Thousands of demonstrators gathered outside Isfahan’s court of justice on October 22, calling for the government to protect citizens against the recent acid attacks that shook one of Iran’s biggest tourist destinations.
“Safety is our undeniable right,” people shouted, along with “Don’t fear, don’t fear, we are united.”
The first is a play on “Nuclear energy is our undeniable right,” the well-known regime response to Western pressures. But the second signals something more serious for Iran’s authorities, reviving memories of the protest movement that followed the 2009 disputed presidential election and its bloody aftermath.
Island of Stability
The Supreme Leader has been prolific on the subject of the 2009 Green Revolution, referring to it on his website earlier this year as an “unforgivable sin.” To emphasise his point, the site published 22 quotations from the ayatollah’s speeches between 2009 and 2012, most of them sharing a common theme: “Injustice was done to the Islamic system and our honor was damaged in the eyes of other nations,” one said; “calling people to the streets is reckless because it becomes a sanctuary for pressure groups and gives rise to disorder and chaos,” read another. The leaders of the movement, he said, “wanted to set people against the system and destroy calm and stability.”
Khamenei’s speeches stress words like “street” and “calm,” revealing his anxiety about the effects of such events on the security of the regime. In a speech about post-election protests on June 19, 2009, Khamenei spoke out against the opposition's “street operations” more than anything else.
Iranian authorities love a good street rally, so long as it supports the regime, complete with reassuring pro-government slogans. Recently the regime’s supporters designated two days as “holy” days for street demonstrations: December 30 and February 11. The first commemorates the large rally to support the Supreme Leader in 2009, six months after the post-election protests. The second is the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
Despite anxieties, for the most part, Ayatollah Khamenei and other Iranian authorities turn to the current situation in many Arab countries for encouragement: many of the nations that took part in the so-called “Arab Spring” have been troubled with further bloodshed and rampant instability, and they are comforted by their belief that Iran has been immune to this trend.
However, there have been times in the past that Iran has appeared to be stable, only to reveal otherwise later. The regime may well remember a historical moment, when, on Christmas Eve, 1977, US President Jimmy Carter told the Shah that Iran was ”an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.” A year later, Iran was awash with revolution and chaos.
Many Islamic Revolution analysts agree that the Shah was overthrown due to a combination of social, economic and political factors, and it is for this reason that the Islamic authorities interpret any social or economic issues in the country as something that benefits their opponents and the West.
Many believe that extremist religious groups, including Ansar e-Hezbollah, are responsible for the recent attacks, spurred on by the Basij paramilitary force’s support for morality policing initiatives. In response to criticism from the media that Iranian officials had in some way paved the way for recent events in Isfahan, Basij commander Mohammad-Reza Naghdi said its supporters will return to the streets to counter these charges and reassert pro-regime values.
In recent years, police have been deployed to curtail the expansion of social freedoms, and “Morality Patrols” have been central to this, charged with warning, and sometimes arresting, people who violate morality laws, particularly Islamic dress codes. But, frustrated that the unit had not been performing its role effectively, a number of MPs, bolstered by the hardliner media, have introduced a bill that would expand powers to keep these violations in check. News of the Isfahan attacks emerged just as the bill was reaching the final stages of becoming law.
A few days before the attacks, Isfahan’s Leader of Friday Prayers stated that “bad hejab" in Isfahan would not be solved through talking alone — whether through persuading the public that moral codes must be observed or by giving verbal notices to those who violate these codes — hinting that more serious measures should be taken by the police and other authorities, even violence. These comments have been reiterated by some hardliner politicians and affiliated media, leading to widespread anger in Isfahan and Tehran, not least because they echo calls from hardliner cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, who said in spring 2011 that ”blood must be shed” in order to solve the problem of "bad hejab."
The Enemies’ Plot
“All revolutionary institutions and organizations must implement their cultural projects with intelligence and wisdom so that they would not unwittingly play into the hands of the enemy,” wrote hardliner MP on Jahan News, a website administered by Alireza Zakani, about recent events in Isfahan. Many hardliners claim that protests against the acid attacks were planned by enemies of the regime, an attempt to discredit Iran’s most committed religious forces. For them, the West and other regime enemies are to blame for growing discontent in Iran, which explains how a hardliner MP could state that the acid attacks in Isfahan were potentially started by intelligence agencies belonging to Israel and the West.
Though it might seem that recent moves to clamp down on social freedoms strengthen the regime, a further polarization within society and widening social divides are probably closer to the truth. And with these rifts come wider reaching pockets of anger and distrust. For many, what has happened in Isfahan signals just how out of control the regime actually is: what started as a campaign for morality has now led to vicious attacks on innocent, law abiding citizens.
For most, however, the demonstrations are clear and simple: a unified response to a series of unfolding, terrible events, starting on social media and spreading to the streets.
The acid attacks could potentially have a wider impact, damaging the city’s image as an important center for Persian culture and heritage. Isfahan is Iran’s biggest tourist destination, so damage to its reputation constitutes a serious threat to the economy.
Over the past year the administration of President Rouhani and especially Foreign Minister Zarif have worked hard to project a more progressive, beautiful image of Iran. Supporters of Rouhani have been busy publishing pretty pictures of Iran online and Iranian diplomats have tried to present the country as stable, democratic, and progressive.
But as hardliners and reformists battle to control the narrative of what is happening in Isfahan, this image is under threat. And so, too, is the regime, which cannot shake the memory of the damage done in 2009.