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Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily:Protests Escalate in Iran - 2003-06-24


Volume XXI, No. 97

Monday, June 23, 2003

Protests Escalate in Iran; US Support Now Clearly Impacting Opposition Analysis. By Jason Fuchs, GIS staff, and sources in Iran.

Anti-Government demonstrations in Tehran and almost all Iranian cities continued on June 21, 2003, with every indication that they were gaining momentum. A pattern of escalation showed that demonstrations were now routinely starting at nightfall and continuing each night until about 03.00hrs, with the clerical leadership moving squads of plain-clothes combatants — some from the Ministry of Intelligence and some believed to be Basij and other “irregulars” — from one sector of a city to another to try to clamp down on the unrest.

Despite massive arrests and attempts to control the crowds by the Administration, it seemed clear that international pressure was causing the clerical leadership to hesitate before instigating widespread shooting of demonstrators, although there had been numerous deaths in more than a week of protests up to June 21, 2003. It seemed likely that the protests would continue to escalate until at least the July 9, 2003, anniversary of the killings by police of students in 1999.

Already the situation mirrored the 1978-79 student and opposition protests which had been fueled by then-US President Jimmy Carter, who did not support the Iranian people, but only called on the Shah to honor human rights. In the current situation, the protests were now more widespread and the clear statements of support for the Iranian people by US Pres. George W. Bush were having a significant impact, largely because of new access to information through satellite television and radio, the internet and fax machines.

Calls broadcast on satellite radio and television by US-based opposition Azadegan Foundation leader Dr Assad Homayoun to the Armed Forces, Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guard Corps) and Basij militia to abandon the clerics and support the population brought a flood of responses. Dr Homayoun’s message was being re-broadcast into Iran daily.

In Shiraz, 550 miles south of Tehran, some 80 people were arrested in anti-Government demonstrations on June 15, while about 500 people, mainly teenagers, had gathered in central Gohardasht chanting “freedom, freedom” and “death to the dictator”. Demonstrations had also been reported in Isfahan by several Los Angeles-based Farsi-language satellite television networks on June 13, 2003. On June 17, 2003, GIS sources confirmed these reports and, in addition, indicated that significant anti-Government protests were also taking place in the northern Iranian city of Tabriz, as well as in Mashad. Contrary to Associated Press and Reuters news dispatches, GIS sources maintained that demonstrations continued to gain momentum, with a prominent student leader of the Tehran protests declaring: “We are standing until the end of the regime.”

Major protests were being reported in Tabriz, Mashad, Isfahan, Shiraz and Orumieh (formerly Rezai), apart from Tehran, but there were also reports of demonstrations in other areas.

These reports distinguish the current protests from the demonstrations of July 1999, which, though larger in size, were mostly limited to Tehran. The protests of June 10-20, 2003, were also unique in that they marked the first anti-Government demonstrations which did not limit their call for change to the Iranian clerical leadership, but included verbal attacks on the elected Administration of Pres. Hojjat ol-Eslam Ali Mohammad Khatami-Ardakani. The Iranian Government had, thus far, been careful in its response to the demonstrations. The conflicting responses of Iranian authorities indicated that Ayatollah Ali Hoseini-Khamene‘i and his inner circle are well aware their reaction to the ongoing unrest would be closely watched by enemies and friends, both foreign and domestic.

To the demonstrators and their perceived allies abroad (US, Israel), the Iranian Government must show a strong front. Intelligence Minister Ali Yunesi characterized the demonstrations as instigated by “local radicals and foreign agents” on June 12, 2003, and on June 8, as comparatively minor protests began taking place in Tehran, Ayatollah Ali Khamene‘i explained the cause of the growing protests within the strategic context of a US deception campaign aimed at the Iranian people, saying: “The United States is trying in various ways to tell the Iranian public that our decisionmaking bodies are confused.” By this measure it is, then, the job of the Iranian Government to respond to these “foreign” efforts by showing the Iranian populous and, in turn, the US and its allies, that Iran is unified in support of the Supreme Leader (Khamene‘i) and in the perpetuation of the Iranian Islamic Republic. The Iranian leadership has indicated that this objective can only be met with force, with Ayatollah Khamene‘i warning demonstrators on June 12, 2003: “Leaders do not have the right to have any pity whatsoever for the mercenaries of the enemy.”

Yet, the urge to resolve this matter by force is tempered by the realization that any response must not be so violent so as to alienate Western potential “allies”. Thus, while the Iranian Government sees no distinction between the US and Europe morally, they continue to evidence a keen understanding that there are significant differences between the two politically. To this effect, the Iranian leadership has applied a tool to domestic matters that has served them well overseas: the veil of plausible deniability. Recognizing both the need to respond strongly to the demonstrators, but also to appease “human-rights friendly” Western nations, the Ayatollahs dispatched the Basij and Ansar e-HizbAllah militias to violently deal with protestors, while “official” Government riot police have attempted to keep the peace between them. On June 12, 2003, Ayatollah Khamene‘i spoke out against the militias, calling on them to “not enter the scene”, and on June 15, 2003, a number of militia members were arrested. Efforts to create a degree of perceived separation between the Iranian Government and the militias had, by June 20, 2003, been a success, with Reuters and other international media referring to the Khamene‘i-controlled Basij and Ansar e-HizbAllah as “hard-line vigilantes”.

This was an achievement for the Ayatollahs in two respects; firstly, it allowed the militias greater freedom to respond as necessary to the demonstrators since violence on behalf of the Basij or Ansar e-HizbAllah would not reflect on the Government; and secondly, it intended to shift international perception of the conflict from that of Government-against-People to Vigilantes-against-Radicals, minimizing the protestors and marginalizing the supposed widespread support which many Iranian exiles and opposition leaders continue to claim the demonstrators reflect.

For the demonstrators, the events of June 10-20, 2003, showed signs of promise, but also of disappointment. Iranians who wanted to see a change of government in Tehran, needed to show the outside world that they were not a small faction or, as Ayatollah Khamene‘i dubbed them, a group of “radicals”. If anti-Government forces were to gain foreign backing for their efforts, they needed a dramatic demonstration of widespread sympathy for their cause. The thousands of protestors in Tehran, though significant and impassioned, had yet evoked vocal international backing outside of the US. European officials, notably UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, continued to advocate a path of engagement with the “reformist” elected administration of Mohammad Khatami. Most Western governments, Europeans in particular, decidedly do not see these protests as any sort of milestone in Iranian history, and certainly not as a stepping stone to an internally inspired “regime change” in Tehran. While US Pres. Bush continued to voice support for the protestors, Western skeptics continued to point to press reports indicating that the number of demonstrators, though significant, was less than that of the major 1999 demonstrations which drew more than 10,000 and did not bring about any notable change in the Iranian Government.

From the perspective of the US Bush Administration, there were two potential explanations for this as-yet less than anticipated turnout; one, it was the result of exaggerated anti-Government sentiment, or two, that it was the result of a lack of vocal US backing for pro-democracy Iranians. Dr Assad Homayoun, head of the Washington DC-based Iranian opposition group, the Azadegan Foundation and Senior Fellow at the International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA), has long maintained that clear, vocal support by the US for the Iranian people coupled with complete isolation of the Ayatollahs would suffice to affect a change in government. A student in Tehran, writing under a pseudonym for his protection in the June 12, 2003, online edition of The National Review, echoed Dr Homayoun’s assertions, writing: “We do not need military intervention in Iran. We do not need clandestine operations either. We need nothing but your resolve. Lend us a hand and we will take care of the rest.”

To that end, US Sen. Sam Brownback, Republican, Kansas, introduced the Iran Democracy Act on May 19, 2003. The bill called for increased support for the Iranian people, along with funds to expand pro-democracy broadcasting into Iran, increasing the amount of influence of Iranian-Americans in the US Persian radio service Radio Farda, and setting as US policy the support for “an internationally-monitored referendum in Iran to allow the Iranian people to peacefully change their system of government”. On June 13, 2003, a senior US official told the Associated Press that US Pres. Bush was considering setting up Farsi-language websites to promote democracy in Iran.Dr Homayoun said that change could occur more rapidly in Iran than much of the international community believed. According to Dr Homayoun, the Iranian military was the key: “He [Khamene‘i] is not sure the armed forces will continue to support him. The situation is similar to that in Romania in which the armed forces suddenly changed loyalties and took the people’s side. This scenario may repeat itself in Iran.” In a Farsi-language statement issued on June 17, 2003, Dr Homayoun again emphasized the importance of the Iranian armed forces, in particular the historical continuity between them and their predecessors who fought to defend Iran under Persian leaders, such as Cyrus the Great, urging the Iranian military to disregard the orders of the clerics and hold true to their historic national duty, the protection of the Iranian people.

Yet, the US Bush Administration also appeared to recognize that with each passing day, Iran was growing closer to indigenously producing its own nuclear weapons. Defense & Foreign Affairs has consistently reported since 1992 that Iran had at least four nuclear weapons, purchased from Kazakhstan in December 1991. [It was believed that, by 2003, the number of acquired nuclear weapons had reached seven.] The key difference between Iran’s unacknowledged nuclear status between 1992 and the present and its potential indigenous nuclear weapons production capability was the related terrorist threat to the West.

All indications were that Pres. Bush was determined to prevent Iran from gaining indigenous nuclear weapons production capacity. Thus, efforts to support democracy and the Iranian opposition, while gaining ground in Washington, are potentially time-consuming and apparently in a race with the progressing Iranian indigenous nuclear weapons program. See also:

Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, June 13, 2003: US Readying F-16 Deal With Pakistan to Consolidate Alliances in Preparation for Strategic Moves on Iran, DPRK.

Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, June 12, 2003: Terrorism in the Balkans and the Wider Ramifications for the Global “War on Terror”. [details Iranian response to internal and external pressure through activation of Balkan terrorism networks.]

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