Middle East

Iran: Embassy Protests Organized by Basiji Hardliners

Iranian Basiji students hold up their hands after praying outside the British embassy in Tehran. Hundreds of Iranian hardliners marched on the embassy in the latest protest over the bombing of a sacred Shiite Muslim shrine in neighboring Iraq. (Photo: Henghameh Fahimi / AFP-Getty Images)

Although Iranians have a long history of participating in large demonstrations against "foreign influence," the recent violent protests in Tehran have been organized and attended by approximately 500 to 1,200 people, mainly members and supporters of the hard-line militia Basiji, or conservative university students.

Protests took place during the last weekend of February in front of the British embassy. The first event of a two-day gathering was held on Saturday, Feb. 25 in front of the embassy's summer residence, the Gholhak garden compound, in northern Tehran, attended by several hundred Basiji hardliners.

The announced purpose of the protest was to take back the Gholhak garden, with attendees claiming that the embassy there was illegal and pushing for an evacuation. This claim was first expressed in some of Iran's state newspapers, but was immediately rejected by British embassy authorities in Tehran.

The protesters who marched on the embassy chanted slogans such as, "Down with Britain," and, "Blair! We will kill you." The attempt to attack the embassy was thwarted by the anti-riot police. Nevertheless the approximately 700 angry protesters hurled stones, petrol bombs and eggs at the embassy walls.

Protest Against the Golden Mosque Bombing

On Sunday, Feb. 26 the same group of hardliner Basiji members protested against recent bombing attacks on the Shi'ite Golden Mosque in Samara, Iraq.

The theory that western powers had orchestrated the attacks was promulgated earlier by Iranian authorities. On the day of the Samara bombing, Iran's foreign ministry spokesman, Hamid Reza Assefi, had publicly placed the blame on the U.S., Britain and Israel.

"We see the hand of the American ambassador to Iraq behind recent bombings, " he said.

The accusations were made in rebuttal to a statement made by the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, accusing Iran for the same bombings.

The protesters, who succeeded in throwing at least six petrol bombs at the embassy, had already burned flags and called for the embassy to be shut down.

"The agents of global arrogance should know their security and political and economic interests will be in danger," shouted one of the young hard-line leaders through a megaphone. "In particular, the ambassador of this corrupt embassy will not be safe in our streets."

The U.S. does not have an embassy in Iran, so the anger of Iran's hardliners is usually focused on Britain, its closest ally.

Cartoon Controversy

In recent weeks, crowds of hardliners have also attacked other European embassies in Tehran, angered by the controversial cartoons of Islam's prophet that were first published in a Danish newspaper, then in many papers across the Europe. The French, Danish and Austrian embassies were among those torched or hit by hurled stones.

The leaders, organizers, and most of the participants of such violent political protests are often the same Basiji hard-line Islamist students, whose numbers seldom exceed 1,000 at said gatherings. They are usually assembled from different parts of the capital city, and occasionally from outlying towns.

"The media, of course, has the inevitable impact of magnifying events and so when you see some hundreds of angry people on the streets of a city torching an embassy, it gives you the impression that this is the whole nation, which indeed is absolutely wrong," said a professor of political studies at Tehran University, who preferred that his identity not be revealed.

"We must not forget that these troublemaking people are the same minority who used to stalk around the streets of the city, arresting, beating and expressing contempt for ordinary people's social freedoms before the reformists took power eight years ago. Then the hard-line Basijis started to fade away, but now after the election of president Mahmood Ahmadinejad, they and Ansare Hezbollah hardliners are now back again. They are very few in number, but very powerful, as they are backed by the regime's highest authorities."

Hardliner Political Power

At the core of the Basiji and Ansare Hezbollah Islamist fundamentalists' new power are a few hardliners in the Iranian government whose power is directly granted by the Supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.

Since Ahmadinejad's election, Basiji authority has increased tremendously in legal circles. They have even been granted the judiciary standing to directly interfere in some criminal investigations.

The new president has also selected figures with clear intelligence and military backgrounds for his cabinet; some even suspected by human rights organizations of directing the murders of thousands of political prisoners.

The reactions of Iranian authorities toward recent international conflicts — the cartoon controversy, for instance — has by no means been discouraging for the hardliners.

The first official reaction to the publishing of the cartoons came from president Ahmadinejad. He ordered his government to put an import ban on Danish goods and to reconsider commercial ties with the European countries whose newspapers had reprinted the cartoons.

Next, Danish journalists were banned from Iran. The government even ordered that certain pastries should not be called "Danish cookies" anymore. Such governmental decisions have become the subject of jokes and mockery by Iranians, the definite majority of whom view them as nonsense and absurd.

The fact remains that religion is an integral part of peoples lives in Iran and publicly insulting religious values is not acceptable. Nevertheless, attacks on embassies and similar violent demonstrations are generally detested by the majority of the population.

Caricature Competition

Another example of the hard-liner response to the controversial cartoons is the attempt by one of Iran's state newspapers to organize a competition for the best caricature about the Holocaust. This competition was approved by the culture minister, Hossein Saffar Harandi, a former head of Iran's  most conservative state newspaper, Keyhan.

The idea for the contest came after worldwide condemnation of Ahmadinejad's statement denying the Holocaust and calling it a fable and imaginary. In one of his recent speeches during a visit to one of Iran's smaller towns, the president asked all of the "free Muslims of the world" to rise up and "not to let some weak governments whose existence is because of the Zionist regime, insult the holiness of Mohammad."

"I had said before that from some western governments' point of view, insulting divine prophets is acceptable but questioning the fable of the Holocaust is considered a crime," said Ahmadinejad. "You lie that you are free. You are prisoners of the Zionist regime [Israel]. We suggested that if you are telling the truth, let a group of scientists perform research in Europe, but you even stop your own scientist's from doing so. Your scientists are allowed to do research in any field but the Holocaust."

This issue has drawn greater attention from Iranian authorities after the recent trial and three-year conviction of David Irving, a right-wing British historian who was arrested last November in Austria on charges of denying the Holocaust and the Nazis' extermination of six million Jews, during two speeches that he gave 17 years ago in Austria — a country that considers publicly denying the Holocaust a serious crime.

Many believe Irving's conviction marked a crucial point in the debate about the principles governing freedom of speech in Europe.

Moderate Statements

Some recent statements by Iranian officials regarding the cartoon controversy have been notably moderate. Foreign minister Manoochehr Mottaki, for instance, made the following comments during a press conference in Vienna:

"There are two different issues, one is freedom of speech which must be respected and the other is religious values that on the other hand we have to remain respectful of as well," he said. "Our European friends insist that this event [the Holocaust] has happened within the mentioned dimensions and scope. We have nothing against that. The only question for us is why the consequences of such a horrible crime must be paid by Muslims."

What Mottaki was alluding to was the mass migration of Jews to the state of Israel after the Second World War and their ensuing conflict with the Palestinians. The Iranian government remains a close ally of Palestine, the ties becoming even stronger after the election of the fundamentalist Hamas militia party.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Niusha Boghrati.