After more a year of low visibility, Iran's internal resistance movement showed itself in cities across the country today. Iranians of all ages took inspiration from the people's revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt despite being attacked with paramilitaries on motorcycles, tear gas and electric prods.
The size of the demonstrations appeared to take Islamic Republic authorities off guard, in what the Washington Post called a "surprisingly large" show of opposition. Here's what CNN reported tonight:
The Islamic Republic announced it would hold rallies in support of the Tunisian and Egyptian movements, trying to put an Islamist face - or perhaps providing open political support for covert operations - on Facebook-based protests. However, it forbade opposition groups from taking to the streets to voice their solidarity with the Tunisians and Egyptians.
On February 8, internal reform leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who heads the Green Movement inside Iran, announced plans for nationwide solidarity protests on February 14 - the eve of the 32nd anniversary of the Islamic revolution.
Mousavi's call came after an unprecedentedly broad group of Iranian expatriates and exiles met at the George Washington University in Washington, DC, to set aside their differences and unite for the first time against the regime. The three-day Iranian Democratic Transition Conference, led by former political prisoner Amir Abbas Fakhravar, was sponsored by the Center for Culture and Security at my school, the Institute of World Politics.
The IWP-sponsored event occurred on the birthday of the Iranian regime's murder of democracy protester Neda Agha-Soltan, an underground musician and singer who has become a martyr's face for the democratic resistance. Neda's parents and her fiance, Caspian Makan, supported the conference. Makan tried to attend but could not get a US visa in time.
The regime of mullahs has been in a quandary about what to do with pro-democracy leaders, fearing that arresting them would turn them into political martyrs or "saints."
The Islamic Republic's propaganda machine, especially the mouthpieces of the Revolutionary Guard, attacked the conference, singling out Fakhravar and other organizers by name. Regime agents intimidated some Iranians from attending, and IWP received death threats. One of the invitees who could not attend, political prisoner Arzhang Davoodi, secretly issued an audio message to the conference that the Confederation of Iranian Students brought out of prison. When news of that message got out, prison officials beat and tortured Davoodi and carried him to a solitary part of the prison. He has not been heard from since. See the video of his message, below:
The conference took place January 22-24, coinciding with the toppling of the regime in Tunisia and the beginning of protests in Egypt, Algeria, Libya and Jordan. Iranian student activists came from across Europe, Asia and North America, as did some inside Iran who participated on Skype.
As the Egyptian protesters demanded President Hosni Mubarak's resignation, Fakhravar, who heads the Confederation of Iranian Students and is a research fellow at IWP, issued a statement in Arabic warning the Egyptians about the mistake Iranians made in 1979 when they toppled the shah and welcomed in an Islamic Republic. Fakhravar urged Egyptians to learn Iran's lessons and to maintain a pro-western, secular republic.
As of the night of February 13, protests were planned in at least 41 Iranian cities.
People showed up across the country on February 14, though the regime was able to clamp down on news coverage and cut Internet and mobile phone service in selected areas. Even so, Iranians posted videos on YouTube and Facebook, and circulated them by email and phone.
Al Jazeera reported many thousands of people in Tehran, calmly walking peacefully, with a massive presence of police, undercover police and Basiji paramilitaries:
In some places, the crowd was more spirited, amid reports of sporadic beatings and arrests at the hands of the security forces. An amateur video shows Basijis on their trademark motorcycles corralling people down a street and sidewalk, and about 1:05 into the video the paramilitaries take out their truncheons and begin beating people before the videographer flees:
Thus provoked, people start resisting. The next video shows protesters climbing the side of a mosque to tear down a poster of the late Ayatollah Khomeini and the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Basiji paramilitaries can be seen through the window, hiding inside the mosque:
A man identified as a Basiji paramilitary tries to rescue the poster, mistakenly believing that he has intimidated the crowd. But the people are unafraid. They throw the regime's solidarity-with-Hezbollah propaganda back in the paramilitary's face, saying they want regime change: "Na Ghaza! Na Lobnan! Tunis o Misr o Iran!" ("Not Gaza! Not Lebanon! Tunisia and Egypt and Iran!"). The protesters turn on him and beat him senseless:
Chanting that Khamenei should meet the same fate as Mubarak, the demonstrators then try to set the Khomeini/Khamenei poster afire:
It will be interesting to see how the news reports put together the pieces of today's February 14 protests across Iran. The good news is, the internal opposition movement is very much alive.
And thanks to Fakhravar's Iranian Democratic Transition Conference last month, the external opposition and lead student movement are united for the first time ever. Below is a promotional video released prior to the event: