Arash Bahmani & Keyvan Bozorgmehr
In response to calls by political groups to gather in streets of Iranian cities and towns on February 14 and hold silent marches, and amid the intense presence of security forces to confront opposition demonstrations, Iranian expatriates also participated in gatherings in solidarity with the Green Movement and issued statements calling for the release of Mehdi Karoubi, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Zahra Rahnavard.
Tehran Occupied by Government Agents
The major streets of Tehran were heavily populated with the police and security agents because of the calls by green movement activists to hold protest demonstrations. Security forces began to position themselves on Azadi and Engelab avenues – the main thoroughfares in the capital that are traditionally used by protestors and government marchers – around noon but were soon joined by plain-clothes agents, until about 9pm after which they began to thin out.
Other spots in the capital that witnessed heavy police presence were Azadi Circle – usually the end point of all major demonstrations in Iran – Enghelab Square, Vali Asr Intersection, Kalej Intersection and Ferdowsi Circle. There were about 400 to 500 government forces in each of these spots while Azadi Circle clearly had the largest security presence greater than these estimates.
In some spots such as Ferdowsi Circle Metro station, Vai Asr Intersection Metro station, Tohid Metro Station and Azadi Street Metro station agents had positioned cameras enabling them to video record people as they walked in and out of the station. At about 5PM, cars began to honk, and as their numbers grew government agents moved to the streets to video passing by cars.
Police presence was not confined to the main streets of Tehran as smaller streets that led to the main arteries were also populated with police and security forces. Most of these forces remained in parked buses and mini-buses which were parked on side streets, enabling them to rapidly congregate in specific areas where protestors may have gathered. At the Enghelab Street Bus Terminal too there were several parked buses loaded with security forces. The courtyards of most government agencies on the main Ferdowsi Circle to Azadi Circle stretch were also filled with security agents.
In addition to the police and other security forces, plain-clothes agents were also present at the same scenes and were easily identifiable because of their proximity and behavior even though they did not wear any uniform.
Two groups of 50 motorcycles each and driven by security agents also plied the main Ferdowsi to Azadi stretch in a routine and highly visible manner. These red bikes were driven by identically dressed and helmeted riders. In addition to these riders, there were also plain-clothes riders who roamed the main Ferdowsi-Azadi street in groups of 10 to 15. There was also a third group of security motorbike rider groups who continuously dodged between cars and the traffic in a highly visible and noisy fashion and swayed in and out of bus-designated street lanes.
But perhaps the most visible security agents were those plain-clothes agents who mingled on the sidewalks. Their behavior and even appearance clearly identified them and people who recognized these agents openly passed that information to others walking around them. There were also instances when agents were in hot pursuit of somebody in the streets as the public witnessed a cat and mouse run which also identified the plain-clothes agents. Many agents wore masks to hide their identity, revealing their affiliations and status.
Until 4PM, the flow of people on the main streets appeared normal. After that however, crowds grew larger. For example, the crowds of people on the stretch between Kalej Intersection and Engelab Circle were estimated to be about three to four times larger than normal. One could even recognize some people who had been seen minutes earlier in other parts of the city. The stretch between Engelab Circle and Daneshjoo Park became so crowded and security-controlled after 4PM that it was almost impossible to remain there as agents ordered people to move on and not remain stationary in one spot. People did not remain on the sidewalks and many ventured into the bus lanes from where they could watch events easier and also maneuver if necessary.
Vehicle traffic became denser gradually so that by about 5PM it was moving very slowly and buses would drop off their passengers wherever they could, between bus stops.
Sometime after 5PM news came that clashes had taken place in some spots of the city such as Fatemi Circle and Vanak Circle, and security agents used tear gas to disperse protestors. And as the size of crowds grew, it was almost impossible to walk through some stretches such as street between Enghelab Circle and Vali Asr Circle. At this point, security agents were reported to have formed two lanes on either side of the sidewalk, terrorizing people who walked on the pedestrian sidewalk along the street. In some spots this led to clashes and fights between the agents and the public.
Throughout the march, people remained silent and no chants or slogans were heard. Even their normal communication was limited as they tried to avoid the attention of the security forces around them.
Agents detained many people as darkness approached and took the detainees to spots designated for temporary detention until the end of the protest. One highly visible temporary detention spot was the Jamalzadeh Street Intersection where about 500 detainees could be seen at one time. When anyone was detained by security agents, they would be walked to parked police vans and then transferred to the pre-designated temporary detention spots.
The only time the public demonstrated any loud verbal protest was when someone was taken to a parked police vans and the public would respond with a loud “boo.” In one instance when some people were brought to the Azadi Street Parking, people booed the agents and nearby cars began honking their cars.
As the evening progressed, vehicular traffic became so dense that even security driven motorcycles could not move around on the streets. This led them to park their bikes at some lesser crowded spots and remain stationary but ready to be summoned to a particular trouble spot.
The protestors had come to the streets on calls by green movement activists and political groups such as the Mojahedin Enghelab Eslami (The Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution) and the Shoraye Hamahangi Rahe Sabz (The Coordinating Council for the Green Path). Amnesty International had earlier called on the Iranian authorities to allow people to hold demonstration on this day. Government officials however did not issue a permit for this demonstration, which was not to the surprise of anyone. Also, text messaging services were temporarily unavailable for a few hours during the evening.
Government officials had made varying remarks about the day earlier. Attorney general Gholam-Hossein Ejei for example said a day earlier that public gatherings were related to their seasonal shopping rush. Last year, as similar demonstrators poured into the streets of cities, government and regime officials declared them to be related to the annual shopping rush that is normal during the Persian new year which falls on March 21.
Form Revolutionary Guards commander and current secretary of the State Expediency Council also remarked that people were smarter than to respond to calls by a bunch of “hypocrites” to demonstrate against the regime on the streets. Hypocrites is a term Iranian officials normally use for the Mojahedin Khalq Organization whose leaders remain outside the country.
Bulletin News website affiliated to security forces editorialized on the peaceful marches by saying that its purposes were to “re-establish the leadership position of Mousavi and Karoubi, expand the domestic protest front, boycott upcoming elections, neutralize the February 11 official celebrations marking the anniversary of the 1979 revolution, and prompting a security situation for the country.”
Principlist media mostly kept silent on the demonstrations and the calls of protest activists and leaders. The only exception till the writing of this report was the Bashgahe Khabarnegaran Javan website (Club of Young Journalists) which commented on a BBC report about the demonstrations in the country but denounced it in harsh language.