Some of the most dramatic pictures to emerge from the postelection protests in Iran are not the usual kind one sees when security forces try to clear the streets.
Instead, the pictures appear to show civilians battling civilians.
All the subjects in these pictures are wearing street clothes and at first glance appear to be normal people from different walks of life. The only difference between them is that some have police-issue clubs, and others do not.
The men with the clubs are arguably the most feared and hated of the many forces the government deployed against the people who protested the June 12 presidential election results.
They are also the force that is least understood outside of Iran, precisely because of their plainclothes appearance. They are commonly said to be hard-line vigilantes who aggressively attack a crowd before the police arrive, or while the police stand by, then melt away again as quickly as they appeared.
But the vigilantes have repeatedly taken such a prominent part in crackdowns on protests in Iran that they are clearly more than the kind of spontaneous group their name and behavior implies.
In fact, they are an informal but highly organized network of volunteers that has both a strong ideological and financial interest in maintaining the status quo in Iran.
And they are recognized by officials as such a powerful tool for intimidating ordinary citizens that neither the police nor any other judicial authority tries to stay their hand.
The result is that the vigilantes literally get away with murder.Same Tactics A Decade Earlier
Ten years ago, the spark for the student unrest in Iran of 1999 was a vigilante attack on a group of young people protesting the closure of a popular reformist newspaper. At least one student, Ezzat Ebrahim Nejad, was clubbed to death while police stood by.
Immediately afterwards, protests spread across campuses around the country demanding the dismissal of police officials and more reforms, including a strengthening of the rule of law in Iran.
But the student protests were quashed by a massive deployment of security forces in scenes very much like those in Tehran and other cities last month.
How many people were killed in the protests last month over the presidential election results remains unclear. Press-TV, the English-language outlet for Iran's state media, put the death toll at 20 and reported that eight of those killed were members of the paramilitary Basij militia. But many sources inside Iran report that scores of protesters were killed.
The use of vigilantes so outrages ordinary citizens that one activist group in Iran has set up a blog
to post photos of the plainclothes men in an effort to identify them. The “name and shame” effort offers readers the chance to spot people they may be able to recognize and then send in matching photos of them in ordinary life to expose them.
The blog offers some surprises which, if correct, give a sense of the range of people involved in the vigilante network. No independent verification of the photos is immediately possible.
The blog matches a photo taken by protestors of a man pulling a pistol from his belt as he rides on the back of a motorcycle with a picture of what is says is the same man at his workplace. The website identifies him as the owner of a steel factory in north central Iran.
The Lebasshakhsi blog has attempted to identify the vigilantes by posting photos
The blog urges people not to seek retribution against the families of those whose pictures it posts.
The plainclothesmen come from the ranks of organizations like the Basij militia and the Revolutionary Guards, the political wing of the Islamic republic’s security forces.
They also come from groups like Ansar Hizbullah, a public but secretive vigilante group that advocates the harsh repression of dissidents and a totalitarian theocracy headed by the supreme leader.Friends In High Places
Former members of the vigilante network say that membership brings powerful connections to hard-line officials and the government offices they control. The key to the network is a catchphrase that became common among soldiers in the Iran-Iraq War: “eltemas-e-doa,” or “pray for us.”
Amir Farshad Ebrahimi, a former member of Ansar Hizbullah who fled to Germany, says senior members of the network request favors from officials for lesser members.
“I confirm that, for example, Mr. X is a member of Ansar Hizbullah but he also has a travel agency selling plane tickets,” he said. “This agency has expenses such as paying taxes, but things like taxes can be overlooked when someone like me calls [an official] and tells him this guy is one of us and please support him.”
The request for support – in a phone call or letter to the official – is couched in indirect language that often includes such ambiguous phrases as asking for “prayers” for the beneficiary.
The way the vigilantes are called into action is also indirect.
The call for action usually takes the form of a hard-line cleric saying that protests have become intolerable and that the protestors have forsaken Islam.
Usually, those calls are made quietly. But last month they could be heard at an astonishingly public level.
On June 27, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami used the Friday Prayer sermon at Tehran University to label any protestors taking part in “destructive acts” as muharib, or enemies of God.
“Islam says that muharib should receive the severest of punishments,” said Khatami, who is a confidant of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. He then called on “officials of the judicial branch to deal severely and ruthlessly with the leaders of the agitations.”
He did not publicly call for vigilantes to attack the muharib. But he did not need to. Similar statements from like-minded clerics already sent them into the streets armed with clubs, knives, and pistols days before.No Sense Of Justice
The fact that the police stand by as vigilantes attack protesters makes a mockery of any arguments that the government is cracking down on street protests to preserve law and order.
Worse still, the vigilantes’ appearance alongside the regular police undermines any sense of public confidence in the legal structures of the state. And it removes any sense that those structures can be depended upon for justice.
That’s the kind of loss of public trust that most governments worry about. But the use of shadow structures like vigilante groups has been a part of the Islamic republic since the clerical revolutionaries around Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini used them to undermine the early coalitions that ruled Iran following the toppling of the shah in 1979.
The purpose at that time was to take over the government from the coalition partners by crippling its function and destroying public confidence in it.
Why the Islamic republic continues to have shadow structures alongside the government today can only raise a host of questions about the motives of those who employ them.
In recent decades, the hard-liners have used vigilantes, their control of the judiciary, and arbitrary arrests to defeat reformists as if the hard-liners were a revolutionary group seizing power within an established state.
The result has been two major waves of unrest in the past 10 years: the student protests of 1999 and the postelection protests last month.
Now, with the election protests producing the worst unrest since the early days of the Islamic Revolution, the Islamic republic has reached a crossroads. And the presence of the vigilantes helps to clarify what is at stake.
The confrontation, as the protestors themselves know, is no longer about who won or lost the presidential election. It is about the future course of the Islamic republic and who sets it.