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In Iran, It’s Fun To Be A Rebel

If one asks the majority of Iranian youths why they want democracy, their immediate answers are surprisingly not freedom of speech, free elections or even a better economy. “Fun” is what most of them desire the most. Having fun without being told their behavior is un-Islamic or an attempt to topple the regime.

Since the Islamic Revolution, and the rise and fall of various government figures, the definition of fun in Iran has changed drastically. Often mixed with Islamic ideologies, some of the most basic social activities in Iran are defined improper for the youth and met with crackdowns, criticism and even arrests.

An event that aroused attention and hype in Iran last month was the gathering of over 800 Tehrani girls and boys in Water and Fire Park playing with water guns and bottles just laughing and wetting one another. The so called “water war,” which was originally organized via Facebook, spread to other major cities and became a cool way to pass a hot summer afternoon.

But a few days later, national TV aired its infamous confessions of those arrested with blacked out faces, speaking about the social media scheme in which young people had been seduced into toppling the regime through a water game.

How to respond to such serious allegations?  A mocking, sarcastic confession video of a young man explaining his extensive water gun training in Israel and America quickly spread via the event’s Facebook page. Mass emails containing photos of happy faces and soaked-in-water youth in the park made the rounds through Iranian inboxes.  Further events were planned, such as a kite flying gathering in Isfahan that promised to bring the youth together for celebration of the end of summer.  On the kites, young people would scribble a dream before flying them in the air.

Yet perhaps the allegations are true.  What seems to most of us to be a joyful assembly of young men and women could at the same time very well be a protest against a system that constrains its youth’s most basic dreams.

Unfortunately, Iranians have witnessed or directly experienced the brutal clampdown of the regime not only after Presidential election, but also through the aid it’s believed to be giving to the neighboring country, Syria against protesters of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. In the wake of the Arab spring , when hope for the future of Iran could rise from the ashes of 2009 turmoil, it is news like that from Syria which creates fear and intimidation for Iranians, leaving them to come up with alternative ways to voice their opposition.  What could be better than “fun?”

And what could be better than mocking–and reapproptiating–what the government legitimizes as proper. For example, each year, the Ministry of Culture holds a Festival for Twins of all ages–a night of (government-sanctioned) celebration, with music, performance and laughter. So, young people organized a slightly less official Gathering of Curly Haired Ones in Tehran’s Melat Park and, my personal favorite, the Festival of Bad Fashion. It has been through these events that larger gatherings such as water war were born.

Not every one is happy to see the youth of a country, who make up 70 percent of the population, coming together. So, the authorities will do anything to stop them–either with intimidation beforehand or constant crackdowns, which are promoted as acts of “restoring order” and “enforcing Islamic values.”

For those who cannot attend these events for reasons varying from obligations to fear and suspicions, social media is a great way to rebel while having fun.

Facebook invite for the "Happy and Fun Event of Raping and Splashing Acid in Faces"

Last week, I received an invitation on Facebook for an event called Happy and Fun Event of Raping and Splashing Acid in Faces with more than fifteen hundred attending RSVPs. For the location, organizers say the event will be held in every villa, street, garden, home and even public space.

It’s a perfect example of how Iranian youth have used sarcasm and laughter against the pressure, disorder and insecurity surrounding their lives.

Even though I don’t believe the behaviors of these Iranian youth are entirely and purposefully acts of rebellion, I do believe when you live in a country where everything you do–from what you wear and who you are allowed to sit next to on the bus, to what music you can listen to–is controlled by a select few, every opportunity you take to have a little fun can be, consciously or unconsciously, a way to rebel.

  • 29 June 2010
  • Posted By Setareh Tabatabaie
  • 2 Comments
  • Events in Iran, Human Rights in Iran

A Majlis of the IRGC, by the IRGC, and for the IRGC



The recent battle over Azad University and its assets is not only a sign of a growing division in Iran’s hardliners. If one looks more closely, the growing importance of the IRGC in Iranian politics is also becoming clearer.

Originally created by Ayatollah Khomeini to be the Supreme Leader’s personal militia, the IRGC acts independently from the official armed forces. While it already controls a large segment of the Iranian economy, in the last decade the IRGC has also been increasingly acting like an independent branch in the government.

In recent decades, the IRGC has been used to suppress Iran’s rapidly developing civil society and student movement. Over the last two years, though, it has reached a boiling point: Hillary Clinton said Iran is becomming a “military dictatorship,” and the disputed electoral victory for Ahmadinejad last June was labeled a military coup.

“It is not a theocracy anymore,” said Rasool Nafisi, an expert in Iranian affairs and co-author of an exhaustive study of the IRGC. “It is a regular military security government with a facade of a Shiite clerical system.”

Now, the IRGC’s ascendancy is playing out in a battle over Azad University, its board, its 1.5 million students, and its billions of dollars worth of assets.

On June 19, Azad University’s board secured a temporary injunction preventing the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution (SCCR) from enforcing its revision of the university’s charter. In support of Azad University, on June 20 a bill was rushed through the 270-member Majlis that allowed universities to endow their properties to the public, thus circumventing the government takeover of the University.

As all political moves in Iran are protested by one group or another, shortly thereafter Basijis and Ahmadinejad loyalists protested outside Majlis, claiming the bill was against Khamenei’s will. Protesters threatened to place the Majlis “under fire” unless it backed away from its bill.

What is interesting to note is that the Basij and Ahmadinejad loyalists were not actually acting in the name of the Supreme Leader as they claimed. In fact, Khamenei came out and called for unity, saying “I object to any comment, move, action, or written text that leads to division and rift…We need to promote consolidation.” It thus seems that the Basij have actually developed a position of their own, independent of the Supreme Leader.

As a result of the heated protests, 100 legislators voted for emergency discussion of legislation that would support the SCCR’s authority in the matter. In other words, this discussion could overturn the endowment bill passed earlier on June 20.

The fact that protest by the Basij led many Majlis members to change their mind is a sign of their growing power.  According to U.S.-based political analyst Reza Fani Yazdi:

“It seems that from now on any bill that is due to be ratified by the parliament [must] be approved by the security military forces, otherwise the same thing will happen and they will bring their pressure groups to the streets and force the parliament not to make any independent decisions— even the current parliament, which includes many former members of the [Revolutionary Guard] and close aides of Ahmadinejad’s government.

As NIAC Advisory Board Member Reza Aslan said shortly after the June elections, “There is a genuine fear… that Iran is beginning to resemble Egypt or Pakistan, countries in which the military controls the apparatus of government.” If the IRGC begins to control the Majlis as well, Aslan will have proven to be right.

It is important to note, of course, that the IRGC is far from a monolithic organization. Members voted for various political candidates in the elections and of course do not all support Ahmadinejad. In fact, many former members denounced the regime’s brutal crackdown following the June 2009 elections. The effects of this great diversity on the battle over Azad University remains to be seen.

For now,  if the Ahmadinejad camp wins this political battle, they will control the billions of dollars of assets belonging to the university. The university’s campuses will be controlled by the government’s security and military apparatus. But most important, and perhaps most frightening, their victory will also serve as a precedent for the IRGC to effectively control the Majlis in the future through intimidation and violence, thus permanently overshadowing the most representative branch of the Iranian government. And with such a diverse IRGC, who knows what will happen next?

Photo Credit: Radio Farda

  • 16 June 2010
  • Posted By Shawn Amoei
  • 1 Comments
  • Events in Iran, Human Rights in Iran, Iran Election 2009

One Year Later: Are We Missing the Real Story?

Much attention has been given to the absence of large street protests on the anniversary of Iran’s disputed elections. This focus on street protests however, largely misses the point of the opposition movement today.

“A government that is scared of a corpse is a weak government,” Shirin Ebadi said, referring to the government’s decision to bar families of killed protesters from holding public funerals. Attacks on Mehdi Karroubi and  raids on the offices of Grand Ayatollahs Saane’i and Montazeri show the increasing desperation of Iran’s rulers. Every website managed by WordPress (the most popular blog hosting platform on the web) has been filtered since this past weekend in Iran (including this blog), and the Revolutionary Guards have even set up a “Facebook Espionage Division.”

All of this indicates that the Islamic Republic is a regime that has become afraid of its own shadow.  And this is the real story of the past year.

Pundits in the West have been quick to write obituaries for the Green Movement because it’s been unable to maintain the mass protests we last saw on Ashura. They ignore the fact that the regime has now become permanently on edge, and every crackdown against the opposition is a testimony to this.

One year on, the real story is that a pro-democracy movement that had long been simmering under the surface has finally been thrust into the spotlight.

Those who expected to see the toppling of the mullahs within a year failed to grasp the difficulty of such a task in an authoritarian state. Ayatollah Khamenei understands better than anyone the fragility of his authority, and his actions in recent weeks are the best indication of this.

Movements in pursuit of democracy and independence are long, protracted struggles. At times, the efforts of the people manifest themselves in public displays of strength. But even more important are the times in between where ordinary citizens retreat to their homes and places of worship to discuss the future of their country, and to engage in a spirited discourse about the future of their political system. And this has been the most fundamental achievement of the Green Movement: to craft an alternative narrative for Iran’s future that abandons the status quo.

Once that idea catches on in the minds of the people, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes a reality.

Opposition leader Mir-Hossein Moussavi points out in the Green Movement charter issued on the anniversary:

“By rejecting the ruling establishment, by going back to their own homes and developing and expanding their social networks, strong and reliable relations between the various strata of the nation have been established. The social networks have created miracles in the area of informing [the nation] of political-social and cultural [developments]. All we need to do to understand this is to glance at their artistic productions, the amount of news and information that is exchanged, and the analyses that are going on in a completely democratic way. The Green Movement has created a powerful wave of debate and discussion concerning the critical problems among the people that is unique in our recent history.”

This debate — more than the number of people out on the streets or in the jails — is the true measure of the movement. Those who ignore this are missing the biggest story of the past year. “Just because there are less people on the streets does not mean that the movement has weakened, but that the criticism has taken a different form,” Shirin Ebadi said on Tuesday.

Joe Klein of Time Magazine said in reference to Iran on Sunday that “this is the greatest mismatch between a people and a government of any country in the world.” Very true. And that mismatch — not displays of strength on the street — is what will ultimately bring about the change Iranians have long been waiting for.

  • 14 June 2010
  • Posted By Setareh Tabatabaie
  • 1 Comments
  • Events in Iran

IRI’s Helping Hand

Hardline backers attacked and vandalized Grand Ayatollah Saanei's office on Sunday.

While some Iranians came out to protest on the one-year anniversary of the fraudulent presidential elections this weekend, others came out to attack Mehdi Karroubi and the offices of Grand Ayatollah Saanei and late Grand Ayatollah Montazeri.

Karroubi, who traveled to Qom on Sunday for a mourning ceremony, planned on visiting Grand Ayatollah Yousef Saanei, Seyyed Hassan Khomeini, and the family of late Grand Ayatollah Montazeri. Shortly after arriving at the house of Saanei, a group of pro-regime backers encircled Saanei’s house, chanting slogans against Karroubi and Saanei. They also attacked Karroubi’s car, which despite being bulletproof, was still heavily damaged due to the severity of the attacks.

While these attacks were not particularly surprising — just another statistic added to the many other attacks this past year — what was surprising was the IRGC’s aid to Karroubi. The IRGC not only urged the violent crowds to disperse, but Karroubi also took refuge in a building owned by the Revolutionary Guards per their request until 4 in the morning on Monday when he finally left for Tehran. He escaped through a corridor made by the anti-riot police to ensure safe passing of Karroubi’s car.

As any Iranian who first points to an underlying conspiracy as the reason for an unnatural event taking place, I assumed it was the regime that set up the entire thing. Photos of Saanei’s office greatly resembled photos of university dormitories attacked by the Basij following the elections last year. Plain clothed thugs were hired by the regime, I thought, and then the IRGC came to the ‘rescue,’ showing the regime’s kindhearted nature, even to the opposition. It would serve for a brilliant propaganda campaign. But after fruitlessly searching on Press TV for any news of this event, I realized I was slightly off.

But only slightly. The place to look was Raja News, not Press TV. The state media was broadcasting the event, and of Karroubi’s flee from the people on domestic news sites, not international ones. The state-run media seemed to mock Karroubi for escaping a violent crowd — though I couldn’t imagine anyone in their right mind doing differently.

And all the while, the police did nothing. Shortly after Karroubi escaped, police and security forces stood by, watching while the mob attacked Saanei’s house and office and vandalized the late Montazeri’s office.  Said opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi’s son Hossein:

From the sudden gathering and the behavior of this group, it is obvious that they did not act by themselves and have orders.

This elaborate, and very organized plan, served the regime quite well. First of all, it allowed them to score some cheap points through the fear of violence.  Also, the IRGC very deliberately prevented the mob from going too far — because the last thing they want to do is create another martyr for the opposition movement.

Iran was shaken up after the death of Neda, and again, after the death of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri last year.  Another martyr would serve as the very flame needed to ignite the relatively smaller protests on the anniversary this year and turn them into something bigger, resembling the protests that followed the previous deaths. And so the IRGC prevented that from happening.

To be clear, this could have been a very major event — and it appears the senior leadership in the IRGC knew it.

For me, it wasn’t the violence that was surprising — thankfully, no one was hurt — it was its target: two grand ayatollahs, Montazeri and Saanei.  I was looking through the pictures of Saanei’s attacked office and saw a broken mohr.  A Mohr is a small clay tablet that Shi’a Muslims use to pray.

There’s no better illustration than this of what Montazeri meant when he said Iran is no longer Islamic nor a republic.

  • 28 May 2010
  • Posted By Setareh Tabatabaie
  • 2 Comments
  • Events in Iran, Human Rights in Iran, Iran Election 2009

Regime doth protest too much

It seems that despite any claims to the contrary, the Islamic Republic is still at least a little bit fearful for its safety and survival with the upcoming anniversary of the June 2009 elections.

This can be seen in the detaining of artists, hikers, Canadian journalists, and French academics (among many others). It can be seen in the execution of Kurds, Afghans, Bahai’s, and election protesters. However, perhaps the most controversial, the most offensive, and the most un-Islamic, is the recent declaration of a documentary to be released by Iran’s Intelligence Ministry to “complete the removal of ambiguities surrounding the murder of Neda Agha Soltan” and provide “new evidence” about the West’s version of events. In other words, to prove that Neda’s murder was staged.

I understand the obsession with Western conspiracies, as there have been many in Iran’s history. I myself am often the first to point to an underlying conspiracy as an explanation for things. Nonetheless, it is clear to any reasonable person that Neda’s death is not a conspiracy. If the initial evidence was not enough to prove it, the regime’s reaction was.

Neda’s family was threatened to make false confessions attributing her death to the West. Her family was prohibited from holding a funeral for her, despite funerals being very important in Iranian and especially Muslim culture. Neda’s fiancé and the doctor who tried to save her life in the video, both scared for their lives, left the country. Her grave was desecrated by supporters of the regime. And now, after all this time, the regime brings it up, yet again, by pointing its finger to others.

But I do not want to argue that Neda’s death was indeed the work of the Islamic Republic, because there are many others who have done that before me. Rather, I would like to point out the regime’s psychological insecurity, at bringing up a death from nearly a year ago. This documentary, like the recent arrests, executions, and detentions, is to be released shortly before the one-year anniversary of the June 12 elections. These events all happening in the span of a few days are more than a coincidence; they are to continuously dissuade people from participating in expected protests. This documentary is likely meant to undermine the powerful symbol she has become as well as the legitimacy of the opposition movement in Iran.

But how long is a family to suffer? The Islamic Republic ought to stop exploiting and hurting the Iranian people simply to allay its own fears and insecurities. Besides, who is really going to believe that the blood coming from Neda’s death was from a ketchup bottle?

As one of the many who cried upon watching Neda’s death, I can only imagine how her family must feel. My advice to the Islamic Republic: show a little Muslim compassion, it is what we are best known for. Let the dead rest in peace. And let the living finally move on.

The Bastions of the Paramilitary

Hossein Sajedi, Tehran’s police chief, said yesterday that despite the fact that “some media” (read: Mousavi and Karroubi) have called for rallies on June 12, Iranian security forces will confront any “illegal” demonstrations. “Police will confront any illegal gatherings … police are vigilant and in charge of public order and security,” he said.

My question to Mr. Sajedi is: what is the definition of an illegal demonstration? Is it one that involves students staging a sit-in at their university? Is that illegal? Are singing and holding up peace signs also a threat to national security?

On Saturday and Sunday, students at Tehran’s Islamic Azad University staged a sit-in as protest against the fraudulent June 2009 presidential elections and calling for the release of their classmates who had been imprisoned in the months after the election.

Apparently, this was deemed illegal, as security forces broke up the protests. According to Daneshjoo News, at least four students who were critically injured by Basij forces, rather than receiving medical attention, have been arrested.

I fear for a government which violates its own constitution in arresting those partaking in peaceful protests. Of even bigger concern though, is the way the government has transformed the country’s bastions of knowledge into bastions of the paramilitary. As a result of the sit-in and the attacking security forces, afternoon classes were canceled, reminiscent of the way classes were often canceled for the same reason shortly after the 1979 revolution. In addition, security forces threatened students with harsh sentences from the university’s disciplinary committee, a clear violation of university rules.

When the university officials become involved in oppressing their own students, the very nature of the university as a free and safe atmosphere is threatened. Not only is the canceling of classes obviously detrimental to the students’ learning, but this oppression will undoubtedly negatively affect many students’ forms of thinking at an age when they are most receptive to new ideas. While this may be the aim of the regime, this generation is the very future of the country. And to attack one’s future generation and their chance of flourishing is not only stupid, it is also self-destructive.

  • 24 May 2010
  • Posted By Setareh Tabatabaie
  • 4 Comments
  • Events in Iran

The People’s Enemy

[youtube=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DEeMnedfUy0&”]

Today marks the 28th anniversary of the liberation of Iran’s southwestern city of Khorramshahr, captured by Iraq in 1980 near the start of the Iran-Iraq War.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei made a speech marking the occasion, declaring that “Enemies of the Iranian nation will definitely be defeated today as they were defeated in 1980.” Denouncing the actions of the US and its allies in different parts of the world, namely Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and the Palestinian territories, Khamenei attributed Iran’s enemies as the root cause and element of crimes and insecurity in the world.

President Ahmadinejad also made a speech in Khorramshahr for the occasion, but this speech didn’t go exactly as planned. Ahmadinejad was interrupted by loud chants coming from the crowd, saying: “Bikaree! Bikaree!” (“Unemployment! Unemployment!”)

With this interruption, the citizens of Khorramshahr reminded the president as well as the Supreme Leader that they don’t blame Iran’s enemies for the double-digit unemployment in the country.

To top it off, the speech — and the ensuing chants — were carried live on national TV.  This forced Ahmadinejad to respond, saying “The government… with the help of the youth in Khorramshahr and Khuzestan [province], hopefully will eliminate unemployment in Khuzestan.”

Unemployment was also one of the main issues in the 2009 presidential campaign, and one of the main issues distinguishing incumbent Ahmadinejad and reformist candidate Mousavi, who criticized Ahmadinejad for his handling of the economy in his four years in office.  In his 2005 election campaign, then-candidate Ahmadinejad gained significant support among the voters for his promise to put “a chicken in every pot.”

But perhaps too much emphasis has been placed on detaining artists, hikers, Bahai’s, election protesters, Canadian journalists and French academics (among many others).  This has to have been a distraction from the government handling the double-digit unemployment in the country, which is also an “enemy of the Iranian nation.”

  • 18 February 2010
  • Posted By Patrick Disney
  • 3 Comments
  • Congress, Iran Election 2009, Sanctions

Tear Down This Firewall

Roger Cohen, the intrepid NYTimes columnist stationed in Iran before, during and after last June’s tumultuous presidential election, took aim at the conventional wisdom among Washington’s Iran policy circles with this, in his column today:

[S]anctions will feel cathartic, satisfy the have-to-do-something itch in the Congress, and change nothing. I’m just about resigned to that. But there is a smarter approach to Iran: Instead of constraining trade, throw it open.

Rather than imposing new sanctions on the twelve square inches of Iran that we haven’t already targeted, Cohen says the US should instead lift restrictions on Internet technology exports for Iranians who will use them to exercise their right to free speech.

Savvy readers of niacINsight will note that this idea has been around for a couple of months — Rep. Jim Moran introduced the Iranian Digital Empowerment Act in December.  But Cohen is correct in noting that since then, nothing has happened. Even despite a formal letter from the State Department, essentially endorsing this very same idea, the sanctions remain in place.

And there are real consequences for that: Google and Microsoft’s instant messenger programs remain blocked by US regulations.  SourceForge, the valuable open source programming platform, has restricted all access to Iranian users.  And the Iranian government continues to censor, filter, and monitor the Internet as part of its campaign of repression.

So for policymakers desperate to “do something” about Iran, this is an eminently practical first step.

Update: Lara Friedman, over at Americans for Peace Now, also made the connection between Cohen’s piece and recent legislation aimed at relaxing pressure on the Iranian people.

Those of us who oppose efforts to impose “crippling sanctions” on the Iranian people – an approach supported by many in Congress (and most of the Jewish community) are often belligerently asked: “if you don’t support these sanctions, what is your alternative?”  The implication being that if we can’t propose another course of action then we must support the crippling sanctions, even if nearly everyone agrees that such sanctions won’t work and will likely prove counterproductive.

This is of course a silly argument – imagine two doctors arguing about how to treat a patient: Doctor 1: “We’ve tried everything we can think of and he’s not getting better, so I propose we try radiation.”  Doctor 2: “Are you nuts?  Given his condition, all medical science points to the fact that radiation won’t do anything to help him and will almost certainly make him worse”  Doctor 1: “Well, unless you have a better idea you have no choice but to accept my recommendation.” Doctor 2: “Where did you get your medical degree??”

But imaginary dialogues aside, there are some sanctions that actually make sense.  For example, it seems self-evident that it makes sense to impose sanctions on those who are enabling Iran to block the internet, censor electronic communications, and otherwise interfere with the ability of Iranian citizens to communicate with each other and the outside world (anyone remember the term “twitter revolution?”)

To which I think most people would reply: great idea!  Someone in Congress should get working on this!

Fortunately, as Lara points out, some in Congress already did!  Both the Iranian Digital Empowerment Act and the Stand with the Iranian People Act take practical steps to increase pressure on human rights violators in Iran while simultaneously decreasing pressure on the Iranian population.

That, my friends, is called “the prudent use of American smart power.”

  • 11 February 2010
  • Posted By NIAC
  • 8 Comments
  • Events in Iran, Human Rights in Iran, Iran Election 2009

Bearing Witness: 22 Bahman

NIAC is liveblogging the events of Feb. 11 in Iran, which marks the latest day of planned opposition protests as well as the anniversary of the founding of the Islamic Republic.  We encourage readers to share their own news and insights in the comments section below.

2:36 pm: More from the Senate presser.  John McCain, speaking about the new Iran Human Rights Sanctions Act:

The United States must lead an international effort to support the human rights of the Iranian people, and to put that effort at the center of our policy toward Iran.  This is not about picking winners in an internal Iranian matter. It’s about standing up for the universal values we hold dear and championing the cause of all who seek to secure those values for themselves.

1:49 pm: Senate focuses on Iran human rights. As Laura Rozen reported this morning, Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman are introducing a bill imposing sanctions on Iran — nothing new there — but this time the focus is not on the nuclear program, but rather the human rights violations going on.

The scheme is straightforward: the bill requires the President to draw up and periodically update a list of names of individuals who have committed human rights abuses in Iran,” a Senate aide says. “These individuals are then subject to a set of targeted sanctions, including a visa ban and various financial restrictions under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.”

The list will also be public, so that other governments and people around the world, including in Iran, can see who these individuals are, the aide continued. It also includes a presidential waiver that can be exercised on a case-by-case basis. “The overall sanctions scheme lifts when the President can certify that the Iranian government has taken certain tangible steps to improve the human rights situation inside the country, such as releasing all political prisoners.

The press conference, which is still going on, is available here, via C-Span.

12:46 pm: “Allah-u Akbar,” “Death to Dictator” rooftop chants tonight. JARAS is reporting that opposition supporters are planning to shout “death to the dictator” alongside their usual chants of “Allah-u Akbar” tonight.  (h/t NYT)

12:42 pm: Most mainstream news outlets have validated my initial assessment earlier today (9:02 am) about the government using security services to maintain relative control over the opposition’s activities.  Tehran Bureau called it an “anti-climax,” and AP is reporting many opposition supporters being deflated at the size and strength of opposition rallies compared to the pro-government one.

[T]he 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.

Without playing the game of counter-factuals, it is important to note just how differently today could have gone.  Following Ashura, which rocked the hardliners to their very core, many expected today’s protests to be even larger and more well organized.  Many more dreaded the possibility that Basij and security personnel would fire on the crowds and kill scores.  Obviously that did not happen today, though the Basijis were as violent as ever in dispersing the crowds.

For those who yearn for democratic progress and respect for human rights in Iran, as we do, days like today will always be difficult to watch.  It’s a catch-22: for the “greens” to prevail, many believe they will have to endure massive violence, brutality, and chaos.  But the world can hardly abide the violence, brutality, and chaos that we have already witnessed.  And so, faced with this difficult challenge, many in the West on Facebook and in the blogosphere simply turn against one another, choosing to engage in petty backbiting rather than keeping the focus where it belongs: on the struggle that continues to be waged by average, ordinary people in Iran.  Frankly, they couldn’t care less what we think or what our problems with one another are.

12:13 pm: Our contact in Iran (11:58) also points out a big distinction between the various types of security personnel surrounding the demonstrations — the ordinary police forces versus the Basij, or as our contact calls them the “gladiators.”  For those on the ground in Iran, the ordinary police force is much more ambivalent about cracking down on opposition activities — the guards at the makeshift prison that was overrun by protesters were police, not Basij, which made a big difference to the opposition supporters.

11:58 am: A contact in Iran who attended the rallies in and around Azadi and Sadeghieh Square this morning told us of his experience, which left him bruised and cut from scuffling with security forces.

According to the source, the biggest difference between today’s events and previous demonstrations was the amount of undercover police among the crowd.  The moment anyone indicated an opposition or “green” point of view, plainclothes militiamen would come out of nowhere and take that person away.  One gentleman remarked about all the buses funneling people in from out of town, only to be whisked away by three undercover agents.

Our contact was also one of the protesters shot with an orange paint pellet, to mark him for arrest at a later time.  He managed to find a hiding place where he could wipe the paint off of his pants to evade detection.

Finally, during the morning’s rallies, he recounted an experience where three protesters were being held by police in a makeshift pen, when a group of other opposition supporters came to the rescue.  They so outnumbered the police guards, throwing rocks and yelling for their release, that the crowd broke down the holding pen and freed the three.

11:35 am: IAEA on Iran’s “modest” new enrichment. AP obtained an internal IAEA document regarding the enrichment work announced in this morning’s speech by President Ahmadinejad, which for the first time took  uranium above the 5% level in Iran. “Iran expects to produce its first batch of higher enriched uranium in a few days but its initial effort is modest, using only a small amount of feedstock and a fraction of its capacities,” it said.  “It should be noted that there is currently only one cascade … that is capable of enriching” up to 20 percent, said the document.

The document, relying on onsite reports from International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, also cited Iranian experts at the enrichment plant at Natanz as saying that only about 10 kilograms — 22 pounds — of low enriched uranium had been fed into the cascade for further enrichment.

Agency inspectors were told Wednesday “that it was expected that the facility would begin to produce up to 20 percent enriched … (uranium) within a few days,” said the one-page document.

11:22 am: Tehran Bureau has an interview with Karroubi’s son, Hossein.

How is your father Haj Agha Mehdi Karroubi? We’re treating him for burns to his face and eyes. He’s having trouble with his lungs too. He was badly attacked with pepper spray. Plainclothes agents (vigilantes) approached him and kept spraying it in his eyes. He’s resting at home though; he’s not been hospitalized.

Any news of your brother Ali?

We haven’t been able to figure out where he is. Everyone we call claims to have no information on him. We believe he’s in the custody of the law enforcement agency.

11:05 am: Recap. Most reports indicate that people are heading home right about now.  The day was characterized by the contrasting styles of the one large government-sponsored rally in the morning with tens of thousands of people, versus the numerous smaller and nimbler gatherings by the opposition forces.  There have been no confirmed cases of protesters being killed, (though rumors abound), and most likely the number of arrests is in the low hundreds.  Protests occurred in most of the major cities, but the heaviest presence was felt by far in Tehran.

Many commenters are calling the presence of governmental security forces “stifling,” using violence and intimidation to prevent demonstrations from growing beyond relatively small numbers.  With over a month to prepare, the government’s security forces were out in full force today, immediately reacting when opposition leaders like Karroubi, Khatami, and Mousavi appeared among the people.  For much of this week, Internet service was spotty and Gmail has been taken down completely, all in preparation for today’s expected events.  (Compare this to Ashura, when the government had hardly any time at all to prepare, and the reaction by Basij and police was much more careless and led to more bloodshed).  Family members of opposition leaders were beaten or detained, and there was never an opportunity to rally supporters around the green movement’s figureheads.

10:30 am: Brutality.

[youtube=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2kSBWG2rBV8&feature=player_embedded”]

9:32 am: Via Mir Hossein Mousavi’s Facebook page, Kalame news is reporting:

Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, wife of Mir Hossein Mousavi, who was intending to join the people in the demonstration from Sadeghiye Square was surrounded and attacked by plain clothes militia. The plain clothes militia physically assaulted her and beat her with batons at her head and back. Zahra Rahnavard after this incident with the support of a large crowd of people who made a human shield to protect her, was able to leave the area.

9:21 am: The Guardian relays an AP interview with protesters today, who were dejected for the same reason mentioned below at 9:02.

“There were 300 of us, maximum 500. Against 10,000 people,” one protester said.

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

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.”

It should be noted that this is actually not at all the representative view for most opposition supporters being reported on today.  Many green activists on Twitter have been circulating messages saying the goal of the opposition today was to disrupt the government’s official ceremony, and that it was a victory.

9:02 am: It’s still very early to be drawing conclusions from today’s events, as people are still out in the streets.  But one thing I’m struck by is just how much the government has been in control today.  Sure, they chartered busses and lured tens of thousands to the official government rally with free food, but they have also managed to keep the opposition activities largely on their terms today.

The government’s strategy is to depict the protesters as a small group of rioting thugs, burning trash cans and disrupting order for their own radical, “foreign-backed” agenda.  Toward that end, they have been very effective at keeping the demonstrations today dispersed and nervous — less of the “million man march” and more like Seattle WTO protesters.  Above all else, the ruling elites know the danger of big crowds: strength in numbers takes over and individuals no longer feel like they will be held accountable for their actions, thus their demands get more radical and their tactics more extreme; this forces a harsher backlash from security forces, possibly including using lethal force.  And then that’s the ball-game.  That’s exactly what happened in 1979, and Khamenei learned that lesson well enough that he’ll do his utmost not to repeat it.

So today’s events (like previous ones) have seen security forces disrupt crowds before they can coalesce into a large group, arresting numerous individuals as a way of controlling the crowds before they get out of the police’s hands.

8:42 am: Josh Shahryar has catalogued most of the opposition rallies today, with his own figures for numbers arrested by police forces.  By his account, thousands gathered in Esfahan at the See-o-Seh Bridge, where security forces tried to disperse the demonstators with tear gas.  Also, protests occured in Ahvaz, Shiraz, Mashad, and of course, Tehran, with skirmishes involving security forces either arresting individuals, blocking protesters routes, or in some cases firing tear gas and beating anyone showing any sign of opposition activity.

Interestingly, many accounts we’ve been hearing involve protesters being hesitant to wear green, flash a V for victory sign, or even chant openly out of fear of backlash from security personnel.  In some cases, particularly at Azadi Square where Ahmadinejad addressed the official government rally, security forces scanned the crowd watching for any signs of “green” activity, and quickly pulled people out of the group as soon as they were given cause.

8:15 am: Indisputable. Via United4Iran, this video of protesters tearing down a photo of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and then trampling on it:

[youtube=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fd4FRQXiwzc&feature=player_embedded“]

Remember that even in the heady days of protests this summer, it would have been unthinkable for protesters to deface an image of the Supreme Leader.  In a short eight months, the demands of the demonstrators have evolved, and their tactics have advanced as well.

Chinese Death-Mobiles

A colleague forwarded these photos of Chinese-made vehicles that appear to be designed for crowd-control, possibly to be used against protesters in Iran.

I think it’s interesting how a lot of the anger at the government’s repression against the protesters is now being directed toward the Chinese for supporting the regime.  China has long maintained an amoral foreign policy (that’s amoral, not necessarily immoral) which ignores issues such as human rights and instead takes a coldly rational view of national self-interest.  (ie Iran has oil.  China needs oil.  Period.)

Here lies a fundamental problem with America’s approach to Iran over the past two decades, in which we have relied almost entirely on using sanctions as a strategy unto themselves.  Cutting off trade with Iran might raise the cost of doing business for the government a little bit, but it also crowds out any possibility for a positive US influence.  This is what George W. Bush meant when he said we have “sanctioned ourselves out of influence with Iran.” Sanctions are a tactic; not a strategy.

When the US has open trade relations with another country, and that country’s government behaves in a way that we find disagreeable, the US can exercise powerful leverage by threatening to withhold trade until the troubling behavior stops.  But when we have no relations with a country — as is the case with Iran — we don’t have the same amount of leverage, and are reduced to casting aspersions from across the Atlantic.

Now, I am not arguing that we lift the embargo on Iran and start trading with Tehran.  I am simply pointing out that two decades of broad US sanctions have contributed to the situation we’re in right now, in which Iran is driven directly into the arms of the Chinese, leaving all of us to huff and puff without a thing to do.

Sign the Petition

 

7,349 signatures

Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
Chief Executive Officer
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, California 94043

Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.

Sincerely,

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