Iran Protests Continue Despite Crackdown

Protests continue in Iran even as Ahmadinejad looks forward to a second term.

ByLara Setrakian
July 08, 2009, 10:38 AM

— -- Protests against the reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have moved to a "second level" with his opponents adopting more subtle tactics like writing protests on paper currency, spray painting on walls and using a rarely observed religious holiday for a three day strike.

The opposition is also trying to revive street protests by calling for demonstrations on Thursday, which marks the 10th anniversary of Iran's student uprising of 1999. That protest ended when police and Basijis launched a violent raid on the dormitories of Tehran University.

The fresh protests are planned at multiple locations in Tehran and other major cities in hopes they can amass a large public showing.

Many survivors and supporters of the 1999 protests have become the leaders of today's opposition, and many have been arrested in the wake of the current outbreak of dissent.

State figures say roughly 1,000 people have been detained, while human rights groups cite a number three times as high. Most were released within 72 hours while others have been held without charge or information on their whereabouts.

"We want to know where they are. That's the least someone should have, even if they're murderers," said Mehdi Sarakhiz, whose father Isa Saharkhiz was arrested this week.

The government is lashing out, in what some see as a sign of political panic.

Despite the tough government crackdown, Iran's opposition appears to be operating on the premise that the time is now to reform Iran's theocratic system. Its nominal leadership – Mir Hossein Mousavi, former president Mohamed Khatami, and reformist cleric Mehdi Karroubi – met this week in a broadened push for greater democracy and continued resistance against the Ahmadinejad's government.

Demonstrations continued through Wednesday, though more localized and limited than the early days of June's mass rallies.

In Tehran's Grand Bazaar there are some signs of a three-day strike called in protest of the government, timed with the religious holiday of Etekaf. For years Iran's government encouraged the three-day observance for the birth of Imam Ali. This year the holiday is being used for political cover so that people can go on strike without punishment.

Other forms of protest designed to evade the government crackdown involve green graffiti on neighborhood walls, often "V" signs for "victory," and writing opposition slogans on paper money that circulates through the country.

"This is a second protest level. They want to try to keep the momentum going. Every opportunity that they get they want to show that the struggle continues," said Shahriar Shahabi, an Iranian analyst in Dubai who says protests continued in Shiraz, Mashad, and other cities. He says that if successful, Mousavi's plan to create a new political party would be a pivotal boost to opposition efforts.

Nightly rooftop chants of Allahu Akbar, held between 9 and 11 p.m. around the country, have continued since the June 12 election. Security forces have raided homes and attacked rooftop protesters, ending in at least two reported shooting deaths. This week, with severe sandstorms clouding the air of Tehran, protesters took advantage of the low visibility.

"It is going crazy here…it is very very loud, and there is a lot of emotion," Ehsan, 34, wrote in an email to ABC News during Tuesday night's protest.

"Death to the dictator, Ahmadi[nejad] is a liar, the government of coup d'état…should resign...should resign," he wrote, in a set of rhyming, rhythmic slogans in Persian.

On Tuesday night Ahmadinejad addressed the Iranian nation on television, blaming the protest casualties on foreign powers accused of meddling in the country's election. The rooftop chants could be heard around Tehran during his broadcast.

Monday's meeting of opposition leaders endorsed the subtler forms of resistance, without calling for supporters to protest in the streets. Iranian authorities have again threatened to prosecute opposition leaders, including Mousavi, criminalizing most forms of protests including blogs and communication with foreign news channels.

The government is fighting back.

"The daily growth of anti-regime satellite channels and ... websites needs serious measures to confront this phenomenon," read a circular issued this weekend by Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi-Shahroudi, the head of Iran's judiciary.

Detainees released from state custody have described brutal physical and sexual abuse, including hours in stress positions and days under bright lights. One detainee said he was waterboarded using hot water and a towel.

As their stories emerge they reinforce through fear the state's security hold on the country.

"It feels like martial law," said Beheshteh, 26, an opposition supporter in Tehran.

"There are checkpoints, they randomly pull over cars…so you're on edge because its not a normal – the forces are everywhere."

Over the weekend the Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qom, a prominent pro-reform clerical organization in the Shiite holy city, criticized Ahmedinejad's reelection and the state's violent response to opposition protests. For Iran's theocratic government it was a bold statement, rebuking the Guardian Council, Iran's highest judicial body heavily influenced by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Analysts say the election hasn't created divisions in Iran's theocratic government; rather, it has hardened them.

"The regime knows it is in minority in Qom," said Dr. Ali Ansari. "The problem hasn't been to find clerics who disagree with what's happened. It's finding those people who are willing to say it."

What may be more significant than what pro-reform clerics have said is what conservative clerics haven't. Many have refrained from congratulating Ahmedinejad; in withholding that blessing they signal their reservations about a process publicly endorsed be the Supreme Leader himself.

"The major clerical groups' silence and the Association's public dissent suggest real discontent among clerics, which if activated could further delegitimize an already weakened regime," wrote Cliff Kupchan of the Eurasia Group.

"Loss of clerical support would make the government even more reliant on its guns. Force may be enough to ensure regime survival - but survival of a government with a very narrow support base."

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