Remember, Remember The 18th Of Tir

iran-demonstrators-560x400On this date in 1999 — the 18th of Tir in the Persian calendar — Iranian riot police and Basij militia brutally cracked down on student demonstrators in Tehran, leading to five days of the largest protests in the history of the Islamic Republic — that is, until those of June 2009.

Without July 1999,” writes Shirin Sadeghi, “there could never have been June 2009. What the students courageously started then, has led to a massive and pervasive movement that encompasses all Iranians. The students are no longer alone in their struggle for change.”

Several thousands of protesters took to the streets of Tehran today to mark the 18th of Tir, and Iranian riot police again responded with tear gas and truncheons.

On a press call organized by the Huffington Post, three Iranians discussed the significance of this day, and the future of the Green movement in Iran.

Iranian human rights activist Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, who was a member of the Iranian parliament from 2000 to 2004 and is currently a visiting scholar at the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts, noted that, while today’s protest have not been as massive as those in the immediate wake of the elections, they have been large, with demonstrators from all walks of life carrying green signs to signify unity.

Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the official spokesman of Mir-Hossein Moussavi’s campaign abroad, reviewed the history of student movements in Iran, noting that “even before the Islamic revolution the student movement was big part of the movement against shah, [and] students have continued to be pioneers in the peoples’ movement.” The Green movement, Makhmalbaf said, “is a continuation of the student movement of 1999 — it’s just become more widespread, more people participating”:

What we lacked in Iran was not people’s knowledge of repression, but courage. That is what they have found. If the students were pioneers it’s because they were more courageous, [but] the people have regained their courage because they have regained their solidarity and common spirit.

We owe this to two things. People took part in elections in unexpected numbers, [and] this let them know that they are united in what they seek. The second were the rallies after elections, [which] allowed people to see and believe that they are not alone. When they chant “Don’t be afraid, we are all together,” it has a profound meaning — it is a response to the feeling that the government had tried to install in them, to make them feel alone in their desire for a freer society.

Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, stressed how significant it is, both in religious and constitutional terms, that “leading clerics have taken sides with the Green movement.” Because of Supreme Leader Khamenei’s relatively meager scholarly credentials, he “is not even in position to prevent [other clerics] from passing judgment,” as the Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qom did last Friday. “Khamenei’s official position as Supreme Leader has no bearing on his junior position as a jurist,” said Dabashi. “He’s not in a position to disallow the clerical challenge to his authority. ”

Haghighatjoo added that “according to the Iranian constitution, the supreme leader has a supervisional authority over other branches of government, and should be a national authority or symbol. According to the constitution,” key characteristics of the supreme leader’s role are defined as “justice and impartiality.” But in recent events, Haghighatjoo said, Khamenei, by openly siding with Ahmadinejad and his supporters, has “lowered his position” down to that of a “leader of a rogue extreme faction in the Iranian political spectrum.”

Haghighatjoo ended with a call to Western journalists to “please pay attention to plight of imprisoned people in Tehran. They’re being tortured, [their] lives are in danger. Keep them in the news, let the world know… Ask for pressure on Iranian leadership to release prisoners.”