Protests and Crackdowns Are Getting Worse in Iran

For months, Iran's opposition leaders have asked the government to earn back people's trust by allowing protestors to air their views and organize peaceful marches. If not, opposition leaders warned, the protesters will only become more radicalized. "There's danger ahead," presidential candidate Mir Hossein Moussavi admonished back in July. "A regime that has depended on the trust of the people for 30 years can't depend on the security forces overnight … We can still rebuild the damaged trust of the people. The security of the regime is tied to this [endeavor]." Those dire predictions came true today as thousands of protestors clashed violently with security forces and chanted slogans questioning the regime and the very authority of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—an opinion that, even well after the election, was far beyond what it was publicly permissible to say. And as the protests become more extreme, they'll only elicit fiercer crackdowns, which will sharpen their dissent even further, in a spiral effect.

The protestors gathered in Tehran and at least half a dozen other cities to commemorate Student Day, which marks the death of three students at the hands of the shah's security forces in 1953. Traditionally, the president goes to the campus of a Tehran university to address students. Former president Mohammad Khatami repeatedly addressed crowds of students on Student Day during his two terms as president. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has shown less fealty to the tradition over the years (and whose contested election last June is at the heart of the ongoing protests), made no such speech today. Meanwhile, as with other recent protests, the opposition appropriated the official occasion to get its own message out.

The videos, photos, and written accounts posted to opposition Web sites and YouTube show that the protests are taking a radical turn. "Khamenei is a killer, his authority is finished" is one slogan chanted in Tehran today. "Religion is separate from politics, this is our slogan" is another. But perhaps most telling is this: "Moussavi is an excuse, the whole regime is our target," a reference to Moussavi, who is seen as a leader of the Green movement. The first wave of dissent after the elections was explicitly focused on voter fraud, both from a genuine belief that the system would investigate the results and also so that protestors couldn't be accused of trying to overthrow the system. But as the government crackdown increased, the position of the opposition began to harden. The slogans today are the clearest indication yet that at least some elements of the opposition are not only challenging the results of the presidential election, but the regime itself. One video posted on the Internet today even showed a protestor burning pictures of both Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. This may not sit well with the moderate elements of the opposition, and the student protestors may have overplayed their hand.

The response by security forces, who had warned protestors to stay off the streets, was harsh: tear gas, batons, and gunshots in the air. There were also reports of Basij militiamen and plainclothes security officials storming various university campuses, which is illegal, in order to confront student protestors. Several arrests were also reported by the government press agency.

Security officials were clearly anticipating trouble. Several students were arrested around the country in recent weeks, and many students also received threatening e-mails or text messages. (Text messages said: "Subscriber, you have been identified because of your presence at a political rally after the elections. You must stop appearing at such rallies.") The Press Ministry sent a message to foreign journalists in Tehran yesterday that their press cards are being revoked for three days and they don't have permission to cover any demonstrations. And there were widespread reports of Internet outages, along with problems in the cell-phone network.

Inside the government, there are serious disagreements about how the ongoing protests should be handled. Just yesterday, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a senior cleric who had distanced himself from the opposition in recent months, spoke out against the harsh crackdown and explained why he hadn't spoken up more forcefully. "I'm not silent," he told a group of students in Mashhad. "Constructive criticism is not tolerated in the country. It was not right to send the Basij and the Revolutionary Guards to confront people." Opposition leader Moussavi (whose wife was pepper-sprayed in the face today by a Basij agent) was even more explicit in a written statement posted on his Web site yesterday: "You do not tolerate the Student Day rallies. What will you do on the following days?" As the protestors appear to be getting more radical and the government responds correspondingly, things are only getting worse in Iran.