Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Iranian Police Meet Stiff Resistance in Ashura Protests
The violent protests seen in the Iranian capital on December 27 marked the start of a new phase in the country’s ongoing political turbulence, with implications for the regime as well as its opponents. Instead of the peaceful tactics they had previously espoused, supporters of the opposition Green Movement challenged the authorities on the streets of Tehran, creating a real possibility of an escalation in violence.
The demonstrations were timed to coincide with Ashura, a key date on the Iranian Shia calendar, and the powerful symbolism of this religious event prompted a show of force from both the Green Movement and supporters of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Ashura commemorates the martyrdom of Hossein Ibn Ali, the third Shia imam, who died in an unequal battle against an oppressive ruler.
This seventh-century event carries potency even today. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the first leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, frequently characterised the 1979 revolution as an extension of Hossein’s uprising, saying that this explained its success.
But Hossein’s martyrdom can also be read as a narrative for the opposition, whose leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, not only bears the first same as the revered imam but is said to trace his ancestry to him.
For the first time in six months of the clashes, each side knew the exact time and date of their next battle. Two weeks before Ashura, a website campaign was used to urge Green Movement supporters to come out at ten in the morning onto Tehran’s four major squares.
Khamenei supporters took on the protesters with more gusto than usual, charged up by taking part in the mourning ceremonies of Ashura, in which participants are brought to tears by communal chanting. As the religious ecstasy reached its apex, Ayatollah Khamenei was represented as a sacred figure and a worthy successor to Imam Hossein, and his opponents condemned as enemies of Islam and of God.
The protests got under way with scattered crowds of opposition demonstrators appearing along the 13-kilometre route between the aptly named Imam Hossein Square and Azadi Square, whose name – meaning “freedom” – recalls the 1979 revolution in many people’s minds.
Rather than trying to disperse the protesters, the security forces worked to prevent them coalescing into one. If the June 15 protest that came three days after the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was anything to go by, this could have resulted in a million-strong march.
As the two sides skirmished, demonstrators were attacked by mobs of plain-clothed men who were ostensibly operating independently, and were therefore not bounded by any constraints. But the link to the security forces was pretty obvious – members of these groups were equipped with firearms, batons and radios on which they appeared to be receiving instructions from police commanders.
Employing this tactic allowed the official security forces to distance themselves from attacks, by claiming that the civilians involved were not police, but provocateurs planted among the crowds by enemies of the regime such as the United States and Israel.
According to Ahmad Reza Radan, deputy chief of the Iranian police force, government forces did not use live ammunition during the clashes. This claim is questionable given that gunfire was clearly audible during cellphone calls made by protestors, for example in the College Crossroads area.
Riot police certainly employed other forms of excessive force – a swipe from a baton dealt from a fast-moving motorcycle can carry lethal force, and a number of protesters were simply run over by police cars.
The febrile atmosphere of Ashura also affected the Green Movement, turning many a law-abiding citizen into a streetfighter. The radicalised mood and the government’s obdurate refusal to address previous demands prompted protestors to put up stiff resistance rather than turning away from direct confrontation, as they had done in the past.
At the Avesta junction, close to Azadi Square, demonstrators effectively seized control of streets running parallel to Azadi Avenue. They started fires to neutralise the effects of tear gas, and hurled stones and bricks at the security forces, which had to retreat several hundred metres. Specialised riot squads were too outnumbered to mount a renewed charge.
Groups of protesters in two key locations - College Crossroads and under the Hafez Bridge – remained in place despite coming under gunfire. Around midday, angered at the loss of several lives, they launched their own attack on police, destroying a number of cars and motorcycles in the process.
In the course of the day, Azizollah Rajabzadeh, the chief of police in Tehran, was injured. The fact that such a senior officer needed to be so close to the action, let alone suffer injury, suggest the security forces were struggling to cope with this level of confrontation.
An eyewitness told this reporter of seeing a middle-aged man running after one of the plain-clothed agents throwing rocks at him, while uniformed police stood and watched ineffectually only a few metres away.
Women took an active role, at times reaching to grab batons from the police as their male counterparts hung back. There were instances where riot police detained protesters, only for crowds dominated by women to surge forward and get them released.
In short, the events of December 27 can be described as street resistance on a scale the government could neither anticipate nor cope with. On previous occasions, it has been the police who waded in and broke up protesting crowds. This time, after six hours of continuous confrontation, it was the demonstrators who took the decision to disperse and go home.
The warfare for control of the streets was psychological as well as physical. Whenever riot police dispersed a crowd, several hundred regime supporters – mostly women with chadors covering their heads – would fill the vacuum, chanting pro-Khamenei slogans. They did not go unopposed –places like Keshavarz Boulevard saw standoffs as Khamenei supporters were faced with opposition crowds calling out their own slogans only a couple of hundred metres away.
Significantly, Ayatollah Khamenei himself was the target of some of the toughest language from protesters, with slogans like, “We say we don’t want the Shah, and they rename him Leader”, or “Death to the Dictator” – as if the regime had fallen and the Supreme Leader had fled the country, as the Shah did back in 1979.
Another incident worth noting is that while Iranian state television showed just one opposition slogan in the course of a prime-time news slot, it was an astonishing one to choose – a call for an end to the “guardianship of the jurisprudent”, the principle that underpins Ayatollah Khamenei’s unassailable position as leader. (According to this principle, “velayat-e faqih” in Persian, the work of government is overseen and guided by expert practitioners of Shia law. In practice, the function of velayat-e faqih was vested in one person, Ayatollah Khomeini. When he died in 1989, the post of Supreme Leader and consequently the role of embodying velayat-e faqih passed to Khamenei.)
Although the aim of this broadcast was clearly to galvanise supporters of the Supreme Leader, the very fact that this slogan was shown nationwide for the first time made viewers aware that such apparently unthinkable views are being voiced publicly by some of their compatriots.
It may well be that opposition supporters have collectively opted for street demonstrations rather than other forms of protest such as strikes, and that in the face of intimidation, they have chosen to stand and fight in self-defence. Emotional factors may also be playing a role, with animosity towards the regime now so intense that people will actually seek out a fight with its paramilitaries. The palpable rage felt among the crowds was exemplified by one incident in which the Supreme Leader’s name was spelled out on the ground and then trampled underfoot.
There is a risk that at some point, self-defence spills over into violent offensive action.
For their part, government forces are trying to infuse a similar spirit of hatred in their own supporters. A demonstration by pro-government supporters two days after Ashura delivered a clear message that further violence against the opposition would count as legitimate.
Six months ago, protesters marched in silence. Now, the depth of the hostility on both sides suggests that a new, more violent phase in the standoff is likely.
The emotive language of violence even crept into a statement by opposition leader Mousavi, who quoted the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s famous warning, “Kill us, and we become stronger.”
Raha Tahami is the pseudonym of an Iranian journalist and social affairs analyst in Tehran.
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