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Iran: The Regime's Misfired "Big Shot" at Legitimacy

REGIME RALLYNews and rumor from Iran on Wednesday was dominated by two stories: the pro-regime rally and last night's report in Iranian state media, now denied, that Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi had fled Tehran for Mazandaran province in the north of the country. Each was surrounded by uncertainty and confusion --- how big were the rally and others claimed around Iran? were the most prominent figures in the Green Movement under house arrest --- and, at the end of the night, many were wondering, "What does this all mean?"

Maybe the best way to approach the question is to recognise that the stories are not separate.

Put bluntly, as we did at the start of Wednesday, this was the regime's big push for a display that it was in control. Unsettled by the failure over 6+ months to quell opposition and rocked in particular by the high-visibility takeover of Ashura by its foes on Sunday, the Government responded quickly with the claim of credibility.

Iran: The Regime’s Misfired “Big Shot” at Legitimacy
Iran: The Uncertainties of Oppression and Protest
The Latest from Iran (31 December): Is That All There Is?

Thus the call to its supporters to appear on Wednesday, surrounded by the loudest trumpets of state media. It will still be debated today whether the response was tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands, whether their appearance was voluntary or "bought" with free transport, free foods, and days off from school and work, whether the footage from outside Tehran was genuine or even significant --- see Josh Shahryar's analysis for EA --- but on the surface, the regime was able to put up images of a filled Enghelab Square in the capital and rallies in cities such as Tabriz and Shiraz.

What may be most striking, however, was the tone and messages surrounding the event. We noted yesterday that the regime has been showing its "negative" strength by detaining and condemning the opposition but has not been as forthcoming in a "positive" campaign showing how it is providing for the welfare of Iranians.

The Tehran rally did nothing to dispel that impression. There was nothing, for example, to assure the audience of the merits of President Ahmadinejad and his Cabinet, an absence brought out in the post-rally discussion on Press TV. The "positive" extended only as far as "the Supreme Leader is your rightful, just, and magnanimous Leader".

Even that message, given by Ayatollah Alamalhoda of Mashaad, was secondary to the black opening. There are the forces of Satan. The forces are the rioters. Satan is the United States. And Britain. And other foreign governments. And the terrorist MKO (whose political wing, it should be noted, played into the regime's hand with its ill-timed assertion of a key role in the Ashura protests). Stand against all of them.

That, at least to my outside ears, does not sound like an attempt to gain legitimacy through assurance or hope. It strikes the tone of fear. There is even the unstated message --- especially for those who were not at the rally but watched it on state television --- "You may not have complete faith in us, but look at the other guys."

Which brings us to what may have been the second part of the regime campaign. The question this morning: did Government officials feed the story of the flight of "two opposition leaders" to the Islamic Republic News Agency? If they did so, then this is the clumsy fulfillment of an overall message that was to be displayed yesterday: we have threatened them, we have condemned them, we have vanquished them.

Only this step in the strategy did not work. Within an hour, the story was fraying, as the Mousavi and Karroubi camps, despite the Government restrictions on them (their top advisors arrested, their houses and offices surrounded) were able to get out the message that the two men were still in Tehran and still "fighting for the Iranian people". IRNA did not follow up its claim, and overnight other state outlets like Fars and Press TV said the tale was untrue.

Which means that, as Enghelab Square and other squares across are empty of demonstrators this morning, that the regime has the problem of "What Will You Do Now?" After the hundreds of arrests since Sunday, after the fanfare that "millions" of Iranians will turn out to erase all doubt of the political stability of the Supreme Leader (just to repeat, Ahmadinejad has been left behind), after all the invective and threats of the foreign-terrorist-Satanic menace to Iran, legitimacy has not been assured.

Of course, the opposition faces the same question of "What Will You Do Now?". But the opposition has the luxury of taking days, even weeks to make its next high-profile appearance. The regime does not: it is supposed to rule each and every day.

And it is a rule that weakens each and every day when the primary message is all about "them" and not about what the Government is doing for the good of those Iranians who supposedly turned out for it on Wednesday.

Reader Comments (18)


An EXCELLENT summary on the last day of the (Western??) year.


December 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBarry

Let me follow up on Barry´s compliment. It´s an amazingly well written piece. Your output in terms of quantity and quality has been nothing but amazing, these past days. This analysis seems right to me.

However, adding to that: what I´m hearing from Iranian friends is that the split between the rural poor and urban conservatives on the one hand vs. the progressive city elites on the other hand is as vivid (or as some put it, more vivid than ever). One friend worked the past 2 weeks in a village far out of Tehran and heard not a single bit about the Ashura Uprising. As she put it: ´these people deserve their govt.´. When she got back to her North Tehran appartment she first started hearing about all the events.

The same applied for inside Tehran: in the days after the election we would sometimes get back to South Tehran after a day of reporting the uprising in central and north Tehran, only to find out that life in South Tehran was untouched by it.

This just to say: despite many claims of the Opposition broadening their fronts and the frustration about the government´s actions spreading throughout the country, there might just be some truth to the govt. claims that there are people buying the narrative of foreign involvement and backing the govt. whatever it does. In many ways Iran is also in a Culture War, between the two faces of Iran itself.

December 31, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterkarel

Ditto the other commentators -- great work by the entire EA team.

Regarding the "flight north" story, my wild-eyed guess is it was an ill-advised response to the Khamenei "prepares to flee" story.

e.g. a reactive, unoriginal use of the same concept without the benefit of historical resonances.

December 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJP

To a rank outsider if strong Green supporter like myself, Karel's comments seem extremely significant and point out the big question mark in the best available coverage (EA) of events and the seldom analyzed elephant in the room: to what degree IS the upheaval the struggle of (more and more) Iranian people to throw off and change an oppressive regime and to what degree is it a class and religious standoff that could end up in outright civil war and will at best be extremely difficult to resolve, even without the machinations of a brutal government?

If we just had better reporting and coverage on the village socieety where your friend worked, Karel, and the South Tehran neighborhoods you refer to... some kind of semi-reliable pulse-taking of the nation. In addition, I note with some real (uninformed) concern the disdainful tone in your friends comments about the villages and the occasional inside commentaries I pick up on similar subjects. They also suggest strong internal alienation between segments of the population, not just with respect to the government. How do we get more insight and sensitivity at this level?

December 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPBE

Yes, we do want nothing but to go back to IRI and do just that. For Dutch media we made 6 trips to Iran in previous times (latest visit was in June) and always insisted on staying out of Tehran and see as much as we can about the rest of the country.
Now we have to work with the meager means of e-mail, chat, etc.
Who knows whether we will soon be able to go again to this country, which we visited for 7 times already.
As for now: I would recommend all media to abstain from statements about the small size of govt. support, even though yes, there is a lot of spin and yes, the govt. does facilitate these protests. And yes, they have been misleaded by state media. But... to some extent there IS a back-up for this regime in the home land and there are loads and loads of people (inclusing some people we respect and appreciate) who say: "every police force has the right to deal with rioters. they are just making our streets safer..."

December 31, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterk

And yes: the disdainful tone may be striking, but as you correctly state, the

Oh, and to add to previous post: we also spoke to people who do not just unknowingly play down the claims of govt. violence, but also vocally back the government's harshness. Of course, there might be family obligations playing a role, or political associations or job security... But there are many Iranians who just want to go on with life and see the protesters as an unwelcome destraction AND there are many Iranians who give 100 % loyalty to their govt to defend the revolution. They don't usually blog or twitter or even speak English, but they do play a vital role. It will be interesting to see what happens to them (in Eastern Europe many people in these groups only dared to move on to the opposition after the regime change).

Oh well, wish you all the best in reporting and tracking whatever you can. If you want any content from my side, welcome to e-mail ;-)

December 31, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterk


Would be grateful for any information/analysis you would like to provide. Please feel free to e-mail us directly as well as using Comment section.


December 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterScott Lucas


A strong internal alienation between segments of the population existed already in Shah times and is still prevalent. In a centralised state like Iran the centre is always privileged in relation to the margins. In consequence the rural population is attracted by large cities, especially Tehran, offering more jobs and infrastructure (health care, schools, universities etc.). Just to give you an impression of this rural exodus: in 1976 Tehran had a population of 4.5 millions, today up to 13 millions, including all satellite quarters around the capital. This rapid in-migration has never been managed conveniently, and the same imbalance of infrastructure is now visible on a smaller scale within the capital.
On the other hand there is still no fair distribution of wealth, especially because of mismanagement, corruption and the concentration of wealth in the hands of the ruling clerical class and the IRGC, controlling up to 60 percent of the economy.
Both factors prevent the new citizens to adapt to modernized urban life easily, leading to the formation of underdeveloped ghettos with a mostly rural population, deeply entrenched in a traditional, conservative way of life. Or, as a contemporary writer put it, in Iran people live in different epochs side by side.
Even though development plans have been carried out for rural areas, the differences to urban areas are still apparent. In conclusion a lot of efforts have to be undertaken to adjust these different levels of infrastructure, education and income on a national scale.
Perhaps this interview with Raisdana is useful as an introduction:

December 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterArshama

Thanks, Arshana -- very helpful. I saw the sprawling population of Tehran when there a couple of years ago -- not unlike, if even more pronounced than, the results of rural-urban migration and related inequity in a number of developing countries. The question remains, though, how one gets an accurate and evolving read on the POLITICAL consequences of this migration and inequity and how one begins to deal with them when building a ["Green"] movement.

Peace activists in this country back in the Vietnam War days used to take a page from the Vietnamese themselves in saying our task was to "win the villages" -- i.e. in our case, get to know the communities where right wing America-first people lived and where Nixon support was strong, understand where they were coming from and work with them. What concerns me a bit (but I probably just need to better understand) is the fact that (a) in the flow of good commentary and second-hand reporting on EA we get little sense of the real nature and volume of sentiment among that major slice of the population; and (b) we DO get some sense that Green sympathizers and activists have little contact with and in fact may heartily disdain those folks.

Of course, crossing such social boundaries is not easy in the best of circumstances and is probably much more difficult if not mortally dangerous in a situation where any gesture of this sort let alone an attempt to engage people of another social class in political discussion would immediately get reported to the authorities as subversive activity and might well lead straight to Evin Prison. But that doesn't change the challenge: how to start building a broader movement and not relegate better social integration to some hypothetical future after "le Grand Soir" when a new regime can impose more social justice? Ironically, there seem to have been a few such opportunities under the Shah's regime. An Iranian relative was in the Army of Knowledge back in those days and was assigned to literacy work in villages, where they had just these sort of encounters...

December 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPBE

I've just read this article from a link given here on another page. This no doubt helps us better understand Karel's comment about why south tehran might not know what's going on. (and others' comments) In any case, this article simply drips of hopelessness, indifference of authorities and incompetence of gvt. Compare this with the detailed life of Khameini living in abject luxury for a supposed modest cleric (on homylafette).

December 31, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterpessimist

You got me thinking. It seems Iran is evolving from an Islamic state into a military dictatorship controlled by the IRGC. It seems the clergy in rural areas would be a natural ally in opposing this change. They have established relationships with the people and surely better communication with Qom than the average person. It seems that in the cities the clergy have often been at the forefront of the opposition. Why not in the villages, too? There is no reason why religion cannot flourish when the vote of the people is respected.

December 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDAJ


That is a heartbreaking and enlightening piece. Unfortunately under such circumstances it simply can't hold that

بچه هرکس براه خودش عزیز است

Majid and colleagues sound like saints as well as activists. How many people in north Teheran are aware of what they are trying to do or have any contact with, knowledge of, those circumstances? It's of course something one prefers at a certain level not to know. And those who know it and are enraged about it risk meeting the fate of the Turkish witness to murder cited in the article: being arrested for calling attention to injustices the regime isn't about to address and doesn't want broadcast.

This said, the political side of the coin seems to be (unless others who are better informed see it differently) that in these parts of the city "people who are tired of injustice [DON'T] take to the streets and scream, ...they don’t even scream [but] remain silent in protest." There was talk in other posts on this blog of the tactic of moving people at different positions of the political spectrum incrementally toward social justice and human rights, even if only from opposition to the movement toward neutrality. Where -- and how -- can one hope to help those in south Teheran to move?

December 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPBE

To save this generation of children, it would take much money and much much organization but that could come from gvt but also private charities, (foreign too of course if possible) but also maybe by a deliberate will expressed by some opposition folks as they seem to be getting wider in scope.

hmm some days I feel more pessimist than usual, however, lets hope that 2010 brings great things, the ball is really rolling, I'm sure it won't come to a standstill now :-)

December 31, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterpessimist

While writing am hearing news on French/German TV channel (ARTE) that is giving long reporting, showing todays riots, the vid of police car running over person and dangers in Turkey for refugees from iranian security forces seeking them out.

December 31, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterpessimist

Iranian Regime committing suicide by smothering themselves by "self righteousness"

An interesting article which helped me to understand my own unformed thoughts about the grandiose rhetoric that I have noticed always comes out of Iran. This rhetoric always reminds me of the same sort of stuff which comes out of North Korea.


December 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBarry

Iran crippled by conspiracy theories

Another good article - in a similar vein to the one above.


December 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBarry

You guys are really really bad propaganda artists!

There were 2-3 million people out and out put 'analysis' to suggest that it was 20-30k?!

Just Google IRIB or IRINN to see the videos!

December 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAli


Thanks for the useful link. This story reflects well all those "social and economic improvements", AN proclaimed to bring to Iranians, when running for presidency four years ago. The sad part of it is that even those few NGO's, trying to support these children, are under constant attack of this regime, not willing to accept any useful moves by normal citizens.

As to PBE, North Tehran is now mostly occupied by the mullahs and other profiteers of this regime, who don't give a damn about the so-called "mostazafin" (deprived), the regime cherishes in its Friday sermons regularly. Most of the Greens appear to belong mainly to the middle classes, situated between these profiteers and obvious (economic) losers of the IRI. To return to your second question (b) Green sympathizers are not a solid block, but a rather broad coalition with different political beliefs. Insofar I doubt that there is such a clear disdain for those folks you mentioned. Iranian society is segmented, but not segregated, and I often found my fellow countrymen much more tolerant than expected, i.e. normally they respect each other (except for those staunch ideological supporters). Crossing the boundaries is difficult only in respect to this group, otherwise it requires the willingness to do so.
Imho the 1 Million Signatures Campaign (for equal rights) is a first effective step in this direction, because it brings together women from very different social classes, inspiring the necessary dialogue within society. As you probably know most activists of this campaign have been arrested by now, posing the same "threat" to this regime as all other independent human rights or social activists.
You already answered your own question on how to reach these folks, and I should like to add another fundamental measure: education!
DAJ, I doubt that this reactive clergy, which has turned Iran into a huge self-service shop, is interested in any social progress or improvements. Instead of that they preach superstition, sending poor believers to Jamkaran, where they throw their petitions into the well of the Hidden Imam.

. I think you are still drawing

December 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterArshama

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