Iranian regime’s history of violent crackdowns against dissent

Tony Duheaume
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At the start of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the people of Iran looked upon Ayatollah Khomeini as their saviour, someone who would free them from the oppressive regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

As the dust settled on the revolution, the Shah fled the country and Khomeini’s provisional government was established. At this point, rather than dismantling the army, the new supreme leader purged it of all officers deemed to be disloyal to his new regime.

IRGC and the Basij

As political factions started viewing Khomeini as a new dictator, he realized that only a disciplined force with absolute loyalty towards him would enable him to consolidate his position.

To ensure public order, Khomeini established the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), along with the Basij Mobilisation Resistance Force – both of which became fanatically loyal to him. Together, the two groups started oppressing the Iranian people which continues to this day.

To quell the turmoil after the Revolution, Khomeini’s praetorian guards went on a killing spree, slaughtering all within the military that opposed him, while jailing or executing all politicians loyal to the Shah. Then in 1988, Khomeini’s regime carried out the worst atrocity ever, slaughtering 30,000 MEK dissidents in Iranian prison system.

Such has been the fear among the regime’s leaders of a popular uprising under the second Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that free speech was strangled to the point of nonexistence. The hanging of dissidents has greatly increased, torture has become routine in prisons, and even under the so-called moderate President Hassan Rouhani, capital punishment has spiked dramatically.

In 1997, after the election of President Mohammad Khatami, who was elected on a reformist stance, things came to a head as far as dissent was concerned. The seeds of dissent had grown after a large group of Khatami’s reformists entered parliament, planning new laws to overhaul the established system of governance.

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As these views were out of line with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s stance, the new class of 1997 were soon seen as a threat to the ideology of Khomeini, whose tyrannical dogma was by this time set in stone.

With a debate taking place throughout the country on proposed changes to the administration of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, journalists and writers openly discussed issues facing Iranian society and the new way forward. However, the judiciary and intelligence services viewed this development as being a dangerous form of dissent that needed quelling.

At this point, Iran’s independent newspapers kept the people informed of the proposed changes being discussed. But they soon suffered from the iron fist of Khamenei’s hawks, who saw to it that all offending newspapers and journals were closed down.

On the closure of most of Iran’s independent newspapers and journals, a fierce witch hunt was started to extinguish all reformist voices, with the arrest of many prominent writers, journalists and intellectuals, leading to a mass anti-government protest by students in Tehran lasting six days.

After violent raids on university dormitories, running street battles took place across the city, which were eventually put down by the Basij militia with clubs and teargas.

The Protests of 1999

Then in 1999, during peaceful student demonstrations once again taking place at Tehran University over the closure of the reformist newspaper Salem, members of the Basij stormed the university on motorbikes, while others arrived in the back of military trucks, and armed with axes, daggers and truncheons they burst into three of the student dormitories, with cries of “Oh exalted leader! We are ready to obey your command”.

Bludgeoning any student that got in their way with truncheons, fired up into a blinding rage, they smashed through dormitory doors with axes, and after ransacking living quarters, smashed up computers and furniture, one student was shot dead, and scores of others were wounded, many with broken limbs after being thrown from balconies.

Four years later, student demonstrations took place during Mohammad Khatami’s term as president, who having failed his promise to reduce the power of the clergy was feeling the full brunt of the people’s wrath. With violent clashes taking place on the streets of Tehran, most of the fury was being directed at Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with demonstrators denouncing the Supreme Leader as a traitor, and vocally calling for his regime to end.

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It was during these disturbances in 2003 that students openly challenged Khamenei’s position, calling on him to abandon his status as God’s representative on earth, which sent shock waves through the clerical leadership.

After 10 days of rioting, Khamenei accused the protestors of being “mercenaries of the enemy”, and riot police entered the fray, firing tear gas in an attempt to disperse the mobs. With the riots continuing to escalate, Khamenei sent in his devoted legion of Basij on motorcycles, brandishing batons and chains, some even armed with machineguns, to beat protestors into submission.

With the Iranian administration severely weakened, it could find itself facing another revolution, which would cause the IRGC to step in. (File photo: AP)
With the Iranian administration severely weakened, it could find itself facing another revolution, which would cause the IRGC to step in. (File photo: AP)

The Green Movement

In 2009, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was expected to lose the election for wrecking the economy in spite of the lacklustre show by his rival Mir Hussein Mousavi in his election campaign. Mousavi stood on a platform of economic reform, granting more freedom to citizens and promised a clampdown on corruption.

When it was announced Ahmadinejad had been re-elected, it was commonly believed the vote had been rigged in his favour, and with supporters of leading reformist Mousavi taking to the streets, at times protestors were numbered in their millions.

Known as the “Green Movement”, the protesters mainly came from the middle-class and the ensuing unrest taking part in major cities across Iran turned into the most violent street protests since the 1979 revolution.

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As a result of those disturbances, mass executions were carried out in prisons, while many suffered torture, as a powerful message was conveyed to the Iranian people to refrain from dissent.

What has drastically changed since 2009 is the enormous wealth accumulated by the clerical leadership and the commanders of the security forces. Having taken control of the lion’s share of the country’s wealth, through a massive takeover of the nation’s most lucrative business sectors, the theocratic elite have been living like kings.

With this happening, the lower middle class and the poor are faced with extreme hardship, while billions of dollars are handed back to the regime as a result of the Iran Deal.

The outreach of social media

By the time of the recent unrest (which began in late December 2017), social media through the Internet has become widely available on mobile phones. It has the ability to inform the world of government abuses the minute they occur; as live footage can be streamed immediately across the world. The internet has become the modern battlefield.

In response to the latest uprising, Khamenei again blamed the unrest on enemies of his regime; including the United States, Britain and Saudi Arabia. But what is clear from the cries of protesters on the streets is how desperately they want regime change, due the poverty inflicted upon them by the present administration’s mismanagement of the economy.

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In addition, they also seek freedom from oppression. But all that the Iranian authorities can offer the protestors is the usual horrific use of violence against them, with has already left scores dead and thousands arrested. As the world looks on, lot of vitriol has been spewed against the regime, condemning the way it is treating protestors, but there is little else.

If the regime is allowed to get away with such violent crackdowns, the same old story will be repeated. With cries coming from the streets for “the death of Khamenei” this time, people’s resolve appears strong and they will eventually find ways of destroying the regime and the theocrats will be taken down.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the viewpoint of Al Arabiya English.

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