Iran: Fighting over the corpse
As the two wings of the regime continue to squabble, write Chris Strafford and Yassamine Mather, the opposition movement grows in radicalism and confidence
There seems to be no end to the crisis which has erupted after Iranian state television showed protesters tearing down or burning images of ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini following the nationwide student protests of December 7. None of the videos revealed the faces of those responsible, they were not linked to any one student demonstration or protest and most people in Iran believe the screening was a deliberate act by supporters of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or supreme leader Ali Khamenei - or both - to increase tension and justify further repression. In fact the event has given a new dimension to the current political conflict between the two factions of the regime.
The opposition denies charges that its supporters were responsible for ‘desecration’ of Khomeini’s image. Prosecutors in Tehran claimed a number of people have been arrested and there would be “no mercy towards those who insulted the imam”. Ahmadinejad is warning that a “hurricane of the revolutionary anger of the nation” is coming. In a speech on December 13 Khamenei went further: “Some have converted the election campaign into a campaign against the entire system.”
The “incident” is being used by conservatives to attack reformist opponents - while the ‘green movement’ is blaming Ahmadinejad supporters (of course, repeated use of Photoshop to multiply the number of people attending Ahmadinejad rallies has left the government open to accusations of fraud). The two wings of the regime are fighting over Khomeini’s corpse.
The supreme leader’s pictures are regularly torn and set on fire these days, yet there seemed to be no major outcry about the ‘desecration’ of the images of god’s current representative on earth, as opposed to the first supreme leader. Many in Iran believe the fabrication of the scandal shows a level of desperation in the government and the ruling faction, as various previous attempts to stop the protests have clearly failed.
Irrespective of who is responsible for the “incident”, there is no doubt we are witnessing a deliberate escalation of the current conflict by the government and its supporters. This could cost them dear for a number of reasons.
Attempts to blame the ‘reformist’ opposition seem to have backfired. There is a consensus even amongst the regime’s supporters that Mir-Hossein Moussavi, ayatollah Mohammad Khatami and Mehdi Karroubi, who boast of being the genuine disciples of Khomeini, had little to do with the ‘desecration’ and, of course, if it is true that the imam’s picture was deliberately set on fire by hard-line fundamentalists for political gain, they will be the losers in this piece of theatre. It should also be noted that some of Khomeini’s family, including his grandchildren, are involved in the opposition reformist movement.
Putting so much focus to the affair carries its own risks. Now that there is nothing sacred about the image of “the imam”, the Islamic Republic’s icons, values and therefore legitimacy are clearly being called into question. In fact many amongst Iran’s young population never had any ‘respect’ for Khomeini in the first place and this incident might make them braver and more determined in challenging every aspect of the Islamic regime.
Each day that goes by, the gap between the protesters and the leaders of the ‘green movement’ increases. The statements of Moussavi, Khatami and Karroubi expressing allegiance to Khomeini will not go down well with many of their own supporters. Moussavi is clearly concerned that he is losing control of the protests, as he keeps warning everyone about the threat of “radicalism”. On Monday December 15 he said: “If people’s questions were answered and they were not confronted violently, we would not see some of the controversial moves today ... People want an end to the security-obsessed atmosphere: in such an atmosphere radicalism grows.”
Of course, he is right about the increased radicalisation of the protests. The first demonstrations in June were in opposition to vote-rigging. Many of the slogans addressed the issue of electoral fraud and were against Ahmadinejad. The supreme leader’s support for his president radicalised the movement, as slogans against the vali faghih (Khamenei) started to become more prominent in September and October, despite attempts by ‘reformists’ to seek compromises with him.
The demonstration of November 4 was very different from those in the summer. Slogans against the entire regime and in particular against Khamenei dominated the marches, not only in Tehran, but also in dozens of other cities. By December 7 the slogans were almost entirely against the supreme leader - it was as though Ahmadinejad did not matter any more. Students shouted, “Moussavi is an excuse! The entire regime is the target!” That is why, even if the ‘desecration’ of Khomeini’s image was staged by the ultra-conservatives, it nevertheless marks a new phase in the protests, one from which both factions of the regime and the protesters cannot retreat. Ironically this stupid stunt, probably devised by Ahmadinejad supporters, is a risk too far. As one commentator put it this week, what will happen at the next protest? Will they burn the Koran?
The regime has also faced an online backlash after the state’s news agency published a picture of student activist Majid Tavakoli dressed in a chador, a black, head-to-toe garment worn by Iranian women, as he was trying to escape arrest by the security forces. Hundreds of men, amongst them well known authors, film directors, artists and academics posted pictures of themselves on the internet wearing women’s headscarves as a political statement. The regime claimed Tavakoli had been caught wearing the veil in an attempt to hide himself. However, opposition bloggers insisted that the photo as published had been manipulated. The government was hoping the pictures would humiliate Majid Tavakoli, presumably because all ‘macho’ men would see the picture as a sign of shame and weakness. Again the scheme backfired: Iranian men of all ages seemed proud to be photographed in headscarves, and Tavakoli’s last speech before his arrest is becoming one of the most popular Youtube videos of the recent upsurge.
Tens of thousands of students have continued their protests throughout Iran. Over the weekend youth and workers joined them and further swelled the numbers. It should be noted that, whilst the major media pick up on one or two big protests, there are others taking place every day in varying forms. One only has to search Youtube or the endless blogs from Iranian students to get a sense of the size and scope of the movement.
Respect MP George Galloway said on June 15 that the protests “will soon fizzle out”.1 How wrong he was. This week actions have taken place at universities in Isfahan, Tehran (where students have begun a hunger strike against the arrest of their comrades and have staged protests to call for the resignation of the principal), Qazvin, Kerman, Al-Zahra, Shiraz, Beheshti (where some brave students waved a red flag), Sharif and Shahroud. High school students in Tehran and Isfahan have also taken to the streets; young women are at the forefront of these demonstrations, with several inspiring videos captured on mobile phones and distributed across the internet.2
Officially the regime says that they arrested 204 students during last week’s protests. However, this figure is a lot lower than the reality, as many students were taken to secret detention centres - and a large number of arrests continued to take place afterwards. The show trials that followed the June protests have now been taken off air, but 80 people have been sentenced to prison terms and five have been given the death penalty.
Long-time imprisoned student Mohommad Pourabdollah was sentenced to six years in prison by the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary court. A member of the leftwing Students for Freedom and Equality, he was arrested on February 12 and has spent a large part of his incarceration in solitary confinement and has been tortured by guards and interrogators. His heavy sentence is no doubt intended as a message to students in the opposition movement who raise their head above the parapet.
The solidarity movement needs to condemn these arrests and call for the immediate release of comrade Pourabdollah, a committed anti-imperialist, along with all other political prisoners in Iran. On December 18 Iranian students from the newly established Independent Left Students are set to confront Ahmadinejad at the Copenhagen climate conference.
Iran’s nuclear programme has again been the focus of media attention, with the regime testing its medium-range missile, the Sejil-2, on December 16. The Sejil-2 has an alleged range that could hit Israel and all US military bases in the region. This comes in the same week that intelligence agencies leaked documents to The Times claiming the regime is continuing its nuclear weapons programme.3 The document apparently describes the design of the trigger device involving uranium deuteride, which has no civilian use. This comes as talks between the Islamic Republic and the west have ground to a halt.
Irrespective of the truth of the allegations, it is quite clear that the regime is seeking to use the threat of more sanctions and military action by the US or Israel to strengthen its faltering position, and the left should be very clear: any further sanctions that are imposed on Iran will hit those elements that are capable of bringing substantial change in Iran - the working class and the poor. Gordon Brown has already said that further sanction have to be implemented. This is something the anti-war movement must take seriously. Sanctions against Iran are a stepping stone to military aggression.