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IRAN: Cries and Whispers

TEHRAN, Jun 27 2009 (IPS) - After several tumultuous days, the streets of Tehran are relatively quiet. But the density of police and basij presence has given the city an air of suffocation. It is hard to breathe.

Baharestan Sq, Teheran, Jun. 24, 2009.  Credit: yish/flickr/creative commons

Baharestan Sq, Teheran, Jun. 24, 2009. Credit: yish/flickr/creative commons

Tehran has the feel of martial law even if there has been no official announcement. But their presence with sticks and batons in front of everyone’s eyes is sufficient to make the Iranian capital feel like it is under occupation.

Gatherings of more than three people have been declared illegal; “do not stop, move” is a constant refrain. The text messaging system is still not working and the Internet is heavily filtered.

Security forces are a constant presence in medical centres – large and small – and at the coroner’s office, Behesht Zahra morgue, where they interrogate family members searching for the disappeared or lost ones. It is said that medical personnel have been asked to create files on the injured.

People are still insisting on their protest against the result of the election one way or another. In the protests that occurred Jun. 22 in Haft-e Tir square and then again in front of Iran’s Parliament, the basiji presence was overwhelming, outnumbering protestors.

After the many pictures and videos that showed the brutality of the security forces, a different tactic was used in Haft-e Tir. Instead of batons and bullets, the authorities decided to detain protestors and prevent any picture-taking. Mobile phones were confiscated.

On the south side of Haft-e Tir, a bus was parked that soon enough filled up with people who knew nothing of their destination. The presence of members of the Intelligence Ministry and plain-clothes officers engaged in spying and identifying people to be arrested was quite evident.

But in Haft-e Tir at least, despite heavy-handed repression, the security forces could not control the demonstrators. A spontaneous gathering of about 2,000 led to shouts of “Allah-o Akbar,” a chorus was that was temporarily dispersed with tear and pepper gas only to regroup again. People walked and walked, quietly watching.

People say even without demonstrations their presence in the streets is important. If that proves impossible, the nightly shouts of “Allah-o Akbars” must continue, they say.

In the midst of all this uncertainty, the make-up of basiji forces in the streets reveals an interesting aspect of the way the government is facing its opponents. There is no doubt that middle-aged plain-clothes men lead these forces.

But those who follow orders and are actually beating people are young. When this reporter asked a young Basiji how old he was, he raised his voice and warned that I should not ask him questions, or else.

It was not difficult to guess that he was only 16 or 17. Asked why he was hitting people, his retort was: “Because you are a monafeq; the Leader has said you are a monafeq.”

Monafeq, meaning hypocrite, is the common term to refer to the widely loathed Mojahedin-e Khalq (MeK) who fought with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War.

The young man is not the only basiji brought to Tehran these days. An informal sampling of those who responded to questions found that they were mostly unemployed young men brought to Tehran from smaller cities with a promise of good pay.

Young protestors in the streets sarcastically say that this is indeed the government’s promised job creation plan. This joke has a sad reality hidden in it. The fact is that in a country like Iran where the government is the most significant promoter of infrastructural development as well as public education and employment, the job of attacking other citizens has become the most lucrative under the circumstances.

Meanwhile, the quiet streets of Tehran have become filled with rumours. Lack of newspapers in newsstands and pervasive distrust of official outlets, especially the national television, have made each individual citizen a carrier of rumours. Those rumours that are almost or not yet confirmed, everyone qualifies, but they are nonetheless weapons of the weak about those who people hope will bring about change and against those held responsible for the current situation.

The most widely heard rumours concern former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. It is said that Iran’s cleverest politician, who is also known as the country’s consummate behind-the-scenes politician, has already gathered 40 signatures from high-ranking clerics for the disqualification of the president.

There are also rumours about his long conversation with one of the most important sources of emulation, Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, who in recent weeks has not participated in Qom’s Friday Prayers and, in a statement published Friday, said, “efforts must definitely be made to ensure that no smoldering embers remain under the ashes, and to turn the unkindness and pessimism into goodwill, and the competition into friendship and cooperation between all groups…”

When calm returns, he said, there should be “ways to reach national reconciliation”.

In all likelihood the feverish rumours about Hashemi Rafsanjani’s behind-the-scenes activities are more than mere rumour since FarsNews, the organ of the Ahmadinejad government, has suddenly developed a keen interest in history, running statements made by Hashemi Rafsanjani uttered during the student demonstrations in 1999 during which he stressed the need to follow the dictates of Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

While Hashemi Rafsanjani himself remains eerily quiet, Farsnews, it seems, is hoping to fill a void. But no one is buying it. His silence, rightly or wrongly, has made people even more confident that he must be up to something that will soon reveal itself.

The second set of rumours belong to Khamenei’s second son, Mojtaba, a cleric who has also remained hidden from public view. Until recently, there was not much news about this mysterious cleric. Most people don’t even know what he looks like.

His name came up during the 2005 presidential election when then-presidential candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, in a letter Ayatollah Khamenei, implied that his son had something to do with what many observers believed was an earlier fraud.

It is said that Mojtaba Khamenei hopes to replace his father one day and that it is he who has been propagating rumours about Hashemi Rafsanjani’s family’s wealth and corruption. Now, people are speculating that that Khamenei’s strong denunciation of the British government during the Friday Prayer sermon last week may have had something to with the freeze London placed on 1.6 billion dollars in Iranian bank accounts last week, some of which of may have been in Mojtaba’s name.

The children of Rafsanjani have long been subject of corruption-oriented rumours. That Khamenei’s children have suddenly become the focus of such undesirable speculation offers one indication of how radically times and attitudes have changed.

Then there are rumours about Mojtaba’s accomplices in the electoral coup. They include the head of the joint chiefs of staff, General Hassan Firuzabadi, who has held this position since 1989; Sadeq Mahsuli, the Interior Minister; Gholamali Haddad Adel, the former Speaker of the Parliament whose daughter is married to Mojtaba; Ruhollah Hosseinian, a cleric and Parliamentary deputy; Morteza Tamaddon, Tehran’s provincial governor and a close associate of Ahmadinejad’s; and Brigadier General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Qods Force in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, among others.

The notion of secret negotiations to resolve the crisis is also widespread and supported by official news that a delegation from Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Relations Committee, headed by its chair Alaeddin Borujerdi, met separately with the three defeated presidential candidates, as well as Hashemi Rafsanjani on Jun. 24 and 25.

Very little has been revealed about the content of the meetings, but most believe it was no accident that the spokesperson for the Guardian Council soon afterward announced that a special committee of five “independent individuals,” including former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati and former Parliament speaker Gholamali Haddad Adel, will also meet with representatives of the candidates to discuss their concerns. It is reported that Mohsen Rezaie and Karroubi have agreed to send their representatives.

The decision by Karroubi, if true, creates a dilemma for reformist candidate Mir Hossein Moussavi who cannot be happy with the composition of the five-member special committee, all of whom have already lined up behind President Ahmadinejad.

He has to decide how to balance his efforts to sustain the mobilisation against the election in the streets, on the one hand, and to build opposition to Ahmadinejad within the Islamic Republic’s elite, on the other.

It will be a difficult balance to calibrate given people’s expectations. In his latest letter, he promised to remain steadfast in his quest for a just outcome. The quiet streets of Iran are watching.

Yasaman Baji is the pseudonym of a journalist writing from Tehran.

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