March 2011, Week 2


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Wed, 9 Mar 2011 21:58:48 -0500
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How Iran keeps revolution from flowering on streets of Tehran

After a week inside the Islamic state, Patrick Cockburn reflects on how Ahmadinejad's subtle game has kept regional unrest at bay

Patrick Cockburn
Tuesday, 8 March 2011 

Iranian protesters will try to take to the streets of
Tehran this morning in an effort to revive opposition to
the government, but those demonstrators who do appear are
likely to be chased, beaten or arrested by thousands of
riot police and baton-wielding militiamen.

The attempt by the Green movement, as anti-government
activists are known, to emulate the protests across the
Arab world is failing to shake the Iranian authorities,
still less overthrow them. Over the past week the centre
of Tehran has been calm with protesters making a
negligible impact.

"The regime has got good at calibrating the exact amount
of force necessary to frighten people without creating
martyrs," lamented a critic of the government. "The Greens
showed that they can still mobilise support by their first
big protest for over a year on 14 February, but since then
fewer and fewer people are taking to the streets."

The government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose
allegedly fraudulent election in 2009 led to three million
people joining protest marches, has been playing its cards
carefully. Its officials say they have put the leaders of
the Green movement, Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi,
the defeated candidates in the election, under a highly
restrictive house arrest. They cannot communicate with the
outside world and their families are not allowed to see
them. The government insists they are not in jail, a move
that might provoke serious demonstrations.

Given that the present system of Islamic government in
Iran is the outcome of the street protests of 1978-79 it
is hardly surprising that it has always been edgy about
anybody else trying to take the same route to power.

Overall the uprisings in the Arab world have greatly
strengthened Iran because they have disrupted the
political and economic siege that the US has succeeded in
imposing on Tehran in recent years. Hostile leaders of
Sunni Arab states closely allied to the US such as
President Hosni Mubarak, who was always seeing an Iranian
or Shia Muslim hand behind every development, have either
lost power or are wondering how long they can cling to it.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf state rulers
who, according US diplomatic cables published by
WikiLeaks, had been quietly egging on the US to attack
Iran, now have troubles closer to home to worry about.

Sanctions against Iran have never been as suffocating as
those imposed on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in 1990 but
they do inflict damage. Transferring money in and out of
the country is a problem. One foreign student complained
how she had spent weeks trying to bring a few hundred
dollars to Tehran. Sellers of luxury goods such as carpets
and caviar are once more victims of a US embargo reimposed
last year. On the other hand one result of the crisis is
to increase Iran's oil revenues to $80bn over the past

More importantly, Iran is suffering from a shortage of the
petrol that it is no longer allowed to import because of
sanctions. The government has limited the amount sold to
car owners at a subsidised price. It has also diverted
some of its petrochemical plants to making petrol,
claiming the country is self-sufficient. But the petrol
produced is low quality and highly toxic, ensuring that
Tehran's 15 million people live in one of the most highly
polluted places on earth. On some days recently it has
been difficult to see the snow-covered mountains just to
the north of the city.

In almost every way recent Iranian experience differs from
that of most of the Arab world. The "revolutions" in
Libya, Egypt, Syria and Iraq in the 1950s and 1960s,
though they initially might have had popular support, were
military coups. In contrast to its neighbours Iran had a
genuine revolution, followed by the eight-year-long
Iran-Iraq war, which has meant that Iranian politics are
conducted with all the hatred and bitterness of an armed

President Ahmadinejad, whose own career was shaped by his
experiences in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps
(IRGC), sees his electoral opponents as potential traitors
plotting against the Islamic Republic. He has the
advantage over Arab rulers that, even though the vote for
him in 2009 may have been fixed, he and his government
have a core of militant and fanatical supporters.
Moreover, this support is organised in para-state bodies
such as mosques, the IRGC and the much feared Basij

Political and religious differences in Iran often run
along class lines. Supporters of the Greens in Tehran
admit that they have never expanded their support base to
the urban and rural poor, unlike protesters in Egypt and
Tunisia. This does not mean that reformers do not pick up
votes among the poor – but their militants tend to be the
educated and the middle class.

One professor at a university in Tehran describes how,
during the 14 February protests this year, students
belonging to the Basij tried to stop fellow students
joining the Green demonstration. He said: "The Basij only
have about 10 per cent support at the university, but
maybe 40 per cent or even a majority outside."

Repression is likely to prevent protests gathering support
on the street though there is evidently a body of
courageous activists willing to take great risks. But
opposition postings on YouTube mainly show police and
basij while the most dramatic pictures of protesters show
young men wearing shirts without coats, an unlikely choice
of clothing in the chill air of Tehran. The pictures look
as if they may date from the mass demonstrations in the
summer of 2009.

The clamp down on street protests is accompanied by the
government doing everything it can to control Iranian and
foreign media. The flourishing world of reformist
newspapers has disappeared. Foreign television broadcasts
in Farsi are disrupted. On the internet many sites cannot
be obtained. Foreign journalists are largely excluded from
the country and Iranian contributors to the foreign media
are tightly controlled. Censorship is not complete but the
mutually supporting relationship between protests and the
media seen in the Arab uprisings is unlikely to flourish.

Many militants who supported reform in 2009 have now moved
abroad. Opposition websites put out news about
demonstrations, arrests and imprisonment. But the regime
looks as if it has successfully outlasted the furious
reaction to the 2009 presidential election, that so many
Iranians regard as fraudulent.

Part of the strength of protests then was that the Iranian
establishment, including the clergy, were divided.
Powerful traditional power brokers such as Ali Akbar
Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has so often been accused of
corruption, supported the opponents of Mr Ahmadinejad. Now
these establishment figures are being forced to break with
the Greens if they want to remain within the ruling elite.

US diplomats are hopefully spreading the word that the
success of the broadly secular uprisings in the Arab world
shows that Iran's Islamic revolution is out of date. But
Iranian leaders will be happy enough that the political
landscape of the Middle East has so unexpectedly and
dramatically changed in Iran's favour.

The marginalised opposition

Mirhossein Mousavi

* The presidential candidate in 2009 whose defeat by the
incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad led to an explosion of rage
and mass street protests across Iran claiming fraud.

* The 68-year-old Mr Mousavi, from east Azerbaijan, was a
student radical under the Shah and an admirer of Che
Guevara. He became prime minister of Iran between 1981 and
1989 and was seen as being on the left of the Islamic

* On the death of Ayatollah Khomeini he left politics and
confined himself to architecture, painting and poetry for
20 years. The government says he is under house arrest,
while the opposition movement say that he is in fact in

Mehdi Karroubi

* The 73-year-old reformist cleric was one of the defeated
presidential candidates in 2009 and also alleges fraud.

* Twice speaker of parliament, he has remained outspoken
as an opponent of the government since the election. He
was a candidate for the presidency in 2005 when he alleged
that the vote had been manipulated. He accused the
government of raping and sodomising opposition activists,
causing a scandal within the Iranian political

* His unexpectedly low vote in the 2009 poll, even in his
home province, is cited as strong evidence that the
election was fixed.


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