Opposition supporters marked the first anniversary of Iran’s disputed presidential election with a limited presence on the streets of the capital Tehran, avoiding major confrontations but keeping the police busy until late in the evening.
The leaders of the opposition Green Movement, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, formally called off the demonstration planned for June 12 after the interior ministry refused permission for a silent, peaceful march. Mousavi’s unofficial website Kaleme said the reformist parties decided against going ahead because of reports that the security forces would use violence against protestors.
“At this time, the government is greatly in need of radical action,” said the website.
Despite this, protesters did take to the streets from around four to ten in the evening, chanting slogans and honking car horns.
Calls of “Allahu akbar” (God is great) – a feature of last year’s protests – began ringing out across the city from June 8, and by the evening before the anniversary could be heard from every corner of Tehran.
In west Tehran, calls of “Death to the Dictator”, were also heard.
In Niavaran to the north, security forces tried to scare people into silence by beating their batons on the gates of houses, but this only made the shouts louder.
To ward off demonstrations, security forces and the military were deployed on major Tehran squares like Sadatabad, Haft-e Tir, Parkway and Vanak. The buildup was especially heavy along the expected route of a protest march, the ten kilometers between Imam Hussein and Azadi Squares, and police stood shoulder to shoulder at all the road junctions.
Passers-by muttered insults at the assembled security forces, while the more courageous said, “hope you aren’t tired” – a reference to the two sleepless nights the police had just had.
The security units out in force attracted a lot of attention for their variety and their diverse plumage. The most intimidating were the riot police, popularly dubbed “ninjas”, wearing black uniforms and white helmets. Then there are the Basij volunteers in their green and brown camouflage, and the Revolutionary Guards special forces in dark green uniforms. Another force, wearing khaki uniform, are a rarer sight – they only appeared on the streets of Tehran once last year, on July 9. They are believed to be members of the border guards drafted into street duty in Tehran.
Finally, there were the plainclothes officers – though even they seemed to have donned a new “uniform” for the occasion, with most in new-looking blue and white pinstriped shirts.
Mehdi Khazali, the son of Ayatollah Abolghasem Khazali and unlike him a critic of the government, commented on the massive policing effort on his blog.
“The Islamic Republic’s guards are much more advanced and better-equipped than the Shah’s commandos. They dress like robots, and they don’t engage themselves - they let the plainclothes men howl and attack… and they walk or drive behind them,” he said.
“I can’t see why a regime with [a claimed] 50 million blindly loyal followers should concern itself with massing so many forces against 50 bitter, blaspheming enemies of God who are cowards and impious,” Khazali added, tongue in cheek.
Tehran University was blocked off and obscured from view by a row of buses parked along Enghelab Street. The eastern and western entrances to the university compound were sealed off, and no one was allowed in or out. The students were thus prevented from coming out to join others in the streets, although their voices could be heard from within.
Enghelab Street saw one of the highest concentrations of protesters and people moved along it in a loose and apparently never-ending line made up of small clusters and larger groups. Drivers, meanwhile, honked their horns and flashed their front lights at intervals.
Protestors sought each other in the crowd with a look and a smile. Without exchanging a word, they tilted their heads or made an eye movement to warn of danger or call each other over. The security forces tried to cut off any attempt to make contact among the crowd. A plainclothes officer turned on a young boy who smiled and said hello to every passer-by, asking him, “Are you the town sheriff?”
People in cars leaned out of the window and quietly said “O Hossein” to those in neighbouring vehicles, and made the victory sign if they heard “Mir-Hossein” in response. “O Hossein – a Mir-Hossein” was one of the main catchphrases of the Green Movement before and after last year’s election.
When asked why she had come out to join the protest despite the demonstration being called off, Mohadeseh, a middle aged driver, said, “To show that we’re still here and that we still object.”
Buses were running as normal between Enghelab Square and Imam Hussein Square, and provided refuge for those who felt it was too risky to carry on. Once inside, people appeared to feel safer and openly chanted slogans. Their voices contrasted with the silence of those walking in the streets, but gave the latter encouragement. Plainclothes officers boarded one bus to stop the passengers making a noise.
Thus, opposition supporters did come out into the streets, but they behaved with great restraint, and open clashes were limited. Given the heavy security presence, they did not want to provide police, and still more the plainclothes units, with an excuse to engage in violence.
Police, too, refrained from confronting people openly. As is often the case, it was plainclothes men who abused people or told drivers off for honking their horns and flashing their lights.
Interestingly, the uniformed police also stopped plainclothes officers from going to Kalej Junction, where a minor skirmish with protesters had taken place. They clearly wanted to avoid over-zealous officers wading in and causing the situation to escalate. Members of the two forces argued it out in front of a surprised but gratified crowd.
Although confrontations between police and demonstrators were decidedly small-scale compared to last year’s unrest, there were numerous arrests, and police vans were full of blindfolded and handcuffed detainees. While Tehran’s deputy chief of police, Brigadier-General Ahmad Radan, said there were only a few arrests, unofficial reports put the number of people detained at 900. This, however seems on the high side.
As people remained out and about until 10 pm, police officers had to take their meals where they were, with food distributed from vans. The protestors, too, ate sandwiches and ice creams on the hoof.
An expert on contemporary Iranian history, who did not want to be named, argues that the June 12 protests reflects an evolution in the Green Movement’s tactics.
Tight government control has made mass demonstrations untenable, yet occasional displays of group solidarity remain essential. “The streets are where people find each other and become a united whole,” said the analyst. “Being part of a whole reassures people of their numbers, and simultaneously scares the government.”
Yasaman Baji is the pseudonym of an Iranian Journalist based in Tehran.