KlinKlin, 2 November 2022
Iran is a country of contradictions. While the internet is blocked – and local media is completely censored – the government allows unfettered access to around 1,000 satellite channels from across Asia. Among them are several in Farsi that are based in foreign countries. Iran International is officially based in the UK but has suspected links to Turkey, the US and Saudi Arabia. The second is BBC Persia.
Both channels broadcast around the clock videos and pictures of the protests sent by Iranians, commentary studios, criticism of the government and news about the situation. Iran International is watched by at least half the country’s population. I never got an answer to the question why this is allowed.
The national media is despised by at least the same number of people. This can best be portrayed by the following incident. Right across the street, a fire was burning. One of the commuters turned to the men who were standing on his left, pointed to the television and said, “How I wish the fire was on that side of the street.” Everyone laughed.
The protests were actually… negligible
If one watches Iran International or the foreign media covering the protest from a distance, one will get the impression that the country is shaking with discontent and that the government will fall at any moment. The facts are different.
There are hardly any protests in the country, and when there are protests, they involve around 200-300 people. But very often 30-40. The reasons are rooted in the extremely violent way in which the government crushes every protest within minutes.
So far, over 300 people have been killed and around 10,000 arrested. However, the number could be significantly higher, as in the Kurdistan (next to Iraq) and Sistan-Baluchistan (next to Pakistan) regions, protests are being drowned in blood instantly.
The authorities would in very rare cases dare to use assault rifles in Tehran, Qom, Isfahan, Shiraz, Yazd and Mashhad. But in the case of the two provinces mentioned, ethnic tensions and the rising voice for autonomy are also a factor. Mahsa Amini herself was of Kurdish origin. There, protests continue to gather thousands to this day.
At a protest
Access for foreigners to these regions is not only extremely dangerous but also very difficult as it raises many questions. Dozens of foreign nationals have been detained since the protests began, to be used as bargaining chips in Iran’s foreign policy. A favourite ploy of the government even before 16 September was to arrest foreign students and academics on trumped-up espionage charges.
Tehran is a city of 12 million with permanently gridlocked traffic and information blockages. Most residents don’t even realise that a protest has taken place. However, protests are relatively easy to find because they are led by students and begin either at universities or in major squares and boulevards in the late afternoon between 3 and 5 pm.
I arrived at Enghelab (Revolution) Boulevard, which flows into Azadi Boulevard. This is the key artery of the capital, which has witnessed the biggest changes in the Islamic Republic over the years. The end of the boulevard even leads to the world-famous Azadi, or Freedom, Tower. Before the 1979 revolution, the boulevard was named ‘Eisenhower’ in honour of the 34th American president.
If I know it, the government certainly knows it. Enghelab is a wide and beautiful street, dotted with trees and young people. The intellectual center of the city. There are several buildings of Tehran University and a number of private schools for arts, foreign languages, cafes and bookstores.
Between 5 and 10 Basiji – armed with rubber batons, plastic shields, helmets and khaki camouflage – are positioned at each straight. Most are young guys under 30 years old. Basij members are generally divided into 3 groups with a few exceptions:
- Hail from a small town or village;
- come from a more religious family;
- come from a poorer family;
One of my sources even managed to get me to meet a close friend of his at a high level in the organization in the evening, who after some coaxing revealed some details:
“Do you think I like the situation better than anyone else in this country? No! It is even more difficult for us (ed. – Basiji). At least half of us actually support the protest and are against the government. Many of us don’t believe in Islam. But now everyone I know looks at me as if I were a monster. Even if they don’t support the protests and stand for the government, most Basiji don’t want to beat women in the streets. Nor to kill. What kind of people do you think we are?
My cousin joined so he wouldn’t enter the barracks. Other guys do it to get government support for university admission. For many of us, it’s a way to move up career-wise and financially,” says Kamran, himself from Isfahan.
He adds that additional rewards and benefits such as financial bonuses or additional military service waivers are offered for crushing the protests. One week of patrolling in the protests is equivalent to 2-3 weeks of barracks or standard service.
“Quite a few of the policemen and basijis who crush protests do so of their own volition anyway. They are either religious fanatics or just heartless bullies. If you look at some of them, you will see tattoos. It’s totally haram (ed. – sinful, forbidden by Islamic law). These men are not believers. Yet the government hires them and sends them to beat up other non-believers. And they accept, even though they don’t believe either. They are just completely unprincipled,” Kamran claims.
How to spot civilian police
A particularly large number of the mercenaries in question – they’re not even basijis – play the role of civilian police. When they’re in a hurry, it’s hard to recognize them. But when they are on a moped (a fairly popular means of transportation in the country), they have several distinguishing marks: the license plates are obscured, and in 90% of the cases a medical face mask is ingeniously placed over them; they are ridinga bike in pairs; they are between the ages of 20 and 40; each of them wears a diagonal.
They carry with them handcuffs, pepper spray or a gun. Sometimes rubber truncheons can also be seen concealed. The men in question are constantly driving around the cities, watching for riots or unacceptable behaviour – where large groups of people are gathering, how many women are walking around without hijabs, is anyone shouting “Marg bar dictatur!” (“Death to the dictator”, referring to Ayatollah Khamenei), which is the most popular chant of the protests.
Usually one person drives and the other is free to look around, take pictures and make phone calls to report. If a real civilian covers up his bike number, the punishment can be particularly severe and so no one allows it. That’s why it’s a safe bet that a moped with a blacked out number is on government “criminals”.
To get an idea of how many there are, I will give the following example: in about an hour of driving in 12-million Tehran, you can detect between 5 and 10 such mopeds. The experiment was conducted about 20 times.
Marg bar basiji!
Iranians loathe civilian policemen and if they find them during a protest, the consequences could be fatal. At the beginning of the protests, when they were far more numerous and aggressive, there were cases of such agents being killed. One of them was even rumored to have had his penis cut off by protesters after they killed him.
There is a third common type of force that is very effective against protesters. They are also usually the most brutal. These are the motorized brigades (not to be confused with the civilians on mopeds). They consist of heavily armed police or Revolutionary Guards – helmets, body armour, batons, smoke grenades and paintball guns. The guns in question fire plastic pellets, and sometimes paintballs. They are used when the protests are too big and the police cannot catch everyone. Then they mark the fleeing people and cars so that other authorities in the city can arrest them later.
A small minority of motorized brigades carry pump-action shotguns and assault rifles. They also move in pairs a motorbike. But also in packs of about 40-50 bikes. A gaggle is the right word because the feeling one has as they move through the streets is not one of security. It’s the opposite – like you’re in the Wild West and marauders are speeding through your town.
Shooting girls and pensioners
Let’s go back to Enghelab and Azadi avenues. Apart from the positioned groups of Basiji on the thoroughfares, the motorised units in question were also patrolling the boulevard. Some of the men were photographing people on the sidewalks with a camera. And an extremely large number of women without headscarves and of all ages were moving on them. They were just going about their daily tasks. As we mentioned, in Tehran at least ¼ of the women go without the hijab and the other ¼ wear it very loosely, as a fashion accessory.
This didn’t sit well with the motorists, who on several occasions stopped and opened fire on pedestrians on hairpin bends. Regardless of who they would hit. They laugh. Then there were screams and people running away. You never know if an arrest will follow, and – believe me – the pellets in question caused considerable pain. Especially if you are hit on the head where the men were aiming.
An elderly woman in a hijab who was also hit during an accidental shooting lunged at the perpetrators, who could have been her grandchildren and sons. She screamed that they were scum and how dare they attack school children and pensioners. Several civilian men around her pulled her back pleading with her to go away because these were criminals who would not understand her and would only get her into more trouble. Across the crowd was laughing.
Undercover with tea
A few hours of pacing back and forth on the boulevards would surely arouse suspicion, so I’d take cover by settling down by the window of a restaurant with a cup of tea or going from bookstore to bookstore, again drinking tea in the street.
I must have had about 10 black teas in a few hours, which combined with the adrenaline kept me awake for at least 24 hours. Finally, I headed over to Daneshu Park, which houses the city theater. It once housed the National Ballet of Iran, the largest in the Middle East and North Africa. After the revolution, the ballet was banned.
A curious but untold fact is that the park is a known venue for homosexual encounters.
It was there that a large group of heavily armed uniformed men gathered. They sat and waited. I headed towards the interior of the park when I heard the familiar “Marg Bar Dictatur!” A group of about 30 youth set a tree on fire and started chanting in hopes that more people would join them.
But no one did. With a sad look, the park gardener poured water over the tree with the watering hose from a nearby clearing and asked them why they did it.
But they had no time to answer because the cavalry had arrived. Suddenly I and a number of other random passers-by found ourselves in a melee of bikes, batons, shouting and gunfire. Then I saw that on the front of each of the bikes was stuck the face of Gen. Qasim Soleimani, the Revolutionary Guards leader who was killed on January 3, 2020, in Iraq in an American strike. The authorities have elevated his personality to a cult, and his likeness can be found on all sorts of vehicles and shops – in addition to government buildings, alongside that of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei.
To end the protest in minutes
Scattered groups of protesters tried to rally support in different parts of the park, but eventually after 30 minutes it was all over. Meanwhile, innocent bystanders who had been injured by paintball guns or police batons complained to the uniformed people, but to no avail. They looked at them like a wall.
But then people started to annoy the police. Here and there someone shouted “Marg bar dictator” from his car, from the other end of the park too. So people showed their solidarity. They shouted 1-2 times to attract the uniforms, but then stopped so they wouldn’t know who was really shouting.
I stopped next to a tea cart. Next to me two women in hijabs, visibly in their 50s and 60s, were shouting “Death to the dictator!” and laughing as they watched the Revolutionary Guards men searching for them. Right next to me, at the tea cart, two boys around 13-14 were shouting “gol, gol, gol” which translates to “flowers” but also “marijuana.” And they weren’t wearing roses.
The bikes sped past them, not caring. Eventually, though, the law enforcement got nervous and started shooting and arresting whoever their eyes saw. And we sought salvation in the subway, where the officers had opened the carousel passes so that anyone fleeing could enter quickly – without paying or explaining why they were fleeing.
No people, no protest
This has become standard procedure over the past 40+ days. Police arrest in waves and ask questions afterwards. The jails are so crowded that they put the detainees in warehouses and hangars.
No one knows what happens to you after you are arrested. No relatives or lawyers are called, you just disappear. Most people sit between 3 and 7 days until the police find time to check the contents of their phone and file, and question them. Since they don’t have enough officers, it takes days. And this is the case with completely innocent bystanders.
If you are suspected of taking part in the protest, the stay lasts weeks. Then the authorities offer a standard deal – hand over the protest leaders to us and we’ll let you go. Those named as leaders and protagonists face years in prison and even execution. At the moment, it is estimated that around 1,000 people face a similar fate. Add this to the number of those who have been killed, which is probably over 300.
All the protests that I have been able to detect – 5 in total – have unfolded along similar lines. They ended before they started. In Isfahan it took 5 minutes from the first cries of ‘Marg bar dictatur’ to the arrival of about 30 motorbikes with civilian-dressed policemen. By the time I crossed Nagsh-e Jahan Square and reached them, there was nothing more to see.
I learned about many protests in the evening on Whatsapp and Instagram, when access was being restored. In one case, youths were protesting a mile away from where I was, and I had no idea about this.
The government will win
“We won’t win,” says Nadir, 25, from a small town we won’t name. I meet him at the train station in Isfahan. He is heading for Tehran and I for Shiraz, where the previous day there had been a terrorist attack with 15 victims.
“I am among the organisers of the protest in my hometown. Police raided my parents’ home in the evening, but I managed to escape into the desert. Now I am going to the capital to hide for 2-3 weeks. My uncle is a judge there, he will protect me. But by then my phone will be switched off because they will immediately know where I am,” he adds.
According to him, too few people are protesting for anything to change. In 2008, in the so-called Green Revolution against electoral fraud and corruption, some 2 million people came out to protest. There were several hundred thousand in the capital alone, and nothing has changed. Now, even at its peak, there were not more than 200 thousand people on the streets across the country.
“The truth is that now the discontent has been going on for over a month, something unprecedented. But it is also true that the government is standing firm,” says Nadir.
Most people supporting the protests are of the same opinion. But they also think there will be change eventually. But lest the government admit defeat, it will happen in the next presidential election in 2025-2026 or in the election of a new supreme ayatollah.
“They will surely nominate a reformist politician whom the public likes. Like Mohammad Khatami. He started the nuclear deal negotiations with the West and opened a number of foreign embassies in the country. President Raisi is a fanatic, he will ruin the country and it is possible that the protests will continue until the end of his term. And that is why it makes the most sense to appease us with someone of real quality and conscience. Well, as far as it is possible to have such a personality in Iranian politics,” Nadir smiles wryly.
Although Nadir is against the government and in support of the protests, he says he is a devout Muslim. It’s just that the government has nothing to do with Islam. His T-shirt says: “No other hero is like Ali (ed. – imam Ali) and no sword is like Zulfigar (ed. – one of the legendary weapons of the founder of Shiite Islam). Photo.
Who will succeed Ayatollah Khamenei?
This is a logical step, as opposition to mandatory prohibition has only grown since the beginning of the Islamic Republic, and has now reached such proportions that most people are either firmly opposed or rather indifferent to it. Probably only about 30% of the population supports it, and that the most religious or unlearned part of it.
The likelihood of the compulsory hijab being dropped as a requirement in the next 5 years is huge. It is very likely to happen either under a new president or a new supreme leader… Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is now 83 and still without a clear successor for the post.
Recently, however, there has been a suspicion in Iranian society that he will be succeeded by one of his sons: 53-year-old Mohtaba Khamenei. It was he who took control of the basijis that crushed the 2008 protest, and has recently risen rapidly in clerical circles to the rank of ayatollah.
From being a relatively little-known figure with few media appearances, he suddenly began appearing on national media quite frequently and being promoted as a spiritual and political leader and analyst.
Many in the country and beyond believe he is the one who will succeed his father. While the supreme leader cannot directly choose his successors, he can name a favorite, of course. After that, it’s all up to the Assembly of Experts. The body politic in question consists of 88 people approved by the Council of Patrons, which, in turn, is elected directly or with the consent of the Supreme Leader.
The next election for the Supreme Ayatollah is in 2024, and we should know then at the latest whether Khamenei will continue in office or be replaced. The overwhelming expectation is that the country’s new leader will try to win the favour of the population by overturning some entrenched habits and rules.
Among these are expected to be precisely the mandatory banning, but also a loosening of media censorship and opening the country more to the Western world.
Whatever happens, however, it increasingly seems that Iran is neither Islamic nor a republic…
Photo: General Qasim Soleimani holds the victory flag over Israel with Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah fighters. The Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and the trampled flag of Israel can be seen in the background. The panel is located at Tehran airport. Source: KlinKlin
The article has been first published in Bulgarian on the author’s independent site KlinKlin. It is republished and translated with author’s permission.