Who's Behind Tehran's Violence?

There is no English equivalent for the Farsi words Efraat and Tafrit. They refer to the possibility of extremism on both sides of an issue, and they were much in use during the third day of peaceful marches in Tehran on Wednesday.

Despite official warnings against gathering, at least half a million people marched along a street in central Tehran Wednesday afternoon to protest the reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a vote that many believe was blatantly rigged. After three days of ignoring the demonstrators, who believe opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi was the true victor, state-run Iranian television showed some images of Wednesday's activities. But its reporters chose to talk only to the ordinary citizens on the sidelines, who complained about the Mousavi supporters as a nuisance who were creating traffic in the city and bringing businesses to a halt. The crowd was peaceful and quiet, as they have been in previous days. But a chant against the director of Iranian television, Ezatollah Zarghami, was one of the few slogans heard today. "Shame, Shame, Zarghami!" people intoned.

What incensed people about the television coverage of recent days was its focus on the violence and vandalism that has broken out in sporadic incidents at night, and not the peaceful marches in the afternoons. "It's shameful that the state-run media show all of us as a group of hooligans who break shop windows and burn cars," said Mina, a doctor who has taken part in all of the pro-Mousavi demonstrations since Monday. Mina was a political prisoner before and after the revolution. She fought against both the shah and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's regime as a member of an armed communist group. She now believes that violence is passé and counterproductive, and that it is only through peaceful means that Iranians can establish their rights. What worried Mina and other marchers was the violence that has broken out at night, which officials have blamed on Mousavi supporters.

That's possible, but many Mousavi supporters suspect that pro-Ahmadinejad thugs have been staging incidents in order to justify an official backlash. Another worry are scattered antiregime militant groups, who in recent years have committed bombings and assassinations in various parts of the country. On Wednesday morning, Mousavi's wife, Zahra Rahnavard, who was with her husband throughout the presidential campaign, felt the need to remind a group of students that she and her husband still believe in the ideals of the revolution and don't regard anti-Islamic Revolution elements as their allies.

"I think some small terrorist groups and criminal gangs are taking advantage of the situation," says Mina, the doctor. "Thirty years after the revolution and 20 years after the war, the majority of Iranians despise violence and terror. My worry is that if the government doesn't allow reforms to take place, we will fall into a terrorism abyss like the years after the revolution."

The largest one of these groups, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), killed dozens of Islamic Republic officials as well as thousands of innocent Iranians in the early days of the revolution before relocating to Saddam Hussein's Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War in the mid-'80s. Since then, the MEK has been regarded by most Iranians as traitors against the country. After the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, they claimed to have put down their guns and offered full cooperation to the Coalition Forces. That initially gained them support from some American and European politicians who saw them as a viable alternative to the ayatollahs in Iran. They enjoy very little popular support inside Iran, yet in their propaganda they have been claiming that the protestors are out in the streets in support of their cause.

Other extremist groups like Jundallah are allies of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, while some are communist in their outlook. The supposed reelection of Ahmadinejad was a gift to such groups. On their Web sites they claim that the alleged rigging of the vote has revealed the true face of the regime. (Like some Israeli commentators, they argue that the victory of a moderate like Mousavi would actually extend the life of the regime.) It is true that in the past, whenever hardliners have intensified their grip, these groups have gained more support. They reacted angrily when pro-reform Mohammad Khatami was elected president in 1997.

On Wednesday afternoon, while the marchers tried to keep their calm and express their anger against what they regard as "stealing their votes" and "an electoral coup d'état," they were also wary of hijacking of their movement by the more violent elements in the opposition. Mousavi has asked his supporters to mourn for the victims of the violence in the past few days. He will then join the people in yet another peaceful march in central Tehran. No one knows what will be the likely outcome of the people's protests. But one thing is clear: violence on both sides will dim any prospect of reform in Iran.