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Alive And Kicking In Iran

Maseh Zarif is a researcher on the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. An extended version of this article appears on the project website,

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.

The days leading up to the December 7 protests were filled with reports of regime officials paving the way for further crackdowns. Iran's chief of police, Brigadier General Esmail Ahmadi-Moqaddam, announced on November 12 that the police will establish a special unit targeting 'cyber crimes' including, according to state media, "defamation and mischief." Judicial authorities continue to pursue cases against individuals linked to Mousavi and the opposition, even as it releases some from detention. Tehran's prosecutor announced on November 13 that Mousavi's brother-in-law, Shapour Kazemi, would be tried before a Revolutionary Court on unspecified charges; Kazemi has since been handed a one-year jail sentence. Tehran's court officials also announced on November 17 that five post-election detainees were being sentenced to death for their affiliations with "counter-revolutionary groups" and more than 80 were receiving jail sentences of up to 15 years.

On November 21, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, former vice president under Khatami, received a six-year jail sentence after being found guilty of "plotting against the country's security" in the wake of the summer's elections. This conviction came nearly four months following the first of several show trials in which Abtahi "confessed" to his role in instigating the post-election riots and "falsely" putting forth charges of electoral fraud. Abtahi served as an advisor to Karroubi's campaign during the recent election.

Recent arrests also targeted prominent student activists ahead of Monday's anticipated protests. Iran's prosecutor general and former intelligence minister, Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, warned demonstrators on December 8: "Intelligence and security...forces have been ordered not to give any leeway to those who break the law, act against national security and disturb public order From now on, we will show no mercy toward anyone who acts against national security. They will be confronted firmly."

The regime's responses to the protesters and nominal opposition leaders have revealed its sense of vulnerability but also its determination to crush the resistance and deny it any legitimate outlet for its grievances. The repressive measures doled out by the security apparatus--led by the IRGC--have for the regime been enough to contain dissenters without provoking a widespread backlash or facilitating a return to the more precarious environment seen during the immediate aftermath of the election. Whether the forces of repression, economic malaise, political fracturing and perceived illegitimacy of the regime can spur this segment to attract a following beyond the core of activists and students remains to be seen.

The key centers of power within the current Iranian structure understand that the stability of the regime depends upon the ability of its leaders and officials to magnify the perceived internal and external threats to its survival, thus justifying repressive measures to stifle dissent and opposition. It remains likely that increasing signs of a crackdown, witnessed most recently in the last month, represent a pattern for the regime's authorities. This trend continues to be heard through the rhetoric on a daily basis and seen in force on occasions like this past week.

It is still far too early to assess the likely outcome of these tensions, or even the real significance and depth of the protest movement itself. But the continuing demonstrations sparking regime violence have showed the determination of both sides and raise the specter of long-term continuing anti-regime activity on a scale not previously seen in the history of the Islamic Republic.

December 7 has passed, yet the tension within Iran continues, as violent clashes between student protesters and security forces spilled over into December 8. Iranians will commence the religious month of Moharram in less than ten days--a period expected to spur yet another episode of demonstrations against the regime. How the various sides position themselves for this next stage will provide important indicators for the continuing unrest. One thing is already clear: the tensions between and among the stakeholders will not be resolved neatly or expeditiously.

By Maseh Zarif:
Reprinted with permission from The Weekly Standard