The hard-line Islamic vigilantes circled us. Wearing their trademark beards, untucked long-sleeve shirts and green headbands, they chanted progovernment slogans, occasionally crying out “Allah Akbar” (God is Great) or “Death to the foreign mercenaries,” as they circled and scowled.
Our unaffiliated group, standing near a shuttered corner market in Tehran University just after 8 pm on July 9, shuffled nervously. Most had come to see what might happen on this night–the highly anticipated fourth anniversary of Iran’s pro-democracy student protests, which rocked the country. Few were political activists, students or organized protesters, let alone “foreign mercenaries”; they were housewives, middle-class professionals, a few students, some disaffected, unemployed young men and an elderly couple that I instinctively wanted to protect.
The “vigilantes,” as they are commonly called by the Western media, are affiliated, paid for and organized by hard-liners in Iran’s government, which makes them more accurately “thugs for hire.” Members of the group, known as Ansar-e Hezbollah, have committed some of the most violent acts against student protesters in the past four years. In one instance, they entered a student dormitory brandishing clubs and lashing students with chains. In another, they threw a student out a window to his death. They have also been linked to the killings of some eighty dissidents and writers, dating back to 1988.
The Ansar-e Hezbollah, though a small part of the vast security apparatus controlled by Iran’s conservative ruling clergy, play an increasingly important role: intimidating protesters, thinning crowds, carrying out mafia-style “hits” (like the 2000 assassination attempt on reformist strategist Said Hajjarian by an Ansar leader) and delivering harsh reminders of who is in control. In fact, crowd control and “dissent management,” as one Iranian official put it, has become an increasingly important part of statecraft in today’s Islamic Republic as Iranians, seething with a wide range of economic, political and social discontents, erupt in protest with some regularity.
As I watched the government’s display of force playing out before my eyes that evening–including helicopters circling overhead, elite units of antiriot police standing ready, and plainclothes Intelligence Ministry agents buzzing around on motorbikes, I remembered what Morad Saghafi, a leading Iranian prodemocracy intellectual, told me: “Politics is dying. Now, everything comes down to force.”
The crowd of some 5,000 to 10,000 residents who made it to the university area was largely leaderless, frustrated and afraid. “I came to see what might happen, to see what the students will do,” Mohsen, a middle-aged engineer told me. “I’ve lost hope in the politics of reform.” He added, “They can’t get anything done,” echoing widely heard sentiments as the country’s reformist movement withers under a conservative assault. Laleh, a 33-year-old housewife, said: “I’m not sure what will happen tonight. I am hoping for something big. I’m waiting for the students, but I find all of this intimidating.”