It is an important date, and it represented a perfect day for protests against the Islamic regime in Iran. And a number of protests took place today.
Despite reports that protesters were dispersed, it is clear that the protests have not lost their potency, even if the protesters are husbanding their strength, and not taking on the security forces directly:
Demonstrators said they were determined to defy the authorities led by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who have demanded an end to public rallies and acts of civil disobedience. Tracts distributed online and as leaflets called on protesters to borrow the nonviolent tactics of the U.S. civil rights movement, avoid rifts within their ranks and do nothing that would hamper morale.
Protesters chanted in support of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who authorities say was defeated by incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the presidential vote, and they urged the security forces to join them.
“Mojtaba, may you die, so that you don’t get the supreme leadership,” went one chant, referring to Khamenei’s son, who is said to be behind the crackdown and angling for his father’s job.
Though the number of protesters was nowhere close to the hundreds of thousands who took to the streets soon after the election, organizers showed Thursday that they could quickly assemble a crowd despite the efforts of security forces.
Thursday was also the anniversary of a student uprising that was violently crushed by the government 10 years ago — a perennial occasion for confrontations between demonstrators and police.
“It is going to continue,” vowed a marcher in his 60s, big drops of sweat on his forehead. “They have killed our dear youth. How can we forgive them?”
Many of the demonstrators wore surgical masks to conceal their identities from cameras positioned on nearby buildings. They could be seen fleeing into side streets and regrouping as shops were quickly shuttered. Some witnesses said pro-government Basiji militiamen were also wearing masks to hide their faces from protesters’ cameras.
Passing drivers and motorcyclists honked their horns and flashed the victory sign in support of the clusters of demonstrators. Business owners could be seen hustling protesters into their buildings to shield them from police. One witness described at least 10,000 demonstrators gathered in one spot, but there was no independent confirmation.
Uniformed security forces on motorcycles and plainclothes officers had blocked off streets around Enghelab Square, near the Tehran University epicenter of the protest. One witness said shots were fired in the air near Vali Asr Square, another downtown crossroads where demonstrators had planned to gather in case Enghelab was inaccessible.
As militiamen would try to drag away demonstrators, a witness said, protesters would join together to overpower them. He also said he saw women with their head scarves pulled off being forced into police vans. Another woman taking pictures with her cellphone camera was dragged away. One witness said five Basiji militiamen pummeled an elderly lady who loudly warned them that they would receive their comeuppance on Judgment Day.
Thursday’s was one of the smallest public protests since the disputed June 12 election in which opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi was supposedly defeated by Ahmadinejad, but the anger and determination of the participants in the face of an enormous crackdown showed that the authorities are unable to maintain control.
Thursday’s protests took place despite direct threats by Morteza Tamaddon, the governor of Tehran, who threatened to “crush” the demonstrators.
Tamaddon was quoted by Irna, the official news agency, as saying that the government is responsible for the security of the population and of society, and that it had not issued a permit for the demonstration. “If some people want to act under the influence of anti-revolution TV channels, they will be crushed under the steps of our vigilant people,” he said.
Mousavi apparently didn’t participate in Thursday’s demonstration, and an aide said his followers are “worried about his life.”
However, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Mousavi’s campaign manager in the June polls, said the latest protest, which linked the student-led movement of 1999 with the “green movement” that sprang up on the eve of the presidential elections, will continue regardless of what happens to Mousavi.
“Every Iranian is a campaign headquarters himself. Every Iranian has to be both a follower and a commander for this movement,” said Makhmalbaf, who spoke to reporters by phone from France. “We are prepared in the case that the government imprisons Mousavi, we will not consider this movement finished. This movement will go on.”
He said Mousavi was “one ring in this chain. In the event that we lose him as a leader, this chain will not be lost.”
And still more:
. . . At Tehran University, a line of police blocked a crowd from reaching the gates of the campus, but then did not move to disperse them as the protesters chanted “Mir Hossein” and “death to the dictator” and waved their hands in the air, witnesses said. The crowd grew to nearly 1,000 people, the witnesses said.
“Police, protect us,” some of the demonstrators chanted, asking the forces not to move against them.
The protesters appeared to reach several thousand, but their full numbers were difficult to determine, since marches took place in several parts of the city at once and mingled with passers-by. There was no immediate word on arrests or injuries.
It did not compare to the hundreds of thousands who joined the marches that erupted after the June 12 presidential election, protesting what the opposition said were fraudulent results. But it was a show of determination despite a crackdown that has cowed protesters for nearly two weeks.
Onlookers and pedestrians often gave their support. In side streets near the university, police were chasing young activists, and when they caught one, passers-by chanted “let him go, let him go,” until the policemen released him. Elsewhere, residents let fleeing demonstrators slip into their homes to elude police, witnesses said.
All witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals. Iranian authorities have imposed restrictions that ban reporters from leaving their offices to cover demonstrations.
Many of the marchers were young men and women, some wearing green surgical masks, the color of Mousavi’s movement, but older people joined them in some places. Vehicles caught in traffic honked their horns in support of the marchers, witnesses said. Police were seen with a pile of license plates, apparently pried off honking cars in order to investigate the drivers later, the witnesses said.
Soon after the confrontations began, mobile phone service was cut off in central Tehran, a step that was also taken during the height of the postelection protests to cut off communications. Mobile phone messaging has been off for the past three days, apparently to disrupt attempts at planning.
The calls for a new march have been circulating for days on social networking Web sites and pro-opposition Web sites. Opposition supporters planned the marches to coincide with the anniversary Thursday of a 1999 attack by Basij on a Tehran University dorm to stop protests in which one student was killed.
Demonstrators dispersed by nightfall. But after sunset, shouts of “death to the dictator” could be heard from rooftops around the city—a half-hour nightly ritual by Mousavi supporters that has continued even since the previous crackdown.
None of this shows that the protests are dissipating. On the contrary, the anger against the regime remains quite real, and the regime ought to be terrified.
As a capstone to this post, I recommend Matthew Continetti’s article to anyone who wants evidence for the proposition that we have national security interests in promoting positive change in Iran. I disagree with Continetti’s claim, however, that somehow, the “realists” or the practitioners of realpolitik (a more precise term) miscalculated. Apart from Robert Gates, there are no practitioners of realpolitik in the Obama Administration.