Posted March 15, 2010

By Ali Safavi

On the eve of Chaharchanbeh Souri (Festival of Fire), on the last Tuesday of the Iranian year, which is another occasion for the Iranian people to vent their anger at the regime and express the yearning for change, a review of what happened on the anniversary of the anti-Monarchic revolution on February 11 might offer some insights as to what to expect next as far as the post-June uprisings in Iran is concerned.

This is important because in the aftermath of February 11, a day widely expected to witness the continuation of massive opposition protests in Iran, some in the U.S. media lamented “the relative silence of the opposition”[1] and its “… fail[ure] to mount a presence.”[2] At times, this typical perplexity, which gripped the minds of many Iran observers and reporters, even came to the conclusion that, “activists in Iran’s political opposition have been left demoralized.”[3]

But, such a focus on the perceived “Day of final action” and short-term material gains or losses for the opposition emanates from a lack of understanding of the considerable struggle and sacrifices required to bring another revolution in Iran. It also runs the risk of glossing over the important, perhaps vital, lessons that should be learned from the February 11 experience.

The most significant protest before February 11 erupted nearly a month and a half prior on December 27 (the religious day of Ashura), which rattled the regime’s foundations. That is why the regime pushed full-throttle to curb further protests, with various officials joining a chorus of intimidating threats and “ultimatums” against protesters. Consider a small sample of publicly broadcast statements:

  • Commander of the State Security Forces (SSF), Ismaeel Ahmadi Moghaddam: “There will be absolutely no tolerance … This time around the police action and the judicial response will be more severe.”[4]
  • Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, Interior Minister: “[Protestors] are moharebs [enemies of God]. And the fate of a mohareb today is absolutely clear [death sentence]. We are issuing this ultimatum.”[5]
  • State-run TV: “Two of the culprits of recent riots were hanged today on charges of moharebeh.”[6]
  • Abol-Ghassem Salavati, judge of Tehran’s 15th Branch of the Revolutionary Court, speaking to defendants: “You are charged with moharebeh through conscious, deliberate, and effective support, contact, and cooperation with the terrorist grouplet MEK [The Mujahedin-e Khalq].”[7]
  • Ministry of Intelligence: “More than 10 people, known members of the anti-revolutionary camp, have been arrested.”[8]

These threats complemented the widespread arrests of activists and key protest organizers[9] in order to shut off the engine of the uprising.

In his message to the people of Iran following the February 11 anniversary, Massoud Rajavi, the leader of the exiled Iranian Resistance*[10], elaborated on the regime’s suppressive campaign, which culminated in an unprecedentedly dense militarism.[11]

More than 70,000 armed forces, under the command of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the mullahs’ loyal protectors, transformed Tehran into a war zone. Specifically, these included six combat brigades and several back-up battalions (numbering 15,000 in total), 200 paramilitary Bassij battalions (40,000 strong), four SSF brigades from special anti-riot units (totaling 6,000 forces), 5,000 forces from 92 police and SSF bases, and 4,000 armed intelligence agents.

Several layers of forces, backed by the Bassij, prevented protesters from reaching Azadi (Freedom) Square. According to TIME magazine, “On Revolution Street, which stretches from Azadi Square eastward, tens of thousands of police forces as well as paramilitary Bassij were standing guard.”[12]

Despite these measures, however, thousands took to the streets. Once again, pictures of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his predecessor, Khomeini, were taken down and burnt, while the chants of freedom and “death to dictator” rang louder. In Tehran’s northwestern district of Sadeqiya, angry protesters were in virtual control, forcing the police and the Bassij to flee the area and setting government buses on fire.

As if that headache was not enough, the regime encountered another disgraceful defeat. Despite thousands of buses brought to Tehran,[13] the number of people taking part in the government-organized rally was far fewer than in previous years. And, contrary to every other year, there were no marches on Azadi Street. Empty parts of Azadi Square were clearly noticeable by pictures even published by state-run news agencies like Mehr.[14]

The Essential Question of Leadership
There is no question that the February 11 uprising could have reached a higher apex. The most obvious and basic constraining factor in this regard was the dense militarism led by the IRGC. Although the most essential motivating ideological force for the IRGC is the export of Islamic fundamentalism through the use of terrorism, starting two-and-a-half years ago, as crises piled up, the IRGC started to play a more predominant role in domestic crackdown. In September 2007, Mohammad Ali Jafari, then-new commander of the IRGC, declared “confronting domestic threats” to be the IRGC’s new strategy “enabling it to act appropriately in the face of the enemy’s political, social and security threats.”[15]

Some pundits argued that in the face of the IRGC’s growing role in domestic crackdown, the uprising was in decline after the protests on February 11 did not meet expectations. This conclusion ignores two important realities on the ground.

First, aside from the fact that it would be impossible to sustain such a show of force for a prolonged period of time, the indisputable fact is that the perceived aura and real hegemony of the regime’s cornerstone (supreme leader) has been shattered irrevocably in the course of the post-June 2009 protests.

Second, contrary to what some Iran analysts have suggested, the forces calling for overthrow of the regime have not become aloof, pessimistic and demoralized. They seek more not less; they demonstrated this by rising up once again on February 11 while exhibiting as much courage as they possibly could under the circumstances.

Despite defying the regime’s unprecedented show of force, however, demonstrators are looking for genuine leadership and organization.[16] Indeed, in a situation where society has reached an explosive state and the regime is on the brink, the primary issue revolves around what the alternative force and who the leadership are. These determine the strategic path the uprising will ultimately take. In the present circumstances, on the whole, there are only two general paths available. One is to preserve and reform the current regime from within; the other is to overthrow the regime in its totality in favor of democratic change.

If history is any guide, the Tehran regime has proven itself to be incapable of reform. Indeed, four years ago, Khamenei explicitly warned, “Any retreat … would generate an endless chain of pressures and further retreats.”[17] So, central to the debate is who can walk the path of democratic change most proficiently?

Obviously, Mir Hossein Mousavi and other leaders of the defeated faction did not rise to the occasion. As the uprising escalated, prompting greater trepidation within the ruling faction, Mousavi quickly distanced himself from the millions in the streets, saying in a statement, “With regards to the Ashura ceremonies, despite countless requests, neither Mehdi Karroubi, nor Mohammad Khatami nor I or my friends issued a statement.”[18]

Moreover, Mousavi kowtowed to Khamenei’s main demand by lashing out against the Mujahedin-e Khalq (PMOI/MEK),[19] and once again affirming loyalty to the regime’s constitution. “I deem it necessary to affirm the identity of ourselves and the Green Movement as Islamic, nationalistic, opposed to foreign domination and loyal to the constitution,”[20] he emphasized. He even withdrew his earlier challenge to the illegitimacy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency. Instead, he demanded “direct declaration of accountability by the [current] government before the people, the Majlis and the Judiciary.”[21]

On February 9, a set of 23 guidelines about the February 11 rally was published by the “collective wisdom of the Green Movement.”[22] The authors pleaded against chanting “uncharacteristic” slogans such as “death to dictator,” recommending instead “dignified and respectful slogans.”

Such a retreat did not impress Khamenei, who was obviously not content with anything less than complete surrender. One of his allies, the Qom Friday prayer leader, said, “Some people who were deceived during these incidents stubbornly struck the same tune as the US. In addition to expressing remorse and asking for forgiveness, these people must prepare themselves for divine punishment.”[23]

Mousavi’s de facto capitulation raised questions as to whether he truly posses the capability to be the leader who can change and overthrow the regime or at least reform it. If he and likeminded politicians could exhibit that capacity or willpower, which is contingent upon rejecting the velayat-e faqih [absolute clerical rule], then, as Mr. Rajavi emphasized, other political forces, including the MEK, should accept their hegemony while maintaining their own independent viewpoints. However, sadly, the events of the past months, especially after Ashura, have proven the exact opposite.

In the face of Mousavi’s repeated retreats, the regime has placed growing attention on the MEK as its main target and chief existential threat in the midst of popular protests. A forum affiliated with Khamenei wrote, “Today, Mr. Mousavi is facing a terrible dilemma … Only a few rioters remain who do not even take orders from him, but rather comply with the commands sent from London, Washington, Haifa, and Camp Ashraf.”[24]

Home to more than 3,400 MEK members, who are considered protected persons under the Geneva Conventions, Camp Ashraf (Iraq) acts as an inspiration to protesters in Iran, especially women and young people, who seek democratic change. For this reason, it is a major thorn in the regime’s eye.

Two days after the Ashura uprising, in a government-staged rally in Tehran, Ahmad Alam-ol-hoda, Friday prayer leader of Mashhad, acknowledged, “The Monafeqin [Mujahedin] commanded the actions carried out on Ashura. The rioters chanted the same slogans that had been published on [MEK’s] website since December 7 [Student Day]. So, the unrest on Ashura was directed by the [MEK].”[25] On February 2, the ruling faction even attributed the slogans chanted by Mousavi’s supporters to the MEK, warning, “The placards, chants and shouts are written with the MEK’s green pen.”[26]

Khamenei’s goal is clear: Force Mousavi into retreat in Tehran and suppress the MEK in Camp Ashraf. For the regime, the MEK poses the most serious threat capable of leading the popular protests towards democratic change, because of its presence in Ashraf along the Iranian border and vast organizational capabilities inside Iran.[27]

Following the 2003 Iraq War, the regime’s allies in Baghdad exerted enormous pressure on MEK members in Ashraf at the behest of the regime. But, since the start of the uprisings, those measures have been immeasurably intensified after repeated requests by the regime and its Supreme Leader.[28]

So, in addition to the dense militarism and the role of the IRGC acting as the “basis,” it is evident that the leadership factor was the defining “condition” which could have completely changed the outcome of the February 11 uprising.

That being said, the nine-month long uprising has ascended and, regardless of crackdown, it will not decline. Rather, it will escalate further and guide future developments along the lines of toppling the clerical regime and establishing democracy in Iran. The most essential factor in this equation is leadership and organization, which can lead to an enduring alternative for democratic change after unseating the ruling theocracy.

[1] “Iran’s Anniversary: Where Was the Opposition?” TIME, February 11, 2010
[2] Ibid.
[3] “Iranian opposition demoralized after failed protests at revolution’s anniversary,” by Thomas Erdbrink, Washington Post, February 20, 2010

[4] Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, IRIB, December 30, 2009.
[5] Ibid, January 3, 2010.
[6] Ibid, December 29, 2009.
[7] Ibid, January 18, 2010.
[8] Ibid, December 29, 2009.
[9] For example, the names and particulars of more than 5,000 active opponents from various parts of Tehran were entered by the regime’s agents into electronic databases.
*[10] Iranian Resistance generally refers to the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a 530-member Parliament-in-exile, which also includes five different Iranian opposition organizations. It was formed in 1981 and seeks the establishment of a pluralist, secular republic. The Mujahedin-e Khalq is the largest member organization in the NCRI.
[11] Massoud Rajavi, “Lessons from February 11th,” broadcast on Simay-e Azadi, Iran National Television, February12, 2010.
[12] “Iran’s Anniversary: Where Was the Opposition?” TIME, February 11, 2010
[13] “From early morning [the regime] bussed in tens of thousands of supporters to fill Azadi Square for the official celebrations. Opposition websites said that they were lured by free food and drinks. Other sources said that government employees were compelled to attend.” See “Iranian regime ships in support for anniversary celebrations,” The Times, February 12, 2010.
[15] BBC, September 29, 2007.
[16] One routinely comes across statements like these: “We have lost our fear but we need to know where to go with our new-found courage” (See “Iranian regime ships in support for anniversary celebrations,” The Times, February 12, 2010 ). Or: “Our movement needs new tactics, but I have no idea what we should do,” Thomas Erdbrink, “Iranian opposition demoralized after failed protests at revolution’s anniversary,” Washington Post, February 20, 2010 ).
[17] Khamenei’s speech, State radio, March 14, 2006.
[18] Kalame website, January 1, 2010:
[19] “As a loyalist, I say that the MEK have died in virtue of their own treachery and crimes. You should not resurrect them for the sake of scoring factional points or taking revenge.”
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Irani Sezavar-e Irani (“An Iran deserving of Iranians”) website, February 9, 2010,
[23] Talay-e Daaran (Vanguards) website, February 19, 2010,
[24] Tribun-e Azad (Free Podium), February 9, 2010.
[25] IRIB, op. cit.
[26] Raja News, February 2, 2010.
[27] “Five Iranians Facing Trial Belong To Exile Group,” Reuters News Agency, January 8, 2010, IRNA
[28] Document – Iraq: Human rights briefing, Amnesty International, March 1, 2010.

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