Thugs of Tehran

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The most interesting incident in Wednesday's anti-government demonstrations in Tehran involved the confrontation between the police and Iran's "vigilante" thugs. Here's the AFP's description:

Police also briefly clashed with Islamist vigilantes trying to approach an area where a traffic jam of protesters' cars was backed up—in what appeared to be an effort to prevent any violence between the rival camps.

That's a careful decription, and I'm not saying it's wrong. But going after the thugs is a notable call on the part of the cops. Another possible reading is that these cops chose to protect these demonstrators. During the Aghajari demonstrations in Iran a few months ago, cops also sought to prevent violence by reportedly using it against Islamist thugs.

One question about Iran's student movement keeps coming up: How much real activist support does it enjoy in the general population? You don't have to ask that question about the ruling mullahs: Their activist support has been reduced to the goons they control, and their relationship with the populace has been reduced to the threat of violence.

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  1. Another possibility is that the cops are apolitical public servants with no real sympathy for the demonstrators, and that they judged the theocratic thugs to be a genuine threat to public safety, regardless of the political background.

  2. Well, that’s a possibility all right. The problem is that we really don’t know. It is logical to infer from the fact that Iranian police intervened to protect some protesters that some people’s attitudes have changed since 1999, when this probably would not have happened. However, we don’t have any idea how many people, or exactly what made their attitudes change, or how far that change goes. The impression left by developments in Iran is that the mullahs can no longer ride roughshod over everyone and everything, but still generate enough fear to inhibit the flow of accurate information leaving Iran.

    Charles Paul Freund’s question about how much activist support the student movement has in the general population is almost certainly the wrong one. 95% of the time — in other words whenever millions of demonstrators are not coursing through Teheran’s streets — what will matter in Iranian politics is opinion within institutions wielding power (or at least commanding respect), not general public opinion. As long as the mullahs stay united themselves and retain support from the military and police leadership they won’t be going anywhere; if that foundation starts to crumble so will the clergy’s dominant position in Iran.

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