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A demonstrator putting together pieces of a torn U.S. flag in front of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran, November 4, 1980. Photo by J. Javid

19 years later
Rally in front of former U.S. embassy shows shift toward domestic issues

November 4, 1998
The Iranian

Posted on Columbia University's Gulf2000 academic listserve by an observer in Tehran:

Today (November 2, 1998), there was a demonstration and rally in Tehran, organized by the leftist Islamist student group called Unity Consolidation Office [Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat], commemorating the 19th anniversary of the U.S. Embassy takeover. The event was announced in the Salam newspaper a couple days ago and also in the posters on the walls in the universities and streets en route.

The demonstration by some 700 young and middle-aged people (600 male and 100 female) started in the Tehran University campus around 1 pm. It marched inside the TU campus for about 45 minutes, and then went out the main gate and marched toward the former U.S. Embassy via the Enqelab Street [fornerly Shahreza]. A little after 3 pm, the marchers reached the site and the rally was held there from 3:10 to 4:20 pm. During the rally, there were more than 1,000 people there, including those who showed up to express their opposition. The rally concluded with no fist fight and the crowd disbanded itself promptly.

Several interesting points:

1- The organizers were the leftist activists. The group's origin goes back to the so-called Students in the Imam's Line [Daneshjouyan-e Peyro Khat-e Imam], i.e. those who took over the U.S. Embassy 19 years ago. Judging from the slogans they shouted, however, many of the participants were more enthusiastic in expressing their support for President Khatami, than their opposition to the U.S. In other words, the event was significant mainly in terms of domestic politics here, i.e. as a demonstration and rally in support of the Khatami administration.

2- The police force very much cooperated with the organizers. The demonstration outside the campus was accompanied by the police vehicles in its front and at its end. During the rally in front of the former U.S. Embassy, the police force completely blocked the members of the right wing pressure group called Ansar-e Hezbollah so that the latter may not physically obstruct the rally, which happened the last year's rally.

3- A conservative cleric, Mohammad Araqi -- head of the Islamic Propagation Organization which, among others, hosts a number of political rallies for the conservatives including the one scheduled for the day after tomorrow commemorating the same thing -- marched with the leftist students inside the Tehran University campus. He did so as the capacity of the Leader's representative to the Tehran University. Still, it showed that the demonstration was sanctioned by the authorities, or even approved to some extent by the conservative power brokers.

4- A leftist cleric, Hadi Khamenei, a younger brother of the Leader and the main speaker of the rally organized by the same organization outside the Tehran University one month ago, marched with the students outside the campus till the site of the rally. The main speaker of today's rally was Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, allegedly one of the three core persons (along with Abbas Abdi) who planned and executed the Embassy takeover 19 years ago. He was a member of the Majles from 1988 to 1992, but his candidacy has been denied for the last 6 years.

He spoke passionately and eloquently and apparently was received well. Had he not been disqualified for the Majles by-elections earlier this year, he would probably been elected as a Khatami supporter. The rally protesting his disqualification in March ended with bloody fights and arrests. At that time, the police force were criticized for first not intervening when the Ansar-e Hezbollah rightists were beating the leftist students, and second for arresting only the leftist students.

5- Today's event was the second one hosted by the leftists after Musavi Lari became Interior Minister. The behavior of the police force today showed a marked difference. They were swift in preventing the rightists from coming toward the platform and breaking the rally. Toward the end of the rally, the organizers urged the crowd to thank the police, which they did by shouting a slogan.

6- Still, the rightist pressure group were there to voice their opposition. Several of them were following the demonstrators from the beginning. More were there waiting at the site of the rally. Seconds before the rally started, they burned two large U.S. flags, at the great annoyance of the leftist organizers who had announced that they would not do it as a show of respect to the American people. The Ansar-e Hezbollahs kept shouting slogans during Asgharzadeh's speech to disturb it, slogans such as "Allah is Great" and "Death on Hypocrites."

7- Last year, there were two rallies on November 4 in front of the former U.S. Embassy. The morning rally was organized by the conservative semi- governmental organization and its main speaker was Nateq-Nuri. The leftists had their own separate rally in the afternoon on the same spot and its speaker was a leftist cleric and former Interior Minister, Mohtashami. Toward the end of the speech, the rightists physically broke the rally. This year, the leftists chose (voluntarily or not) to hold their rally on a different day from the conservatives, and succeeded in concluding it without disturbance.

My take is that it shows some progress made during the last year. There have been some setbacks, such as the ban of the Jame'eh-then-Tous newspaper. But, the fact that the leftist Khatami supporters could successfully hold a demonstration and rally with the great cooperation of the police force and openly voice their political views seems to constitute a significant step forward for what President Khatami has promised to realize, i.e. the rule of law, freedom of expression, and tolerance of different views.

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