Tag Archives: Basij

Assault on a Tehran University: Martyr Burials and Violence


by Rasmus Christian Elling.

This morning, armed forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran buried war victims inside the campus of Amir Kabir University in Tehran. The so-called unknown martyrs were buried amidst tumult and despite protests from student activists. Another symbolic and violent battle between regime-loyal and pro-democratic forces is being fought right now.

The idea of burying martyrs inside Tehran’s universities has a history. Ever since the idea was floated some six years ago, when Ahmadinejad was Tehran’s mayor, it has been a hotly contested topic. Pro-democratic students have protested against the plans because they see it as an instrument for the regime’s oppressive policy: a) it is a way to impose on the university milieu and student life a militant ideology that praises shahâdat (the martyr death), war and military values associated with the Revolutionary Guards and the eulogizing of the eight-year war with Iraq; b) it is a practical way for authorities to clamp down on student gatherings and demonstrations since it is stipulated that the area surrounding martyr graves be treated with utmost respect – indeed, it is prohibited to gather in large numbers in such areas for any other purpose than mourning (which certainly rules out political or cultural meetings); and thus, c) it is a part of a strategy to suppress dissident voices within Iran’s lively university environment. It is one of many tactics in the conservatives’ battle to ‘re-Islamize’ and regain control with Iran’s universities – universities that have struggled to persevere as the vigorous centers of political debate, dissident activities and alternative youth they became during the early days of Khatami’s reformist presidency in the late 1990s.

Thus, the issue of martyr burials has become a battleground between the regime and the pro-democratic forces. Anticipating student protests, the authorities planned today’s burial in advance. A couple of weeks ago, authorities started rounding up key members of the dissident Islamic Students Association (Anjoman-e eslâmi-ye dâneshjuyân) in Amir Kabir Polytechnic University, Tehran – an university known for its vibrant and diverse pro-democratic activist milieu. And yesterday, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene‘i prepared the ground by issuing a public message hailing the martyrs and stating that the youth of today is indebted to these anonymous war heroes to be buried in their campus yard. Thus, the highest political authority blessed today’s aggressive action.

Amir Kabir University’s Student Newsletter website, autnews.us, has reported on the events (here and here). They explain that the atmosphere had been tense through the last couple of days when a parade of chest-beating mourners delivered the martyr coffins this morning. Before the parade, security forces, Basiji campus police, Revolutionary Guards, plain clothed intelligence officers, armed vigilantes known as Ansâr-e hezbollâh (a violent Islamist organization under the unofficial sway of the Supreme Leader) and even the fire brigade gathered inside and around the university compounds. Authorities denied those key activists who had not already been arrested entry to campus but other students – allegedly as many as 1,500 – created a barrier, preventing for some time the parade from executing the burial ceremonies.

The regime forces violently attacked protestors. Students reported that the security forces and vigilantes used clubs, tear gas sprays, iron knuckles, knives and other weapons in order to wound the protesting students. At least 25 have been arrested and 9 hospitalized with knife wounds and other injuries so far, and the fighting continues while this is being written. One student commented on the Amir Kabir website that he/she had never before seen so many security and intelligence forces in action. In a reference to a leader of thugs that was paid by the Shah to disrupt mass gatherings in opposition to the Shah’s regime in the 1950s – Sha‘ban ‘Bi-mokh’ Ja‘fari (‘The Brainless’) – the student wrote

“Really, the Brainless Sha‘bans of the Islamic Republic cannot even be compared to the Brainless Sha‘bans of the Shah!”.

Or, as formulated in another student slogan repeated on the website: “Ansâr commits the crime, the Leader supports it”.

According the Amir Kabir Newsletter, students carried placards and yelled slogans such as “University is not a graveyard”, “Death to Dictatorship”, “Run off, Ansâr”, “Incompetent Basijis, Carrying the Koran on a Spear” and so on. These harsh slogans reveal the profound animosity amongst students against the militant ideology of the regime. Amir Kabir Newsletter reported earlier today:

“… the situation in university is horrible. While protesting students of the university are being beaten up and wounded, the coffins of the so-called nameless martyrs have been placed in a corner, left in a disgusting fashion along the graves while clerics are signing mourning hymns …”

The latest news – posted on Amir Kabir’s website around 8 PM Tehran time – is that the security forces have surrounded university and is now arresting all student protestors trying to exit campus.

Indeed, the Iranian state and its forces have once again brought death into universities with the intent of stifling discontent and strangling freedom of speech and thought. However, the Iranian student movement might come alive again from such brainless actions as that carried out this morning by the state. One student, identifying him/herself as ‘Patriot’ wrote:

“Right in front of me, they kicked and carried off a couple of the kids in a red van. I swear by [Imam] Ali, from now on, I count the minutes until the fall of this regime and I will do anything. Long Live Freedom, Death to Dictatorship”.

State-run and state-affiliated news agencies such as ISNA, Fârs and Mehr have all reported that yesterday’s martyr burial ceremonies were a success. Fârs wrote:

“The immaculate bodies of five unknown martyrs of the eight years of Holy Defense were [moved from] Tehran University and buried in Amir Kabir University with the attendance of a mass of students and people who are in love with the school of self-sacrifice and martyrdom”

In his speech at the burial, Hojjatoleslam Ali-Reza Panahian said that ever since the Islamic Revolution, the enemies had been wishing for the revolution to go astray but that

“after 30 years [since the Islamic Revolution], we are witnesses to the fact that the Holy Order of the Islamic Republic, by the blessing of martyr blood, has the first word to say in the world [i.e., is a major power].”

Panahian clearly referred to the protesters in this quote:

“One should not call the martyrs’ tomb a graveyard since the martyr is not dead and should not be seen as one of the dead”.

He also referred to the fact that many scholars had asked in their wills to be buried in universities. The Fârs report continued:
“In this spiritual ceremony, a number of students – who can be counted with fingers, and who are connected to the illegal group of ‘Allâmeh [Daftar-e tahkim-e vahdat] – tried to create unrest and obstruct the martyr burial ceremonies by provoking their leaders; however a large group of value-driven students directed them out of the central space of Amir Kabir University and into a corner of campus, and thus prevented their rioting.”

Fârs also stated that these “troublemakers” had thrown bottles at “the students” (i.e., those who attended the burial ceremony) and tried to abuse the events for political aims. Fars also reported that the “value-driven” students numbered “thousands” and that they had responded to protesters with slogans such as “The Martyrs are Alive, Allâho Akbar”, “The Blood in Our Veins is a Gift for the Supreme Leader” and “Martyrs, Martyrs; We are Indebted to Your Blood for Our Freedom Today”. Fârs claimed that the “radicals” wounded a number of “students”, but that those attending the ceremony kept their calm and thus prevented the “conspiracy” from unfolding.

The Ahmadinejad-affiliated Rajânews brought the same report but with another intro and headline: “Daftar-e tahkim’s militia’s attack on the martyr burial ceremony”. Here, it was stated that the protesters were the ones who attacked, not the other way around; and that the protesters only numbered “50 persons”.

Needless to say, these reports are in conflict with the reports by Amir Kabir University Student Newsletter, AKUNews. This site reported today that “more than 70 students” have been arrested – but that allegedly more than 40 of them have already been released. The students have also uploaded two videos here and here and series of pictures here and here and here. From these videos and pictures it seems pretty clear that we are talking about a lot more than 50 protesters. However, from the other side of the showdown, IRNA has brought these pictures. AKUNews has also reported that security forces have stormed the homes of key present and former members of The Islamic Student Association at Amir Kabir University today, arresting four.


A scholar wrote me this interesting comment:

“All nations honor their martyrs especially the unknown soldiers and Iran is not an exception. Maybe the regime is wrong in burying martyrs inside universities, but this is such a sensitive issue in Iran that the so-called “pro-democracy” movement should leave it alone. A tomb of unknowns in a university has never stopped any nations from achieving democracy. This shows how distant some reformists are from the reality in Iran.”

This is also an issue that has been discussed in the comments by another reader.

The issue of whether “the reformists” are distant from the reality of many ordinary Iranians is very interesting. As I have elaborated on in my earlier writings on the topic, I think this is correct: the intellectual discourse of how to build a civil society and rule of law was simply too complex for many Iranians to bother about. What most ordinary Iranians do think about are skyrocketing prices on everything, unemployment, inflation, crime etc. This is also why the reformists lost the presidential elections in 2005. It will be interesting to see if the “reformists” are able to re-invent themselves before the coming elections – otherwise, Ahmadinejad’s victory is certain.

However, I am not sure whether it is correct to call those who protested against the martyr burials yesterday reformists. We simply do not have enough information to make such a claim. Indeed, many pro-democratic student activists (and I recognize that this is a dubious term) have distanced themselves from the reformist discourse and politics over the last decade – and many new students have entered universities who might not be that fond of Khatami and his entourage.

What we do know is that these students were protesting against the burials not as a sign of disrespect against the martyrs, but as a sign of protest against the state: a state that dictates controversial measures despite the protests of students (remember that this is not just one tomb in one university; it is similar orchestrated maneuvers in several universities over the last year or so); a state that has clamped down on pro-democratic student activities in a harsh and systematic way for over a decade; and a state that will not allow free speech in universities.

Nonetheless, the scholar mentioned above has an interesting point: that these protests might not benefit the students’ cause in a broader perspective. The Iran-Iraq War was, by all accounts, the most traumatic event in recent Iranian history. The mental scars left behind by the war cut across classes, geography and political affiliations, and Iranians are very sensitive to the issue of war victims and martyrs. There is a deep feeling of frustration over injustice and Western hypocrisy amongst many Iranians, most of whom have lost a family member or friend during the war. It might be, as the scholar mentioned above, implies, that the students have now created a negative image of themselves – and of the “reformists”, with whom many will inevitably (but not always correctly) identify them with.

However, let us not forget that we have not heard any of the reformists groups and major leaders express their support for the students. Until now, Khatami, Mir-Hossein Musavi, etc. have all been silent. As usual, the students are left to fight their battles themselves.

Endorsement, mixed reactions to Obama, security measures

by Rasmus Christian Elling

A selective glance at Iranian media, November 13 / 2008.

Yesterday, the newspaper Vatan-e emruz reported a 3-hour meeting between former presidents (and former rivals) Mohammad Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Allegedly – and I stress this as it must still be considered within the realm of rumors – Rafsanjani called on Khatami to run for president in next years elections. Khatami – according to this report – will wait until last minute to announce his candidature. Furthermore, in his endorsement, Rafsanjani even stated that another ‘reformist’ candidate, Mehdi Karubi (who seems to run for presidency every time but never succeeds despite a loyal constituency in specific areas), could be persuaded to step down. If this is the case, then Khatami could be the sole ‘reformist’ candidate – a development with profound consequences that demands a thorough analysis.

UPDATE: A spokesman from The Expediency Council, Rafsanjani’s stronghold, has denied the report…

One thing is certain: the conservative forces, despite all their internal differences, would probably have to unite around Ahmadinejad if Khatami enters the race. Other conservatives such as Hojjatoleslam Pur-Mohammadi (who also has announced his candidature) will certainly not be able to unite the different wings; and, personally, I have never thought that ‘Ali Larijani could muster enough support even though he is periodically hyped as a pragmatist with clout and support from the Supreme Leader Khamene‘i.

As the first president of the Islamic Republic to do so, Ahmadinejad congratulated Barack Obama on his election victory by writing a letter. Since then, Ahmadinejad has received a mixed review for this. Not surprisingly, his own Ministry of Foreign Affairs has supported him; Larijani and another key conservative, Tavakolli, have criticized him; and Student Basij, the university division of the hard line Islamist paramilitary force sufficed to claim that Obama had learned his ‘Yes We Can!’ slogan from Ahmadinejad!

Meanwhile, skepticism about Obama’s intention in the Middle East seemed to spread in conservative Iranian media: Fars reported how Zionists rejoiced at Obama’s choice for Head of Staff; the state-run Kayhan daily announced that a ‘Son of an Israeli terrorist is Obama’s first selection’; and Raja News showed a picture of Obama with a skullcap, thus portraying him as “The Zionist Foe”.

Indeed, with the Iranians testing a new long-range surface-to-surface missile yesterday, some Western media expressed skepticism about the much-anticipated rapprochement between the US and Iran while others speculated a pre-Obama Israeli attack on Iran.

Middle East Times, quoting UPI (and Iran’s PressTV) stated that the Kurdish guerilla organization, PJAK (Party for a Free Life of Kurdistan, a PKK-affiliate) has suspended operations against Iran. This would be a surprising turn as the organization has gradually increased its attacks on Iranian border guards since 2005.

At the same time, Iranian security forces were launching unprecedented major exercises throughout Tehran. Over six days, 30,000 officers trained urban scenarios under the banner of ‘Public Security and Tranquility’, reported Shahab News. ‘Quarantine of sensitive and important areas such as the bazaar and banks, 2.5 kilometer long parades in Tehran’s main streets and squares, enhancing security at strategic centers, the swift transfer of forces from other provinces to the capital and the rendering of services to the people in cases of emergency, such as earthquake, were among the goals of this maneuver’, the news agency stated. However, Shahab News rejected claims by ‘some political circles and media’ that the maneuver should be seen in the light of ‘recent changes’ in the command structure of the Security Forces (niru-ye entezâmi); Shahab News also ridiculed reports such as that in Al-Jazeera, which claimed Iran was ‘getting ready for unrest’.

Meanwhile, a debate is raging in Iran over the proposed installment of CCTV in certain areas of Tehran. Ahmadinejad has rejected this idea, floated by high-ranking security officers; later, a commander stated that the Security Forces did not intend to ‘control the personal lives of citizens’ and that only limited surveillance was in the planning.

BBC Persian also reported that the much-dreaded Operative Basij Patrols (gasht-e ‘amaliyâti-ye basij) have returned to Tehran after police replaced them in the years after the revolution. The basij, a paramilitary force known for its hard line Islamist ideology, is going to support the police in Tehran. Even though Tehranis have experienced many different kinds of gasht patrols, this is probably going to be one of the toughest when it comes to moral policing. Last but not least, BBC also reported that Tehran’s governor announced the opening of a new Council for Social Security in Tehran to combat crime and unrest.

In the view of Ahmad Zeidabadi – an experienced Iranian journalist now working for the BBC – there can be a positive and a negative interpretation of all these measures: the positive being that ‘social insecurity’ (that is, crime) has reached a point in Tehran, where such measures are indeed necessary; the negative of course being that the state apparatus seeks to frighten and harass the population, and prevent riots and uprisings – such as those one might expect to occur on the background of constantly rising food prices, inflation and unemployment.

Zeidabadi also pointed out Ahmadinejad’s opposition to the installment of CCTV in Tehran, which seems, to Zeidabadi, ‘mysterious’. Indeed, how come Ahmadinejad has blamed the security forces for creating a bad atmosphere of policing in the capital? Here, Zeidabadi states two possible interpretations: either Ahmadinejad was unaware of the security measures and now feels sidelined (thus maybe showing that the President will not be supported by the security apparatus in the upcoming elections); or that Ahmadinejad pretends he was unaware of the measures in order to paint a portrait of himself as a ‘moderate’ in the public mind (and thus attracting voters). Finally, Zeidabadi also mentioned that some analysts see these measures as part of a preparation for US attacks during the last months of Bush’s presidency.