Iran Revolution’s Anniversary Ratchets Up Tensions

One day before the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Iran is a country divided, with pro-government groups and Green Movement supporters each presenting their own narratives of what the highly symbolic day means and whom they represent.

The political atmosphere is highly tense as both sides have called on their supporters to take to the streets Thursday to uphold what each sees as the real values and message of the Revolution. 

Each side is presenting itself as the true defender of the Revolution and the other group as "deviants" — making it hard for the two sides to find common ground on the roots of the current political turmoil and possible solutions. 

On the one side, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has thus far strongly supported the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad , branded the protestors as "outright anti-revolutionary individuals" or "individuals who out of ignorance and stubbornness do the job of anti-revolutionaries." 

Calling for unity, Khamenei said mass demonstrations on Feb. 11 will "stun" what he called "the arrogant powers", a code name mostly used for Western nations that Iran perceives as hostile. 

On the other side, the prominent leaders of the so-called Green Movement, Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, as well as major reformist organizations have asked their supporters to take part in Feb. 11 rallies to demand "an end to despotism", "full implementation of the constitution" and "paving the way to reforms." 

Protests have engulfed various parts of the country, especially the capital Tehran, since last June’s presidential elections, won by the incumbent Ahmadinejad according to official results. That spurred a widespread backlash against what many perceived as massive vote fraud. Dozens of people died during the protests and hundreds of others have been detained and tried. 

With renewed calls by Green Movement leaders for more protests, Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and police commanders have vowed to crush any gatherings of anti-government protestors on Feb. 11. 

The commander of the Tehran division of the IRGC, Hossein Hamedani, warned protestors "we will not allow anything called green wave to show itself." 

"We will strongly deal with any voice, color or movement that is not the voice of Iranian people and the Islamic Revolution," Hamedani said on Jan. 30. 

The Islamic Republic has for the past three decades sponsored mass rallies every Feb. 11 to commemorate the triumph of the revolution over the last shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, in 1979. 

However, despite strong government warnings and a widespread crackdown on demonstrators and dissidents, the protestors have used government-organized rallies to defy the government and express their disgruntlement. 

In the run-up to Thursday’s demonstrations, the government has launched a new crackdown, arresting and trying dozens of dissidents, including past protestors, journalists, human rights activists and individuals with close ties to the leaders of Green Movement. 

The country’s judiciary has issued at least nine death verdicts for some of the protestors. Sources close to the IRGC have set tomorrow as a "deadline" for the Movement’s leaders to "repent" and "separate" from "anti-revolutionary" elements. 

Now all eyes are on how the government forces will react to more protests Thursday, as the government’s handling of the situation seems to hold the key to the future direction of the impasse. 

"The use of force against demonstrators will not resolve the government’s problem, that’s the government dilemma," said Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii. "If the demonstrations will turn violent, it will be another manifestation that the government has not been able to control the situation." 

Any major use of violence could lead to more public protests, as Iranians mourn the dead a week and 40 days after their death. 

Moreover, the nature of protestors’ demands appears to have considerably changed since the first days after the June 2009 presidential elections. While the initial goal behind the Green Movement’s spontaneous rallies was annulling the results and holding new a round of voting, now some protestors are chanting slogans against the Supreme Leader and challenging the whole establishment. 

Government supporters have used this as a sign of the protestors’ connection to foreign powers and Iranian opposition abroad. 

Recognizing this rising trend, Moussavi and Karroubi have called on protestors to avoid "anti-establishment" slogans, keep their demands within the limits of Iran’s constitution, and to "maintain the identity" of the Green Movement. 

In recent statements, both Karroubi and Moussavi have cited the release of political prisoners, freedom of the press and expression, respecting the right to assembly and passing a new election law as the main demands of the movement. Such disparities between what some of the protestors demand and what the official leadership of the movement says has led to questions about the future direction of the movement. 

"The Green Movement will go wherever the majority of the nation wants to go and I think the majority of the nation will go further than the government of Ahmadinejad," said Mohsen Sazegara, an exiled Iranian dissident who was one of the original founders of the IRGC. 

Sazegara, who was once a presidential candidate in Iran, has actively advocated mass protests through the internet and frequently appears on the Persian service of U.S. government-funded Voice of America broadcaster. 

Sazegara, who calls himself a "soldier" of the Green Movement, doubts the country’s constitution can meet protestors’ demands. 

"I believe the current constitution of the country has no democratic capacity and we need to change the constitution and have a referendum for people and see if they want the constitution," he said. 

As many conservatives and pro-government forces in Iran accuse the protestors of opposing the concept of religious government and the whole structure of the Islamic Republic, the challenge for senior reformists like Moussavi and Karroubi is to walk the fine line of staying within the structure’s limits and at the same time appearing as genuine reformists. 

"The Green movement is a multi-track, multi-objective, loose network of people with no organizational structure and no hierarchy. That’s why people like Moussavi and Karroubi have to operate on the basis of minimal demands, otherwise the coalition or movement will fall apart," said Farhi.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Mohammed A. Salih

Mohammed A. Salih writes for Inter Press Service.