Surviving Dissent: Assessing Recent Demonstrations in Iran
Two symbolic dates in Iran have spurred anti-regime demonstrations across the country in the past five weeks. These protests showed that a segment of the Iranian population remains willing to confront the regime despite the threats of violence by security forces, restrictions on communication, arrests and detentions, and political intimidation. This defiance has lasted nearly six months after the initial wave of domestic unrest after the disputed presidential elections. National Students Day on December 7 is Iran’s commemoration of the death of three students who protested against the 1953 visit of then-U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon to Tehran. November 4 is the day the Islamic Republic of Iran remembers the 1979 seizure of the United States embassy in Tehran by sponsoring anti-American rallies in the name of “fighting global arrogance.” Both days this year saw thousands of demonstrators in the streets protesting the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic itself. These demonstrations overshadowed state-sponsored activities, and emphasized the continuing tensions within the country. This report assesses what the protests of 13 Aban (November 4) and 16 Azar (December 7) tell us about the opposition movement, its nominal leaders, the regime’s repressive crackdown, and the implications of these events going forward.
November 4 and December 7 provided opportunities for supporters of various camps in Iran to publicly engage in the domestic political scene, providing observers a glimpse—limited in some cases—of their intentions and capabilities. Opposition groups mustered a presence in the streets that may have approached the numbers seen in the Qods Day demonstrations of September 18, but that was certainly smaller than those that occurred immediately after the June 12 election. The nominal leaders of the opposition, presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, and former president Mohammad Khatami, played roles consistent with the patterns of behavior they have exhibited in recent months—each associating and disassociating themselves with the protestors and the regime in nuanced ways. The regime’s response to the protestors’ turnout illustrated the heavy hand with which the security apparatus and leadership continues to be willing to counter the opposition.
Yet protestors continue to attack the election results and, increasingly, the basic legitimacy of the regime itself. It is clear that the leaders of the Islamic Republic have neither fully reconciled nor fully cowed opposition groups, and the situation continues to generate enough energy among those opposition groups for repeated protests. It is still far too early to assess the likely outcome of these tensions, or even the real significance and depth of the protest movement itself. But the continuing protests sparking regime violence have showed the determination of both sides and raise the specter of long-term continuing anti-regime activity on a scale not previously seen in the history of the Islamic Republic.
November 4 and December 7 again showed the willingness of anti-government protestors to march in the streets despite the threat of regime-directed violence and despite prohibitions issued by regime leaders and officials. The November 4 reporting indicates that the non-state sanctioned crowds in Tehran numbered in the thousands at least, although it remains difficult to corroborate these estimates. The majority of protestors in Tehran on that day focused on universities within the city and locations that had been the site of previous post-election rallies, such as Seven Tir Square. Student protestors had also been active on university campuses in the days prior to November 4 in Tehran and other cities. The protests of December 7, timed to coincide with National Students Day, were mostly—though not exclusively—led by students on university campuses in Tehran and other major cities including Esfahan, Mashhad, Tabriz, Kermanshah, Hamedan, Ilam, Rasht, Shiraz and Kerman.
It is clear from the incidents that protesters succeeded in disrupting the state-sanctioned rallies scheduled for those days and voicing their dissent. The various protest slogans, signs, and images from November 4 indicate that the protestors cannot be neatly categorized as a singular opposition movement. Rather, the protestors expressed various, seemingly uncoordinated messages in their demonstrations. The messages, in some instances, were not necessarily connected to the limited guidance offered by the nominal leaders of the opposition. Eyewitness accounts compiled by a local correspondent and videos uploaded to the web show that protestors rhetorically focused on everyone from President Obama (“Obama, Obama, either with them or with us” and “Obama: either with the murderers or with us”) to Russia (“The Russian embassy is the nest of spies”) to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (“Khamanei is a murderer; his rule is null and void”) and variations of familiar slogans (“Death to no one”). One video posted on the Internet shows several individuals being cheered on by a throng of protestors as they tear down a billboard with an image of Khamenei.
Explicit statements of protest against the June election results were not as widely reported on either day, perhaps due to the shift in focus for protesters from the election to the subsequent government response and broader issues of dissent. Protesters are seen in videos from the December 7 protests waving Iranian flags from which the religiously-inspired emblem that was added to the flag after the 1979 revolution had been removed. There were eyewitness accounts and video footage feeds on December 7 depicting student protesters burning images of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. The chants and slogans reported on December 7 were markedly more targeted at the regime and its leadership (“Death to the Dictator”, “Khamenei should know, his downfall is near”, “our curse, our shame, our incompetent leader”, “Dictator, Dictator, this is your last warning! The Green Movement is ready to rise”).
The protestors faced stiff security measures as they clashed with police and paramilitary forces, according to media reporting, video, and pictures that surfaced during and after both protests. The limited media coverage and eyewitness accounts did not identify any deaths during the November 4 and December 7 protests, despite the reportedly violent clashes. Tehran’s police chief stated that his forces arrested 109 individuals on November 4 for “disturbing public order and security” and later released 47 of them. Initial state-media reports quoted police officials as saying that over 200 protesters were arrested during the December 7 protests in Tehran for “disrupting public order.”
Formal Opposition Leaders
Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Mohammad Khatami have continued to defy the guidance of Khamenei to cease their criticism of the regime, albeit in varying degrees, and the events of the last several weeks provided another platform for them to continue doing so. Khamenei attempted to discourage opposition protestors and leaders the week prior to November 4 when he publicly categorized the continued questioning of the June elections as a crime, a reference to one of the opposition’s criticisms. The impact of Khamanei’s rhetoric on the actions of outspoken political figures, however, appears to have become less predictable if not outright diminished.
The loyalties of many who initially opposed the election were called into question by the regime, but once the Supreme Leader firmly sided with Ahmadinejad, some figures fell back in line and have accepted Khamanei’s guidance. Mohsen Rezai, the former IRGC commander and presidential candidate, explicitly said that although he harbored criticisms about the election in its immediate aftermath, he accepted the outcome and Khamanei’s wishes. Rezai explained recently that the interests of national security trump those of individuals and groups; in other words, the preservation of regime stability takes precedence over the grievances of the opposition. Other political figures, however, including Mousavi, Karroubi, and Khatami have continued to criticize the elections and the regime’s response despite the rhetorical redlines issued from the supreme leader’s office.
The following are summaries of the roles played by various individuals over the last month:
Mir Hossein Mousavi was barred from attending the November 4 and December 7 protests by security forces. Eyewitness reports claimed that more than 200 security and police officers cordoned a cultural center in Tehran that serves as one of his offices, confining him there on November 4. Initial reports indicate that Mousavi was blocked from leaving his office for part of the day on December 7 and again on December 8. He stated the weekend before the planned protests that, “[November 4] is a point for us to remember that among us, the people are the leaders.” He gave an interview a few days after the protests criticizing the post-election atmosphere as running counter to the beliefs of Ayatollah Khomenei and arguing that disunity within the country resulted from ignorance of the law and unconstitutional behavior. Mousavi reiterated his three key demands following a meeting with Karroubi on November 13: the release of political prisoners, a new election, and “freedom of expression and the press.” Mousavi reportedly met with Karroubi to console him following the November 4 assault on Karroubi and “condemn and talk about the violent acts of the security and Basij militia forces against people especially women on that day.” His key pre-December 7 statement asked of regime authorities: “Even if you silenced all the students, what are you going to do with the reality of the society?”
Mehdi Karroubi briefly attended the protests on November 4 near Seven Tir Square, as had been previously announced on his website on November 2, before he and his bodyguards were fired upon with tear gas by security forces. Karroubi recounted these events in a video interview several days later and also opened up a front of criticism against what he describes as a contradictory position taken by the government in engaging with the U.S. on the one hand—referencing the congratulatory messages Ahmadinejad sent to President Obama and a reported meeting between Ahmadinejad and more than four dozen American journalists and academics—and, on the other hand, sponsoring anti-American rallies. He concludes that “the government is confused and does not know what it is doing.” He also stated that the current treatment of protestors, especially women, surpasses the crackdowns implemented by Reza Shah Pahlavi. Karroubi’s brush with violence on November 4 follows a similar incident in late October when he appeared at a state media exhibit briefly before his supporters clashed with pro-Ahmadinejad supporters. Karroubi’s movements were reportedly restricted on December 7; his recent public statement came in an interview with a French paper urging tolerance and the rebuilding of trust between people and authorities.
Mohammad Khatami did not publicly participate in either of the protest days’ activities, although he has been vocal in laying out his position prior to the protests and in the days since. Khatami referred back to the election in a November 7 interview, arguing that those individuals doubting, ignoring, or tampering with people’s votes are alien to the Islamic Republic and Revolution and calling for a return to the constitutional framework. Khatami also publicly reiterated on November 2 that the current government will continue to be criticized but only “within the framework of a movement that accepts Islam, the regime and the revolution.” Khatami made another statement on November 13 noting that “those who are criticizing are not trying to topple the establishment but rather care about the revolution and the society.” Karroubi’s website reported on November 7 that Khatami visited with Karroubi to console him over the assault on Karroubi’s entourage by security forces.
Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri spoke on the eve of November 4, calling the 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran a “mistaken” act considering its consequences. He set forth his position that regime authorities should release all political prisoners, ease restrictions on the press, and refrain from policing opinion in universities and other institutions. Montazeri also recently criticized the regime’s string of post-election executions, calling the confessions used as a basis for sentencing invalid and the authorities responsible for extorting such confessions as religiously and legally guilty of criminal action.
Hashemi Rafsanjani did not make a public appearance on November 4. Rafsanjani called for the release of political prisoners and greater tolerance for a free press during his last Friday Prayers session in July. An official in charge of Friday Prayers stated on November 1 that Rafsanjani would not be asked to lead any sessions in the future. Rafsanjani made a statement after the November 4 protests pressing for a tolerant media presence and a return to the legal framework. He gave a speech preceding the December 7 protests reiterating the message from his last Friday prayer address that he does not take a position on the elections but rather urges for the recognition of “skepticism in the society.”  He also said in the same speech to students in Mashhad: “If the people of Iran want us we to govern them, then we may stay. If not, then we should step aside.” His daughter, Faezeh Hashemi, attended the protest on December 7 according to accounts given by witnesses and video footage.
The regime’s leadership and institutions proved their determination to stifle any opposition protest with a heavy security presence, force, issuance of verbal threats, and detentions. These combined efforts for the most part contained the demonstrations in the short-term without provoking the sort of widespread backlash seen in the post-election crackdown. Several videos and eyewitness accounts of the demonstrations on November 4 depict baton-wielding security forces violently suppressing protesters and employing tear gas to disperse crowds. The deployed size of the security forces was unclear but the Basij student commander claimed that 3 million Basiji students had been mobilized for the protests nationwide. Officials indicated that police arrested over 100 protestors on November 4 and over 200 on December 7 as noted above; human rights activists have placed the number arrested on November 4 closer to 400. Tehran’s chief prosecutor and police chief provided conflicting figures for the number of protesters released on November 8, with the former claiming 40 individuals had been released and the latter giving a figure of 47. Basiji militias and security forces were siphoned into major university campuses in anticipation of the December 7 protest, barricading students within the campuses and restricting their interaction with demonstrators beyond the walls of universities who were met by police and Revolutionary Guards forces. The reports of the protests have identified various combinations of Basij militias, law enforcement forces, and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) members as participating in the crackdowns.
Security forces also kept Mousavi from appearing at either of the protests and a website linked to Mousavi also claimed that cellular phone service and Internet access were shut down in the immediate area around his office where he was confined on November 4. One paper also reported that one of the websites affiliated with the opposition movement – Mowjcamp.com – was briefly hacked during the protests. Reports on December 7 indicated that Internet service was disrupted at the behest of the government. Moreover, the Culture Ministry revoked reporting accreditation for foreign journalists for the period between December 7 and 9.
The regime also appeared to use its media organs to manufacture divisions between the perceived leaders of the opposition. The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) posted an audio interview on its website on November 4, supposedly of Mehdi Karroubi’s son, Hossein, disparaging Mousavi for intentionally avoiding the protests. Hossein Karroubi rejected the interview as a fabrication. Conservative newspapers also attempted to undermine Mousavi and Khatami prior to the protests. Hossein Shariatmadari, an aide to the supreme leader, editorialized on November 3:
All the available evidence and all the signs indicate that the intention of [Khatami and Mousavi] is to form an opposition party and to form an organization that has an "anti-Imam and anti-Islamic Republic" identity and credentials. This is why they must invite the opponents of the Imam (may he rest in peace) and of the system to join that opposition group. This is in fact what they have done and what they still continue to do.
Shariatmadari’s editorial articulates a familiar theme regularly perpetuated by some regime supporters that conflates the nominal leaders of the opposition with anti-Islamic and externally-linked backing (the IRGC political director, for instance, recently claimed that the so-called green movement is in the “hands of foreign enemies”).
Security officials and media authorities used the lead-up to November 4 in an attempt to thwart protesters. Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi warned Internet news sites that they would be confronted by the law for “publishing lies and subverting public perception.”  Tehran’s police officials preemptively threatened protestors by challenging any potential demonstrations not targeted at the “American den of spies” as being illegal. They further warned individuals not to chant slogans that strayed from the government’s intended purpose of the November 4 rallies and not to misuse the color green, which they asserted belongs to the Imam and Islam.
Regime officials attempted to further the extent of the crackdown in the days since the November 4 demonstrations. Iran’s chief of police, Brigadier General Esmail Ahmadi-Moqaddam, announced on November 12 that the police will establish a special unit targeting ‘cyber crimes’ including, according to state media, “defamation and mischief.” Judicial authorities continue to pursue cases against individuals linked to Mousavi and the opposition, even as it releases some from detention. Tehran’s prosecutor announced on November 13 that Mousavi’s brother-in-law, Shapour Kazemi, would be tried before a Revolutionary Court on unidentified charges. Tehran’s court officials also announced on November 17 that five post-election detainees were being sentenced to death for their affiliations with “counter-revolutionary groups” and more than 80 were receiving jail sentences of up to 15 years.
Former vice president under Khatami, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, received a six-year jail sentence after being found guilty of “plotting against the country’s security” in the wake of the summer’s elections. This conviction came nearly four months following the first of several show trials in which Abtahi “confessed” to his role in instigating the post-election riots and “falsely” putting forth charges of electoral fraud. Abtahi served as an advisor to Karroubi’s campaign during the recent election.
Recent arrests over the past few weeks targeted prominent student activists ahead of anticipated protests on Students Day. Iran’s prosecutor general and former intelligence minister, Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, further warned demonstrators on December 8: “Intelligence and security...forces have been ordered not to give any leeway to those who break the law, act against national security and disturb public order…From now on, we will show no mercy toward anyone who acts against national security. They will be confronted firmly.”
Those close to the Supreme Leader have also increasingly sought to publicly undermine the challenges aimed at the supreme leader’s legitimacy. Khamanei’s representative to the IRGC, Mojtaba Zolnour, for example, recently downplayed the role of the only political body that can in fact threaten the legitimacy of Khamenei:
The members of the [Assembly of Experts] do not appoint the Supreme Leader, rather they discover him and it is not that they would be able to remove him at any time they wish…In the Islamic system, the office and the legitimacy of the Supreme Leader comes from God, the Prophet, and the Shi’ite Imams, and it is not that the people give legitimacy to the Supreme Leader and are able to remove him when they want.
Zolnour’s statement conflicts with the constitutional authority of the Assembly of Experts, of which Rafsanjani is the head, to select and remove the supreme leader. Khamenei himself, as noted above, weighed in on the challenges to the election – and by inference, his legitimacy – by labeling continued criticism of the vote as a criminal activity.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues to refrain from directly referencing the post-election issues and did not make any public statements on or immediately after November 4. He cancelled a planned speech on the evening of November 4—ostensibly due to a soccer match between Iran and Paraguay—and again on the Saturday following the protests when his office called off a major address in order for him to travel to Turkey for an OIC meeting that had previously been planned. He also spent a significant period of the last several weeks abroad on a tour of Latin America and Africa. In recent days, Ahmadinejad and his cabinet have cemented Iran’s rejection of the in-principle uranium enrichment agreement reached with the P5+1 by announcing intentions to further enrich its LEU stockpile domestically and build several more enrichment facilities.
Analysis & Implications
The characteristics of protester activities in Iran over the past month reveal a hardening durability in the grassroots movement of thousands of protesters who continue to bear the risks of demonstration imposed by security forces and regime authorities. A more formal movement, with organizational structures, concrete objectives, and a strategy, however, is less discernable in the current atmosphere. The trends witnessed during the opposition protests of November 4 and December 7—to the extent that the opposition can be defined by these grassroots activities—signal the validation of a shift from short-term criticisms over the disputed election to more fundamental grievances with the regime’s leadership and legitimacy. The protesters have yet to buckle under the burden of increasing repression nearly six months after the initial incidents of unrest. This past month’s planned protests served both as an experience that could provide lessons for the participants and a bridge to the next significant opportunity to present its still-developing demands and goals.
The nominal leaders of this opposition have aimed at balancing their rhetoric in order to bolster their positions without appearing to overreach. The primary concerns and, in some ways, the demands continuously being raised by these figures center around a resolution to the disputed election, calls for freedom of expression, and fair treatment of political dissent. These issues overlap in some ways with the expressions of the grassroots protesters but the nominal leaders have been careful to justify the search for these demands within the context of the Islamic Republic’s founding doctrinal bases and Khomeini’s beliefs. In this way, these figures draw a distinct line between themselves and those protesters questioning the fundamental legitimacy of the regime. To be sure, there are probably a significant number of protesters who do in fact draw a similar line; yet the recent protests may signal the persistence and emboldened attitude of those segments of the population who openly test the boundaries of that line. Whether the forces of repression, economic malaise, political fracturing and perceived illegitimacy of the regime can spur this segment to attract a following beyond the core of activists and students remains to be seen.
The regime’s responses to the protesters and nominal opposition leaders have revealed its sense of vulnerability but also its determination to crush the resistance and deny it any legitimate outlet for its grievances. The repressive measures doled out by the security apparatus—led by the IRGC—have for the regime been enough to contain dissenters without provoking a widespread backlash or facilitating a return to the more precarious environment seen during the immediate aftermath of the election. The key centers of power within the current Iranian structure understand that the stability of the regime depends upon the ability of its leaders and officials to magnify the perceived internal and external threats to its survival, thus justifying repressive measures to stifle dissent and opposition. It remains likely that increasing signs of a crackdown, witnessed most recently in the last month, represent a pattern for the regime’s authorities. This trend continues to be heard through the rhetoric on a daily basis and seen in force on days like November 4 and December 7.
December 7 has passed, yet the tension within Iran continues; even literally as violent clashes between student protesters and security forces spilled over into December 8. Iranians will commence the religious month of Moharram in less than ten days—a period expected to spur yet another episode of demonstrations against the regime. How the various sides position themselves for this next stage will provide important indicators for the continuing unrest. One thing is already clear: the tensions between and among the stakeholders will not be resolved neatly or expeditiously.
Khalid Mohiq contributed to this report.