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Story Publication logo July 13, 2009

Next Flash Point in Iran Face-Off: Friday Prayers


Media file: 1619.jpg

After a hotly contested presidential election that resulted in street riots and a disputed claim to...


Reproduced with permission from The Christian Science Monitor.

Though street demonstrations in Tehran have largely died out under the government's strict security measures, Iran's protest movement is gearing up for a big showing at Friday prayers this week – an action that would mark the hijacking of a conservative bastion by the media-savvy opposition.

Meanwhile, passive resistance includes trying to crash the electricity grid by turning on home appliances at appointed times and creating power surges, or stuffing newspapers into Islamic charity boxes reputed to contribute to the upkeep of ideological militias involved in suppressing the protests.

Following two weeks during which the government prevented the sending text messages, many Iranians are trying to affect text-messaging profits by boycotting the medium altogether.

"People are still continuing their support, but it has been moved from streets to homes. People are changing their lifestyles to support the cause," says Pouya, an office worker reached by phone who requested anonymity for fear of retribution. "And there's still a lot of violence on the part of the ninja turtles [heavily armored, black-clad riot police] who ... wear masks that cover their faces."

Top military official vows to continue crackdown

The regime has signaled it will not back down. More journalists were arrested in recent days and the commander of the Joint Armed Forces pledged Sunday to continue the crackdown until order is restored.

"Some may think that by protesting and chanting their slogans against us we will back down, retreat, and give up," said Gen. Sayyed Hassan Firouzabadi, according to the state-run Fars News Agency. "We are ready to sacrifice our lives as we showed during the time of the Sacred Defense [the Iran-Iraq war]."

The next flash point in the face-off is expected this Friday during prayers at Tehran University when Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an influential former president, will be leading them for the first time since the election a month ago.

A strong supporter of defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mr. Rafsanjani – a pillar of the regime for 30 years – has emerged since the contested June 12 election as one of the key figures in a power struggle with Iran's supreme leader and his allies, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Mohsen Rezai, a conservative presidential candidate who finished third in the June 12 elections behind Mr. Mousavi, warned Sunday night of "disintegration" of the Islamic regime. In a statement on his website translated in part by the Los Angeles Times, he emphasized the imperative need for unity that he had also cited in withdrawing his initial legal challenge to the election results last month.

Call to reformists: Flood Friday prayers

Posters titled The Promised Day Has Arrived are already being circulated ahead of Friday prayers. They promise the presence of Mr. Mousavi and former President Mohammad Khatami, and urge reformists to flood the prayer hall.

Friday prayers at Tehran University have traditionally been a political agenda setter for the Islamic Republic and conservative rallying point. The open-air hall rings weekly with condemnations of the enemies of the Islamic Republic and cries of "Death to America." A week into the postelection rioting, Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, took the unusual step of personally addressing Friday prayers and delivered a speech condemning the rioters as the unwilling pawns of a British-fomented "Velvet Revolution."

"The British involvement in the recent unrest in our country is definite and clear," said Law Enforcement Forces chief Ismail Ahmadi Moghadam last week, while announcing that two-thirds of the 1,032 individuals imprisoned after the elections were released. "Their involvement, either through their embassy or the BBC ... is so clear that it can't be denied."

Watchdog: Iran 'biggest prison for journalists'

In a fresh spate of detentions, Getty Images photographer Majid Saeedi was arrested this weekend at his home and taken away to Evin Prison, according to friends and colleagues. Mr. Saeedi had been covering both sides of the story but had told his circle that he feared arrest. Another photographer reported missing is Satyar Emami, an accomplished feature photographer who has won the Press News section of the Tehran Photo Biennal. No charge has been announced against Saeedi, but his house was searched and items confiscated.

"They [the government] want to scare people at the moment; it's a show of power," says Vali, a friend of Saeedi's speaking from Tehran. "They've carried out a coup and need to keep people crushed so that their act will be accepted."

Iran has become the world's preeminent jailer of journalists with 41 media workers currently incarcerated, according to Paris-based watchdog Reporters Without Borders. "Iran is already the world's biggest prison for journalists and cyber-dissidents and is on the way to becoming the world's most dangerous place for them to operate," it charged in a press release Sunday.

"You think images have no power?" asked Mana Kia, a PhD candidate at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., focusing on contemporary Iran, in an e-mail. "When the government refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of anything to protest, then Iranian journalists involved in spreading information and images about demonstrations and protests domestically and internationally become perceived as threats to the state."

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