On Wednesday, the Islamic Republic of Iran reacted to last Sunday’s violent demonstrations by marshaling supporters in countrywide demonstrations and launching a media offensive against the opposition Green Movement.
At least 37 people were killed Sunday on the deadliest day of rioting since June’s disputed presidential election, which saw hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad returned to office amid widespread elections of fraud. For the first time, demonstrators switched from nonviolent tactics to engage the police with stones and batons. In response, the police fired tear-gas and bullets.
Government-funded newspapers lashed out Wednesday at the thousands of demonstrators who fought running battles with security forces during Shiite Islam’s major festival, labeling them “apostates” and calling for their “arrest and execution."
“Hossein’s Intifadah: So many troops came out for the love of the Leader,” trumpeted the pro-Ahmadinejad Raja News agency. “The people spontaneously roar: 'Don’t give protection to the leaders of the discord,' ” was the front-page cover of Kayhan, a newspaper that acts as a mouthpiece for the Islamic Republic.
On Wednesday, state television showed clips of pro-government crowds demonstrating against the opposition movement in cities around Iran. “Mass mobilization is always a very useful tactic used by revolutionary ideological governments, and these guys are good at it,” said Farid Mirbagheri, chairman of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Nicosia in Cyprus.
Police chief Ismail Ahmadi-Moghadam called a press conference to deny claims of official heavyhandedness against protesters either in Sunday’s violence or in the wave of arrests that followed. Among the allegations was a charge that the nephew of defeated presidential candidate and leading Green Movement figure Mir Hossein Mousavi was murdered on government orders.
“No police force in the world would tolerate rioters attacking a police commander, destroying religious shrines, and insulting religious values by burning flags of mourning,” Mr. Ahmadi-Moghadam said in an emotional press conference.
The government’s counterstrike has included arresting more than 1,000 people, mostly in highly populated urban centers of dissent like Tehran, Esfahan, and Mashhad. Human rights activists in Iran are describing cramped prison conditions and a deterioration in police behavior toward detainees. Police chief Ahmadi Moghadam vowed that the police would no longer display “restraint."
After the first wave of political arrests, following the election, credible charges were made from a number of quarters about the use of torture in detention centers.
The regime turned to allied religious scholars to shore up its legitimacy. The conservative right-wing Resalat newspaper carried on its front page the reaction of five grand ayatollahs condemning the “sacrilege perpetrated against Ashura.” Several important religious authorities have remained silent since the summer elections, withholding the blessing they traditionally bestow.
“We exaggerate the role of the grand ayatollahs,” said Walter Posch, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. “I don’t expect them to come out in mass against the regime, because you don’t become a grand ayatollah if Khamenei doesn’t want you to. Although he’s not the greatest Shiite religious authority, he is certainly the most powerful cleric in the world in terms of political power, and has the potential to intimidate his peers.”
Enticing pro-government demonstrators with popular religious chanters
The regime has declared an “Intifadah for Hossein.” Hossein, or Hussein, is the grandson of the prophet Muhammad, whose death in battle is commemorated during Ashura. One of the incentives for pro-government demonstrators to attend rallies on Wednesdaywas the booking one of Iran's most popular maddahs -- a religious chanter -- to serenade the crowds.
Maddahs command rock-starlike adulation and devoted followings. Divorced from the high religious culture of clerical university towns such as Qom and Najaf, they chant a mixture of popular Islamic fables and contemporary political commentary in religious gathering halls crammed with hundreds of emotional men, often in tears as they rhythmically strike themselves with chains or their own hands.
“If you want to understand who the Basiji [militiamen] really are, then you have to listen to their maddahs,” said an Iranian analyst who requested anonymity because he lives in Tehran. “They all have undying acceptance of the velayat-e faqih [Supreme Leader] and an understandable antipathy toward Americanized uptown kids about whose immoral parties with whiskey and cocaine they’re told so much in Basij meetings.”
“So it’s much more complicated than the standard narrative that Iran is composed of social democrats and a series of villagers. But even so, the religious classes are turning against the deal the government offers them," the analyst adds.
Though the Iranian government does not pay supporters to demonstrate, it appeals to their religious sentiments, indirectly subsidizes them, and offers free food and entertainment at public events. A majority of participants in pro-government events belong to the Basiji neighborhood and workplace associations or hold government jobs.
“Civil servants and government employees are sent memos that they’re obligated to take part in these demos,” said an Iranian academic who preferred anonymity because he has family in Iran. “Every organization has a security apparatus that overlooks and monitors their employees’ behavior, and I’m sure they use every trick in the book to ensure that everyone complies to directives coming from above.”
The government is also taking steps to restrict the flow of information to the outside world. An interview arranged by this journalist with an Iranian civil servant with pro-regime views was canceled after he explained that security agents at his office told him they knew that his cellphone was receiving phone calls from abroad and that his “file will be referred to the police” should he not immediately desist.
Sunday’s violence has heightened social tensions, with analysts warning that from now on, both sides will be far more unforgiving in their reactions.
“The next step is that people start shooting back,” said Mr. Mirbagheri of the University of Nicosia in Cyprus. “Then we’ll have martial law and the Revolutionary Guard’s armored vehicles patrolling the streets. And when that martial law happens, a military government will be even less lenient toward opposition than these guys now.”