Backstage at Friday Prayers
Khomeini commemoration marked by heckling of grandson, blunders by Khamenei.
By by HAMID FAROKHNIA of Iran Labor Report in Tehran
This article first appeared in tehranbureau
An independent source of news on Iran and the Iranian diaspora
[ analysis ] Whether or not street protests continue to define the struggle against dictatorship, the birth of the democratic movement last year has irreversibly altered the minutest aspects of life and politics in Iran. Take June 4, the day officially devoted to commemorating the life and legacy of the Islamic Republic’s founding father, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The commemorations of the anniversary of his passing have long been exceedingly bland affairs. Several thousand people are bused to his tomb, where dignitaries deliver uninspiring speeches and have their photos taken with his grandson Hassan. This year, however, the event was anything but bland.
When Seyyed Hassan, as he is fondly called by his friends and admirers, tacitly aligned himself with the Green Movement last year, many foresaw an eventual backlash. But what happened on June 4 astonished even the most seasoned pundits: a public humiliation before an audience of tens of millions. There were more marvels, including the live broadcast of an angry exchange between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the event’s emcee, as well as several faux pas by the Supreme Leader, which made this an anniversary that will be remembered for years.
An estimated 130,000 diehard supporters of the Islamic state, far below the promised 2 million, turned up to pray and commemorate “Imam’s Passing Day” at the ayatollah’s sprawling complex of tombs, souvenir shops, and prayer areas on the busy Tehran-Qom expressway. About 15,000 congregated inside the main prayer venue, while the rest gathered outside.
According to eyewitnesses, the former group — many of them members of the Basij militia — had occupied the coveted indoor space hours before the start of the event at 10:30 AM.
As he stepped forward to make his speech, scheduled between those of Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Seyyed Hassan was greeted with rhythmic chants of “Death to Mousavi” from clusters of those within the main prayer area. As the crowd outside the tomb watched on a large screen and millions of television viewers looked on at home, Hassan’s efforts to silence the crowd and begin his speech went nowhere. More chants were hurled, both vintage — “Death to monafegh” (someone who stabs Muslims in the back) — and new — “Nasrollah is Khomeinei’s real grandson” (referencing the leader of the Hezbollah). Eyewitnesses overheard many of the participants congratulating themselves for their well-choreographed performance. Many carried signs and placards throughout the event castigating Hassan with blistering phrases.
Thousands of SMS messages were exchanged applauding the hecklers. In another country, this sort of spectacle might have elicited little interest beyond the tabloids. But this is a land whose founding father and all matters related to him are treated with the same reverence accorded to saints and prophets.
About one hour after the end of the ceremony, a report appeared on the hardline news sites: At the event’s conclusion, Hassan had confronted Mostafa Najar, Ahmadinejad’s minister of the interior and the government’s official representative on the commemoration coordinating committee, charging him with direct responsibility for the embarrassment that had left a permanent stain on his grandfather’s near-holy repute. According to the report, which neither side has disputed, the ensuing war of words between the two men led to shoving and even a few fistfights between their respective entourages.
Hassan’s charge that the Ahmadinejad administration was complicit in the extraordinary response to his appearance was not made lightly. As the official custodian of the immense tomb complex, Hassan has many people in his employ who must have reported to him of the crowd’s coordination. Certainly, no activity of the kind that took place at this official event, broadcast to an audience of millions, could occur in the Islamic Republic without high-level approval.
In a statement that appeared on the centrist website Tabnak the next day, prominent conservative Ali Motahari openly charged the president with personal responsibility for the spectacle. The obstruction of Seyyed Hassan’s speech was “a prearranged scheme in which the president played a major part,” he wrote. “Ahmadinejad resembles a family’s little child who gets rewarded each time he abuses others.” The politically savvy Motahari, a close friend of many of the country’s top leaders, would have never made such a potentially libelous allegation without solid evidence for it. A day later, 50 Majles deputies circulated a petition demanding Motahari’s ejection from the dominant Osoolgaran parliamentary faction in retribution for his statement.
And there were other noteworthy incidents at the June 4 ceremony. A few minutes after Ahmadinejad’s speech passed the half-hour, with no sign that it was drawing to a close, master of ceremonies Mohammad Ali Ansari approached the podium and asked the president to stick to his allotted time. The request was ignored. Ansari — a close friend of Hassan’s father, Ahmad Khomeini, and now head of the Ayatollah Khomeini library and publishing center — soon reappeared on the stage and stood next to Ahmadinejad. Instead of heeding Ansari, Ahmadinejad turned to him and said brusquely, “You are making a scene. Leave this spot forthwith.” Unfazed, he continued his speech, which ultimately ran over 50 minutes.
According to Tabnak, Hassan had initially been reluctant to have a large-scale commemoration ceremony this year. This was probably motivated by concerns over possible disturbances that could mar his grandfather’s legacy, as the the anniversary of last year’s fraudulent election follows hard upon the date. The Supreme Leader’s desire to attend and make a major speech must have forced him to change his position. It was then that the coordinating committee was set up, with Ansari representing the Khomeini estate, Najar representing the government, and an undisclosed person representing the Supreme Leader.
Khamenei, who was waiting in the antechamber next to the stage during the fiasco, made his grand entry by kissing Hassan on the forehead. If this was intended as a sign of empathy for what had just transpired, it was rendered completely meaningless by the words that followed.
The Supreme Leader began by taking to task those whom he described as making selective use of Ayatollah Khomeini’s words. Both Hassan and Mir Hossein Mousavi have repeatedly criticized the way the national TV network has in recent months highlighted Khomeini’s censorious admonishments of the press while leaving unmentioned his periodic exhortations for the common people to speak out against what is wrong. The Supreme Leader proceeded to attack, for the umpteenth time, those in the elite he refers to as “unprincipled” — those like Ali Larijani and Mohsen Rezai who don’t take a absolutist stand against the Green Movement.
Khamenei, usually a superb speaker, made several faux pas in his pre-prayer sermon that elicited knowing smiles among the luminaries seated in the front row. He made several allusions to canonical Shia texts, comparing himself to the denomination’s first Imam, Ali Abutaleb, and Mousavi and Karoubi to Talha and Zubayr, former companions of the Prophet Muhammad. He described how the latter two are infamous for betraying Imam Ali, for which they paid with their lives. Theologians beg to differ with Khamenei. Talha and Zubayr are not symbols of betrayal in Shia thought. They are best known in the Muslim world for turning against the third caliph, Uthman, who is universally despised by the Shia faithful for usurping power.
Khamenei made another misstep, an exquisite error in which he conflated 22 Bahman
(the day of a staged pro-government rally) with 22 Khordad (the day of the fraudulent election that spawned Iran’s democratic movement). Intending to mention the latter, he instead said that “the sedition of 22 Bahman was crushed.”
The shadow of the election anniversary loomed over all of the day’s proceedings, and certainly affected the attendance figures. The regime, as more than one observer noted, is perfectly capable of mobilizing crowds larger than what was brought to the tomb on Friday. Apparently, it was deemed too great a logistical challenge to bring thousands of Basijis into
Tehran from elsewhere twice in a span of ten days — first for the Khomeini commemoration, and then again to put down the demonstrations planned for this coming Saturday.
The forthcoming election anniversary was surely a factor as well in the presence of several madahs, members of a new class of hardline lay preachers, in the audience’s front rows. This was the first time these fire-spitting advocates of violence have appeared at a major event in those sections where seating is by invitation only. One of them, Saeed Hadadian, who sat behind former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, was photographed last year leading attacks on peaceful protesters that resulted in at least one killing. Several recently released prisoners recall seeing him in the corridors of the jails where hundreds of people have been systematically beaten and tortured. The night before the ceremony, he was a guest on the popular hardline TV program Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, where he wept over the sacrifices of his fellow warriors during the Iran-Iraq War, then raved against the protest movement. To underscore the link between his appearance at the Khomeini commemoration and the previous night’s performance, Hadadian was dressed in the same light brown two-piece suit.
Events on June 12 and June 15 events will be telling. If the protesters muster even a modest show of force, it should be seen as a success, given the heavy toll that repression and threats of violence have taken on the people. Two weeks ago, 18 pro-democracy groups seconded Mousavi and Karoubi’s calls for peaceful demonstrations on the two dates. By last week, the number had dwindled to eight. The leaders of the other groups were approached individually by the Minister of Intelligence and threatened with severe reprisals if they refused to back down. The eight that remain are the Participation Front, Organization of Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution, Adwar Tahkim Organization, Former Parliamentary Members, Islamic Assembly of Physicians, Women Journalists Association, Nation’s Will Party, and Association of Imam Line Forces. The outcome of their efforts is uncertain, but the government’s response is predictable: It will announce the end of the democratic movement regardless of whether there is a turnout or not.