Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Middle East/African Revolution/Protest Series: Iran

The protests in Iran kicked off on February 14, 2011.
See the whole Middle East/African Revolution/Protest Series.
The Iranian protests stand out to me because these protests are nothing new in terms of history or in terms of being reported in America. This country has been upheld as an example of a population trying to take a stand against oppressive Islamic rule. I don't know how true it is, but it's certainly the narrative being fed to America. I'm glad to see these protests covered somehow other than through the eyes of American journalists who are told how to spin a story.

Basic History
Iran's official name is the Islamic Republic of Iran. Geographically, Iran is located in central Eurasia and western Asia, and it is considered a Middle East country. Important bordering countries include: Oman, Iraq, and Pakistan. The capital is Tehran. The population is estimated at 76.9 million people. The official language is Persian, but the Iranians speak at least eight other languages.

Iran's most recent leader is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There's also a Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The government of Iran is setup in a most unique way. The Supreme Leader is is responsible for delineation and supervision of the general policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, controls the military intelligence and security operations, and has sole power to declare war or peace. The President is the highest popularly elected official but is subordinate to the Supreme Leader, who is chosen by God. The president is responsible for the "functions of the executive", such as signing treaties, agreements etc., the national planning and budget and state employment affairs, and appointing ministers, governors, and ambassadors subject to the approval of the parliament.

In terms of  independence, Iran gained its independence as a republic in a revolution in 1979. The story is long and boring, so here are the basics. There was a Shah because of whom the first Ayatollah, Ayatollah Khomeini was in exile. There were troops that fought. Guerrillas and rebels beat the troops that supported the Shah. The Shah went into exile. The Ayatollah returned. The Iranians overwhelmingly voted to become a Republic and they voted into existence by referendum the constitution that the country still follows to this day.

The Protests
The main causes cited as the reasons for the protests include: continued unrest from the 2009 election protests and economic hardships.

At the end of January and early February, protest began to be planned for February 14th. These protests were partly against the Iranian government and partly to support the protests going on elsewhere in the Middle East. A formal request was placed and denied.

The place for the first protest was Azadi Square in the capital city of Tehran. Thousand of protesters gather on the same day and time as protesters in Egypt and Tunisia. There was a large police presence, but still the protesters gathered. Some of the opposition leaders were placed under house arrest and denied internet, telephone, and visitors, but still the protesters gathered.

The police responded by firing tear gas and shooting rubber bullets and paintballs. Protests took place that first day in other cities around Iran, and they were forcibly dispersed. That first day was marked by violence and a number of deaths. The protests served to dispel rumors that the Green Movement, organized in protest of the previous elections, was losing momentum.

Over the next couple of days, the government organized pro-government protests and increased calls for the execution of the opposition leaders, who said they were prepared to die for change. There were still opposition protests, but in smaller numbers. Ayatollah Khamenei said that protests scheduled for February 20th would be dealt with harshly and be confronted according to Iranian law.

On February 20th, the protests took place as planned in Tehran and all over the country. The government warned foreign journalists that they would be shut down if they gave negative coverage of the events, so coverage was scarce. But the reports that did get out say there were tens of thousands of people gathered. There was also a large police presence and in some areas, the police outnumbered the protesters. The police (and militias called in by the Iranian government) were brutal in their attacks and tried their very best to disperse and stop the protests and demonstrations.

As February came to a close, members of the Ayatollah's family members began to defect to the opposition and sought asylum in France. A call went out for Tuesdays of Protest for March 1st, 8th, and 15th to continue with pressure on the government for changes. And there were conflicting reports about where two of the opposition leaders,Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, and their wives, were being held, and what may or may not have been done to them.

As March began, reports of the arrests of Mousavi and Karroubi were out, and then denied by the government. Some government officials tried to blame the reporting of this news as an attempt by America to divert attention away from the real issues at hand.

A government official important to the protests, past president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, resign from his position as leader of the Assembly of Experts, who are the body who chooses the Supreme Leader. This disappointed the protesters because they felt he was their only fail safe against an even more conservative Ayatollah being chosen next.

The protesters got more mature in their plans, such as announcing several locations for the protest, more locations than people actually were supposed to show up at. This would have the effect of thinning out the police and Basij (militia) presence where they were going to be. This worked and the protests again gained strength.

By March 11th, several protesters have been expelled from the country, with their agencies lodging official complaints with the Iranian government. This added freedom of the press to the list of the protesters demands. On March 13th, Mousavi's and Karroubi's children reported that they had been allowed to visit the men and they could report on their treatment by security officials.

The protests are still going on, but coverage is decreasing as Iran cracks down harder on journalists. There's no telling how the protests in this country will end.

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