The Regime’s Preemption: Assessing the February 11 Protests in Iran
The Islamic Republic of Iran commemorated the 31st anniversary of the 1979 revolution on Thursday. The regime appears to have thwarted any large-scale and potentially destabilizing opposition demonstrations in Tehran and other cities. The restrictions on media coverage in the country and tightly-controlled communications limited the available information about the events of the day, beyond the images put forth by the Iranian regime. The official rallies may have drawn hundreds of thousands of supporters in Tehran, according to initial reports. Estimating the number of opposition protesters in Tehran remains difficult, perhaps more so this time in light of the increased crackdown ahead of Thursday. Protesters did appear to gather in Tehran mostly on the outskirts of where the regime held the official rally—chanting slogans heard during recent protests (“Death to the Dictator!”). Initial reports and amateur video footage showed that anti-regime protesters apparently turned out in other cities including Esfahan, Tabriz, Ahvaz and Shiraz. The precise size, organization and activities of these gatherings remain undeterminable at this time.
In the weeks leading up to Thursday, the regime took a series of steps that may have reduced the scope of any potential demonstrations the security forces would need to confront on February 11. A campaign of arrests led to the imprisonment of nearly 1,000 individuals since December 2009, according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, including many journalists, human rights activists, and grassroots activists. Tehran’s Revolutionary Court handed down a death sentence on Wednesday to a detained protester accused of “rioting,” being “an enemy of God,” and threatening national security; charges used by regime authorities to execute two other detained citizens in recent weeks.
Reports earlier in the week regarding regime restrictions on communication within the country were harbingers of the widespread disruption of Internet, e-mail and mobile phone services reported on Thursday. The regime set up a national webmail service prior to February 11, probably as an alternative to mail services frequently used by Iranians, such as Gmail and Yahoo, that are more difficult for the government to monitor. Communications ministry officials then began publicly warning of forthcoming service disruptions for ostensibly unknown periods of time. Communications Minister Reza Taghipour stated on February 7 that Internet connections in Iran would slow down in the coming days “due to damages to the fiber optic network” and SMS service would be disrupted due to “changing software.” Reports emerged yesterday that Gmail was disrupted in Iran, reports that were confirmed by Google Inc., and that SMS service cut out around Azadi Square during President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech.
The regime’s security precautions on Wednesday and Thursday proved significant as well. Early reports indicated that security forces began search-and-seizure patrols on Wednesday, identified and documented visitors traveling into Tehran, and posted Basij and plainclothes agents in and around Azadi Square well in advance of Thursday’s events. Several eyewitness accounts remarked on the sheer number of the security forces present near the square and at every major intersection leading into it.
The rhetoric of the Islamic Republic’s leadership also set the stage for what the regime likely viewed as a critical test for projecting its coherence. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei again implicitly dismissed the complaints about the election by the nominal opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Mohammad Khatami on February 8, stating that: “those who stand against the great job done by the Iranian nation in the  election, are not part of the [Iranian] people.” Khamenei also shaped his pre-February 11 message for outsiders: “The Iranian nation will show on [February 11] how it will punch the faces of all the world’s arrogants – America, Britain and Zionists – with its unity.” The IRGC commander in Tehran, Hossein Hamedani, underscored Khamenei’s message: “If anyone protests [in anti-regime rallies] on February 11, he is not part of the Iranian nation, and I can say clearly that he is a foreign agent.” Such statements highlight the significance of the day as the regime perceived it and preceded what eventually turned out a significant showing for the regime’s authorities.
The regime appears to have managed successfully what could have been a momentum-building event for the decentralized opposition movement and its various stakeholders. It is not at all clear based solely on Thursday’s events, however, that the regime’s performance, centered in one strategic location of the capital, is sustainable for an indefinite period of time and across the country. It will be critical to observe in the coming weeks and months how the elements of the opposition—buoyed by what appeared to be a more aggressive showing during recent protests late in 2009—react to Thursday’s outcome. This week marked another round of tensions within Iran, and although the regime may have passed this test, it remains impossible to issue a conclusive verdict on the viability and strength of the opposition.