The Blog

Alive and Kicking

The Iranian opposition keeps up the fight.

4:30 PM, Dec 11, 2009 • By MASEH ZARIF
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Two symbolic dates in Iran spurred anti-regime demonstrations across the country in the past five weeks. The most recent of these protests occurred this Monday on National Students Day--Iran's commemoration of the death of three students who protested against the 1953 visit of then-U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon to Tehran. This year saw thousands of demonstrators in the streets protesting the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic itself, overshadowing state-sponsored activities in the process and emphasizing the ongoing tensions within the country. Most importantly, the protests showed that nearly six months after the disputed presidential elections, a segment of the Iranian population remains willing to confront the regime despite the threats of violence by security forces, restrictions on communication, arrests and detentions, and political intimidation.

Explicit statements of protest against the June election results were not widely reported during this week's demonstration, perhaps due to the shift in focus for protesters from the election to the subsequent government response and broader issues of dissent. Protesters are seen in videos waving Iranian flags from which the religiously-inspired emblem that was added to the flag after the 1979 revolution has been removed. There were eyewitness accounts and video footage feeds depicting student protesters burning images of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The reported chants and slogans were markedly targeted at the regime and its leadership ("Death to the Dictator", "Khamenei should know, his downfall is near", "our curse, our shame, our incompetent leader", "Dictator, Dictator, this is your last warning! The Green Movement is ready to rise").

The nominal leaders of this opposition have aimed at balancing their rhetoric in order to bolster their positions without appearing to overreach. During recent weeks, presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, and former president Mohammad Khatami, played roles consistent with the patterns of behavior they have exhibited in recent months--each associating and disassociating themselves with the protestors and the regime in nuanced ways. The primary concerns and, in some ways, the demands continuously being raised by these figures center around a resolution to the disputed election, calls for freedom of expression, and fair treatment of political dissent.

These issues partly overlap with the expressions of the grassroots protesters but the aforementioned figures have been careful to justify the search for these demands within the context of the Islamic Republic's founding doctrinal bases and Ayatollah Khomeini's beliefs. In this way, these figures draw a distinct line between themselves and those protesters questioning the fundamental legitimacy of the regime. To be sure, there are likely a significant number of protesters who do in fact draw a similar line; yet the recent protests may signal the persistence and emboldened attitude of those who openly test the boundaries of that line.

The regime's leadership and institutions proved their determination to stifle any opposition protest this week with a heavy security presence, force, issuance of verbal threats, detentions and restriction of movement for some opposition leaders. These combined efforts for the most part contained the demonstrations in the short-term without provoking the sort of widespread backlash seen in the post-election crackdown. Basiji militias and security forces were siphoned into major university campuses in anticipation, barricading students within the campuses and restricting their interaction with demonstrators beyond the walls of universities who were met by police and Revolutionary Guards forces. The reports of the protests identified various combinations of Basij militias, law enforcement forces, and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) members as participating in the crackdowns. Police officials indicated that they had arrested over 200 protestors on December 7. Additionally, Internet service was disrupted at the behest of the government and the Culture Ministry revoked reporting accreditation for foreign journalists for the period between December 7 and 9.