Thursday, February 11, 2010

Revolution Day in Iran - "They defeated us."

Judging from the reports I have seen so far, the Iranian regime was able to choke off and suppress opposition protests through a massive, well-planned, and effective use of its repressive apparatus. They seem to be getting better at this.

The New York Times blog covering today's events pulls together a lot of these reports. Here are some highlights from one of them (an AP article):

Hundreds of thousands of Iranians massed Thursday in central Tehran to mark the anniversary of the revolution that created the country's Islamic republic, while a heavy security force fanned out across the city and moved quickly to snuff out opposition counterprotests.

Police clashed with protesters in several sites around Tehran, firing tear gas to disperse them and paintballs to mark them for arrest. Gangs of hard-liners also attacked senior opposition figures as they tried to attend the rallies - including the wife of the head of the reform movement.

Plainclothes Basiji militiamen beat 65-year-old Zahra Rahnavard with clubs on her head and back until her supporters formed a human ring around her and whisked her away, according to the Web site of her husband, Mir Hossein Mousavi. [....]

The opposition turnout was dwarfed by the huge crowd at the state-run celebrations. Many were bused in to central Azadi, or Freedom, Square to hear an address by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who proclaimed a new success in Iran's uranium enrichment program and dismissed new U.S. sanctions.

And the massive security clampdown appeared to succeed in preventing protesters from converging into a cohesive demonstrations. Large numbers of riot police, members of the Revolutionary Guard and Basij militiamen, some on motorcycles, deployed in back streets near key squares and major avenues in the capital to move against protesters. [....]

One protester told The Associated Press she had tried to join the demonstrations but soon left in disappointment. "There were 300 of us, maximum 500. Against 10,000 people," she told an AP reporter outside Iran. She said there were few clashes.

"It means they won and we lost. They defeated us. They were able to gather so many people," she said. "But this doesn't mean we have been defeated for good. It's a defeat for now, today. We need time to regroup."

Another protester insisted the opposition had come out in significant numbers, but "the problem was that we were not able to gather in one place because they (security forces) were very violent." [....]

For days ahead of the anniversary celebrations, anti-government Web sites and blogs have called for a major turnout in counterprotests. Groups of opposition protesters gathered Thursday in several locations around Tehran, wearing green clothes and waving green balloons - the opposition's signature color.

Security forces fired tear gas to disperse a group of protesters who were trying to march toward Azadi Square as they chanted "death to the dictator," the opposition Web site Kaleme said, reporting an unknown number of arrests. Police and Basijis on motorbikes swept toward central Tehran, where protesters and security forces clashed in several locations, it reported.

The heaviest violence appeared to be in Sadeqieh Square, about a half-mile (one kilometer) from the anniversary rally, where riot police fired paint-filled balls at hundreds of protesters chanting opposition slogans, witnesses said. The witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from authorities.

The assault on Mousavi's wife took place in the square, and government supporters also blocked Mousavi himself from joining the protests, his Web site said.

Hard-liners also attacked the convoy of another senior opposition leader, Mahdi Karroubi, as he headed to the square, his son Hossein Karroubi told The Associated Press. The attackers smashed the windows of his car, forcing him to turn back from joining the protests, he said.

Security forces also briefly detained Khomeini's granddaughter and her husband, who are both senior pro-reform politicians, according to the couple's son, Ali.

The granddaughter, Zahra Eshraghi, and her husband Mohammad Reza Khatami, who is the brother of a former pro-reform president, were held for less than an hour before being released, their son told the AP. [....]

In January, two people who were put on trial alongside opposition politicians and protesters were executed for allegedly plotting to overthrow the state. Authorities have announced that 10 other opposition supporters have also been sentenced to death - a move many believe was aimed at intimidating protesters.

If so, it seems to have had some effect. And here are some highlights from a report by Tehran Bureau:
Everyone we have spoken to so far this morning has said about the same thing -- in a word or two: "A big anticlimax," "defeat," "An overwhelming presence from the other side. People were terrified."

In fact, it appears that the regime was so confident, it did not feel the need to disrupt cellphone or messaging services, or even the internet for that matter.

One Tehran Bureau correspondent relayed the following:

Today has been a bust. Lots of people left town, left the country. There was extra security. I was down at Azadi Square, and they [regime] couldn't even get the huge crowd they wanted. It didn't matter though, because the Greens either didn't show up or authorities were successful in keeping them out.

The square was crowded, but not super crazy. There were definitely a lot of people, but compared to the way it's been filled by Greens a couple of times, it was much less than that. One could move around and it wasn't the crush of people you sometimes see (except in the front). I think they used all their resources to get people there, but the fact is this was a five-day weekend this year and many people (even from their side) just decided to get out of town. They also blocked all of the entryways into the area, so it was hard to get in without permission. [....]
In short, the outcome of today's test of wills looks like a tactical victory for the Iranian regime against the opposition--achieved without conspicuous large-scale bloodshed. The long-term consequences may take a while to become clear. And it's possible that the democratic movement in Iran may have to move to a new phase in its own tactics. In the words of the disappointed but soberly determined protestor quoted above:
It means they won and we lost. They defeated us. [....] But this doesn't mean we have been defeated for good. It's a defeat for now, today. We need time to regroup.
Meanwhile, anyone who is interested can find useful collections of reports from Revolution Day (including video clips) at the New York Times blog, Tehran Bureau, and Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish.

--Jeff Weintraub