Iranian leaders use violence and manipulate legal system to quell opposition

By Neil Hicks
Crossposted from Jurist

The leaders of the Islamic Republic know well the value of violence and brutality as political control mechanisms. In recent months, the authorities have unleashed random beating of protesters, arbitrary detention and torture, apparently including rape of detainees, running down protesters with motor vehicles, shooting with live ammunition into crowds of unarmed demonstrators resulting in fatalities, and apparent targeted killings. The recent executions of two young men, Mohammed Reza Ali Zamani and Arash Rahmanipour, after legal proceedings that violated Iranian law as well as international standards, and the threat, encouraged by hardliners like Ayatollah Jannati, the Chair of the Council of Guardians, to execute more alleged protesters, are a piece of this long-established strategy of state terror to quell dissent.

But the authorities are trying to achieve more through the earlier show trials and these recent exemplary executions. Not only do they wish to sow fear and deter further protest, they also hope to take control of the narrative of the post-election protests that have produced the deepest political crisis in Iran since the early years of the Islamic Republic.

Leaders of the opposition movement like presidential candidates, Mir Hossein Mousvai and Mehdi Karroubi, and former president Mohamed Khatami, have sought to characterize the opposition as the true defenders of the Islamic Republic and of the constitutional and democratic values that were the aspirations of some of its founders. The color of the opposition is Islamic green; the opposition does not hesitate to claim Muslim holy days as occasions to advance its cause and there is a contest over who can claim the legacy of the late founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini. There is some irony, and not a little justice, in the spectacle of Khomeini’s flexibility and chameleon qualities – traits that he used ruthlessly to outwit and outmaneuver his one time leftist and liberal democratic allies in the overthrow of the monarchy and to secure his grip on power – now being used by the opposition to challenge the absolute authority of the office of Leader of the Islamic Republic that he created for himself.

To counter this narrative the authorities are anxious to demonstrate that the opposition has no legitimacy, is subservient to foreign interests and that its prime instigators are unpopular violent opposition groups. Prior to his execution, Arash Rahmanipour confessed to his role in plotting post-election protests on behalf of the People’s Mojahedine of Iran, an organization associated with acts of political violence and terrorism in Iran, much derided among Iranians for having sided with Saddam Hussein against Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. In fact, Rahmanipour seems to have been a confused young man who had only slight contact with the PMOI and no involvement whatsoever in the post-election protest movement. (He had, in fact, been in prison since March 2009, three months before the elections even took place.) Zamani was convicted of being a member of an obscure organization supportive of the restoration of the monarchy and also has no connections to the opposition movement. The authorities seem to be operating on the principle that if a lie is repeated often enough and loud enough, people will come to believe it.

Time will tell whether the opposition will be cowed by these crude tactics. The anniversary of Khomeini’s triumphant return to Iran and the creation of the Islamic Republic 31 years ago is fast approaching. There will be further protests to mark this occasion and the authorities will again make the calculation of how much violence is needed to contain them. Opposition leaders are emphasizing that the forces that made the revolution were strengthened when the Shah’s security agencies used excessive force against demonstrators and were swept aside by public outrage. There are no doubt arguments among historians as to whether that is an accurate description of events three decades ago; even more unknown is whether that history will repeat itself in 2010 with the regime’s brutal overreach sowing the seeds of its own downfall.


Published on February 5, 2010


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