Insight on the News - World
Posted July 8, 2003
Issue dated 7/22/03
With the leaders of the latest round of student protests now injail, the freedom movement in Iran has taken up spray paint andslogans to express its displeasure with the ruling clerics. "Theymust go!" declares one popular slogan, painted on the wall of aTehran house. "Khatami the incompetent, accomplice of crime!"announces another, referring to Iran's so-called "reformist"president who recently ordered his police to crack down on thestudents.
Every night, as new slogans appear on the walls of Tehran, squadsof basijis (paramilitary Islamic volunteer forces) armed with paintbuckets roam the streets trying in vain to scrub the revolutionarymessages from the walls. But as this is written, the graffiti-busterscan't keep up with the young protesters. In the last few days,slogans have proliferated that call on Tehran residents to come outmassively in the streets to commemorate the July 9, 1999, massacre ofstudent protesters. If people heed that call in large numbers, theprotests could spread across Iran. And if that occurs, all bets areoff as to what happens next.
Iran's clerics appear to realize that popular discontent withtheir incompetent and repressive rule has reached a fever pitch andhas spread to all ages and sectors of the Iranian population.Demonstrations that began on June 10, apparently as a local protestby Tehran students against a government project to privatize theuniversities, quickly spiraled out of control as pro-regime thugsattacked the students with clubs, chains and automatic weapons.
From Los Angeles, Iranian exile broadcasters such as ShahramHomayoun transformed their satellite-TV talk shows into a 24-hourmarathon of encouragement, urging Iranians to support the studentsagainst the vigilantes by marching in the streets. "In a half-hour,the streets leading to the campus were choked with people as ifeverybody had spread the word," one of Homayoun's fans told theTehran correspondent for the French daily Le Figaro. "These TVstations [beaming programs via satellite] from Los Angeleshave begun a real cultural revolution," she added.
The demonstrators called for greater democracy and freedom, andchanted slogans against the clerical leaders, including "reformist"President Hojjat ol-Eslam Mohammad Khatami, who appears increasinglyisolated and out of touch with the mood in the country. The protestswent on for nine days and nights, with running street battles betweendemonstrators and armed vigilantes that led to hundreds of woundedand at least one student killed. By the end of the first week theprotests had spread to most major Iranian cities, including Mashhad,Shiraz, Tabriz and Isfahan. In Washington, President George W. Bushpaid tribute to "those courageous souls who speak out for freedom inIran" and urged the regime to treat protesters with "the utmost ofrespect." Instead, on June 17 vigilantes armed with clubs, chains andautomatic weapons brutally stormed a student dormitory in Isfahan andmurdered seven students, according to reports circulated by Iranianexiles in Germany.
Then began the arrests, many of them carried out in the middle ofthe night by plainclothes police and intelligence officers who raideduniversity dormitories and private houses, carrying away suspectedprotest leaders to secret prisons. By June 27, Iran's ProsecutorGeneral Ayatollah Abdonnabi Namazi confirmed that more than 4,000people, including "some students," had been picked up in the securitysweep. On June 28, the U.S.-based Student Movement CoordinationCommittee for Democracy in Iran announced that a 36-year-old secularleader, Bagher Parto, had "died under torture" in anintelligence-ministry prison in Shiraz where he had been taken 12days earlier.
The head of Iran's judiciary, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, hasordered the courts to deal with protesters not as political opponentsbut as moharebs, an Arabic word meaning those who fight against God.In Iran's Islamic legal system, an individual convicted of fightingagainst God must be put to death.
In a strongly worded open letter to Khatami, 106 student leaderswarned that, if the regime continued the violence against the studentmovement, Iran faced turmoil. "This is probably the last time thatthe student movement addresses the Islamic Republic establishment,"students wrote on June 26, according to the Paris-based Iran PressService.
The student leaders urged Khatami to stop the massive arrests andto shut down the secret detention centers where student leaders werebeing tortured. One of the letter's signatories, Said Razavi Faqih,said that if Khatami failed to act the freedom movement would stoprecognizing the legitimacy of elected reformists such as Khatamihimself and his supporters in the Majlis (parliament) who have calledfor greater freedoms.
Instead, Khatami dismissed the protests as being led by the UnitedStates and, in a bizarre twist, claimed that the United States hadmade a mistake because its interference in Iran's internal affairshad "fortunately caused greater national solidarity." The same daythe letter appeared, plainclothes policemen arrested one of the mostprominent student leaders, Abdallah Momeni. In protest, fourreformist parliamentarians staged a two-day sit-in in the lobby ofthe Majlis on June 28-29. Under Iran's law, the four could lose theirparliamentary seats and face prosecution for acting against theruling clerics.
But real trouble for the regime lies ahead. In an effort toprevent demonstrations to commemorate the July 9, 1999, murder ofstudent protesters at Tehran University, officials announced thatthey were closing student dormitories in the Amirabad campus wherethe attacks had taken place. The closures were to be effective July 7and last through July 14.
Initially, Interior Ministry spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh toldreporters that police would not prevent commemoration events fromtaking place on campuses, but that they intended to bandemonstrations anywhere beyond them. But the closure of thedormitory, announced on June 30, shows how edgy regime leaders havebecome.
The 1999 protests erupted with a force not seen in Iran since the1979 revolution as campuses in 18 cities across Iran exploded withantiregime demonstrators who called on Khatami and Supreme LeaderAyatollah Ali Khamenei to resign and for an end to clerical rule.Riot police and pro-regime vigilantes stormed the dormitories in theearly morning hours of July 9. At least one student was shot dead andseveral others were hurled from fourth-floor balconies to the streetbelow. Now, four years later, a leader from the 1999 revolt,Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, has called for a general strike tocommemorate the dormitory murders. Commemoration ceremonies were akey element in the successful strategy used by Ayatollah Khomeiniwhen he led the revolution that ousted the Shah in 1979.
Roozbeh Farahanipour, the leader of the secular oppositionMarzepor Gohar party, was jailed for his role in the 1999 uprisingand brutally tortured. During a furlough while he was awaiting trial,he managed to escape Iran and now lives in Los Angeles. He is one ofmany young Iranians who serve as a bridge between the powerful exilecommunity and the activists leading demonstrations inside Iran. "Thisregime cannot be reformed," he tells Insight. "Reform will come whenthe regime is overthrown." Increasingly, that view is spreadingacross Iran. An unusual public-opinion poll conducted on behalf ofthe Expediency Council, a key regime power center headed by formerpresident Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, found that 45 percent ofIranians surveyed wanted changes in the political system - even ifthis came through foreign intervention.
The poll was revealed by the Iranian newspaper Yas-I Now on June22 and by the Persian Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Ofthose surveyed, 26 percent said they wanted "managerial changes" toimprove the regime's performance and bring about efficient growth,while just 13 percent said they wanted the continuation of currentpolicies. Given the internal censorship of the regime, the levels ofdiscontent probably are much higher than the numbers in the poll. Acorrespondent from the Christian Science Monitor guessed that 90percent of Iranians want change.
American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Ledeen wrote one ofthe first and best books about the 1979 revolution and believes Iranhas reached a revolutionary proxysm. Iran's newest revolutionaries"smell rot and fear coming from the corridors of power," he wrote inNational Review Online during the first week of the current protests."They smell telltale odors coming from the undergarments of thedoomed leaders. And they sense a wavering of will, a growing patternof panicky response."
However, as Ledeen points out, "You never know what will providethe spark for revolution." It could be July 9, it could be somethingelse. In the end, the "when" and the "how" will become part of Iran'shistory. But the "what" already has been written, Ledeen and otheranalysts believe. The revolution that ultimately will put an end toclerical rule in Iran has begun.
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight magazine.