x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Iranian anniversary prompts rallies

Hundreds of opposition supporters protest in Tehran and other Iranian cities to mark a symbolic nationalist anniversary.

Supporters of the democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh take to the streets of Tehran on July 20, 1952.
Supporters of the democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh take to the streets of Tehran on July 20, 1952.

Hundreds of opposition supporters protested in Tehran and other Iranian cities on Tuesday night to mark a symbolic nationalist anniversary, witnesses said. The numbers were not huge and the scattered rallies were dispersed with apparent ease by riot police and basij militiamen using sticks and tear gas. Yet the rallies, while relatively small compared to the huge mass protests last month, were significant because they took place at all, in defiance of regime warnings of draconian punishments against those who continued to protest against the "stolen" presidential elections nearly six weeks ago.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, has ordered a line to be drawn under the election dispute - on several occasions. His word is meant to be final. But every time he speaks out, he meets with renewed defiance, either in the form of more street protests or challenging statements from high-level reformist leaders or dissenting clerics. Each time the supreme leader is ignored represents another blow to his authority, already battered because of his staunch support for Mr Ahmadinejad's "divine" landslide election victory.

Unable to enforce his diktat on a seething public and reformist camp, the supreme leader has now become involved in a bizarre public tussle with his own protégé president, highlighting a sudden rift within the regime's hardline wing. The row erupted on Friday when Mr Ahmadinejad's appointed Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, his son's father-in-law, as his first vice-president. The man's dismissal was immediately demanded by hardliners who view Mr Mashaie as toxic because he asserted last year that Iran was a "friend of the Israeli people".

The president defended his crony, but yesterday Ayatollah Khamenei notified his president in writing immediately to dump Mr Mashaie, Iranian media reported. The president now faces a stark choice between the humiliation of sacking his newly-minted deputy or defying his most powerful backer. Because the regime wields the proven ability to break bones on the street, the opposition has been forced to use inventive tactics, keeping protests to a minimum and only for resonant occasions.

Two types of occasion lend themselves to such protests. The first is the end of 40-day mourning periods for those killed during the post-election violence. Iran's modern history, meanwhile, is rich in episodes for another kind of anniversary protest. Demonstrations last Friday, for instance - the first since July 9 - marked the 10th anniversary of a pro-democracy student uprising that was crushed. They followed a defiant Friday prayers sermon by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani - an enemy of Mr Ahmadinejad - who declared the Islamic republic in crisis over the disputed election results.

Mr Rafsanjani chairs a key clerical body that appoints, supervises and, theoretically, has the power to sack the supreme leader. He has yet fully to test that power, but if the post-election dispute moves to Qom, Iran's clerical nerve centre, Ayatollah Khamenei could be in deeper trouble: many senior and midlevel clerics there have already objected to his role in the elections. The protests on Tuesday marked a resonant anniversary. Opposition websites had called for rallies to mark the day in 1952 when street protests took place to reinstate the democratically-elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, who was at odds with the western-backed shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

A year earlier, Mr Mossadegh had infuriated Britain by nationalising the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the forerunner to British Petroleum, whose profits mostly enriched Britain. London retaliated by imposing a crippling oil blockade on Iran. In a dispute with the shah, Mr Mossadegh resigned in 1952. Strikes and demonstrations were called in support of Mr Mossadegh and after five days of bloody protests, he returned as prime minister.

A year later, however, he was ousted in a coup financed by Britain and the US. The unpopular young Shah, who had fled the country, returned while Mr Mossadegh was arrested and convicted of treason by a military court, spending the rest of his life under house arrest. Iranians have never forgotten that foreign intervention in their affairs left them saddled with an autocratic shah who remained in power until the 1979 Islamic Revolution. One message from Tuesday's protests was that those aspirations are now being denied by the regime itself.

A twin message was that today's protests are again nationalistic in character: the pro-democracy supporters, proud of Iran's independence, do not want foreign help or interference that could damage their cause. Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a former presidential candidate, sent a message to expatriate Iranians thanking them for their support of "people's rights", said Anoush Ehteshami, a professor of international relations at Durham University in England. "He said 'I know you are all supporters of the Iran and the Islamic Republic and that you are not doing anything which is supported by foreign powers'."

Nevertheless, the regime is attempting to spin a conspiratorial narrative that casts those crying foul over the disputed election results as subversives seeking a "velvet revolution" on behalf of western powers. On Monday, Ayatollah Khamenei again warned opposition leaders not to question the elections because such talk only helped Iran's enemies. Mr Mousavi responded that it was absurd to malign those detained. "Who believes these people, many of them prominent figures, would work with foreigners and to endanger their interests?"

Arresting pro-reform Iranians would not end the dispute and they should be released immediately, he said. Turning the tables on the regime, Mr Mousavi argued that the "stolen" election would play into the hands of Iran's foreign rivals: "A government taking shape in a climate of mistrust would be weak, and it would have to give concessions to foreigners because it lacks any popular legitimacy." Splits in the hardline camp over Mr Mashaie augur badly for Mr Ahmadinejad as he prepares to appoint his new cabinet whose members must be cleared by a disgruntled parliament. His hardline camp will attempt to ensure he makes no moderate appointments to placate his critics.

Iran's hardliners will be reluctant to compromise. They fear any concessions will only embolden their rivals who, confident of the justice of their cause and unwilling to disappoint their millions of supporters, appear reinvigorated and confident that history is on their side. mtheodoulou@thenational.ae