Friday, June 19, 2009

Thursday - Enormous mourning/protest rally in Tehran (Juan Cole)

Juan Cole's wrap-up of Thursday's events is so good that I will simply reproduce it (below).

Cole's point at the end of the first paragraph is perceptively phrased:
Mir-Hosain Mousavi, whom the crowd has adopted as their leader, addressed them briefly.
All this is only partly about Moussavi, or even about the stolen election. In part, Moussavi is the leader of a movement, but in part he has become the symbol and focus of something much bigger than himself and his candidacy--as Laura Secor explained eloquently on Wednesday:
Who knows what sort of president Mousavi would have been, or could yet be? He is an entirely different kind of animal from reformist politicians of the past; he is identified not with students and intellectuals but with the hardscrabble war years and the defense of the poor. [....] He was a favorite son of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the nineteen-eighties. Many Khomeinists in the power structure respect and support him; within the Revolutionary Guards, as well as within the upper clergy, he has a constituency. Traditional, religious people are among his supporters, too. On the morning of June 12th, he may have been the uncharismatic compromise candidate for the anyone-but-Ahmadinejad crowd. But to other voters he was then, and he has increasingly become, something else: the vehicle both for the memory of the utopia that never came, and for the hopes of a younger generation that imagines he shares its vision of the future.
After Supreme Leader Khamenei's address on Friday, it seems increasingly likely that this movement and the Iranian regime are headed toward a decisive confrontation. More on that later.

--Jeff Weintraub

Juan Cole (Informed Comment)
Friday, June 19, 2009
Mourning Rally Biggest Demonstration Since Monday in Tehran;
Khamenei to Address Nation

Thursday's march in Tehran was just enormous, several hundred thousand strong. AFP writes, "Many in the huge crowd walked silently and lit black candles as night fell. Others wore green wristbands or ribbons and carried flowers as they filed into Imam Khomeini Square, a large plaza in the heart of the capital named for the founder of the Islamic Revolution, witnesses said." The marchers wore black to show their mourning for the dozen reformers killed by security forces on Monday. Mir-Hosain Mousavi, whom the crowd has adopted as their leader, addressed them briefly.

BBC has video of the gargantuan "mourning day of protest".

See also the eyewitness account in the next posting.

AFP estimated the size of the demonstration as similar to the one on Monday. Some reporters thought a million people came out on Monday, though I prefer to be conservative on crowds, since it is easy to overestimate their size. Several hundred thousand, perhaps half a million, would be impressive enough. Such massive numbers of discontented urbanites tell you that change may well be in the air. The 2006 demonstration by an estimated 500,000 people in Los Angeles against immigration restrictions on Latinos (a la Tom Tancredo et al.) was in retrospect a harbinger of big trouble for the Republican Party in national US politics.

Back to Iran. AFP says, ' "The demonstrators marched silently until they reached the central square, where some chanted "Death to the dictator!" a witness said. Another said protesters also warned the government: "We will not get exhausted and we will come every day." '

The clerical hierarchy is itself increasingly split. It might have been expected that disgraced Grand Ayatollah Husayn Ali Montazeri, now under house arrest, would issue a letter in support of the protests. (Montazeri was once heir apparent to Imam Ruhollah Khomeini but his criticisms of regime practices and of clerical dictatorship led to his marginalization and ultimately arrest.) But former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is alleged to be trying to drum up support for Mousavi among senior clerics in the holy city of Qom. There are persistent rumors that reformist Ayatollah Yusuf Sani'i has given legal rulings that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not president of Iran.

The protesters hope that President Obama will maintain his relative silence on the movement, lest he unintentionally tar them with the brush of imperialist stooges.

The regime, surely fearing a popular revolution of the sort that toppled the shah in 1978-79, is using carrots and sticks to try to deal with an unpredictable situation. So far, however, both inducements and crackdowns have been a pittance. Several hundred protest leaders have been arrested, but when you've got hundreds of thousands out in the streets every day, a few hundred arrests don't mean much and clearly aren't intimidating anyone. In fact, they backfire by angering the protesters and ensuring they return the next day. The arrest of ailing former foreign minister Ibrahim Yazdi at his hospital was particularly cruel. Some rumors have it that the regime was forced to release him back to the hospital, so poor is his health.

Babak Rahimi, in Tehran, sees the situation as being as unpredictable as that of fall 1978 when it was not apparent whether the shah would survive or the regime would fall.

The regime announced two new steps in response on Thursday. The Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will deliver the Friday Prayer Sermon later today, and is rumored to be planning to call for an end to protests and to threaten a harsh crackdown if he is not obeyed.

Aljazeera English has a good report today on the conflict between Khamenei and his former backer, Rafsanjani.

At the same time, all four presidential contenders have been invited to a meeting on Saturday with the Guardianship Council, which has been asked to reexamine ballot boxes for signs of fraud. The regime seems to think that the protests are occurring because the alleged losers are stirring them up. In fact, the crowds are way out ahead of the leaders. The things you hear about how Khamenei plans to deal with this crisis are so far not very promising. Ultimately, I think a compromise is being demanded of him, like a complete ballot recount or a new presidential election, that he cannot grant without so weakening his authority that he may lose it anyway. In such a game, he may think he has a better chance maintaining the regime by offering limited concessions coupled with a crack down on the stubborn. He may or may not be right about that.

Aljazeera English on Iran's citizen journalists.

A long, detailed, eyewitness account of the crisis from a perceptive reformist is here..

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