Protests in Iran today provide glimpse of fragmented state

Reid Smith Contributor
Font Size:

In this case, the calm before the storm may be contrived.

Preparing for today’s events, the largest state-sanctioned political event in Iran, marking the 31st anniversary of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s return from exile and the overthrow of the Shah’s monarchy, authorities have enforced an information embargo on protesters in the Islamic Republic.

Opposition leadership had planned to take advantage of this historic backdrop to stage a series of massive demonstrations.

Typically, the government’s reaction to these planned protests has been swift and severe. Phones have been jammed. Text-messaging and Internet service has been crippled. Most alarmingly, reports are circulating that journalists have been arrested. The one constant seems to be the relentless public warnings issued by the government that anti-regime demonstration will not be tolerated and protesters will face harsh consequences.

Until the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad last June, Iran had not witnessed such political upheaval since Khomeini’s return. While there have been numerous outbreaks of violence since the contested elections, recent events have transpired to create a perfect storm of political tension.

On Dec. 21, the influential dissident, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, died in his sleep of heart failure at his home in the holy city of Qom. For years, he had been one of the most outspoken critics of Iranian leadership, and had become the spiritual leader of the Green Movement. His position of stature in the country’s Shi’a clerical hierarchy added a unique gravitas to his disapproval of the government. Grand Ayatollah Montazeri embodied a broadening thread of theological criticism emerging from Iran’s senior religious leadership. His passing sparked a series of confrontations between opposition and state authorities, as security forces attempted to forcibly suppress mourners who had taken to the streets in a show of support for his principles.

Bloody demonstrations then marred the Shi’a religious rite of Ashura on Dec. 27, when eight protestors were shot dead by government forces. Mir Hossein Moussavi, Ahmedinejad’s primary opponent in the June election and de facto leader of the opposition movement, lost his nephew in these hostilities. The government’s decision to use lethal force marked a clear escalation in the Iranian crackdown on protestors.

For the past month, tensions have simmered. Two activists were declared “mohareb” and executed as “enemies of God” for their connection with the unrest that erupted after last year’s disputed election. Last week, government authorities warned Iranians that an additional nine people supposedly arrested during the post-election upheaval would be executed. While Iran’s chief justice, Ayatollah Sadeq Larijan, has refused to yield to demands from hardliners to hasten further executions, he has not ruled out capital punishment for “those who would harm the Islamic state.”

Now, as opposition leaders Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, another contender in the June election, have called for supporters to gather on Thursday, the likelihood of violence is heightened. Naturally, authorities have promised to crush any demonstrations deemed anti-government.

Today’s events will provide a unique glimpse into the fragmentation of the Iranian state given this historic face-off between opposition and government forces. The stage-set of Khomeini’s momentous homecoming – itself the catalyst for the original upheaval of 1979—provides an ideal backdrop for both sides to reclaim his revolutionary mantle. It’s significant that the rivalry between Moussavi and the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, dates back to their rise as revolutionaries loyal to Khomeini.

Moussavi’s use of this anniversary is calculated. He is stating, in no uncertain terms, that the 1979 Islamic Revolution has fallen short of its purpose. In his words, “Stifling the media, filling the prisons and brutally killing people who peacefully demand their rights in the streets indicate the roots of tyranny and dictatorship remain from the monarchist era. I don’t believe that the revolution achieved its goals.” The eradication of these “roots of tyranny and dictatorship,” that fueled Khomeini’s revolution has come to define the Green Movement. However, in making this case public, Moussavi has reached the limit of what he can say without being detained, imprisoned, or worse.

As was the case in 1979, Moussavi is ready and willing to die for his cause. Despite their best efforts to quiet the opposition, government authorities may have to oblige him, if they wish to silence him.

Reid Smith has worked as a research associate specializing on U.S. policy in the Middle East and as a political speechwriter. His graduate work at American University’s School of International Service was focused on the politics of Shi’a majority in Iraq.