The Black Wednesday of Izeh: that’s what Iranian media has dubbed the tragic events of Wednesday, 16 November, when seven people were shot dead by gunmen in a busy market amid the unrest and riots that have engulfed parts of Iran after the death of Mahsa Amini two months ago.
Among the casualties were two children: Kian Pir-Falak, age 9 and Abteen Rahmani, age 13. Surprisingly, only Kian’s death has emerged as a matter of dispute between Iran’s government and its opposition, both within the country and among the Iranian diaspora.
For starters, anti-Iran media outlets and their cyberspace supporters pounced on and amplified Kian’s mother’s accusation that Basiji volunteer forces were responsible for her son’s death.
The Basij, originally conceived as a “people’s militia,” is a volunteer paramilitary force that serves under the command of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and participates in internal security and law enforcement duties.
The narratives surrounding the events in Izeh in general and Kian’s death in particular – but not Abteen’s – highlight the level of propaganda that has been employed to shape an image of a brutal, repressive Islamic Republic across the world.
Drone footage released by Iranian intelligence showing how those involved in violence are identified
What happened in Izeh?
The city of Izeh which lies 200 kilometers north-east of Ahvaz – capital of Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province – was restive for three days (15 to 17 November) amid Iranian opposition calls for an uprising against the state. Among the anti-government slogans chanted by the protestors and rioters was “this year is the year of blood….Sayyed Ali (Khamenei) will fall.”
Izeh, with a population of nearly 120,000, was one of the cities involved in both the 2018 and 2021 anti-government protests. Reports suggest that part of this is related to longterm anti-government sentiment among locals belonging to the region’s Bakhtiari nomads. The Bakhtiaris are typically very boastful of Izeh’s natural and pre-Islamic heritage sites that date back to the Achaemenids and Sassanid kingdoms.
Following Kian’s death, western-funded Persian-language media outlets and their supporters immediately blamed Iranian security forces for the 9-year-old’s death by gunfire, calling the government “a child-killer regime.” It is worth noting that Tehran usually uses this expression in condemnation of its arch-enemy Israel.
The main source of this accusation was Kian’s mother. She claims that on 16 November, when the city’s “protesters” announced they were raising arms against the “regime,” her family car passed through a checkpoint where Basiji volunteers had taken position.
The Basij are said to have yelled toward their car, instructing the family to turn around because further down the street armed rioters “were shooting at people.” Kian’s father, however, did not heed the warnings until he reached a juncture where gunmen lay in wait. After he made a sharp U-turn to avoid the danger ahead, further details of the story start to become hazy and the war of narratives starts.
The accusations of Kian’s mother, who recited an insulting nursery rhyme against Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei at the graveyard where her son was buried, were promptly blasted across social media platform, Instagram. She claimed Basiji forces opened fire at their car, killing her young son and wounding her husband.
Video evidence emerges
The IRGC command center in Khuzestan province, however, rejected these accusations in a statement, instead blaming motorcyclists armed with Kalashnikovs for the tragic murder of Kian, another teenager, three Basiji members, and two further Iranian citizens. Nearly a dozen further local people were injured in the shootings that day.
Then two days later, videos of the restive nights in Izeh began spreading on social media. They revealed previously unknown details of the rioters’ activities – from shooting at and throwing stones to destroy local surveillance cameras, to footage of a bloodied naked male running in the street. The opposition accounts that released the naked man’s video claim he was a member of the Basij, stripped bare at the hands of “protesters.”
Khuzestani journalist Esmail Manavi, however, cites locals in Izeh telling an altogether different story. On his Twitter account, Manavi writes that the man was a member of a law enforcement force who was captured by thugs storming a local hospital, and were trying to set him on fire before being rescued by locals.
But the most remarkable footage of all during these events is a three-minute video recorded by a body cam. We don’t know the exact identity of the security forces whose voices can be heard on the video, but Tasnim News Agency reports that they are “guardians of the security,” a phrase often used for Basijis and law enforcement officers.
Footage captured via a body-worn camera shows security forces in Izeh urging cars to turn around in fear of attacks by armed rioters
This clip is significant because it recorded events that led to Kian’s death. Moreover, it contradicts the mother’s claim that her son was killed by bullets shot from the rifles of the Basiji volunteers.
Through the conversations between the security force members recorded by the body cam, we understand that none of them are equipped with rifles or live rounds: they have paintball guns and their shotguns have rubber bullets.
“Please tell them to send us 10 Kalashnikovs,” someone shouts.
Another complains in agony, “they tell us to go to the streets empty-handed.”
A young man tells a senior officer: “Haji, several (forces) have been shot” and the officer asks him: “who? from our men?”
Later the voice of the officer is heard ordering “if you have no firearms, go inside the prayer hall.”
“We have nothing … nobody has anything” responds another man.
Finally, in the last seconds of the video, a man – maybe the senior officer – curses those who deployed them into this debacle. A young man says “remaining here is meaningless.”
As if pointing to his shotgun, a guy called Reza says “what is this? It’s a toy – a toy!”
The security forces can also be heard urging approaching motorists: “Don’t go in that direction, turn over to this side…. they’ll kill you.” Sounds of gunfire are constantly heard in the background.
In the three-minute video, at least 17 passenger cars, a taxi, and a minibus pass through that security checkpoint, but it is unclear which of them is the car the Pir-Falak family – Kian’s family – were traveling in.
A video of a young hospitalized Basij volunteer, speaking with difficulty due to a gunshot wound in his neck, provides further evidence that unknown gunmen were firing live rounds that night. In it, he says his colleagues only had paintball guns with which to defend themselves.
The release of these videos challenge the anti-government opposition narratives that claim Iranian security forces are “killing protesters.” Several officials have insisted that Iranian forces are now forbidden from using firearms to counter the rioters. And to date, dozens of these very security forces have been killed by gunmen – not “protestors.”
What about the other killings?
It is puzzling that while social media attention was focused on Kian and his mother’s fiery accusations against government forces, not a single image has been found of the thirteen-year-old Abteen, who was reportedly killed by rioters that very same night.
What happened in Izeh in mid-November feels increasingly like an operation – one of many, lately – being waged by opposition gunmen to blame both the government and its forces for the death of Iranian civilians.
West Asia, after all, has witnessed one too many “hybrid wars” of late, and skepticism now rapidly replaces the gullibility of yesteryear. The goal of such opposition ops is to kill innocents in order to sway large segments of domestic public sentiment against authorities, to draw security forces into armed confrontation, and to grow – and maintain – the momentum of conflict.
No official data has yet been released on the number of ordinary civilians who have died in Iran’s protests and riots since 16 September, nor are there any details on how they were killed.
According to the deputy head of the IRGC, Brigadier General Ali Fadavi, “at least 60 security forces lost their lives in the past 60 days.”
Even if the current social and political unrest – as with every past anti-government activity in Iran – eventually subsides, we can be sure that the conflict will continue unabated in cyberspace, where rumors and misinformation pose a serious security challenge to the Islamic Republic.