A Palestinian family reacts after Israeli bulldozers demolished their home in the Arab East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina, Feb. 5, 2013. (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Newly elected Israeli Knesset member Yair Lapid (l), leader of the Yesh Atid party, speaks to Naftali Bennett, head of the hard-line national religious party the Jewish Home, during a Feb. 5 reception in Jerusalem marking the opening of the 19th Knesset. (URIEL SINAI/GETTY IMAGES)
Richard Curtiss at work in his Washington Report office. (STAFF PHOTO D. HANLEY)
Then-Vice President Dick Cheney (l) and Likud chairman Benyamin Netanyahu, out of office at the time and serving as the official Israeli opposition leader, at a March 23, 2008 breakfast meeting at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
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Emad Burnat views his five broken cameras in his documentary of the same name. (PHOTO COURTESY KINO LORBER)
OCTOBER/NOVEMBER 1999, pages 28, 104
Iran Regime’s Leading Reformers and Conservatives Unite, Briefly, to Put Down Mass Protests
By Dr. John P. Nordin
It began with a letter. Tuesday, July 6, the reform newspaper Salam published a top-secret letter, dated Oct. 8, 1998, from Saeed Emani, a senior official of the Intelligence Ministry, to his superior. In it he recommended that, for survival, the hard-liners should impose a number of restrictions on the freedom of writers, the press and artists, and place “plants” among reformist organizations to “create discord.”1 The name Saeed Emani meant the letter was a serious proposal. He had been involved in the political murder of several writers in 1998 and later committed suicide in jail.2
Salam was started nine years ago as a forum for liberal clergy and had become a leading reformist journal. The paper’s publisher, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Kho’einha, had impeccable revolutionary credentials: he had been one of the leaders in the 1979 assault on the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.3
By what was probably not a coincidence, the letter was published one day before the Majlis (parliament) approved a first reading of amendments to the press law by 125 to 90. The amendments authorized legal actions against writers in addition to publishers, and transferred press trials to the Revolutionary Courts. They would also ban “anti-revolutionary” groups from the media, prohibit foreign financial support of media, and make incitement against “national security” or “foreign policy guidelines” a crime.4
These events occurred in the context of an often violent struggle5 between reformers (whose most public symbol is President Mohammed Khatami) and hard-liners (represented by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei). As would become clearer during this crisis, neither “reformers” nor “hard-liners” are monolithic groups.
On Wednesday Salam was banned by the Special Court for Clergy. Thursday night, in reaction to both the action of the Majlis and the banning, a number of students demonstrated on the Tehran University campus.6
A consensus about what happened next has emerged in the Iranian media and was endorsed by a Khatami-friendly government report issued in August. Demonstrators proceeded from inside the campus to the gate of the university and were met there by Law Enforcement Forces (LEF, police), agents of the Intelligence Ministry and civilians. After efforts by the LEF to disperse the demonstration failed and tension escalated, the LEF attacked the students and entered the dormitory at about 4 a.m. on Friday morning.
With the LEF, or even in the leadership while the LEF stood by, were members of the right-wing vigilante group Ansar Hezbollah. This group was responsible for one death, injuries to students and damage to the dormitory.
While a government report later claimed that the LEF leadership had not planned a confrontation, it did suggest that Hezbollah, referred to only as “a certain pressure group,” was not a spontaneous mob but under the leadership of unnamed “prominent figures.”7
In the street the issues changed significantly.
Ansar Hezbollah has a long history of disrupting reform events and beating reformers.8 While Iranian media do not name its leaders, it is openly described as working closely with the hard-line elements of the regime.
The attack on the dormitory triggered protests in the streets of Tehran and other cities that continued through Tuesday. Descriptions of the extent of the protest and the number of deaths and injuries from police and vigilantes varied widely. As many as 20 may have died.9
In the street the issues changed significantly. The students’ initial demands were for the repeal of the ban on Salam and withdrawal of the amendments to the press law. The mass protests became a comprehensive attack on the system of hard-line clerical control of Iran. Slogans such as “Freedom of thought is not possible with beard fleece” (a reference to clerics), “O People, the revolt has started, the end to 20 years of tyranny is heralded” and “Death to Yazdi (the hard-line head of the judiciary), Shame on Khamenei” were seen.10 Other slogans compared Khamenei with Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet, called the supreme leader a supporter of the hooligans, and demanded his resignation.11 Both the violence and the breaking of the taboo against attacks on Khamenei by name signaled that a new level in the struggle had been reached.
By Tuesday, right-wing forces, including vigilantes transported in government-owned buses, cracked down, effectively establishing martial law, and halted the protests.12 Perhaps 1,400 had been arrested, including leaders of the secularist Iranian People’s Party and student leaders.13 The mobile phone network was shut down since it was being used by reformers to coordinate their actions.14 On Wednesday conservatives staged a large demonstration, “Renewing Allegiance With The Leader,” to counter the previous protests.15
President Khatami shocked reformers on Tuesday night. Interviewed on state television, he condemned the protest movement as an “insult to the university and to learning.” According to Khatami, “a day or two after the events on Thursday night, a deviation took place. The aim was to inflict damage to the foundation of the system....The rioters aim to inflict damage on public property and cause discomfort for the dear citizens.” Khatami added that there were “inflammatory slogans against the values of the system and our nation’s beliefs...our noble nation will not be deceived by these slogans.”16
His speech provoked renewed rioting by students. The Paris-based Iran Press Service called it “political suicide.”17 Whether Khatami was forced into it to save his presidency, or was genuinely appalled at the destruction and opposed the overturning of the entire Islamic regime is not clear. It did illustrate that “reform” is not a term owned by Khatami.
The response of Supreme Leader Khamenei also had some ambiguities. In addition to condemnations of foreign interference, he suggested that the demonstration might have had a valid basis at the beginning, had been handled badly by the LEF, and then went astray in its later stages. He forgave the insults to his person.18 Later, he met with wounded students.19
Other hard-liners held the students blameless for the original demonstration, but they emphasized claims of foreign control of the protests. The U.S. was frequently named, though no recent actions were described.20 Ayatollah Taherie-Khorramabadi, substitute Friday prayer leader, blamed Zionists and imperialists, claiming that the U.S. wanted Iran to be unstable.21
It is likely that Khamenei, like Khatami, is not a leader of a disciplined bloc but a symbol for a varied group of actors.22 Notice, too, that the term “cleric” cannot be used as a synonym for “opposition to progress” either, given the significant role of clerics in the reform movement itself.
The pro-Khatami government press didn’t buy the foreign control line: “This air of complacency is aimed at convincing public opinion that shadowy counter-revolutionary figures were behind the entire student protest,” editorialized the Iran Daily. “This stratagem will not fly.”23
On the 19th, a development seemed to warn of a potential coup against Khatami. Keyhan, a paper with close ties to the conservative Information Ministry, published a letter from 24 leaders of the hard-line Revolutionary Guards (not including their top commander) to President Khatami. It warned that “You [Khatami] either take now a revolutionary decision by stopping the unrest or tomorrow would be late....How long do we have to be subjected to this trial run of democracy, which has turned into anarchy and puts the Islamic regime at risk?”24
Within a couple of days, the Guard’s chief, Rahim Safavi, insisted that the Guard had “always supported the president and will not tolerate attempts to weaken or insult him,” even though it was speculated that he would have had to approve the letter.25 No more was heard of the threat, with even Supreme Leader Khamenei announcing that he “resolutely supports the officials of state, particularly the president.”26
The hard-liners also focused on Manouchehr Mohammadi, the leader of a small student group. He was arrested and put on television “confessing” that he had traveled abroad and received financial support from foreign elements. He also showed signs of being beaten. But he was not a major leader of the protests, and the hard-liner’s portrayal of him as a mastermind backfired.27
The riots faded from international view, but the struggle continued unabated. Further arrests of publishers were made.28 Most of the students were released, but perhaps as many as 200 continued to be held, some incommunicado.29 The much-hated Ayatollah Yazdi was eased out as head of the judiciary, but put on the Council of Guardians that vets candidates for parliament.30
President Khatami looked to the future: “I reiterate my promise to you...to protect civic freedoms...I have made a covenant with the nation to move with you toward justice. They [conservatives] try to say religion and freedom do not mix and say that the universities are a danger to Islam and the revolution....The recent unrest was...a riot, a declaration of war against the president and his programs.” He promised that the upcoming elections would be done in good order.31
Those elections for the sixth Majlis in March are of such significance that the level of the struggle in Iran is liable to increase. Given the reformers’ overwhelming victory in the local elections of February, an honest election is likely to result in a reform majority in parliament, changing the balance of forces significantly. In the words of Ms. Fa’ezeh Hashemi, publisher of Zan, yet another banned newspaper, this makes “1999-2000 the year of destiny” for Iran.32
Explanation of abbreviations
BBC: British Broadcasting Corporation Online Network. Site: news.bbc.co.uk
DFN June 24: Digital Freedom Network. Site: : www.dfn.org
HRW: Human Rights Watch. Site: www.hrw.org
ID: Iran Daily. English-language paper affiliated with official government news agency, supportive of President Khatami. Site: www.iran-daily.com
IRNA: Iranian Republic News Agency. Official news agency. Site: www.irna.com.
IPS: Iran Press Service. Paris-based press service organization with contacts to exile reformist groups. Site: www.iran-press-service.com
TT: Tehran Times. English language paper. Conservative. Site: www.tehrantimes.com
1ID July 10; DFN, “The article that sparked the violence in Iran,” reprinted from Index on Censorship, Aug. 6. Available at <www.dfn.org/Voices/ Mideast/Iran/salamarticle.htm>
2ID July 10; Farsi paper Neshat, translated by ID, July 31.
3IPS Aug. 6.
4BBC July 7, ID July 8, July 10; HRW July 28; DFN July 7, “Muzzling the Press: Amendments to the Iranian Press Law.” Available at <www.dfn.org/Voices/Mideast/Iran/iranpresslaw.htm>
5DFN, “The politics of murder,” article by Index on Censorship reprinted April 6. Also DFN, “Two Iranian journalists arrested, June 24; and DFN, “Another Iranian journalist arrested,” July 10. All articles available at: <www.dfn.org/Voices/Mideast/Iran/>
6ID July 8 and 10.
7ID July 10, July 11, Aug. 16; BBC July 11; IPS July 13, Aug. 6; IRNA Aug. 15; TT, Politics Section, “Lari on Recent Incident in Tehran University Campus,” July 13.
8HRW Annual Report 1999.
9ID July 11; IPS July 7; IPS Aug. 8.
10IPS July 13.
11IPS July 17, July 19; BBC July 15.
12Elaine Sciolino, “Iran Protests Spread to 18 Cities; Police Crack Down at University,” The New York Times, p. 1, July 13, 1999.
13IPS July 15, July 17.
14IPS July 15; TT July 17, Domestics section, “Mobile Phone Network Closed Down for Misuse by Counter-Revolutionaries.”
15IPS July 15; ID July 15; TT July 15.
16IPS July 13; ID July 14; BBC July 15.
17IPS July 13.
18Reported in “Voices of Dissent,” Online NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, transcript of June 13, 1999 program. Available at <www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/middle_east/julydec99/iran_7-13.html>
19ID July 11, BBC July 27; TT July 13, Politics section, “Leader: Students Should Look Out for Enemy Plots.”
20ID July 11, July 13, July 14, July 15.
21ID July 17; TT July 17.
22“Voices of Dissent,” op. sit.
23ID July 26.
24IPS July 19, July 21; BBC July 25; ID July 22.
25BBC July 23, July 25.
26ID July 31.
27IDID July 21; IPS July 21.
28HRW July 28. DFN, “Protest in Iran: Special Report,” Aug. 17. Available at: <www.dfn.org/Voices/Mideast/Iran/irstudind.htm>
29HRW July 30.
30BBC Aug. 15; ID Aug. 11, Aug. 15; IPS Aug. 15.
31BBC July 27.
32Fa’ezh Hashemi, “Why Zan newspaper?” article published in Hamshahri on April 25, reprinted by DFN June 4. Available at: <www.dfn.org/ Voices/Mideast/Iran/zan.htm>
Dr. John P. Nordin is a free-lance writer living in the Denver area.