On Thursday, Iranians took to the streets in stirring defiance of a regime that has killed at least 20 and arrested thousands in stifling protests that began over a reputedly rigged presidential election but have now become demands for fundamental political reform.
Occurring on the 10-year anniversary of a bloody clash between students and police at Tehran University, the protests came as a surprise to many who acknowledged the effectiveness of the government’s repression and the transition from street battles to a behind-the-scenes struggle among Iran’s clerical elite.
Michael Slackman in the New York Times:
It has been almost four weeks since the polls closed and the government announced that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won re-election in a landslide.
And there have been almost four weeks of defiance, in the face of the government’s repeated, uncompromising and violent efforts to restore the status quo. The government did succeed in keeping people off the streets in the previous 11 days, leaving many to simmer on their own as political insiders and clerical heavyweights slugged it out behind the scenes.
But there was an opening to take to the streets again on Thursday in a collective show of defiance, and many protesters seized it, even though the principal opposition leaders stayed away. Mir Hussein Moussavi, who claims he won the election; another candidate, Mehdi Karroubi; and former President Mohammad Khatami have agreed to pursue their complaints through the legal system and to protest only when a permit is issued.
Thomas Erdbrink of the Washington Post describes the brutality of government forces during Thursday’s protests:
But the mood quickly changed when plainclothes security personnel started shoving people into unmarked vans with blacked-out windows. “A girl started screaming, and three men started beating her very hard with batons as she was lying on the ground, swearing at them, calling them dirtbags,” an eyewitness said. When groups of people started shouting at the men, a young bearded official in civilian clothes ran toward the crowds, pulled out a revolver and started shooting in the air. “Everybody ran away into the nearby alleys,” the eyewitness said.
In another piece for the New York Times, Slackman depicts the current internal power struggle as a backlash of moderate forces against the creeping authoritarianism of the current regime:
The streets of Iran have been largely silenced, but a power struggle grinds on behind the scenes, this time over the very nature of the state itself. It is a battle that transcends the immediate conflict over the presidential election, one that began 30 years ago as the Islamic Revolution established a new form of government that sought to blend theocracy and a measure of democracy.
From the beginning, both have vied for an upper hand, and today both are tarnished. In postelection Iran, there is growing unease among many of the nation’s political and clerical elite that the very system of governance they rely on for power and privilege has been stripped of its religious and electoral legitimacy, creating a virtual dictatorship enforced by an emboldened security apparatus, analysts said.
To understand the nature of the conflict, it is essential to look back to the founding of the republic. Ayatollah Khomeini built on two different and often contradictory principles, one of public accountability and one of religious authority. To tie it all together, Ayatollah Khomeini imported a centuries-old religious idea, called velayat-e faqih, or governance of the Islamic jurist. Shiite Muslims believe that they are awaiting the return of the 12th Imam, and under this religious concept the faqih, or supreme leader, serves in his place as a sort of divine deputy.
While the protesters who risked their lives on the streets of Tehran will likely, at least for the time being, recede into the safety of their private routines, the irreparable harm sustained by Iran’s governing theocracy since last month’s disputed election cannot be denied. President Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei severely undermined a democratic culture (albeit one within strict boundaries) that is quite rare in the Middle East.
In effect, the events of the past weeks have shown Iran to be little more than a police state, hardly reflecting its status as heir to an ancient civilization or its 20th century stirrings of constitutionalism and democracy. That disillusion afflicts even leaders of the 1979 revolution, such as former President Rafsanjani and former Prime Minister and current opposition leader Mousavi, illustrates the widespread dissatisfaction with the poor economic policies and incendiary foreign policy of the current regime. Ayatollah Khamenei appears to have severely overreached by engineering, or at least sanctioning, such a controversial “reelection” of Ahmadinejad, by allying so strongly with the hard-line elements of the regime and by approving the brutality used against his own people.
As a result of his firm backing of Ahmadinejad, Khamenei abdicated his objectivity and to some extent his exalted status and unwittingly placed the Islamic republic at greater peril. His actions – and the violence he oversaw – helped transform the election protests into a fundamental challenge to the regime itself.
The election and the ensuing protests have empowered the most hard-line elements of the Iranian regime, but the events of the last weeks have demonstrated the wide gulf between many Iranians and their leadership. A policy of reasonable engagement, coupled with criticism of the continuing violence, will pressure the regime and broaden not only the divide between the regime and many of its people, but also the factions within Iran’s governing elite.
Brendan Boundy is an intern with the New Atlanticist. He is pursuing a master’s degree from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.