Revolution spreads to Iran
Yassamine Mather reports on the effects of the Egyptian upsurge
As early as Sunday February 13 riot police and the bassiji militia took up positions in the main streets of Tehran in preparation for the demonstration called for the following day. ‘Reformist’ leaders Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi were put under house arrest and internet connection to many sites was blocked.
Then, as darkness fell, all over Tehran people went onto their rooftops, shouting, “Allah-o-akbar” (God is great) and “Marg bar dictator” (Down with the dictator).
Videos of the night-time demonstration appeared quickly online and by the morning of Monday February 14 many Iranian were aware that anti-government protests were taking place. Tehran residents were surprised to find that mobile phones were working (they had been blocked at around 4pm the previous day) and protestors could organise routes, points of assembly …
However, even taking into account all these positive signs, no-one could have predicted the size and extent of the demonstrations - the most significant anti-government protest since security forces cracked down on a series of massive events in 2009. Indeed, a leaked document from the pro-Khamenei Islamic parliament security committee puts the number of Monday’s protestors in Tehran at one million.
Revolutionary guards used tear gas, wielded batons and opened fire to disperse protestors, yet large numbers gathered, particularly in central and poorer districts of Tehran. The majority of the demonstrators were young working class men and women. There were clashes between police and demonstrators, and dozens of arrests, in Isfahan, Tabriz, Shiraz, Mashad and Rasht.
Iranians had been frustrated for weeks, as they witnessed demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. Young Iranians were convinced their protests of summer of 2009 had inspired these demonstrations. Many were arguing why, in comparison with Egypt, their own larger demonstrations then (three million in Tehran alone) had failed to overthrow the regime, when smaller protests led to Hosni Mubarak’s departure. There had been an element of despair, although the events in Tunisia and Egypt had certainly put to rest claims made throughout 2009 and early 2010 by leaders of the green movement, as well as by the reformists of the ‘official communist’ Tudeh Party and Fedayeen Majority, that the ‘era of revolutions is over’, that one should be realistic and demand the ‘possible’: ie, reform within the regime.
Other apologists for the Iranian regime, such as the Socialist Workers Party’s Elaheh Rostami-Povey, must also feel embarrassed by recent events in Arab capitals, as well as in Tehran. Her recent book, entitled Iran’s influence across the Middle East and the world, is described by her SWP comrade, Alex Callinicos, as a “fascinating study of the evolution of the Islamic Republican regime in Iran, of its complex and increasingly conflictual relationship with popular and social movements, and of its impact on the wider Middle East. This fine product of Elaheh Rostami-Povey’s critical scholarship is essential reading for anyone who refuses to settle for mythological and demonising representations of post-revolutionary Iran.” The author claimed that Iran’s clerical regime and its president has considerable support in the “Arab street”.
Amongst the many protests in Egypt and Tunisia not only were there no signs of support for the Islamic Republic, but protestors in Tahrir Square called on Iranians to follow their example and continue their protests for democracy. Indeed every time Iran’s rulers tried to imply that Arab protestors were following in the traditions of the revolution led by ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, secular and religious protestors united to denounce such comparisons. The reaction of Iran’s Islamic rulers was predictable: they jammed Al Jazeera TV’s broadcasts to avoid ‘revolutionary contamination’.
Last week Iran’s Islamist hardliners’ desperate efforts to downplay the democratic thrust of the Egyptian revolution and present it as an Islamic, Iran-inspired uprising backfired, when even the Muslim Brotherhood protested at this falsification. By February 14 worse was to follow (for the regime). Tens of thousands of Iranians were shouting: “Mubarak, Ben Ali - Seyed Ali - it’s your turn” (referring, of course, to supreme leader Seyed Ali Khamenei alongside the departed rulers of Egypt and Tunisia). Other prominent slogans were “Khamenei - buy a one-way ticket out of Iran”; and “Poor Seyed Ali - the movement is still alive” (referring to Khamenei’s claims that the opposition had now gone away).
In central Tehran large posters of Khomeini and Khamenei were torn down and set on fire. As night fell, youths gathered in many neighbourhoods and set fire to bins. Despite the fears of the days preceding February 14, the protests were a huge success. According to eyewitness Hamid Farokhnia, a staff writer at Iran Labour Report, “People were smiling with joy for the first time in a long while. Likewise, many bassiji and [police] officers looked positively confused and crestfallen.”
A day after the street protests members of the Iranian parliament called for opposition leaders Karroubi and Moussavi to be prosecuted and sentenced to death for stirring unrest. Despite this, Moussavi’s spokesperson called the protests a major success and did not condemn the anti-Khamenei slogans, as was the case on previous occasions. While the ‘reformists’ have evidently not joined the revolution, this shows just how far the movement has been radicalised. Unlike in 2009, there is now a clear and unambiguous call for the overthrow of the entire regime.
After months of despondency, optimism has returned. Students and workers we contacted were enthused by this week’s events, even though some opposition groups believe up to 1,500 people have been arrested during the protests. In fact two were killed and in a Kafkaesque attempt at falsification the regime claimed 26-year-old Sane Jaleh, killed on February 14, was a member of the bassiji. Sane’s friends have posted photos of him alongside the dissident ayatollah, Hussein-Ali Montazeri, who died in 2009, to prove that he was in fact a Moussavi supporter.
Acting police commander general Ahmad Reza Radan said dozens of people, including nine members of the security forces, had been injured. It is true that in a show of confidence protestors attacked a number of bassiji - Radan might yet regret exaggerating the protestors’ success in confronting security forces.