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IRAN: 22 Bahman protest yields new lessons for bruised opposition

February 13, 2010 |  8:37 am


This picture by Italian photographer Pietro Masturzo was named World Press Photo's 2009 Photo of the Year  on Friday in Amsterdam. It shows women in Tehran, Iran, shouting from a rooftop in protest on June 24, 2009. Agence France-Presse photographer Olivier Laban-Mattei's pictures from Tehran were also recognized, as was a still from a YouTube video showing the death of Neda-Agha Soltan.

Many in Iran's opposition are licking their wounds this weekend after failing to derail the official agenda during the country's 31st anniversary celebrations in Iran. 

But some, including one female Iranian journalist who gave her detailed account of the protests to the Times, are taking the time to reflect on the future of the green movement born out of Iran's disputed June presidential elections. 

"So many of the greens were sad and disappointed," she said on condition of anonymity for her own protection. "But I myself believe that we gained something."

Though the experience was a tough blow for the opposition, a close review also yielded lessons for both the protesters and government, the journalist said.

Hundreds were arrested around the country in the weeks before the rally. "There were lots of threatening activities from the government these recent days to just prevent people from attending," the journalist said. "They scared people a lot by executing them, arresting them."

The government managed to flood Tehran's Azadi square with huge numbers of supporters, using buses to bring them in from the both the capital and outlying areas. Witnesses could spot them arriving on buses with the names of villages and towns outside the capital, such as Shahriar or Hosseinabad.

"For some of the government supporters this was the first time they saw any greens!" the journalist said. "And they were very surprised that someone beside them wouldn't repeat the slogans on the loudspeakers." 

Though they were unable to fill the entire square, as this satellite photo suggests, cameras were positioned (below) to show limitless crowds. 

The few foreign journalists who were in attendance were brought in on buses to the square, and they only had permission to quote the speech of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Basiji militiamen and police as well as plainclothes security officials filled the streets between Enghelab Square to Azadi Square. They were positioned at the intersections of all the side streets along the march route who would arrest anyone holding green ribbons or banners. 

"Some of the Basijis would strike even government supporters because they couldn't tell who was who," the journalist said. 

Near Enghelab Square, they grabbed 20 to 30 people and dragged them to the side streets nearby, where police vans were waiting. 

"If the Basijis had suspicions about you they would approach you and they would want you to take a 'souvenir' picture with them and in this way they had a picture of you," said the journalist. "If you argued they would start getting aggressive. They would search you and if they found any green paraphernalia they would arrest you."

She said though opposition activists were walking around, they couldn't use their numbers to chant slogans because of the huge presence of security officials. "Even though the greens were large in number and didn't repeat the slogans broadcast over the loudspeakers, they couldn't gather together and do anything or deliver slogans," she said. "The police and Basiji were just too many, and because the greens did not wear any paraphernalia, they were afraid and didn't know who they could trust."

Clashes between protesters broke out in several places, including Enghelab and Azadi squares as well as Sadeghiyeh Square, where opposition figure Mehdi Karroubi was scheduled to meet people.

Protesters arrived there by subway starting from at 8 a.m. and had green banners and ribbons and started chanting slogans. Karroubi arrived at 10 a.m. and people gathered around him and started marching toward Azadi Square, chanting "Ya Hossein, Mir-Hossein" and "Referendum! Referendum! This is the slogan of the people."

Security forces attacked both the protesters and Karroubi with clubs, pepper spray and tear gas. 

Some of the security forces fired shots into the air while others severely beat the protesters. The people would resist and wouldn't go back. But the number of security forces kept increasing and they kept escalating the violence. 

Security forces didn't give anyone a break. In the morning Zahra Eshraghi, the granddaughter of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and her husband, Mohammad-Reza Khatami, brother of Iran's former president, were detained but quickly released so that they wouldn't be able to participate in the rally. They stopped former president Mohammad Khatami and opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi from taking part, even clubbing and roughing up Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of Mousavi, and Karroubi (see video above).

Iran-ali-karroubiAli Karroubi, the son of the reform leader, was arrested and beaten (pictured at right).

But Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, on Palestine Street between Enghelab and Azadi squares, was allowed to march.

During Ahmadinejad's speech, one group of green protesters in the north of the square began chanting "Death to the dictator!" and "Liar! Liar!" 

Riot police rushed in that direction. "They actually began striking some pro-government demonstrators!" the journalist said.

Meanwhile, 2,000 to 3,000 protesters had gathered on Ferdows Street and began chanting "Ya Hossein, Mir-Hossein" and "Death to the dictator" and slammed on the metal railings (heard in video below) along the roadway with rocks. Here the Basijis and police were fewer in number and began to retreat. Passing motorists began honking their horns in support.

"There were men and women and young and old," the journalist said. "Anywhere they could, protesters would chant slogans. And even after they were teargassed, they would chant 'God is great.'"

After the rally, there were scattered clashes in Amir Abad and Vanak Square, where security forces reacted even more violently than before. 

The day was a bracing lesson for opposition activists, dissipating any lingering naivete. "They don't know about political power," the journalist said. "They don't know that it's a time-consuming process."

She said she felt the movement was running out of energy. "The most important thing is that so many people are tired or disappointed," she said. "Those who were really excited are not attending protests now because I think that so many of them didn't know the realities of fighting and changing a system and they expected more." 

Some say opposition leaders have wrongly invested in a strategy of pressuring the government by counting on an increasing number of protesters to brave the heavy-handed crackdown in the streets. In fact, green protesters diminished in number while the leaders of the movement failed to connect to substantive issues such as unemployment, increasing bankruptcy of small- and medium-size companies, decreased foreign investment and Ahmadinejad's risky foreign policy. 

Instead, leaders like Mousavi, Karroubi and Khatami locked themselves in the rhetoric of freedom and democracy that harks back to the early ideals of the revolution. 

The movement's lack of a clear organizational structure is beginning to prove a disadvantage. 

"The greens' percentage in the crowd was between 40% to 60%," the journalist said. "But the leaders should have been more clear. We should find ways to connect to each other more efficiently. We should better orchestrate our actions."

The opposition movement has already begun reconsidering some of its moves, including the "Trojan Horse" strategy promoted on websites in which people were asked to hide their green ribbons and attend pro-government demonstrations and then pull out their gear and chant opposition slogans. 

"It was a big mistake because greens couldn't trust anyone or find each other and there were a lot of security officials around," the journalist said.

But, she said, there were some victories for the opposition. 

"I don't think that the regime won, because they themselves know that how much energy they had to expend to suppress people," she said. "There were lots of Basijis in the streets. They brought so many police, special guards. They brought so many people from different small cities to just show off that, 'We are a lot.'"

Though attacking opposition figures like Rahnavard and Karroubi was likely meant to humiliate them, the fact that they took a licking on the streets along with the rest of the protesters probably will improve their credibility among supporters and make them even more determined to continue their fight.

And by keeping their protests relatively nonviolent, the protesters managed to walk away with a moral victory, she said. 

"Our response was better than getting angry and violent and paying a lot of costs and not gaining anything," she said. "I think it was a wise choice to just show the government that we disagree, and not to pay too much of a cost, and not hurry to overthrow the system, and to just consider [the day] as a step in the path that we are on and will continue."

She added, "If the government believes that the green movement is finished, they are mistaken. Actually, I don't think that they are that stupid."

-- Los Angeles Times

Videos: Scenes from Thursday's protest. Credit: YouTube