Tehran in night vision (photo by [email protected], available at Wikimedia Commons)

December 29, 2009

Escalating Confrontation on Ashura

The coinciding observances this past Sunday of a religious commemoration for Shi’ias and the seventh day of mourning for the death of a leading opposition cleric merged to generate the largest, most deadly day of anti-regime protests in Iran since the post-June election period. Protesters numbering in the tens of thousands rallied Sunday in the midst of a violent crackdown by security forces in Tehran and other cities.  For the first time since June, protesters appeared willing and able to fight back against the security forces.  Their complaints and statements continued a trend seen over the past several months of protesters openly questioning the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic itself, including the Supreme Guide, while defying repressive measures.[1] The regime’s security forces and authorities similarly continued their heavy-handed response to the mourners and protesters. Security forces fired live ammunition at protesters for the first time since June.  Most estimates of the number of people killed in these cases in Tehran and Tabriz range between four and ten thus far.[2]  One of those reportedly killed was the nephew of nominal opposition leader and presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, according to reports on several opposition websites corroborated by relatives.[3]  

The deadly outcome of Sunday’s protests threatens to disrupt the regime’s apparent effort to exert pressure on the opposition without provoking the type of widespread backlash that could exacerbate the simmering post-election tensions.  The events of Ashura are likely to shape both the regime’s actions in the near term and the Iranian population’s perception of the opposition movement’s staying power.  Both sides have clearly dug in for what has evolved into an unprecedented confrontation in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The Lead-Up

Sunday marked the tenth day of the Islamic calendar month of Moharram.  This day marks the commemoration of Ashura for Shi’ia Muslims worldwide who mourn the death in 680 AD of Hossein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad, at the hands of the Ummayad Caliph Yazid.[4]  Hossein’s transgression had been to refuse to accept the legitimacy of Yazid’s rule.  In response, Yazid is said to have dispatched forces from Damascus led by his commander, Shimer, to the area near Karbala in present-day Iraq in pursuit of Hossein.  Hossein’s small group of roughly seventy family members and followers were eventually cornered and massacred.

Hossein’s willingness to fight to the death in a battle against what he and his followers viewed as a tyrannical and illegitimate ruler helped solidify the Muslim sect that would become Shi’ism.  The anniversary of Hossein’s martyrdom in a hopeless fight against a ruler he saw as illegitimate thus formed the background for the current Iranian opposition’s Ashura confrontation with a regime whose legitimacy it increasingly rejects. 

Ashura also coincidentally marked the seventh day of mourning for the late Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the outspoken cleric from Qom who served as one of the fiercest critics of the regime’s brutal tactics and suppression of human rights.  Montazeri had played a key role in the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the subsequent creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  He was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s chosen successor as Supreme Guide for most of the 1980s until Khomeini turned against him.  Thereafter, although continuing to support the principles of the Islamic Revolution and the Islamic Republic of Iran, Montazeri also began to criticize Khamenei's qualifications and the regime that had spurned him.  Montazeri sharpened his rhetoric dramatically after the June 2009 election.  He served as the clerical and spiritual guide for many in the opposition movement, a role that has helped elevate his death to a symbol of opposition solidarity akin to martyrdom.  Mousavi attended the funeral ceremonies (as did Mehdi Karroubi and a representative of Mohammad Khatami) and had a brief run-in with plainclothes security forces who reportedly attacked one of the vehicles in his convoy.[5]  The status and reverence bestowed on Montazeri fueled the lead-up to Ashura, influencing grassroots activists, nominal opposition leaders, and mourners alike. 

The regime, having often been the target of Montazeri’s rebukes, acted swiftly in its attempt to disrupt the mourning of his death, taint his legacy, and intimidate his supporters.  Nearly fifty buses carrying Revolutionary Guard forces were reportedly dispatched to Qom where Montazeri died just hours after the news of his death broke.[6]  Government agents issued preemptive warnings to opposition figures and activists attempting to discourage them from attending Montazeri’s funeral; several Montazeri supporters were reportedly arrested while on their way to Qom for the funeral.[7] 

Strict guidelines were issued by the cultural ministry to media outlets warning them not to feature his death.[8] Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s representative to the IRGC, Mojtaba Zolnour, accused Montazeri of having “misused his powers…and meddled in the country’s affairs.”[9] Khamenei used his official statement on Montazeri’s death to invoke the rift between Montazeri and Khomenei in the late 1980s stemming from Montazeri’s criticism of mass executions of dissidents, asking God to forgive Montazeri for his role in that period and to consider his ordeals in this life, presumably including his time under house arrest ordered by Khamenei, as adequate punishment.[10]  

Clashes between security forces and mourners on the day of Montazeri’s funeral were reported by reformist websites, as were incidents of Basijis defacing mourning banners and posters for Montazeri outside his home.[11]  Tens of thousands of Montazeri’s mourners and supporters reportedly attended the funeral ceremonies.[12]  The attendees reportedly erupted at times in mourning chants tinged with now-familiar anti-regime rhetoric (“Dictator, Dictator, Montazeri’s path will continue!”[13] “The walls are covered in blood, Seyyed Ali [Khamenei] is failing!”[14] “Innocent Montazeri, your path will be continued even if the dictator should rain bullets on our heads!”[15]). 

Protests were reported in the days between Montazeri’s death and the weekend of Ashura, spreading to other cities including Esfahan and Montazeri’s hometown of Najafabad.[16] The eve of Ashura (Tasua), marking the demise of Hossein’s forces during the Battle of Karbala, provided the final major provocation before Sunday’s clashes.  Mohammad Khatami’s speech at a Tehran mosque frequented by Ayatollah Khomenei was cut short that evening after a tense scene captured on film in which plainclothes agents and vigilantes broke through the doors as Khatami spoke of Hossein’s stand against “those who wanted to govern society in the name of religion and abolish freedom.”[17] 

Ashura Demonstrations [18] 

The regime’s warnings went unheeded and the security forces’ violent tactics could not intimidate protesters on Ashura, just as similar tactics failed to cow demonstrators on symbolic calendar days in September, November, and earlier this month. Various reports indicated that protests took place in cities outside of Tehran, including Esfahan, Tabriz, Shiraz, Najafabad, Qom, Mashhad and Arak.  Security forces used batons, tear gas, stun grenades, paintball bullets and, as noted above, live ammunition in an attempt to suppress the protesters.  Karroubi called the violent suppression an ‘unforgiveable sin’ following the demonstrations and stated that even the shah had put his crackdowns on pause during Ashura in the 1960s.[19] Protesters, despite these measures, not only managed to maintain a physical presence in the streets but also held their ground by beating back groups of security forces, setting up impromptu roadblocks, and seizing and burning cars and motorcycles belonging to security forces.[20] Two videos, for example, show protesters attacking a van belonging to security forces and a separate incident in which protesters heckle a group of cornered security forces.[21] Screenshots taken from the video in the second incident along with photos of the same scene appear to depict the eventual defection of an individual from the group of law enforcement forces.[22] 

In their messages on Ashura, protesters publicly denounced the regime’s legitimacy and highest levels of leadership. Protesters tore images of Khamenei in the streets and trampled signs bearing his name, as they did during demonstrations in recent months.[23]  A survey of chants reported and that can be heard on amateur videos include:

  • “This is a month of blood…Yazid will be defeated!”[24]
  • “We will fight, we will die, we will get our country back!”[25] 
  • “Death to the dictator!”[26]
  • “Death to Khamenei!”[27]
  • “I kill, I kill, the one who killed my brother!” (in response to the killing of a protester)[28]
  • “Khamenei is a murderer, his leadership is illegitimate!”[29]
  • “Independence, Freedom, Iranian Republic!”[30]
  • “Artillery, tanks and Basiji no longer have an effect!”[31]

These types of slogans have come into more common usage during recent demonstrations and reflect the more aggressive inclinations of grassroots protesters.  The tone and rhetoric of these slogans also permeate the civil disobedience campaign, from the messages read in urban graffiti to the stamps and handwritten text emblazoned on Iranian currency notes in recent months.[32] That protesters showed a readiness to match these slogans with the use of force on Sunday reveals the hardening resolve of the grassroots movement in potentially deadly confrontations.   

Security forces, led primarily by the IRGC, continued their unsparing crackdown.  Reports from the Ashura demonstrations may signal the potential for a loose divide within the forces as the crackdown becomes more violent.  One account of the day indicated that some police officers, presumably law enforcement forces, refused orders to shoot at crowds.[33]  Similarly, there were reports during Montazeri’s funeral, relayed by Montazeri’s son, that the police in Qom attempted to shield mourners from aggressive Basijis.[34]  It is not certain whether these actions suggest a level of personal restraint on the part of certain police elements of the security forces in contrast with the hard-line contingents of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Basij.  Further incidents of violent clashes may reveal whether such accounts reflect a pattern or isolated incidents.  The regime’s authorities certainly expected violence, cancelling leave for emergency workers and placing hospitals on high alert according to one report.[35] There were unconfirmed reports that regime agents were posted in certain hospitals in Tehran; plainclothes agents, according to one nurse’s account, forced a hospital to hand over a patient in critical condition with severe head trauma for transfer to an IRGC-run hospital.[36] 

Authorities also took measures to control the outcome of protests during and after the demonstrations.  Deputy Police Commander for Iran, Ahmad Reza Radan, claimed that police forces arrested around 300 people on Sunday.[37] An Iranian human rights group tracking the situation estimated the number arrested and sent to Evin prison as being closer to 550.[38] The authorities then embarked on a campaign of arrests on Monday targeting journalists, prominent opposition activists, senior aides to Mousavi, including his chief of staff and presidential campaign manager, and even a reformist cleric in Qom, Ayatollah Hossein Mousavi Tabrizi.[39]

The reported arrest of Tabrizi, if accurate, marks another significant attempt to clamp down on opposition clerics in the mold Montazeri.  Tabrizi, though not as prominent as Montazeri, is a former chief prosecutor for the Revolutionary Court and outspoken leader of a reformist cleric movement in Qom.[40] Another clerical dissident, Ayatollah Yusef Sane’i, was harassed following Montazeri’s death earlier in the week.  Sane’i, whose picture appeared alongside Montazeri’s during the mourning activities, had been close to Montazeri and may be seen as a cleric that could partly fill the void left by Montazeri’s death.[41] He was reportedly denied entrance to Montazeri’s funeral ceremony by security forces, and opposition websites reported that Basiji forces and plainclothes agents were dispatched to his home where they verbally assaulted him and attacked his residence and his associates.[42] 


Observers have witnessed more than six months of sustained, if not consistent, confrontation in Iran since the summer elections.  The Ashura demonstrations illustrated the tenacity of dissent and confrontational tension active in the Islamic Republic. The unyielding crackdown and use of deadly force over the weekend reveals that the regime’s leadership has no intention of conceding any ground to the opposition. A flurry of post-demonstration arrests and the apparent seizure of the body of Mousavi’s slain nephew[43] indicate that authorities realize the potential for a growing opposition and renewed mourning opportunities that could produce further anti-regime demonstrations.  

The opposition—perhaps more precisely, the core of grassroots protestors—has entrenched itself and boosted its self-perception as a viable dissent channel in the wake of Ashura.  The outcome of unrest in 2010 will be influenced by various factors, including the development of fault lines among clerics and the extent to which a formal opposition movement coalesces.  For now, both sides will likely be focusing on preparing for the coming weeks leading up to key mourning dates (January 3, January 29, and February 5) and February 11 when the regime commemorates the consolidation of the Islamic revolution.

[1] A December 9 report by this author analyzing the recent demonstrations of November 4 and December 7 can be accessed at http://www.irantracker.org/analysis/surviving-dissent-assessing-recent-demonstrations-iran.
[2] The Rah-e Sabz opposition website named five individuals believed to have been killed in Tehran: Mehdi Farhadi Nia, Mohammad Ali Rasekhi, Amir Arshadi, Shahram Fraji, and Seyed Ali Mousavi.  The French government initially put the death toll at 8, according to a CNN report. The opposition website Rouyad News reported that four protesters had been killed in Tabriz. The New York Times cited witnesses and opposition websites in reporting that ten protesters were killed by security forces.
[3]Rah-e Sabz, December 27, 2009.  Available at http://www.rahesabz.net/story/6450/; Norooz News, December 27, 2009.  Available at http://norooznews.info/news/15882.php.
[4] For contextual background, see Frederick W. Kagan, “Islam,” IranTracker.  Available at  http://www.irantracker.org/basics/islam.
[5] Rah-e Sabz (Persian), December 21, 2009.  Available at http://www.rahesabz.net/story/5917/; Scott Peterson, “Iran opposition energized by Montazeri funeral in Qom, say eyewitnesses,” The Christian Science Monitor, December 21, 2009.  Available at http://news.yahoo.com/s/csm/20091221/wl_csm/270033.
[6] Scott Peterson, “Iran: What the death of dissident cleric Montazeri means for opposition,” The Christian Science Monitor, December 21, 2009.  Available at http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2009/1221/Iran-What-the-death-of-dissident-cleric-Montazeri-means-for-opposition; Borzou Daragahi and Ramin Mostaghim, “Popular dissident Hossein Ali Montazeri mourned in Iran,” The Los Angeles Times, December 21, 2009.  Available at  http://www.latimes.com/news/nation-and-world/la-fg-iran-cleric21-2009dec21,0,2174260.story.
[7] Farnaz Fassihi, “Clashes Erupt at Reformist Cleric’s Funeral,” The Wall Street Journal, December 22, 2009.  Available at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB126138884439499959.html; Brian Murphy, “Iran cleric’s funeral becomes opposition protest,” The Washington Post, December 21, 2009.  Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/12/21/AR2009122100559_2.html.
[8] Golnaz Esfandiari, “Iran’s Top Dissident Cleric Montazeri Laid To Rest Amid Protests,” RFE/RL, December 21, 2009.  Available at http://www.rferl.org/content/Irans_Opposition_To_Mourn_Dissident_Cleric/1909227.html; Gooya News (Persian), December 21, 2009.  Available at http://news.gooya.com/politics/archives/2009/12/097868.php; Maziar Bahari, “The Ayatollah’s Inspiration,” Newsweek, December 21, 2009.  Available at http://www.newsweek.com/id/227810.
[9] “Iran cleric hits at opposition, dissident ayatollah,” Reuters, December 22, 2009.  Available at http://in.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idINIndia-44924020091222.
[10] Esfandiari, December 21, 2009.
[11] Thomas Erdbrink, “Iranians Mourn Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, and protest,” The Washington Post, December 21, 2009.  Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/12/21/AR2009122100967.html; Peterson, December 21, 2009; Murphy, December 21, 2009.
[12] Parisa Hafezi and Fredrik Dahl, “Attacks halt Iran dissident cleric’s memorial service,” Reuters, December 21, 2009.  Available at http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE5BJ20720091221; Fassihi, December 22, 2009; Murphy, December 21, 2009.
[13] Daragahi and Mostaghim, December 21, 2009.
[14] “Iran’s Dissident Cleric, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri Passed,” Iran News Now (Live Blog), December 20, 2009.  Available at http://www.irannewsnow.com/2009/12/irans-dissident-cleric-grand-ayatollah-montazeri-passed-away/.
[15] Hafezi and Dahl, December 21, 2009.
[16] Ramin Mostaghim and Borzou Daragahi, “Iran protests spread in heartland,” The Los Angeles Times, December 24, 2009.  Available at http://www.latimes.com/news/nation-and-world/la-fg-iran-protests24-2009dec24,0,53035.story.
[17] Norooz News, December 26, 2009.  Available at http://norooznews.info/news/15878.php.   A video of the incident can be viewed at http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2009/12/the-brownshirts-arrive.html.  Eyewitness accounts of the incident can be read at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2009/12/selected-headlines-96.html.  
[18] The constraints placed on communication tools and independent and foreign media reporting limited the coverage of the demonstrations.  Given these limitations, eyewitness accounts, social networking tools, opposition media reporting and amateur videos circulated on the Internet help provide the basis for assessing the day’s events.  A significant compilation of amateur videos from the demonstrations, for example, can be viewed at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2009/12/ashura-videos.html.
[20] Thomas Erdbrink, “Iran battles reinvigorated opposition,” The Washington Post, December 28, 2009.  Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/12/27/AR2009122700544.html; Borzou Daragahi and Ramin Mostaghim, “Iran protests turn violent as demonstrators confront police,” The Los Angeles Times, December 28, 2009.  Available at http://www.latimes.com/news/nation-and-world/la-fg-iran-protests28-2009dec28,0,3198771.story.  See also, for instance, pictures of protesters and security forces at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/gallery/2009/12/27/GA2009122701337.html.
[23] “Several killed, 300 arrested in Tehran protests,” CNN, December 28, 2009.  Available at http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/meast/12/27/iran.protests/.  A video depicting protesters trampling a sign with Khamenei’s name can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2njnIkmc9nI. A video showing protesters tearing a poster of Khamenei’s image can be viewed at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2009/12/ashura-videos.html.
[24] Daragahi and Mostaghim, December 28, 2009.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid.
[27] A video in which this chant is heard can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VDvnTRq_7cc&feature=player_embedded.
[28] Robert Tait, “Nine deaths in bloody clashes at Ashura mourning ceremony in Tehran,” Guardian, December 27, 2009.  Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/dec/27/iran-protests-tehran-ashura-ceremony.   A video in which this chant is heard can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GYvyzXfkdLM&feature=player_embedded.  
[29] Tait, December 27, 2009.
[30] A video in which this chant is heard can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tDSKnzaI7ZU.
[31] “Iran: Even more footage, pictures from Ashura,” The Los Angeles Times, December 27, 2009.  Available at http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/babylonbeyond/2009/12/iran-more-video-footage-from-protests-surface-2.html.
[32] Robin Wright, “Is this Iran’s Berlin Wall moment?” Times Online, December 28, 2009.  Available at http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/middle_east/article6969094.ece.
[33] “Iran website says police refuse orders to shoot,” Reuters, December 27, 2009.  Available at http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/HAF742177.htm.
[34] Hammihan News (Persian), December 21, 2009.  Available at http://www.hammihannews.com/news/8097; Murphy, December 21, 2009. Radio Farda (Persian), December 21, 2009.  Available at http://www.radiofarda.com/content/f2_Iran_Montazeri_memorial_shut_down_Qom_Ahmad_plainclothes_Leader/1909924.html.
[35] Tait, December 27, 2009.
[37] “Police Says Four Killed, Dozens of Police Injured in Tehran Disturbances,” Al Alam Television, December 27, 2009.  Available at World News Connection.
[38] Human Rights Activist News Agency (Persian), December 28, 2009.  Available at http://www.hra-news.org/news/11164.aspx.  
[39] Chip Cummins, “Iran Opposition Claims Widespread Arrests, Condemns Sunday Violence,” The Wall Street Journal, December 28, 2009.  Available at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB126199517536907057.html; Borzou Daragahi, “Leading Iranian dissidents arrested, body of Mousavi’s nephew missing,” The Los Angeles Times, December 28, 2009.  Available at http://www.latimes.com/news/nation-and-world/la-fg-iran-protests29-2009dec29,0,3985205.story; Ali Akbar Dareini (Associated Press), “Family: Mousavi nephew’s body taken from hospital,” The Washington Post, December 28, 2009.  Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/12/28/AR2009122800316.html.
[40] Babak Deghanpisheh, “Khomeini’s Children,” Newsweek, December 23, 2002.  Available at http://www.newsweek.com/id/66865/page/1.
[41] Hafezi and Dahl, December 21, 2009; Meir Javedanfar, “Filling Montazeri’s shoes in Iran,” Guardian, December 21, 2009.  Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/dec/21/iran-ayatollah-montazeri-death.  
[42] “Iran Militia Attack Pro – Reform Cleric Home – Website,” Reuters, December 22, 2009.  Available at http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2009/12/22/world/international-uk-iran-cleric-attack.html; Khabar Online (Persian), December 21, 2009.  Available at http://khabaronline.ir/news-31804.aspx.
[43]Ali Akbar Dareini, “Family: Mousavi nephew’s body taken from hospital,” The Washington Post, December 28, 2009.  Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/12/28/AR2009122800316.html.
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