Tel: (301) 946-2918. Fax: (301)942-5341
Copyright © 1999, by the Middle East DataProject, Inc. All rights reserved.
Tehran and some 18 other cities across Iran erupted intopro-democracy protests last month, following a violent attack on astudent dormitory in Tehran by intelligence ministry vigilantes onthe night of July 9.
For the better part of three weeks in June and July, pro-democracydemonstrators took to the streets without fear. In a gesturereminiscent of the 1978-1979 revolution, many of them called onRevolutionary Guards troops and police sent to quell the protests torefrain from turning their weapons on their "brothers" and "sisters"n the streets.
On July 10, 25,000 protesters gathered in Tehran and demanded theresignation of senior hard-liners in the clerical government, themost audacious public protest in Iran since 1981. In Tabriz, atheology student was shot dead during clashes on July 11. OverseasIranians launched protests in support of the pro-democracydemonstrators in Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, New York, and a dozenEuropean cities.
And then, the demonstrations died out. Regime officials weretelling whoever would listen that they had won.
Key to the turnaround was the attitude of President Khatami, theself-styled reformer who has been called "Ayatollah Gorbachev" bymany in the West. During early demonstrations, protesters held aloftportraits of the popular President, appealing to his public pledgesto uphold the "rule of law" and to allow greater freedom ofexpression. Despite their appeals, Mr. Khatami remained silent. Heneither supported the students, nor called on the security forces tointervene.
But as the protests spread and became more violent, so did thepressure on Mr. Khatami to get off the fence. Finally, on July 13 hemade his first public statement. "I am sure these people have evilaims," he said of the protest organizers. "They intend to fosterviolence in society, and we shall stand in their way. " DefenseMinister Ali Shamkhani chimed in later that day, warning protestersagainst violence. "We will enforce security at any price."
Behind the scenes, Khatami was being subjected to intense armtwisting by the top commanders of the Islamic Republic Guards Corps.They sent him a letter on July 12, signed by 24 senior IRGCcommanders, warning him of the consequences of failing to put downthe protests.
"Mr. President, if you don't take a revolutionary decision today,and fail to abide by your Islamic and nationalistic duty, tomorrowwill be too late and the damage done will be irreparable and beyondimagination," the commanders warned. Their letter was printed oneweek later by Kayhan, a Tehran daily published by the intelligenceministry. "Our patience has reached its limits," the commanderswrote. The letter was widely interpreted inside Iran as a scarcelyveiled hint of a military coup, should Mr. Khatami fail to get thesituation under control. It was signed by the commanders of the IRGCland, sea, and air forces, the Qods force (which handles overseasterrorist operations and deployments in Lebanon), the head of theBassij force, three deputy commanders, six division commanders, twobase commanders, and eight senior staff officers.
With Mr. Khatami firmly on board, the regime launched itscounterattack on July 14, bussing tens of thousands of governmentemployees to Tehran to stage a pro-regime rally. While no one wasfooled as to the authenticity of the rally, it was an impressive showof force. Addressing the crowd, the Secretary of the NationalSecurity Council, Hassan Rouhani, known as a top aide to PresidentKhatami, promised to arrest pro-democracy protesters and executethem. "Two nights ago we received decisive instructions to deal withthese elements," he announced. "And at dusk yesterday we received adecisive revolutionary order to crush mercilessly and monumentallyany move of these opportunist elements wherever it may occur. Fromtoday our people shall witness how in the arena our law-enforcementforce and our heroic Bassij shall deal with these opportunists andriotous elements, if they simply dare to show their faces."
On July 17 and 18, plainclothes officers from the intelligenceministry, aided by armed pro-regime thugs, set up roadblocks aroundTehran, and began rounding up more students and protesters. On the18th, the ministry announced it had arrested the head of the NationalAssociation of Iranian Students, Manoucher Mohammadi, and his deputy,Qolamreza Mohajeri-Nezhad. On the 19th and again on the 26th,state-run television broadcast heavily edited segments of Mohammadi's"confession." In the tape, he appeared swollen and drugged, andadmitted he had spent four months in Europe and America last yearmeeting with overseas Iranians, some of whom had contributed money tohelp him. (In a plea for Mohammadi's life sent to UN SecretaryGeneral Kofi Annan on July 22, an Iranian-American named MohammadHassibi stated that he had established the account on Mohammadi'sbehalf and that he was "the only person with access to this account."It contained "donations from Iranian patriots, all of which were insmall increments," the total of which "never exceeded $3,535.").Since then, as many as 1500 people have been arrested. And thearrests continue.
Clinton wimps out: Throughout the demonstrations, the U.S.maintained virtual radio silence, with only passing comments from theState Department. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Persian Serviceinterviewed student leaders, providing them a forum that ledAyatollah Khamene'i to single out the radio later on as having"instigated" the pro-democracy demonstrations.
Only once it was clear that the regime had launched a successfulcrackdown did President Bill Clinton make any sort of officialstatement on the events. His remarks, at a White House pressconference on July 21, were like a ritual washing of hands. "Frankly,I'm reluctant to say anything for fear that it will be used in a waythat's not helpful to the forces of openness and reform," Clintonsaid. "I think that people everywhere, particularly younger people,hope that they will be able to pursue their religious convictions andtheir personal dreams in an atmosphere of greater freedom that stillallows them to be deeply loyal to their nation. I think the Iranianpeople obviously love their country and are proud of its history andhave enormous potential. And I just hope they find a way to workthrough all this and I believe they will."
Far from "vigorously supporting the forces of change by reachingout to the Iranian people," as Washington-based analyst PatrickClawson urged in a July 16 Wall Street Journal opinion piece, thePresident was going out of his way to signal that the U.S. governmenthad nothing to do with the demonstrations and was not supporting themin any way. With timing that must have comforted regime hard-liners,on July 27 the State Department formally lifted restrictions on thesale of food, medicine, and medical equipment to Iran, a looseningthat prominent bazaaris close to Ayatollah Khamene'i had beenlobbying to achieve through Washington lawyer Richard Bliss forseveral months. (Cf. "Senators support wheat sales," TIB 1/11/99, and"U.S. partially lifts sanctions," TIB 5/3/99).
Khatami to Hamadan: In his first trip outside of Tehran since thedisturbances, Mr. Khatami reconfirmed his commitment to the clericalsystem, to reform, and to repression of the pro-democracy movement -all in one breath - in speeches in the Western Iranian city ofHamadan from July 27-29.
While condemning the intelligence ministry attack on studentdormitories (which a Tehran University official later said destroyed800 rooms and 2,400 beds), Mr. Khatami said that the subsequentpro-democracy movement was "an effort to go beyond the boundaries. Itwas to express vengeance toward the system... an act against nationalsecurity with deviant slogans." He added that security in Iran canonly be guaranteed through "force and oppression." At the same time,however, he pledged to continue his reforms. "We are under a covenantwith you to defend the legitimate civil and legal freedom of thisnation," Mr. Khatami said.
Some might accuse Mr. Khatami of talking out of three sides of hismouth. But to an Iranian audience, steeped in the coded rhetoric oftwenty years of absolute clerical rule, the message was clear. The"legitimate freedoms" Mr. Khatami pledged to defend derived from theConstitution of the Islamic Republic, adopted at the Revolution'sheyday in 1980. That constitution guarantees a broad range of civiland political rights to right-thinking men of Persian ethnicbackground, while relegating to second-class citizen status Iranianwomen, religious and ethnic minorities, and declaring holy war onadvocates of secular government, who are considered to have sinnedagainst religion.
Although Western-style democracy has no place in Mr. Khatami'sIran, it would appear he and his clerical colleagues have unleashedforces they are unable to control.
Press law: The most significant motor of change in Iran over thepast two years has been the liberalization of the laws governing thepress. Hundreds of new dailies, weeklies, and monthlies have sproutedup inside Iran, sporting every point of view from the openlypro-Western and pro-democracy tone of Neshat, to the rabid Islamicextremists of Jebheh, a daily associated with the Ansar-e Hezbollah,the vigilante group accused of working hand in glove with theintelligence ministry.
It is no coincidence that the student protests on July 8 weresparked by an attempt the day before to close the most prominent ofthe pro-reform newspapers, Salam. Several dozen journalists have beenarrested over the past month, editors and publishers have beenconvicted in special courts, and several papers closed. On July 25,the Special Court of the Clergy convicted Salam publisher Hojjat-oleslam Mohammad Musavi-Khoiniha, who led the takeover of the U.S.embassy in 1979 and has played a central role in the regime eversince, on three violations of the press law.
On August 3, Iran's parliament, dominated by hard-liners, voted atough new law that would make almost any criticism of the stateillegal and punishable by death. The new law states: "Any act aimedat harming the independence of the nation" or "any effort to fomentunrest and discord among the people" would be illegal and punishableby death. It defined political crimes against the state as "anyviolent or peaceful act by a person or group against the regime, thesocial and political rights of citizens and the sovereignty of theIslamic Republic."
While the new law must be approved by Mr. Khatami and his cabinetand reviewed by the Council of Guardians, it reinforces the get-toughmessage of the regime leaders.
Clearly the leadership believe they have broken the back of thepro-democracy movement. The big question now is how far can theclerics push ordinary Iranians into abandoning their thirst forfreedom and their aspirations for some semblance of a "normal" life,before they rise in revolt again? The regime leaders feel they canpush very far. They may discover that they have made a fatal mistake,for now that Iranians have begun to taste freedom it is increasinglyunlikely they will be willing to give it away.
Plot, counterplot: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene'i(predictably) blamed the protests on the United States in his Fridayprayer sermon at Tehran University on July 30. He said that CIAdirector George Tenet had predicted that 1999 would be "a year ofsome unexpected events in Iran... This, in fact, shows that the U.S.agency was fully aware of the behind-the-scene moves inciting theinsurgencies,'' Khamene'i said. Tenet made that prediction during hisannual world hot spots testimony before the Congress in February. Theintelligence ministry has launched its own "investigation" of thecauses of the riots which will be released soon, once it hascompleted interrogating and torturing the jailed student andnationalist leaders.
A bizarre twist was suggested by Majlis speaker Nateq-Nouri, astaunch Khamene'i ally. He told parliament on Aug. 1 that the attackagainst the student dormitory, which was carried out by intelligenceministry thugs, was related to the last November's murder ofdissident leaders Darioush and Parvaneh Forouhar. "The two incidentsare linked," he said.
Nateq-Nouri's hint was fleshed out on Aug. 4 in an officialstatement from the armed forces judicial unit investigating thekillings that was carried on the IRNA wire. The statement claimedthat the killings were a plot orchestrated by a deputy minister ofintelligence, "operating without official sanction or authorization,"and specifically without the knowledge of then intelligence ministerQorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi, who eventually resigned as MOISinvolvement in the killings became public. "This case is more than acase of a few simple murders. It is in reality an ill-omened plotagainst the system. The perpetrators of these barbaric crimes wereaiming to create a crisis and instability in the society and theywere aiming to set the political factions and the revolutionaryforces at each other's throats.''
Trouble to come: The next big test will be February'sparliamentary elections. As in previous years, candidates must bevetted by the Council of Guardians, a process that was sharplycriticized in 1996 - before President Khatami's election and beforethe liberalization of the press. Under current conditions, electionrigging - screening out candidates who have been critical of theregime, or who are overly supportive of reform - could provoke to amassive popular revolt.
Jane's Intelligence Review reports in its August issue that Majlishard-liners have launched intensive investigative of potentialreformist candidates, and could launch private law suits against themin an effort to provide a fig leaf to the Council of Guardians fordisqualifying them.
At the same time, powerful figures around Ayatollah Khamene'i havebeen justifying the physical elimination of regime opponents as adefense of Islam. Hojjat-ol eslam Taraqqi, a Majlis deputy fromMashad, recently referred to the 1965 assassination of Prime MinisterMansour by an Islamic zealot in a Majlis speech: "Today, also, thereare many brave and self-sacrificing youths who are ready to blastopen the breasts of those who conspire to bring down the most holyIslamic system of government in the world," he said.
In such a climate, domestic politics in Iran are likely to getrough in the coming months.