OE Watch Commentary: On the evening of 25 February 2018, a Sufi protest against religious repression in Iran and the detention of some of their members in a local police station turned violent when police moved in and clashed with the Gonabadi (Sufi) dervishes. During the ensuing fighting, a bus allegedly driven by a member of the Sufi order and, separately, a car plowed through the assembled police killing three members of the Law Enforcement Forces and two members of the paramilitary Basij. Some reports suggested that one of the officers killed had also been stabbed. The violence injured an additional 30 members of the law enforcement community.
In the excerpted article from Fars News Agency, a hardline government news outlet, the head of the Law Enforcement Forces for greater Tehran announces his expectation that the judiciary will expedite the execution of those allegedly responsible for running over police and Basij with vehicles. The entire episode is revealing on a number of levels. Firstly, despite the Iranian government’s rhetoric of social justice and democracy, it shows lack of judicial independence. Secondly, while political divisions within Iranian society are often depicted as between hardliners and reformers and religious divisions are portrayed as sectarian—Sunni vs Shi’ite Muslims, for example—it is also important to recognize the growing influence and power of Sufism inside Iran (and, for that matter, inside Saudi Arabia where a Sufi underground exists in the Hijaz). That Sufis not only rallied in the heart of Tehran but also fought back violently against the Law Enforcement Forces and the Basij shows that anger percolates not far below the surface of the Islamic Republic. That the video of the bus running down police went viral in Tehran suggests popular curiosity about dissent and could spark copy-cat acts of violence.
The arrests of more than 300 Gonabadis may backfire, as could the execution of the bus and car drivers accused of running over police and Basij, since they could create more grievance and provide martyrs around which to rally. Based on Rahimi’s comments in the article, it does not appear that the Iranian government is prepared to address Gonabadi grievances. His decision to blame external actors fits the conspiratorial template often used by the Iranian government, but does little to address the root causes of discord. End OE Watch Commentary (Rubin)