More than 1.5 million protesters took to the streets of Tehran on Monday, marking the largest anti-regime demonstration Iran has seen since the final days of the shah in early 1979.
Seven people were killed by anti-riot police and roving bands of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad supporters. Many of those supporters shielded their faces from surveillance videos that plainclothes police were shooting.
The protesters included some unlikely participants: 16 Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps officers pledged to join the people’s movement, according to initial reports from Tehran. That signaled that the once-solid support of the guard corps for Ahmadinejad is beginning to crack.
The 16 officers were arrested after meeting secretly with top regular army officers on Monday night.
Many of the older men and women who took to the streets also demonstrated to bring down the shah 30 years ago, wrote Kaveh Mohseni, who publishes the French-language Web site, Iran-Resist.
Now, “people are waiting for international support,” Mohseni wrote.
That support wasn’t coming — at least not from President Barack Obama's administration in Washington.
"It is up to Iranians to make decisions about who Iran's leaders will be. We respect Iranian sovereignty and want to avoid the United States being the issue inside of Iran," Obama said during the weekend.
He reiterated his long-held position that his administration wants to pursue a "tough, direct" dialogue with Tehran.
For many Iranians, Obama’s words were reminiscent of President Bill Clinton, who washed his hands when reporters asked him on July 9, 1999, whether the United States would come to the aid of Iranian students who were revolting in 18 cities across Iran.
America could do nothing, Clinton said — echoing almost exactly the taunt Ayatollah Khamenei had used repeatedly during the revolution.
The Obama administration’s quandary comes after it covertly threw its support behind the election campaign of former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi.
Mousavi made his first appearance since the election at Monday’s rally.
Many in the crowd wore red scarves, a color favored by supporters of Reza Pahlavi, the son of the former shah.
In two messages in Persian, widely circulated through the Internet during the weekend, Pahlavi called for nationwide nonviolent resistance to the regime — the first time he has called for an open revolt since leaving Iran in 1979.
“I stand united with my fellow Iranians and call for the end of the Islamic Republic, or any other prefix in front of the name of my beloved Iran that indicates theocracy or any other form of disregard for democratic and human rights,” he said in one of the messages.
To some, this latest protest — and similar demonstrations in Shiraz, Kerman, Isfahan, Mashad, Tabriz, Rasht, and other major Iranian cities — shows that the regime finally has awakened Iran’s silent majority.
In Tabriz, there were reports that the city’s business district had shut down on Sunday as a sign of joining the anti-regime protests. Many of the protesters shouted, “Death to the dictator,” a slogan not heard in large crowds of demonstrators for decades.
“The protests are a natural expression of the frustration and insult that have been dealt by the regime,” said Roozbeh Farahanipour, a leader of the 1999 student revolt who now is the spokesman for the nationalist Marze por Gohar (Glorious Frontiers Party). “Iranians will tolerate a lot, as the last 30 years attest to, but being treated as stooges is where they draw the line.”
In Tehran on Monday, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported that former President Mohammad Khatami traveled to Cairo during Obama’s trip there and met with a “senior administration official” to discuss the upcoming Iranian election.
Although Ahmadinejad controls the news agency, Iranian observers believed the report was accurate, because it is hard to openly slander such a public person as a former president even in Iran.
Newsmax asked spokesmen for Obama and Vice President Joe Biden to comment on the allegation but received no reply.
Earlier, there were reports that a senior administration official met with Mousavi’s campaign manager, Mehdi Khazali, in Dubai two weeks before the election to offer support.
In the days before the election, editors at the Voice of America’s Persian Service apologized to anti-regime Iranians they normally invite to their shows, saying they no longer could appear on the air because the editors were under orders to invite only guests who supported “reformist” candidates Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi.
On Tuesday morning, the Guardians Council in Tehran announced it would engage in only a “limited recount” of individual ballot boxes whose results had been disputed by one of Ahmadinejad's three opponents, erasing earlier hopes that they might annul the disputed election because of fraud.
Getting the Guardians to examine the election results at all took a great deal of pressure.
When Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei first announced Ahmadinejad’s victory, he defiantly called the election a “divine assessment” and certified the results immediately.
But pressure from within the ruling clerical elite gave him pause.
The next day, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani announced with great fanfare that he was traveling to Qom, 80 miles south of Tehran, to convene the Assembly of Experts, a council of 86 top clerics who have the authority to name the supreme leader, or depose him.
Rafsanjani chairs the Assembly of Experts and said he wanted them to examine Khamenei’s decision to certify the election, giving rise to rumors that he was hoping to depose Khamenei as leader.
Monday’s massive demonstration also suggests that the Iranian people have loosened the shackles of fear, Kaveh Mohseni said.
In a third message to Iranians, Reza Pahlavi called on the police and security forces to “never forget that these demonstrators confronting you in the streets are your brothers and sisters who are fighting for your rights.”
Joining him was his mother, who spoke to the security forces “as a mother and as an Iranian” to encourage them “not to use violence against their brothers and sisters.”
Iranian political activists have long criticized Reza Pahlavi for his inaction, and U.S. government analysts say they doubt that he has many supporters inside Iran.
But the protests inside Iran go way beyond one person, one faction, or one party. They have become a national grass-roots movement, a budding revolt that could soon reach a tipping point. And a regime change could spark reform in other areas.
Conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer said, “Our only hope of changing the nuclear issue with Iran is not in the negotiations. It would be in the change of regime.”
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