Iran – or more accurately the Iranian government – this week celebrated the 31st anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution. In preparation for the tightly orchestrated event, the government unleashed the full might of its security forces – including riot police, the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij, the civilian militia corps – to suppress the opposition protestors who have poured onto Iran’s streets since last summer’s fraudulent election.
Armed with live ammunition, knives and teargas, the security forces set upon anyone identified as opposition protestors. When not resorting to violent repression, the government tried to thwart the opposition by disrupting internet, telephone and text messaging service inside the country. For propaganda purposes, the government also staged its own mass rally in Tehran’s Freedom Square, an occasion capped by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s defiant declaration that Iran is now a “nuclear state,” capable of producing its own weapons-grade uranium.
To discuss this week’s events and the state of the Iranian opposition movement, Front Page turned to exiled Iranian dissident Amir Abbas Fakhravar. Jailed for five years in Iran’s notoriously brutal Evin Prison after participating in anti-government student riots in 1999, Fakhravar now heads the Confederation of Iranian Students, an organization committed to non-violent regime change in Iran.
FP: The government clearly tried very hard this week to deter opposition protestors from making themselves heard. Instead, it has put on a mass rally, complete with Iranian flags pro-government pro-Khameini signs, to create the illusion of national unity. What can you tell us about these “pro-government” demonstrations?
Fakhravar: The government knew that there was a plan from the protest movement to hold demonstrations in Tehran on the anniversary of the Islamic revolution, so they spent money to bring in about 200,000 Basij from cities all across Iran on the night before the anniversary celebration. The Basij – these are the masses of men and women you see attending the pro-government protests – were paid $250 each to show up at the demonstrations, which is a lot of money in Iran, when you consider the bad state of the economy. They spent all night covering Freedom Square with the Basij. The government also spent a lot of money on propaganda. They printed posters of Ayatollah Khameini; they even gave the Basij frozen chicken after the demonstration was over.
But that didn’t stop the opposition protestors from showing up. If the government can get 200,000 people out of the 70 million in Iran, that means nothing. Across Iran, I believe there were some 2 million people who showed up to protest the government. And the protestors will come back stronger and stronger. The reason is this: The Basij fight for their salary; the people fight for their freedom. That’s why, on Tuesday, when Ahmadinejad gave his big speech, you could hear chants of “Death to the Dictator!” coming from a distance.
FP: Reports in the foreign press have portrayed this week’s events as a defeat for the reform movement and a victory for the government. In their accounts, the protestors were overwhelmed by the security forces and outnumbered by the pro-government demonstrators. What do you think explains the slant of this coverage?
Fakhravar: First, I want to correct you. This is not a reform movement. This is an opposition movement, a revolution against the government. The people want regime change. That is why in front of the Basij and the Revolutionary Guard you heard chants of “Death to the Dictator” and “Death to Khameini.” That is also why the most popular chant was “Referendum.” By this the protestors mean a referendum on the Iranian government. The last time Iran had a referendum was when the Islamic republic came to power in 1979. Referendum means they want regime change. The people are saying to Khameini, “We don’t want an Islamic republic anymore!”
As for the coverage, it may be explained by the fact that the government invited 300 reporters from foreign countries to cover the pro-government demonstration. Yet, they didn’t let them go anywhere. They were only allowed to watch the main demonstration at Freedom Square in Tehran – nowhere else. They never saw the side streets where the opposition protests were taking place.
It should also be noted that the strength of the pro-government rallies is overstated. You can tell the opposition protestors from the government demonstrators because only the protestors carry handmade signs. The Basij carry the posters of Kahmeini or other placards that are printed and distributed by the government. Because all the print shops in Iran are under government control, and are carefully monitored, it’s not easy for protestors to print signs. All the people holding up the printed signs are paid by the government to hold them up. (We have a joke that if you see an ugly woman at an Iranian demonstration, she is with the Basij.) When the demonstrations are over, they just drop the signs and walk over them.
FP: The government seems to fear the protestors’ use of new media like Facebook and Twitter to organize their movement. Hence the regime’s attempts to restrict internet and text messaging and its announcement this week that it will permanently ban Google mail in favor of a “national email service for Iranians.” What do you make of this clampdown on new media, and how big of a threat is it to the opposition movement’s ability to mobilize against the government?
Fakhravar: The government’s primary goal was to shut down YouTube, but they were not successful. The intelligence services called in protestors to tell them that they were being watched and that they should not participate in the anniversary day protests. But we still get hundreds of videos from Iran. That means the government has failed to shut down the new media.
There are some 30 million Iranians who have access to the internet and the new media. Just a few months ago, it was 17 or 20 million. This is a sign that, right now, people are hungry for information from the internet. One of the most useful things that the U.S. could do to help the opposition movement would be to support new media and alternative media, whether it’s the internet or satellite services.
FP: How would you describe the Obama administration’s position? Has it done anything to aid the opposition movement?
Fakhravar: The Obama administration’s approach seems to be to keep an eye on the protestors to see if they keep coming out on the streets even amidst the government repression. That’s wrong. It’s also wrong for the administration to continue to pursue diplomatic negotiations with the Iranian government. The government has no legitimacy inside Iran; it has no legal standing with the Iranian people. The people are saying, “This is not our president,” but Obama is saying, “I want to talk to him.” I don’t understand why the Obama administration would want to give legitimacy to a regime that has no legitimacy in the eyes of the Iranian people.
FP: Perhaps the most notable incident from this week’s pro-government rally in Tehran was Ahmadinejad’s boast that Iran was now a full-fledged nuclear power. What has been the reaction to his remarks inside Iran and why do you think he chose to make the announcement?
Fakhravar: There were several reasons he said that. First, he wanted to distract attention from the counter-protests and the opposition movement. It is also the government’s way of telling some of the stupider people in Iran, “If we spend a lot your money, eventually we will get what we want!”
For most Iranians, though, Ahmadinejad’s speech was a cruel joke. The funniest part was when he bragged that the regime successfully sent some animals – roaches, worms, mice and turtles – into space. This actually happened last week and the government had a lot of propaganda about it. Ahmadinejad was trying to show that Iran was very successful and that the world covets our technological knowledge. But most Iranians cynically said, okay, we sent animals into space – Thank God we’re not hungry or anything.
FP: What’s the best thing that the United States and the international community can do to support the Iranian protest movement?
Fakhravar: It’s very simple: Stop buying oil from the mullahs. If you cut off their oil funds with sanctions, they won’t have money to pay the Revolutionary Guard, or to buy friends in Latin America Russia and China, or to sponsor Hezbollah, or to continue the nuclear program. That would solve the problem.
FP: What’s next for the Iranian opposition movement?
Fakhravar: The next step in a protest is March 16, which is the last Wednesday in the Persian calendar. I am optimistic. I’ve lived in Iran all my life and I’ve never seen this much courage from the Iranian people. This is their last chance for freedom and they don’t want to give it up.
FP: Amir, thank you very much for joining us.
Fakhravar: Thank you for the interview.