Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Iran braces for 22 Bahman

It has become a well-established pattern for the Iranian opposition to use major religious and political holidays, when the regime can hardly ban people from coming into the streets, as occasions to stage its own demonstrations. The last such occasion was the Shi'ite religious festival of Ashura on December 27, 2009, when a wave of large-scale protests across the country demonstrated, for anyone who might have been wondering, that the opposition was neither crushed nor demoralized. Everyone expects the next big confrontation to come tomorrow, February 11 (22 Bahman by the Persian calendar), officially celebrated as the anniversary of the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Both sides have been preparing for this test of wills, and while it is impossible to predict for sure what will happen, it is likely to be dramatic--unless massive efforts by the regime to intimidate and suppress the protestors turn out to be more successful than most people expect. Here are some passages from two prospective analyses, both worth reading in full.

=> First, from Scott Lucas at Enduring America:
By yesterday, political battle lines had pretty much been drawn for the protests on 22 Bahman, the anniversary of the 1979 Revolution, this Thursday. The regime had made its threats and tried to disrupt the opposition, key figures such as Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi and other reformist parties and clerics had made their calls for peaceful demonstrations, and the Green movements (less visibly for obvious reasons) had put their preparations in place. [....]

[T]here is a significant difference on the eve of this event compared to the political environment before Ashura (27 December). On that occasion, the only prominent opposition figure who made a move was former President Mohammad Khatami, and his memorial speech for Grand Ayatollah Montazeri was rudely broken up by pro-Government protesters. Mousavi, Karroubi, and other senior clerics were all muted about the demonstrations to come. And, after those protests, “conservative” figures such as Ali Larijani were unstinting in their criticism of the “violent” and “foreign-backed” Green movement.

Now all these figures are in play. Mousavi, Karroubi, Khatami have put down their political markers for a big opposition show on Thursday and promised more to come. Rafsanjani, for the first time since early December, may have made his manoeuvre to challenge the Government. And Larijani, joined by others within the establishment, is now targeting Ahmadinejad as much as any Green protester.

This political change should not overshadow the importance of the demonstrations on the ground tomorrow. The demands “from below” for legitimacy, justice, and freedom are just as necessary as any high-profile statement or even “ultimatum”.

Instead, what we now may have, for the first time since November, are the two halves of the challenge to the Government, and possibly the Iranian system, coming together. If the numbers are large, and even more if those multitudes are peaceful, then the Green wave for change will carry more possibilities for the politicians and clerics; conversely, each move by those politicians and clerics will bolster the demonstrators who are risking arrest and condemnation just by stepping foot into the streets and squares of Tehran and other cities on Thursday.

“From top” and “from below”: it is less than 24 hours to 22 Bahman.
=> Second, from an analyst writing for Tehran Bureau under the pen name Hamid Farokhnia:
Feb. 11, 2010, may stand as a decisive day for the regime. Its leaders hope to prove to domestic and international audiences that they are in full control and that the protest movement which arose following last June's election is a spent force. In order to do that, they must make sure that unlike Ashura, as well as other occasions, the protesters cannot congregate in large numbers and upstage the regime's well-choreographed processions. In light of such a production, all the protest movement must achieve to avoid appearing vanquished is to show even a modest display of vigor and vitality. [....]

Ashura (December 27) proved to be a pivotal day all around. First, it forced other governments (beginning with the Obama Administration) to re-evaluate their views of the Green Movement as a democratic but ineffectual force. Second, it allowed the hardliners in Iran to claim that the Green Wave movement presented a mortal threat to the entire regime. [....]
For February 11, the regime's objectives are to
(a) contain the protesters on the 11th, (b) fill the surrounding streets with their own people, and (c) make things appear as calm and orderly to the state media and ideally to the international media (they have allowed some networks and journalists entry to Iran for Thursday). [....]

These are the specifics of what is planned:

A) a complex logistical scheme is to be implemented whereby the two sides of the Azadi Square from North and East (where the protesters always emerge) will be blocked for several kilometers in each direction. Those on these two sides will be diverted away from the eyes of the international press confined to designated areas within the square. At the same time, supporters will be marshaled en masse from the West and South ends of the square.

B) Two days prior to the ceremonies, the famous inner ring of Azadi Square has been sealed off by special partitions. On the early hours of Thursday morning, the plan is to fill the space with die-hard supporters while checking the bags and pockets of the others wanting to gain entry to the protected zone to make sure they don't carry any Green paraphernalia.

C) Dozens of Basij contingents from the provinces have started arriving in Tehran with each group assigned to one part of the northeast quadrant of the city, using Azadi Square as the reference point.

Aside from this, for the last 9 or 10 days a deliberate campaign has been under way to intimidate and warn off potential protesters by: a) the first executions of political prisoners carried out in a long time. Nine others have also been given the death sentence. b) the police chief has on several occasions gone on record claiming that everyone's emails, telephone calls and text messages may be pried open, adding that those engaged in anti-regime activities will be immediately arrested. Other top law-enforcement officers have claimed that many people have been arrested based on photos taken from them during Ashura protests. Just to prove their point, a wave of arrests has begun in the past two weeks. c) those taking part in protests are now referred to regularly as Mohareb, meaning they are engaged in war on God, an act punishable by death. d) the regime now asserts that it will respond very harshly to those protesting. It is hard to accurately gauge the exact impact of these threats and the actual use of violence on the protesters. [....]

What the protesters may not realize is that most of the gestures are mere bluffs. Why? First, Feb 11 is clearly a day where the government cannot apply severe force on a large scale because the revolution was supposed to have been in reaction to the violence and injustice of an oppressive regime in the first place. It would look monstrous, even among some supporters of the regime, if innocent unarmed civilians were subjected to indiscriminate beatings and attacks just like the film footage of the revolutionary days aired incessantly in the last few days. Next Thursday, up to 250,000 ordinary supporters may come out to the rally along with all their families, including small children and the elderly. This would make it extremely hard to throw tear gas and administer beatings when the line between protester and supporter blurs. [....]

At this moment it is impossible to know what may happen on Thursday. All eyes will be on the turnout and the resiliency of the green-clad protesters. Will they defy the threats and fulminations of a desperate and mendacious regime, or will they remain in the safety of their homes while the regime's henchmen are preparing for mass reprisals?
We'll soon know the answer.

--Jeff Weintraub