The Iranian Regime's Fear of the People

The Beginning of the end? Iran's opposition movement gains ground.

Jan. 5, 2010 — -- The ruler in his palace was at a loss. He felt helpless, alone and full of misgivings. Should he attack on this day in December, a day when his people were taking advantage of Ashura, an important Shiite festival, to take to the streets in the millions and demand his abdication in angry chants? Wasn't it imperative that he demonstrate uncompromising brutality and order his soldiers to shoot into the crowd, if he hoped to continue as leader?

The ruler, a man who felt chosen by history, was all too familiar with the symbolic power of the events surrounding Ashura. On that day, the faithful commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who fearlessly confronted superior forces 1,300 years ago in the Battle of Karbala, giving impetus to the rise of a religion dedicated to rapt suffering. The ruler of Iran apparently sensed that it would be more than a tactical mistake to resort to violence on this day. Indeed, it would be an incident of sacrilege that he would be unable to survive. Instead, he forbade his military leaders and intelligence officials from creating what could have been a bloodbath.

This atypical leniency benefited Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi on that December day in 1978, but by then there was little left to save. Five weeks later, the people drove him out of office. The revolution of the masses had prevailed.

On Feb. 1, 1979, millions of Iranians celebrated the return of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini from exile in France. He promised a just political system anchored in religion and characterized by strict laws. When the Islamic Republic was proclaimed on April 1, 1979, Khomeini's triumph was complete.

A New Dimension

Ashura is the day on which history was written and probably will always continue to be written. History was also written in December 2009, when Iranians' long-simmering dissatisfaction with their rulers reached a new -- and, at the very least, prerevolutionary -- dimension, when violence and counter-violence dominated the streets of three of Iran's biggest cities, Tehran, Tabriz and Isfahan. When even the regime could no longer deny that people had been killed during the protests. When security forces shot at protesters and hundreds were arrested nationwide. And when bodies disappeared and their family members were not even able to bury their dead within the time period prescribed by their religion.

The government's actions proved that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Khomeini's political heir, was not even making allowances for religious sentiments any more. "Even the regime of the shah respected Ashura," said reformer Mahdi Karroubi, the most prominent dissident next to opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi. During the 2009 Ashura festival, in which protesters from all levels of society took to the streets, the last bond between the rulers and the ruled was severed. As a result, the Islamic Republic lost its religious legitimacy in the eyes of many Muslims.

But does this also signify an admission of complete failure on the part of those in power? Does it mean that the theocracy faces inevitable, perhaps even immediate, collapse? Is it truly just a matter of time before the regime of Ayatollah Khamenei is finished? Only one thing is certain, namely that the clashes have reached a new dimension that is immensely dangerous for both sides. Never has there been so much popular dissatisfaction with the leadership in Tehran, and never before has such a broad front of people throughout the country fought with such determination against the "dictator" Khamenei and his ally, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Losing Their Fear of the Thugs

In contrast to the protests last summer, the opposition has lost its fear of the regime's thugs. Instead of cowering to avoid government forces during the demonstrations, the rebels are now fighting back, and instead of relenting, they are becoming more radical in their demands. Many are no longer interested in reforming the theocracy, but rather in abolishing it altogether.

And never has the regime struck back with such brutality. At least eight opposition figures were killed within a few hours. In what was essentially a warning to his uncle, Seyed Ali Mousavi, 43, was executed by a targeted gunshot in front of his family's house. Fearing attacks, Karroubi and Mousavi are believed to have fled from Tehran on Wednesday evening, although their families have denied their departure. The regime was sharply condemned by the international community, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticizing its "unacceptable actions" against the protest movement and US President Barack Obama talking of the Iranian government's "iron fist of brutality."

But the government's efforts to deter the protesters are becoming less and less effective. Each new wave of violence coming from the regime only heightens the popularity of the protest movement, which no longer consists solely of younger supporters of the reform movement from the middle and upper classes. Now formerly apolitical shopkeepers and the unemployed are risking direct confrontation with the government's gangs of thugs, and even the elderly are joining the protests.

The rebellion undoubtedly acquired special momentum as a result of the fact that this time Ashura coincided with the traditional observance of seven days of mourning after the death of the opposition's most symbolic religious figure, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, 87. The country had not been gripped by such a strong wave of emotion since the death of revolutionary leader Khomeini in 1989.

Taking to the Streets

In conservative Najafabad, the birthplace of Montazeri, many deeply religious residents, like retiree Reza Nouri, took to the streets, even though authorities had imposed a curfew and the Revolutionary Guard had sealed off the city. Nouri, a farmer, admits that he voted for Ahmadinejad, because he had promised to "distribute the riches from the oil industry on the plates of the poor."

But the old man now concurs with the opinion of the deceased ayatollah, who accused the government of trampling Islamic values by lying to the people and committing crimes against protesters. Like Nouri, many are no longer willing to accept this "betrayal of the revolution" for which they once fought.

In major cities, the movement can draw from an enormous reservoir of people with poor prospects. Almost half of Iran's working-age population is now unemployed, and even the official unemployment rate lies at 25 percent.

In Isfahan, the protest movement has gained particularly strong support in the working class neighborhood of Hossein Abad, and in Tehran more and more disgruntled residents of the city's poor southern neighborhoods are joining the street protests. Many of the protesters are young people who, driven by a fatal mixture of desperation, curiosity and boredom, initially join the marches and, provoked by the violence of pro-government forces, eventually resort to throwing stones. Western observers say that the street scenes are almost reminiscent of the 1968 unrest in France and Germany.

Even Khamenei is said to have been taken off-guard by the determination of the protesters. Until now, the revolutionary leader was considered untouchable, but now the words "down with the dictator" are resonating throughout the country. Opposition representatives claim that Khamenei was temporarily flown by helicopter from his residence in northern Tehran to barracks of the Revolutionary Guard, also known as the Pasdaran, which has remained loyal to him. "It can't go on like this for much longer," Saeed Montazeri, 47, the son of the grand ayatollah, said in an interview with SPIEGEL. Montazeri, a levelheaded religious scholar with the title of hojatoleslam, also warned against the collapse of the theocratic state.

The Regime's Historic Miscalculation

The leadership's fear of its own people is the consequence of an historic miscalculation on the night of the June 12 presidential election. With rarely seen audacity, Ahmadinejad declared himself the winner, even though the votes were a long way from being fully counted, and his most dangerous challenger, Mousavi, was probably running at least neck-and-neck with him.

In retrospect, it seems likely that election results were rigged in many districts to secure Ahmadinejad's reelection, apparently with Khamenei's support. This notion is reinforced by the fact that, despite all the protests, the revolutionary leader was suspiciously quick to congratulate his favorite, Ahmadinejad.

But contrary to what appeared to be the regime's expectations, millions of Mousavi supporters were not willing to accept the results. Three days after the election, hundreds of thousands gathered in Tehran for the largest protest march since the overthrow of the shah and peacefully chanted: "Where is my vote?" Leading the protest march was Mousavi, in his shirtsleeves and with a microphone in his hand.

Mousavi, once a bland technocrat, seemed to relish his new role as a people's leader and challenged the leadership by staging additional protests. The government struck back and eventually started shooting at protesters. Photos of the death of music student Neda quickly circled the world via the Internet, and she became an icon of the movement.

Wave of Protests

Despite mass arrests and show trials of regime critics, some of which ended in death sentences, the flood of protests did not subside. When the regime rigorously banned all protests, the movement cleverly used government propaganda events and a martyr culture that has been cultivated for decades to demonstrate its refusal to capitulate. Funerals of activists turned into impressive protest meetings, while official events, like those to mark the 30th anniversary of the occupation of the US Embassy in Tehran in November or the "Day of the Student" in early December, became open showdowns with security forces.

But it wasn't until the wave of protests on Ashura that the regime lost control over the street, and not just in Tehran. In incidents reminiscent of the riots against the shah, protesters overpowered brutal security forces nationwide, tore off their uniforms and triumphantly held up police boots and helmets like trophies. The perpetrators of violence had become the victims -- and vice-versa.

Eyewitnesses report scenes of regime thugs trembling in fear and of outraged protesters shouting: "Beat them! Beat them!" But in many cases other protesters apparently intervened, shouting "Let them go! Don't beat them!"

There has also been substantial damage to property. Buildings went up in flames, police cars were set on fire and many of the motorcycles that the feared Basij militias had used to brutally disperse groups of protesters were destroyed. One of the questions most heatedly discussed on Iranian blogs since the middle of the week is: "Are we now just as bad as our opponents?"

Still Powerful

Despite initial reports of insubordination among members of the Revolutionary Guard, the regime still has more clout than the protesters. The Pasdaran comprises 125,000 armed troops, and the special units that are particularly loyal to the regime are estimated to include between 5,000 and 10,000 men. The regime's militias count at least a million members. Roughly 90,000 members of the Basij are considered reliable and prepared to engage in street fighting. To enhance the operational capability of government forces, the militias have been placed under the command of the Pasdaran, of which Khamenei is the commander-in-chief.

President Ahmadinejad dismisses the unrest as a "disgusting spectacle." But the regime's nervousness is evident in how it is assigning blame for the protests, pointing its figure at the United States and the hated "Zionist entity," Israel.

Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki has also assigned some of the blame to terrorists, by which he apparently means a group known as the People's Mujahedeen Organization of Iran (PMOI). And indeed, the group's spokeswoman, Maryam Rajavi, has been calling for an overthrow of the regime from her exile in France for years. However, many Iranians have not forgotten that the left-leaning Islamist organization was once in league with former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who waged an eight-year war against their country.

'Without Restraint'

Instead of making compromises, the regime has focused its efforts on counter-demonstrations, and indeed managed to mobilize large groups of people in Tehran last week. The government has also announced that it will take even harsher action against the protesters. Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, provocatively called upon the courts to proceed against the protesters "without restraint." One of the representatives of the revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Abbas Vaez-Tabasi, publicly advocated the death penalty, invoking the system of velayat-e faqih, or guardianship of the Islamic jurists, which forms the core of the Iranian constitution.

The Islamists know that the downfall of Khamenei would spell the end of a corrupt system of patronage from which the conservative elite, many mullahs and, most of all, the large military-industrial complex consisting of the Pasdaran and Basij have profited handsomely for more than 30 years.

Opposition leader Mousavi has announced his willingness to die a martyr's death, and on Friday he delivered a list of demands to the regime. Its key points are the call for new, transparent voting rights, the release of political prisoners, a free press and the approval of peaceful demonstrations. Mousavi did not deign to mention his adversary Ahmadinejad or Ahmadinejad's benefactor Khamenei.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan