of China in jailed journalists, many of which who have been guests of the state in Ward 209, Evin Prison. Among the more recent are Shapour Kazemi, brother of Zahra Rahnavard who has been sentenced to a year for participation in “illegal protests”. Kambiz Norouzi, with the Association of Iranian Journalists, sentenced to two years prison and seventy-four lashes. Hengameh Shahidi, six years and three months. The harshest sentence so far is against Saeed Leilaz with no less than nine years. And Ahmad Zeidabadi, who was tried on Student Day itself, keeps having his sentence increased, though I heard five years of exile within Iran (Khuzestan is traditionally the Iranian “Siberia”, though I’m not certain where they send them anymore – though it’s generally hot, desolate, and sandy as a rule).
The following day on the 8th (17th, Anno Persico) there were reports of renewed clashes. No one is sure yet what precipitated these. Either it was students walking out on classes to protest their classmates detained, or security forces stormed the campus to cleanup those they hadn’t gotten the day before, reminiscent of fifty-six years ago. An undetermined amount have been arrested and detained. On the 8th, a humorous event took place, as well. Masoumeh Ebtekar, the former hostage taker (“Sister Mary”), at a Tehran Council meeting congratulated the success of 16 Azar, and passed out green candy to celebrate. Pavin, Ahmadinejad’s sister was there, and Masoumeh had an intermediary give her some expressly because it was green. Pavin refused, of course.
With that I’ll mention another chant heard on the 7th, “support, support, brave Iranians.” I would like to concur with what Trita Parsi and Dokhi Fassahian said in a recent article on The Huffington Post,
Looking at Iran solely from a nuclear prism proved disastrous for the Bush administration. The Obama administration will fare no better. It needs to swiftly reinvigorate its human rights approach to Iran and begin giving significant prominence to this issue.
They and I feel it is a mistake for President Obama not to speak out more forcibly condemning the human rights abuses in Iran. The sense is that Obama and the State Department don’t want to sabotage nuclear talks, or fall into Hardliner’s hands. Well, Kenneth Pollack, who was once privy to these types of policy decisions in the Clinton administration reflected upon them years later, and the lesson he took away was that if they bolt because of that kind of pretense, they were going to probably find another one. In any case, it is no more meddling than their weekly chants of “Death to America” and screeds against our foreign policy in the Middle East and everything else they accuse the West of. If they can dish it out, they should be able to take it. Ah, if Sarah Palin were a country, I’ve got one that fits her personality perfectly… I would propose a subtly crafted statement, or brief segment of a speech to be prepared, which acknowledges again that we have our mistakes, but to gently remind them of their own people and their duty to them. In fact this has been my whole problem with the nuclear obsession. It’s important, but it took the bravery of the Iranian opposition to pull our single-minded heads out of our asses and pay attention to them once again. I know it would probably be against US protocol as it stands, but quoting someone like this from Grand Ayatollah Montazeri would be apropos: “Independence is being free of foreign intervention and freedom is giving people the freedom to express their opinions. Not being put in prison for every protest one utters.” Of course, Montazeri has spent enough years under house arrest and I’m not sure he has many more. So, there’s always Ali Shariati, who is long dead, “Don’t believe what a government says if that government is the only entity that has the right of expression.” But hey, Obama, your call. Sa’di always works.
A few extra notes:
• Mohseni-Ejei has summoned Mehdi Rafsanjani to return to Iran (he’s been in self-imposed exile since the elections) to answer corruption charges, brought ultimately by Ahmadinejad though not directly (it’s uncivilized, things are always inferred, or you beat a guy in jail to point the finger). While I don’t suppose any Rafsanjani is clean, Mehdi did make an interesting counter-accussation of Ahmadinejad embezzling more. — This is another problem with cracks in such a tight-knit group, they’ve likely got lot’s of dirt on each other. Who knows, for example, all that Mousavi has got on Khamene’i as Prime Minister under his Presidency?
• Moharram will begin December 18th, with Ashura on the 27th. This could get really interesting!
• Until then a song by famed Ostad Mohammad Reza Shajarian, master of Persian classical, whom has refused to perform for the government or let them use his music for state propaganda. With words from late poet Fereydoon Moshiri, he wrote this song, called “Language of Fire” in honor of the Green Movement:
The language of fire and iron is the game of fury and bloodshed.
It is the language of Genghis Khan.
Come, sit down, talk, hear.
Perhaps the light of humanity will get through to your heart, too.
For story and full lyrics click on this link.
The students have become the teachers, and are writing their own history.