Slamming down

Manal Lotfy in London , Tuesday 10 Jan 2023

Khamenei seeks to rearrange the security apparatus and political narrative to end protests, writes Manal Lotfy

Slamming down
Demos persist in Iran for the fifth month since the assassination of the 22-year-old woman Mahsa Amini last September (photo: AP)


In an effort to end the protests that have engulfed Iran since last September, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed a new chief to Iran’s police forces to replace General Hossein Ashtari who had been in command since 2015.

Both Radan and Ashtari began their military career in the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has taken most responsibility for ending the protests in recent weeks.

The new police chief, General Ahmad-Reza Radan, is a close ally of the Supreme Leader, he played a central role in crushing the mass protests of 2009, when hundreds of thousands of Iranians demonstrated against the election of former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for a second term in the disputed presidential elections against reformist rival Mir Hossein Mousavi.

General Ahmad-Reza Radan, along with Revolutionary Guard officials, cut off internet and telephone communications, and arrested thousands of demonstrators during the momentous events of 2009, or the Green Revolution. General Radan was sanctioned by the United States in 2010, and later on by the European Union over “human rights abuses” in this connection.

In the last few weeks Khamenei, who has the final say in key state policies and is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, has began to intervene more frequently by giving public commentary on the demonstrations opposing the regime and taking decisions to end the unrest, which he describes as a “foreign conspiracy” to destabilise Iran.

The appointment of General Ahmad-Reza Radan, which was first posted on the Supreme Leader’s official website, will be seen by the demonstrators and the moderate reformist wing of Iran as a sign that Khamenei is not about to make any concessions to the demonstrators. On the contrary, the change at the head of Iran’s police force seems like a message that the regime will double down on its effort to end the protests. In the statement announcing Radan’s appointment, Khamenei expressed “gratitude and satisfaction” with Ashtari’s eight-year service. He also instructed the police department to “improve its capabilities” as well as “train specialised forces for various security sectors.”Radan was deputy police chief from 2008 to 2014 and went on to lead the police’s Centre for Strategic Studies.

In another intervention, Khamenei Insisted that the protests are a conspiracy to weaken the state. In a speech on Monday, he blamed anti-government protests on foreign conspiracies, claiming that the demonstrations are not an expression of anger at the domestic situation and the economic crisis, but rather a fabricated crisis created by international forces hostile to Iran.

“In the recent riots, the hand of foreigners was visible, although some have denied it,” Khamenei said in his televised speech.

“Actions by America, by Europeans… each somehow intervened in this issue [protests] in an obvious manner, not hidden from view,”

Khamenei said. “[They] set fire to public places and have committed treason with no doubt.” Under Iran’s Islamic law, treason is punishable by death.

Since popular demonstrations erupted about four months ago, relations between Tehran and the West have been greatly strained. The UN responded to the execution of protesters by saying it followed “unfair trials based on forced confessions”. 

The UN Human Rights Chief Volker Turk, said the death sentences handed down to protesters amount to “state-sanctioned killing”, with executions being used to strike fear into the population and stamp out dissent.

“The weaponisation of criminal procedures to punish people for exercising their basic rights – such as those participating in or organising demonstrations – amounts to state-sanctioned killing,” he said in a statement on Tuesday. He added that such executions violated international human rights law. The UN Human Rights office has received information that two further executions are imminent, the statement said.

Western capitals also condemned excessive use of force against the demonstrators and the executions of more demonstrators after Mohammad Mahdi Karami and Seyyed Mohammad Hosseini over the weekend.

Iranian ambassadors in Europe were summoned over the execution amidst anger that the sentences lack due process and prisoners were denied access to lawyers of their choice.

The French foreign minister, Catherine Colonna, described the executions as “appalling”, adding that France reiterated its opposition to the death penalty, in all places and under all circumstances. French legislators have also planned a resolution calling on the EU to end nuclear negotiations with Iran, designate the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organisation and take other measures.

UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly summoned Iran’s most senior diplomat, Mehdi Hosseini Matin, after the regime executed the two protesters. In a statement by the Foreign Office, the UK government called on Iran to end the use of the death penalty, both publicly and directly with Iranian officials.

“I have summoned the Iranian Chargé d’Affaires to condemn in the strongest possible terms the abhorrent executions we witnessed over the weekend. The Iranian regime must end its campaign of brutal repression and start listening to the concerns of its people,” Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry rejected the criticism, saying: “Remarks of self-styled defenders of human rights are replete with racist thoughts.”

Since the death of the 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman Mahsa Amini in police custody following her arrest for allegedly violating the country’s strict dress code for women, the UK has imposed more than 40 human rights sanctions including on leading political, judicial, and security officials in Iran, for their role in serious human rights violations.

The UK is also preparing to formally declare the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organisation. The legal change would make it a criminal offense in the UK to belong to the group or support its activities. UK officials said no announcement was imminent and many details remain to be sorted out. The move would follow a similar decision made by the US in 2019.

Meanwhile, the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West are still at a standstill. Although Western diplomats say that there is no connection between the West’s condemnation of repression in Iran and the desire of international powers to reach a nuclear deal, the increasing tensions are affecting talks.

Iranian officials also have not closed the door to the completion of the nuclear deal. It is widely believed that the Iranian regime is still hoping to reach a deal to ease economic and political pressure.

In his speech this week, Khamenei emphasised, “Great works should be accomplished. Transformational work must be done. I believe it can be done. We have pious, hardworking officials.”

Since the beginning of the protests, the Iranian authorities have hanged four people, which triggered Western condemnations.

On Monday, Iran’s judiciary sentenced another three anti-government protesters to death on charges of “waging war on God.”

The three protesters, Saleh Mirhashemi, Majid Kazemi and Saeid Yaghoubi, had been convicted of allegedly killing members of the volunteer Basij militia during anti-government protests in the central city of Isfahan. According to Iranian news sites, they can appeal the verdicts.

On Monday, demonstrators assembled outside Rajaei-Shahr prison in Karaj, a satellite city west of Tehran, in an attempt to prevent the rumoured imminent execution of two young prisoners found guilty of running over a police officer in a car during protests in November.

Human rights activists raised the alarm after Ghobadlou and fellow prisoner Mohammad Boroughani were taken to solitary confinement, which is often the step that precedes execution. Their lawyers are claiming the two men require a retrial in the supreme court.

The public executions are intended to scare away protesters, and it seems to be having an effect already after the quieting down of demonstrations, especially in the big cities.

Given Khamenei’s approach over the past 40 years, it is not surprising that he refused to make any concessions to the demonstrators, whether symbolic or real. In a move shattering any hope regarding relaxing rules around the hijab, the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution in Iran said in a statement that the West has ruined societies and families with slogans of women’s liberation as these slogans turn women into sexual beings.

“Covering up causes a woman to be recognised in society by her thoughts and personality, not by her body and beauty… This is the greatest service that religions, especially Islam, have given to women, which oblige her to observe hijab so that her dignity is preserved, and she is not sold or passed around like a commodity,” the statement said.

Khamenei’s recent intervention in rearranging the security apparatus and doubling down on the political narrative is a sign of more hard-line policies to come.

A version of this article appears in print in the 12 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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