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The Coming Iran Showdown



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For 30 years, the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution has been an occasion for Iran’s Khomeinist rulers to demonstrate their power with a mixture of military parades and mass gatherings in the capital (Tehran) and other major cities. The highlight of the show has always been the appearance of the “Supreme Guide,” flanked by the regime’s grandees, at Tehran’s largest square to deliver a sermon in a ceremony called “renewal of bonds.”

This year, however, the Khomeinist rulers are nervous.

To start with, they have decided to keep the Supreme Guide, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, away from the main ceremony. Although the crowds will consist mostly of rent-a-mob elements, many of them shipped to Tehran from the provinces, no one can guarantee the kind of sheep-like discipline that has marked such gatherings in previous years. Today Iran is in a decidedly insurrectionary mood. With hundreds of figures from past governments, including two former presidents and one former prime minister, having joined the opposition, along with scores of former lawmakers, there is every possibility that even supposedly loyal crowds could switch sides on the spur of the moment.

The Khomeinist establishment, or at least what is left of it, has been debating strategy for the anniversary for weeks. The more radical faction — led by Gen. Mohammad-Ali Aziz Jaafari, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, and backed by Pres. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — has been urging a mass crackdown against the opposition. According to sources in Tehran, Jaafari has presented a plan code-named “Tanzih” (Eradication), which envisages the arrest of some 3,000 opposition activists, including former president Mohammad Khatami and former prime minister Mir-Hussein Mussavi. The plan would also authorize the Revolutionary Guard and the paramilitary Basij (Mobilization) street fighters to crush any mass demonstration by force, even if that means producing a bloodbath.

General Jaafari is said to favor a “Chinese-style” crackdown to silence the growing pro-democracy movement. During the past six weeks he has been shipping units into Tehran and its environs and positioning Basij fighters, often in civilian clothes, at sensitive points. By Thursday he will have over 100,000 men in the capital.

His forces have set up a special headquarters, named “Simorgh” after a mythical Persian bird, with one of Jaafari’s aides, Asghar Abkhizr, at its head. Simorgh has announced two days of free travel on all trains, private and public coaches and buses, and taxis for those wishing to come to Tehran for the occasion. In every case, however, only those whose loyalties are ascertained by the Guard will be allowed to reach the capital.

At a press conference in Tehran yesterday, Abkhizr announced that pro-regime demonstrations would take place at 33 locations in Tehran. This is part of an unofficial agreement with the opposition to prevent clashes between rival crowds. Tehran’s longest thoroughfare, Revolution Street, will divide Tehran into two halves. The northern half will be open to the opposition to hold its rival demonstrations. The southern half will be totally covered by pro-regime crowds.

The subtext of all this is that while the regime is prepared to tolerate some opposition demonstrations in parts of the capital, it will not allow the pro-democracy movement to contact and thus “contaminate” pro-regime elements shipped in from all over the country.

Some sources in Tehran fear that the Guard and the Basij may stage-manage clashes between rival crowds as a pretext for crushing the opposition Chinese-style. Pro-Ahmadinejad newspapers in Tehran are clamoring for a “tough stance to end the sedition once and for all.” Yet others within the regime have made no secret of their opposition to a Tiananmen-style massacre. Ali Larijani, speaker of the Islamic Majlis, Iran’s ersatz parliament, and Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran and a general in the Revolutionary Guard, have called for a “political solution” rather than a massacre in the streets of the capital.

The final decision rests with Khamenei, who appears to be wavering.

The announcement this week that Tehran has started to enrich uranium to an even higher grade, in defiance of five resolutions passed by the United Nations Security Council, may be seen as a further move by the radical faction to mobilize its base.

Concern that Tehran may witness a bloodbath this week is not confined to Iran itself. In a rare show of harmony yesterday, the 27-member European Union and the United States warned the Khomeinist regime not to opt for a bloody crackdown. The pro-democracy movement has welcomed the U.S.-EU joint statement as a sign that the major democracies may have started shedding their illusions about persuading the Khomeinist regime to abide by international law and respect the human rights of its citizens.

The coming showdown in Tehran could mark a new phase in the struggle for the future of Iran. A bloodbath could actually hasten the demise of the regime, for Iran today is not what China was in 1989. If the scenario for separate demonstrations by pro-regime and pro-democracy marches is allowed to proceed, the existence of two mutually exclusive visions of Iran will be further highlighted. Even if nothing spectacular happens, the fact that regime has lost its popular base and is forced to rely on coercive forces and rent-a-mob crowds would further undermine its legitimacy.

— Amir Taheri is an Iranian-born journalist based in Europe, and author of The Persian Night: Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution.



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