Monday, February 1, 2010

Iranian ambassador scuffles with French police as his garden party is disrupted

A few dozen green protesters managed to disrupt the Iranian ambassador's garden party in the village of Neauphle-le-Château, west of Paris on Sunday.

Ambassador Seyed Mehdi Mir-Aboutalebi lost his diplomatic poise and charged the protesters who were peacefully standing on the other side of the street and chanting slogans. He was forcefully reined in by the police, as he was in a country other than Iran. A young man, identified by the protesters as the son of an Islamic Republic diplomat, was pinned to the ground and handcuffed. He was released minutes later and silently returned to the compound.

The garden party was part of the anniversary celebrations of the Islamic revolution which officially begin today, February 1. For the past thirty years, the regime has organized commemorations and ceremonies spread across what is known as the Ten Days of Dawn (NB daheyeh fajr). The events lead up to official demonstrations on February 11, the day Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in 1979. The opposition has announced its intention to infiltrate official events and protest the regime during the ten-day period, especially on February 11.

Neauphle-le-Château holds a particular place in the revolutionary mythology of the Islamic Republic. In late 1978, Khomeini left his exile in Iraq and settled here for 106 historic days, during which the sleepy French village was transformed into the nerve center of the revolution. Khomeini flew from Paris to Tehran on February 1, 1979. ( NB The photo to the right shows Khomeini speaking to the press in front of the house he occupied. The bearded man to his right is Ebrahim Yazdi, who would go on to become his foreign minister and is currently in prison in Tehran. The man to Khomeini's left is Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, who would also become a foreign minister of the Islamic Republic and who was executed in 1982 on charges of sedition. Ghotbzadeh was reportedly tortured in prison before 'confessing.')

View Khomeini's house - Neauphle-le-Château in a larger map

The house in which Khomeini resided was torn down years ago, however the Islamic Republic's embassy in Paris organized a luncheon under a tent erected in the property's garden on Sunday. Members of the Paris-based Independent Committee Against the Repression of Iranian Citizens gathered on the sidewalk across the street, holding signs and large photographs of some of the demonstrators who have been killed in Iran. A team from the '20:30' news program on the Islamic Republic's radio-television was also present, but stayed inside the tent. The following is footage of what transpired (NB Go to 1:00 mark to skip the text):

A protester approached the garden gate and told a young man inside, 'You, as a young man, should join the people.' The youth reponded, 'You're not the people.' As the young man walked back towards the tent, the protester said, 'You're my brother. I have no enmity towards you.'

Meanwhile, a caterer's truck was being unloaded next to the house. The letters on the side of the vehicle read 'Emami Tea Paris,' an import-export company and caterer based in Genevilliers, outside of Paris. The Islamic Republic's Paris embassy often calls upon this company's catering services. 'Emami Tea, lackey of the coup plotters,' the protesters shouted (2:30 mark).

The gendarmerie arrived shortly afterwards and one demonstrator took the opportunity to give a police officer a photo of Sohrab Aarabi, 19, who was killed during the post-election unrest. 'Is that him?' the gendarme asked as he took the photo and looked closely at Sohrab's face. 'That's him, sitting next to his mother,' said the green protester. 'The photo was taken the day he was killed.' The gendarme nodded and pocketed the picture.

The group chanted, 'Honorable diplomat, come towards the nation!'

Another demonstrator held up an Iranian flag, the word Iran written boldly in the white band along the middle instead of the Islamic Republic's 'Allah' device. He was less conciliatory as he shouted, 'You criminal lackeys! You'll have to answer to the people some day! Come to this side while you still have time.'

'For 12 years, we've asked for reforms. We're not overthrowers. We're neither MKO, nor monarchist,' called one of the organizers of the protest to an embassy staff member wearing shades. 'Did you kill the kids in the streets because their demands were irrational?' The embassy man's response: 'In any case, some people have to be thinkers.'

As the protesters grew more vocal and demanded that the killings come to an end, the embassy staff member began chanting, 'English lackeys, shame on you!' He was met with laughter, even shared by a man standing next to him, and he stopped his hackneyed tirade as the demonstrators responded with 'Russian lackey!'

Another embassy member called the demonstrators 'sons of whores' from behind the garden fence, but his insult did not particularly faze the greens.

The situation degraded after the arrival of a coach bearing guests. The police officers quickly stationed themselves between the protesters and the passengers descending from the bus. The demonstrators called out 'Death to the dictator' and police had to restrain a man who apparently did not appreciate the words. The police tried to keep the guests moving, but some individuals found the chanting intolerable and would not budge.

Ambassador Mir-Aboutalebi, wearing a light gray jacket and dark pants, came out of the garden gate to greet the guests (NB 5:41 mark). The embassy staff member with shades came next to the bus and listlessly waved his arm in the air and voiced some inaudible counter-slogans as the passengers got off and filed past him. Mir-Aboutalebi began haranguing the gendarmes (NB 6:23 mark), although he cannot be seen very clearly behind the line of officers. He furiously pointed his finger and flailed his arms, but the gendarmes remained nonplussed (NB 6:39 mark).

'One of them jumped behind the line,' a gendarme cautioned his colleague, indicating a young man who had come out of the garden (NB 6:46 mark). Meanwhile the protesters changed their slogan to 'Anti-nation ambassador, shame, shame!' The young man, later identified as the son of an Islamic Republic diplomat, was quickly pulled to the ground by the gendarmes and handcuffed before he could reach the protesters. Tension rose as the ambassador led an unsuccessful charge against the police line.

'Your celebration's been spoiled,' taunted a protester. A young man behind the garden fence hurled projectiles at the protesters (NB 8:57 and 9:05 marks). 'He's throwing rocks,' a woman can be heard on the video. The greens remained calm and stayed on the sidewalk across the street. The young man who had been held by the police was released and he walked back into the garden. The protesters left shortly afterward.

The Islamic Republic News Agency posted an article on the ceremony organized by the Paris embassy, but did not mention the incidents. IRNA did however quote Mir-Aboutalebi, who gave a speech after lunch: 'The small village of Neauphle-le-Château will forever be proud because of the radiance of the heavenly scent of Imam [Khomeini's] spirit.'

Relations between the Islamic Republic and the French authorities have been strained since President Nicolas Sarkozy and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner unequivocally denounced the regime's crackdown. The arrest of French lecturer Clothilde Reiss and her prosecution in the infamous Tehran show trials has compounded the situation.

But Mir-Aboutalebi, who took up his post in 2008, has had a run-in with the French police which is not linked to the post-election unrest. In mid-November, an embassy staff member decided, for reasons which have yet to be elucidated, to file a complaint for financial misconduct at the local police station without going through the usual foreign ministry channels. This diplomat allegedly told the police that a large sum of money was missing from the embassy bank account which contains payments for visas, according to one newspaper report. The French bank where the account is kept had notified the embassy in early November that 'several hundred' bank transfers of less than €1,000 had been made from that account to an offshore account. The money had then been moved back to a French bank account held by two embassy staff members. The investigation was led by the fraud division of the French police. Ambassador Mir-Aboutalebi was reportedly enraged that the senior Iranian diplomat had filed a complaint and the case has been stalled due to the embassy's lack of cooperation.

Mir-Aboutalebi, 57,  initially a civil engineer and businessman, entered the diplomatic corps rather late in his career. According to the Iranian Foreign Ministry, he obtained his engineering degree from 'Columbia University, Missouri, America,' a strange way to refer to the University of Missouri, which is based in the town of Columbia.

Perhaps Columbia University has a nicer ring to it.