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Tehran and some 18 other cities across Iran erupted into pro-democracy protests last month, following a violent attack on a student dormitory in Tehran by intelligence ministry vigilantes on the night of July 9.
For the better part of three weeks in June and July, pro-democracy demonstrators took to the streets without fear. In a gesture reminiscent of the 1978-1979 revolution, many of them called on Revolutionary Guards troops and police sent to quell the protests to refrain from turning their weapons on their "brothers" and "sisters" n the streets.
On July 10, 25,000 protesters gathered in Tehran and demanded the resignation of senior hard-liners in the clerical government, the most audacious public protest in Iran since 1981. In Tabriz, a theology student was shot dead during clashes on July 11. Overseas Iranians launched protests in support of the pro-democracy demonstrators in Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, New York, and a dozen European cities.
And then, the demonstrations died out. Regime officials were telling whoever would listen that they had won.
Key to the turnaround was the attitude of President Khatami, the self-styled reformer who has been called "Ayatollah Gorbachev" by many in the West. During early demonstrations, protesters held aloft portraits of the popular President, appealing to his public pledges to uphold the "rule of law" and to allow greater freedom of expression. Despite their appeals, Mr. Khatami remained silent. He neither supported the students, nor called on the security forces to intervene.
But as the protests spread and became more violent, so did the pressure on Mr. Khatami to get off the fence. Finally, on July 13 he made his first public statement. "I am sure these people have evil aims," he said of the protest organizers. "They intend to foster violence in society, and we shall stand in their way. " Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani chimed in later that day, warning protesters against violence. "We will enforce security at any price."
Behind the scenes, Khatami was being subjected to intense arm twisting by the top commanders of the Islamic Republic Guards Corps. They sent him a letter on July 12, signed by 24 senior IRGC commanders, warning him of the consequences of failing to put down the protests.
"Mr. President, if you don't take a revolutionary decision today, and fail to abide by your Islamic and nationalistic duty, tomorrow will be too late and the damage done will be irreparable and beyond imagination," the commanders warned. Their letter was printed one week later by Kayhan, a Tehran daily published by the intelligence ministry. "Our patience has reached its limits," the commanders wrote. The letter was widely interpreted inside Iran as a scarcely veiled hint of a military coup, should Mr. Khatami fail to get the situation under control. It was signed by the commanders of the IRGC land, sea, and air forces, the Qods force (which handles overseas terrorist operations and deployments in Lebanon), the head of the Bassij force, three deputy commanders, six division commanders, two base commanders, and eight senior staff officers.
With Mr. Khatami firmly on board, the regime launched its counterattack on July 14, bussing tens of thousands of government employees to Tehran to stage a pro-regime rally. While no one was fooled as to the authenticity of the rally, it was an impressive show of force. Addressing the crowd, the Secretary of the National Security Council, Hassan Rouhani, known as a top aide to President Khatami, promised to arrest pro-democracy protesters and execute them. "Two nights ago we received decisive instructions to deal with these elements," he announced. "And at dusk yesterday we received a decisive revolutionary order to crush mercilessly and monumentally any move of these opportunist elements wherever it may occur. From today our people shall witness how in the arena our law-enforcement force and our heroic Bassij shall deal with these opportunists and riotous elements, if they simply dare to show their faces."
On July 17 and 18, plainclothes officers from the intelligence ministry, aided by armed pro-regime thugs, set up roadblocks around Tehran, and began rounding up more students and protesters. On the 18th, the ministry announced it had arrested the head of the National Association 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, and admitted he had spent four months in Europe and America last year meeting with overseas Iranians, some of whom had contributed money to help him. (In a plea for Mohammadi's life sent to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on July 22, an Iranian-American named Mohammad Hassibi stated that he had established the account on Mohammadi's behalf and that he was "the only person with access to this account." It contained "donations from Iranian patriots, all of which were in small increments," the total of which "never exceeded $3,535."). Since then, as many as 1500 people have been arrested. And the arrests continue.
Clinton wimps out: Throughout the demonstrations, the U.S. maintained virtual radio silence, with only passing comments from the State Department. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Persian Service interviewed student leaders, providing them a forum that led Ayatollah 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 successful crackdown did President Bill Clinton make any sort of official statement on the events. His remarks, at a White House press conference 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 way that's not helpful to the forces of openness and reform," Clinton said. "I think that people everywhere, particularly younger people, hope that they will be able to pursue their religious convictions and their personal dreams in an atmosphere of greater freedom that still allows them to be deeply loyal to their nation. I think the Iranian people obviously love their country and are proud of its history and have enormous potential. And I just hope they find a way to work through all this and I believe they will."
Far from "vigorously supporting the forces of change by reaching out to the Iranian people," as Washington-based analyst Patrick Clawson urged in a July 16 Wall Street Journal opinion piece, the President was going out of his way to signal that the U.S. government had nothing to do with the demonstrations and was not supporting them in any way. With timing that must have comforted regime hard-liners, on July 27 the State Department formally lifted restrictions on the sale of food, medicine, and medical equipment to Iran, a loosening that prominent bazaaris close to Ayatollah Khamene'i had been lobbying to achieve through Washington lawyer Richard Bliss for several 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 the disturbances, Mr. Khatami reconfirmed his commitment to the clerical system, to reform, and to repression of the pro-democracy movement - all in one breath - in speeches in the Western Iranian city of Hamadan from July 27-29.
While condemning the intelligence ministry attack on student dormitories (which a Tehran University official later said destroyed 800 rooms and 2,400 beds), Mr. Khatami said that the subsequent pro-democracy movement was "an effort to go beyond the boundaries. It was to express vengeance toward the system... an act against national security with deviant slogans." He added that security in Iran can only be guaranteed through "force and oppression." At the same time, however, he pledged to continue his reforms. "We are under a covenant with you to defend the legitimate civil and legal freedom of this nation," Mr. Khatami said.
Some might accuse Mr. Khatami of talking out of three sides of his mouth. But to an Iranian audience, steeped in the coded rhetoric of twenty years of absolute clerical rule, the message was clear. The "legitimate freedoms" Mr. Khatami pledged to defend derived from the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, adopted at the Revolution's heyday in 1980. That constitution guarantees a broad range of civil and political rights to right-thinking men of Persian ethnic background, while relegating to second-class citizen status Iranian women, religious and ethnic minorities, and declaring holy war on advocates of secular government, who are considered to have sinned against religion.
Although Western-style democracy has no place in Mr. Khatami's Iran, it would appear he and his clerical colleagues have unleashed forces they are unable to control.
Press law: The most significant motor of change in Iran over the past two years has been the liberalization of the laws governing the press. Hundreds of new dailies, weeklies, and monthlies have sprouted up inside Iran, sporting every point of view from the openly pro-Western and pro-democracy tone of Neshat, to the rabid Islamic extremists of Jebheh, a daily associated with the Ansar-e Hezbollah, the vigilante group accused of working hand in glove with the intelligence ministry.
It is no coincidence that the student protests on July 8 were sparked by an attempt the day before to close the most prominent of the pro-reform newspapers, Salam. Several dozen journalists have been arrested over the past month, editors and publishers have been convicted in special courts, and several papers closed. On July 25, the Special Court of the Clergy convicted Salam publisher Hojjat-ol eslam Mohammad Musavi-Khoiniha, who led the takeover of the U.S. embassy in 1979 and has played a central role in the regime ever since, on three violations of the press law.
On August 3, Iran's parliament, dominated by hard-liners, voted a tough new law that would make almost any criticism of the state illegal and punishable by death. The new law states: "Any act aimed at harming the independence of the nation" or "any effort to foment unrest and discord among the people" would be illegal and punishable by death. It defined political crimes against the state as "any violent or peaceful act by a person or group against the regime, the social and political rights of citizens and the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic."
While the new law must be approved by Mr. Khatami and his cabinet and reviewed by the Council of Guardians, it reinforces the get-tough message of the regime leaders.
Clearly the leadership believe they have broken the back of the pro-democracy movement. The big question now is how far can the clerics push ordinary Iranians into abandoning their thirst for freedom and their aspirations for some semblance of a "normal" life, before they rise in revolt again? The regime leaders feel they can push very far. They may discover that they have made a fatal mistake, for now that Iranians have begun to taste freedom it is increasingly unlikely 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 Friday prayer sermon at Tehran University on July 30. He said that CIA director George Tenet had predicted that 1999 would be "a year of some unexpected events in Iran... This, in fact, shows that the U.S. agency was fully aware of the behind-the-scene moves inciting the insurgencies,'' Khamene'i said. Tenet made that prediction during his annual world hot spots testimony before the Congress in February. The intelligence ministry has launched its own "investigation" of the causes of the riots which will be released soon, once it has completed interrogating and torturing the jailed student and nationalist leaders.
A bizarre twist was suggested by Majlis speaker Nateq-Nouri, a staunch Khamene'i ally. He told parliament on Aug. 1 that the attack against the student dormitory, which was carried out by intelligence ministry thugs, was related to the last November's murder of dissident leaders Darioush and Parvaneh Forouhar. "The two incidents are linked," he said.
Nateq-Nouri's hint was fleshed out on Aug. 4 in an official statement from the armed forces judicial unit investigating the killings that was carried on the IRNA wire. The statement claimed that the killings were a plot orchestrated by a deputy minister of intelligence, "operating without official sanction or authorization," and specifically without the knowledge of then intelligence minister Qorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi, who eventually resigned as MOIS involvement in the killings became public. "This case is more than a case of a few simple murders. It is in reality an ill-omened plot against the system. The perpetrators of these barbaric crimes were aiming to create a crisis and instability in the society and they were aiming to set the political factions and the revolutionary forces at each other's throats.''
Trouble to come: The next big test will be February's parliamentary elections. As in previous years, candidates must be vetted by the Council of Guardians, a process that was sharply criticized in 1996 - before President Khatami's election and before the liberalization of the press. Under current conditions, election rigging - screening out candidates who have been critical of the regime, or who are overly supportive of reform - could provoke to a massive popular revolt.
Jane's Intelligence Review reports in its August issue that Majlis hard-liners have launched intensive investigative of potential reformist candidates, and could launch private law suits against them in an effort to provide a fig leaf to the Council of Guardians for disqualifying them.
At the same time, powerful figures around Ayatollah Khamene'i have been justifying the physical elimination of regime opponents as a defense of Islam. Hojjat-ol eslam Taraqqi, a Majlis deputy from Mashad, recently referred to the 1965 assassination of Prime Minister Mansour by an Islamic zealot in a Majlis speech: "Today, also, there are many brave and self-sacrificing youths who are ready to blast open the breasts of those who conspire to bring down the most holy Islamic system of government in the world," he said.
In such a climate, domestic politics in Iran are likely to get rough in the coming months.