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'We Could Have Used An RPG' Against Dervishes, Says Police Chief

Gathering of Gonabadi Dervishes in front of Pasdaran Police Station in protest to arrest of Nemat Riahi, on Monday February 19, 2018.

After days of bloody clashes between dervishes and security services, a dervish leader has implored his followers to remain calm despite continued threats from authorities.

Followers of the Gonabadi order of dervishes are gathered outside the home of their leader, 90-year-old Nour Ali Tabandeh, in northern Tehran, where they have refused to move, despite confrontations with police.

“We could have hit the residence with a rocket-propelled grenade and leveled it to the ground, but we acted with intelligence and authority,” Tehran police chief and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Brigadier General Hasan Rahimi told state-run TV. He went on to declare that his forces have cleaned up the street of “thugs” and “rioters.”

The threat by a police chief to use an anti-tank weapon against unarmed people followed a tough statement by President Hassan Rouhani that no one should mess with law enforcement personnel.

Many more officials, including the Islamic Republic’s Prosecutor-General and mid-ranking cleric Mohammad Jafar Montazeri have also lambasted Gonabadi dervishes.

“The main sources of the recent clashes are definitely outside Iran, and we have come by evidence and clues pointing to that,” said Montazeri without elaboration.

Witnesses say Gonabadi dervishes were peacefully assembled in front of their leader’s house when security agents and plainclothes police on motor bikes stormed into the rally to disperse them.

Gonabadi dervishes originally assembled in front of Police Station 102 on Pasdaran avenue February 20 to protest the detention of one of their fellows, Nematollah Riahi.

On February 5, it was reported that for the second time in less than two weeks plainclothesmen affiliated with the intelligence organs of the Islamic Republic attacked demonstrators gathered in front of Tabandeh’s home.

A bus ploughing into security forces during February 19 protests.
Video: Bus Rams Into Riot Police
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Majzooban-e Noor (Enchanted by Light), a website affiliated with Gonabadi dervishes, reported that security agents had set up a checkpoint and surrounded Tabandeh’s residence February 17, and his followers regrouped to push the security services out. At 7 a.m. the next morning, clashes again broke out between Tabandeh’s supporters and Baseej militia forces. Unrest continued for the next two days.

Iranian officials say three police officers and two Baseej militiamen were killed. There are also reports of several dervishes being killed. The police say more than 300 dervishes were detained, and the Enchanted by Light website says the whereabouts of hundreds of dervishes is still unknown.

Meanwhile, photos and video of dervishes being brutally beaten have been widely circulated on social media.

According to state-run Islamic Republic News Agency, IRNA, Tabandeh issued a statement February 21 “strongly condemning bloody clashes near his home.”

According to IRNA the statement read “In recent days, bitter incidents took place around my residence in defiance of religious and mystic principles under false excuses .... that made me sad. Negligence, poor judgment, and failure to abide by my direct orders and advice on the part of some dervishes caused the incidents which we do not support at all. We condemn such behavior.”

Nevertheless, Iranian authorities say they are resolved to suppress the protests with utmost force.

Tabandeh, a lawyer educated in France, was appointed as the leader of Gonabadi dervishes in 1996, replacing his father, Mahboob Ali Shah who died that year.

Dervishes are members of a Sufi Muslim religious order who have taken vows of poverty and austerity. Dervishes first appeared in the 12th century; they were noted for their wild or ecstatic rituals and were known as dancing, whirling, or howling dervishes according to the practice of their order.

There are various orders of dervishes, almost all of which trace their origins to various Muslim saints and teachers, especially the first Shi’ite Imam Ali bin Abi Talib. Dervishes later spread into North Africa, Afghanistan, the Balkans, Caucasus, India, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Turkey.