Iran's Path: Bloodshed and Chaos

by Benjamin Domenech on 7:55 am June 20, 2009

Scroll down for updates from our editors throughout the weekend on the events in Iran. Be warned that many of the images are graphic and bloody.

In Iran yesterday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei delivered an unequivocal warning to the protesters in the street: stay home, or risk bloodshed. If the planned rally proceeds on Saturday afternoon in Iran, a few hours from when I write this, I fully expect that there will be a response, and that people will die:

Iranian police have warned they are ready to use force to prevent a rally in the capital Tehran over the disputed presidential poll.

Hundreds of police are said to have gathered in the city centre, amid an atmosphere of extreme tension.

There are conflicting reports as to whether the rally will go ahead. But correspondents say a demand by the country’s supreme leader to end street protests appears to have made some protesters merely more determined.

Less comfortable as the Leader of the Free World than as a detached academic, President Obama still speaks in terms of concern, and of avoiding being seen as “meddling” — but the man brimming with offers of help and hope to the American people is not so generous today to the Iranian people. The line he is attempting to walk is too fine to matter in this situation, even if it will be nodded over by the coeds in the aftermath.

As Daniel Drezner predicts, despite all the more vague perceptions offered by other experts, there are only two ways this ends: one side will win, and one will lose. In this case, the people in the streets will, absent a miracle, be made to pay for their insolence. Khamenei is not in the business of changing his mind, and he is not going to reconsider his support for Ahmadinejad’s “divine victory” and risk losing power. Instead, Iran’s ruling authority will almost certainly do what any cowardly, despotic ruling authority does in this situation: turn to the happiness of a warm gun.

Perhaps this will not be the case. Perhaps the protesters will heed Mousavi this time, though they did not before, and stay in their homes tomorrow. Perhaps the military, which has already given many signs of being less willing to turn their guns on their brothers in the streets, will not join the riot police to quell this would-be revolution.

But this is, in the grand scheme of things, unlikely to the point of being sheer foolishness. The revolutions in Czechoslovakia and Poland had the backing of the free world. The color revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe, while occasionally violent, were still with few exceptions enabled by the nature of the governments assaulted, and their tenuous grip on power. In Iran, there are no such limits.

To hope for something better than bloodshed and chaos this weekend is to hope against history. “Human beings suffer,” the poet Seamus Heaney wrote, in his version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, “they torture one another, they get hurt and get hard.” But we should hope anyway.

History says, Don’t hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.

UPDATE BY PEJMAN YOUSEFZADEH: What Ben feared may well be happening.

We learn from CNN that the police are blocking the protest site at Revolution Square that pro-reform protesters wanted to populate today. Tear gas and water cannons have been used on protesters, and there was an explosion at Khomeini’s mausoleum, which killed one person and hurt two. Shooting appears to have been reported there as well. These efforts may well fail to quell protests; another effort–the regime’s announcement that it would randomly recount 10 ballot boxes–appears to have been met with derision by reformists.

The Guardian’s continually updating story indicates that protesters have been shot as they tried to flee the security forces. Militia members are walking around with clubs and rifles, according to the story. These militia members–the basijis–are well-described here:

In the mass demonstrations that have taken place this week, the modus operandi of the Basijis has been brutal and predatory. They have used the same tactics as packs of African wild dogs worrying a herd of wildebeest. They choose their targets at the edges of the crowds, going for the vulnerable and unwary stragglers, and moving in as a group to reduce them with violence. Last Monday, the men who fired guns at demonstrators from the rooftops of buildings were almost certainly Basijis. They killed seven demonstrators at their leisure, and it also seems likely that they hoped this display of lethal intent would so intimidate the protesters that they would give up and go home. Clearly, that did not work, and it is probable that they were ordered to tone down such public displays of violence, at least for the time being. But they have continued to attack surreptitiously and in terrifying ways, jumping demonstrators as they return home on darkened streets at night. On Wednesday, there were reports that men who appeared to be Basijis had come onto theTehran University campus and had stabbed students with knives.

Cries of “Allah-hu-akbar!” continue to resonate from the rooftops, in open defiance of Khamene’i’s speech yesterday.

Need it really be mentioned that those who are interested in women’s rights ought to be paying attention to Iran?

A good overview of what is at stake.

Via RedState’s Moe Lane, we have this:

As Joseph Conrad would put it, “The horror! The horror!”

The horror, of course, continues to be ignored by the Obama Administration. The newly-enlightened Roger Cohen at long last realizes that from a strategic and tactical standpoint–and from a moral standpoint–the Obama Administration is doing precisely the wrong thing when it comes to dealing with the crisis in Iran:

A man holds his mobile phone up to me: footage of a man with his head blown off last Monday. A man, 28, whispers: “The government will use more violence, but some of us have to make the sacrifice.”

Another whisper: “Where are you from?” When I say the United States, he says: “Please give our regards to freedom.”

Which brings me to President Barack Obama, who said in his inaugural speech: “Those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Seldom was a fist more clenched than in the ramming-through of this election result. Deceit and the attempted silencing of dissent are now Iran’s everyday currency. In this city of whispers one of the whispers now is: Where is Obama?

The president has been right to tread carefully, given poisonous American-Iranian history, but has erred on the side of caution. He sounds like a man rehearsing prepared lines rather than the leader of the free world. A stronger condemnation of the violence and repression is needed, despite Khamenei’s warnings. Obama should also rectify his erroneous equating, from the U.S. national security perspective, of Ahmadinejad and Moussavi.

Ahmadinejad is Iran’s Mr. Nuclear. He has rapidly advanced the program and, through preaching in every village mosque, successfully likened it to the nationalization of the oil industry as an assertion of Iranian nationalism.

By contrast, Moussavi has not abjured the program, but has attacked Ahmadinejad’s “adventurist” and “delusional” foreign policy. These are essential distinctions.

Obama should think hard about whether this ballot-box putsch is not precisely about giving Ahmadinejad and his military-industrial coterie four more years to usher Iran at least to virtual nuclear-power status. He should also think hard about the differences in character: Ahmadinejad is volatile and headstrong, the interlocutor from hell, while Moussavi is steady and measured.

Shrugging away these distinctions like a dispassionate professor at a time when people are dying in the streets of Iran is no way to honor this phrase in his Inaugural Address: “Know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.”

Update by Christopher Badeaux:

Kevin Sullivan over at RealClearWorld has had rolling updates about the events in Tehran today, which are still shrouded behind the lack of access by Western media. Depressing quotes follow:

UPDATE II: AP is reporting that there are firetrucks surrounding Revolution Square. According to Al Jazeera, Iran’s deputy national police commander issued a warning today. “As of today, the police will strongly confront any illegal gatherings and those without permission,” said Ahmadreza Radan.

CNN reports that thousands are trying to get into Tehran, but are being shut out. (h/t Pitney)

Also from Pitney, an e-mailer writes: “HARD conflict between the people and the Special Guard. people: down with khamenee”

UPDATE III: It sounds as though the riot police are going for thuggish-lite today. SOP: Disperse the crowds, keep them moving, isolate them, and then target them, if necessary. Sounds like there are small demonstrations around the city, but nothing has been confirmed.

UPDATE IV: State-controlled Press TV WAS reporting that two have been hurt in a “blast” at the shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, but the story is either down or has been pulled (h/t The Lede)

Tweet: “Bomb blast will clear way gov to prosecute Mousavi/Rafsanjani as traitors to Revolution #iranelection.”

UPDATE V: 3,000 incredibly brave people. They have my praise, but it sounds as though this may have been quelled. Where is Mousavi? Karroubi? (h/t The Lede)

Read through the whole thing — if he’s right, the regime has managed to scare the overwhelming majority of the protesters into quiescence, which means this won’t be Romania or Tiananmen, but rather a validation of President Obama’s decision to let a few hundred people die so he can get about fruitlessly negotiating with people who won’t give up their nukes.

UPDATE BY PEJMAN YOUSEFZADEH: The BBC has a good recap of what happened in Saturday’s demonstration in Iran. As the story states, “water cannon, batons, tear gas and live rounds” were used against the protesters in a sickening display of violence. See also this story, which indicates that Mir Hossein Mousavi is not backing down–far from it. His defiance is shared by the populace:

Iran’s divisions played out on the streets. Regular security forces stood back and urged protesters to go home to avoid bloodshed, while the feared pro-government militia, the Basij, beat protesters with clubs and, witnesses said, electric prods.

In some places, the protesters pushed back, rushing the militia in teams of hundreds: At least three Basijis were pitched from their motorcycles, which were then set on fire. The protesters included many women, some of whom berated as “cowards” men who fled the Basijis. There appeared to be tens of thousands of protesters in Tehran, far fewer than the mass demonstrations early last week, most likely because of intimidation.

The street violence appeared to grow more intense as night fell, and there were unconfirmed reports of multiple deaths. A BBC journalist at Enghelab (Revolution) Square reported seeing one person shot by the security forces. An amateur video posted on YouTube showed a woman bleeding to death after being shot by a Basiji, the text posted with the video said.

“If they open fire on people and if there is bloodshed, people will get angrier,” said a protester, Ali, 40. “They are out of their minds if they think with bloodshed they can crush the movement.”

This is especially revealing:

The Basij militia completely blocked off Enghelab Square, one major gathering ground for the protesters. They are less accountable than regular security forces and, many witnesses said, were far more violent on Saturday.

“Please go home,” one regular officer told protesters. “We are scared of the Basijis, too.”

One woman who lives off Vali Asr Square, near where the protests took place, said Basijis beat and kicked anyone outside, shouting at them to return to their houses.

“The streets near our house were full of Basijis wearing helmets and holding batons,” she said.

So now, we know that the basijis are completely out of control. That’s not comforting, to say the least.

Perhaps more comforting is the following exchange from this interview with Fareed Zakaria:

CNN: As you’ve seen the situation in Iran develop over the last week, what are your thoughts?

Fareed Zakaria: One of the first things that strikes me is we are watching the fall of Islamic theocracy.

CNN: Do you mean you think the regime will fall?

Zakaria: No, I don’t mean the Iranian regime will fall soon. It may — I certainly hope it will — but repressive regimes can stick around for a long time. I mean that this is the end of the ideology that lay at the basis of the Iranian regime.

Read it all. Of course, I hope that the regime will actually fall, but seeing the theocracy lose intellectual and political energy would be delightful. Of course, I disagree with Zakaria’s comments concerning American involvement, but those who read the New Ledger already know that.

I put an update concerning events over at my own blog–which refers back to this update. Check out the links–especially this one, if you want to see just how brutal and vicious the regime can get (WARNING: EXTREMELY GRAPHIC).

Update by Ben Domenech:

  • The video of Neda, a young dying woman shot during the Tehran protests, is graphic and disturbing. It is also the sort of image that tends to drive people to keep doing what they are doing.
  • Two stories of import today: the Assembly of Experts has reportedly supported Khamenei’s statement yesterday, though without question, the events yesterday have had a strong negative impact on his power. And last night, Iran’s parliamentary speaker had this to say:

    “Although the Guardian Council is made up of religious individuals, I wish certain members would not side with a certain presidential candidate,” Iran’s influential parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, told the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting without naming whom he meant.

  • As I’ve said since early last week, President Obama will ultimately discover that he is going to reap the full negative rewards of these events, even without engaging taking a stand until a point when it was entirely irrelevant. The mullahs have already publicly accused him of meddling (before yesterday’s statement). And last night, FOX News’ James Rosen said that the “privately held view” at the State Department concedes that: “chances for meaningful engagement with the Khamenei regime have been set back considerably.”
  • As another resource to turn to throughout the day, the IranRevolution social media aggregator is of use.

UPDATE BY PEJMAN YOUSEFZADEH: Never mind the portion of this story stating that there is calm in the streets in Tehran. The demonstrations are ongoing. Look:

The chants are “Allah-hu-akbar!” (God is great!), “Natarseen! Natarseen, mah hameh bah ham hasteem!” (Don’t be afraid! We are all together!), and “Marg bar dictator!” (Death for the dictator!). These chants could just as easily be directed towards Khamene’i, as they could towards Ahmadinejad–which alone is worth commenting on.

The daughter of former president–and current head of the Assembly of Experts–Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, herself a significant political dissident, has been arrested, along with four members of the Rafsanjani family. The other four members have been released, but Rafsanjani’s daughter remains in prison. Since the Assembly of Experts can remove the Supreme Leader, under the Iranian constitution, I have to think that this was a stupid move on the part of the regime.

From Lara Setrakian’s Twitter page:

1. Mousavi’s campaign staff has been arrested, and he is not allowed to speak to journalists.

2. In a shocking development, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants us not to be imperialists.

The government-controlled media in Iran has gone ahead and declared Mousavi a “criminal,” along with stating that Iranian protesters supposedly have ties to a hated terrorist group, the mujahedin-eh-khalq. This development is about as surprising as water being wet. The following excerpt, however, is quite significant:

The week of unrest has focused attention on the political maneuvering in Iran’s normally opaque power circle, especially between Rafsanjani and Khamenei, who announced Friday that he supported Ahmadinejad. In a rare show of criticism, Iran’s head of parliament, Ali Larijani, who is known for his extreme loyalty to Khamenei, said that the Guardian Council, the elite group charged with certifying elections, should not side with one candidate.


“Although the Guardian Council is made up of religious individuals, I wish certain members would not side with a certain presidential candidate,” said Larijani, according to a Web site affiliated with him.

“The Guardian Council should use every possible means to build trust and convince the protesters that their complaints will be thoroughly looked into,” the parliament speaker added.

He also acknowledged the fact that there are serious protests in the country. “A majority of people are of the opinion that the actual election results are different than what was officially announced,” Larijani, who for two years led Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, said. “The opinion of this majority should be respected and a line should be drawn between them and rioters and miscreants.”

He also criticized the state broadcasting service, which he formerly headed, saying that “the IRIB should not act in a way that provokes people.” The authorities should provide an atmosphere in which people feel free to express their opinion, Larijani concluded.

If I were Khamene’i–and thank God I am not–I would be sweating now.

Reuel Marc Gerecht says that the regime is, at best, utterly zombiefied now. From his lips to God’s ears. And Neda is remembered. If there is any justice, she will be remembered long after the Islamic regime fades away. And may it fade away soon.

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