Iran on the edge
Riots and violence have followed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s controversial election victory. now, with protesters’ reprisals and an imposed media blackout, tehran is teetering on the brink of chaos. By Trevor Royle, Diplomatic Editor
WITH A relentlessness that seems all the more brutal in view of the optimism which accompanied last weekend's flawed election, Iran's religious leaders are slowly trying to squeeze the life out of their country's short-lived "velvet revolution". Dreams that the moderate Mir Hussein Mousavi might take over from the hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have slowly crumbled into ashes, leaving the country involved in a bitter power struggle as the pro-democracy supporters continue to occupy the streets of Tehran despite a stark warning from the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei that they will be violently repressed.
Yesterday's demonstrations were declared to be illegal and the authorities promised that they would deal with them more severely than they had previously. "I should emphasise that all protests held in the past week were illegal and beginning today any gathering critical of the election would be illegal," deputy national police commander Ahmad Reza Radan told the semi-official Fars news agency. "And police will deal with it firmly and with determination."
Most critics of the regime believe that the situation will only get worse. In 1979, Mohsen Sazegara was a founder of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and later became deputy prime minister for political affairs; six years ago he went into exile and is now a prominent Middle East analyst in Washington. On Friday, he issued a stark warning that a violent crackdown on Mousavi's supporters is now inevitable.
"People are going to be killed in the streets defending the rights of the people to have their own will to choose their government," he said.
Sazegara's warnings have been echoed by independent witnesses who cannot be named because of the threat of retribution by the authorities. Many of them argue that it is only a matter of time before more extreme violence is used to crush the revolution once and for all - "crackdowns and arrests are coming soon," said one who has managed to leave the country.
As an extraordinary week unfolded in Tehran, the pro-democracy supporters were brutally repressed - 13 of their number are reported to have been killed, although that tally could be higher. Then the Ayatollahs turned their attention to creating a news blackout. Reporting restrictions are now the most oppressive seen in any country since the Chinese government silenced their own people in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacres 20 years ago.
Just as Winston Churchill envisaged the Soviet Union creating a monstrous metal screen to throttle the aspirations of eastern Europe after the second world war, so too has the west been forced to stand by and watch helplessly as Iran's Ayatollahs rob their people of their democratic rights by cutting off the country from the rest of the world.
This is not just a regional problem - the crushing of Iran's velvet revolution has global implications. The country is a major oil producer and is on the point of developing its own nuclear facilities; weapon production will soon not be an impossibility. It is ruled by a supreme council of conservative religious theorists, yet, as the recent election campaign proved all too clearly, it is also home to hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young, who want to embrace the modern world and yearn to live in peace with countries like the US which the Ayatollahs damn as the "Great Satan".
Hardly surprisingly the alarm bells are already ringing loudly in Washington where the US State Department is on the high alert in an attempt to understand what is happening in Iran and, if possible, to counter its worst effects. When Barack Obama came to power earlier this year, the new president offered to hold out the hand of friendship to Iran in an attempt to encourage it to return to the international fold.
His efforts were rebuffed by Khamenei and his protege President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, both of whom are playing the central roles in ensuring the election vote is accepted. Now Obama is under pressure to respond more forcefully, but despite Republican jibes that he has been "tepid", sources close to the president say that he is not going to be pressurised into a hasty or intemperate response and is unlikely to offer unequivocal support to the demonstrators.
"Obama is wisely showing restraint for now," argues Robin Wright, of the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington think-tank. "Maybe down the road he needs to say something, but the minute we weigh in, the minute we say the things that we obviously feel, is the moment that the regime blames us for everything."
Just over a week ago it seemed almost certain that there would be a change of government in Iran and a swing towards a more balanced form of rule. That changed when the results came in last Sunday, giving the victory to Ahmadinejad. Undeterred, the protesters claimed that the vote had been rigged and they remained on the streets to demand a rerun of a clearly unsound election. What followed next was almost pre-ordained. The authorities angrily denied the claims and used violence to silence the protesters. Slowly but surely the means of communications were shut down and Iran became an island isolated from the rest of the world.
Its leaders also made it clear that they have no intention of meeting the demonstrators' requests for an investigation in the electoral flaws, far less their demands for a re-run of the national vote. On Friday, Ayatollah Khamenei addressed the country with a prayer sermon to tell them that the vote would stand and that the demonstrators were part of a western-Zionist conspiracy.
"I am urging them to end street protests, otherwise they will be responsible for its consequences, and consequences of any chaos," he said. "The result of the election comes out of the ballot box, not from the street. If there is any bloodshed, leaders of the protests will be held directly responsible."
This was the first heavy-handed hint that the demonstrators are on a hiding to nothing and that unless the crowds disperse the state will unleash the full apparatus of its security services. Units of the secretive Basiji vigilantes have already shown their capabilities by beating up demonstrators and then merging back into the crowds.
Formed in the 1990s as quasi-official street-enforcers, the Basiji do not wear any uniform but their role is to maintain law and order and, like other secretive groups such as Ansar Hezbollah, they receive training from the Republican Guard. As they seem to answer directly to the Ayatollahs, there is good reason for Iranians to fear that they could be used to restore order by using maximum force.
The violence has not all been one-way traffic. In the past, Basiji vigilantes have been able to operate at will, usually targeting students suspected of entertaining pro-western values, but the sheer weight of numbers has made it difficult for them to function. In several incidents, the crowd turned on the Basiji and beat up the vigilantes or burned their trademark motorbikes. This kind of confrontational behaviour could inflame the situation further as the police or paramilitary forces will not stand by while their fellow law enforcers are given a beating.
If the violence were to spin out of control, it would create a new and dangerous situation - the sight of thousands of innocent, ordinary people being repressed by a government which has no legitimacy - and it would place an enormous burden on the rest of the world, especially the US, to do something. Already rumours have been heard on the streets of Tehran that the US has cut a deal with Khamenei over the nuclear issue and there is a growing feeling among the demonstrators that the US cannot stand by and fail to act.
Ever since President George W Bush named Iran as one of the pillars of the axis of evil, hardliners in Washington have been adamant about the necessity of preventing Iran becoming a nuclear state. At the same time, hardliners in Tehran have been equally inflexible about their country's right to develop whatever systems it feels necessary for their economic well-being and defensive priorities.
In turn, this encouraged Khamenei and his supporters to believe that the US was using the nuclear issue to provoke unrest which would bring down the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Ever since Ahmadinejad came to power four years ago, their argument has been that Bush and Obama are intent on creating ferment in Iran in an attempt to bring them down and install a more amenable government.
Taking lessons learned from recent history, Khamenei argued that the situation would be similar to the overthrow of the Czech government in 1989 when a seemingly impregnable administration succumbed to a "velvet revolution". In the aftermath, the incoming president Vaclev Havel praised the part played by clandestine US support and the memory of those days clearly inspired Khamenei to take the battle back to Washington when he addressed his people at the end of the week.
"American officials' remarks about human rights and limitations on people are not acceptable because they have no idea about human rights after what they have done in Afghanistan and Iraq and other parts of the world. We do not need advice over human rights from them," he warned.
The irony is that this time round, the hands of the US are largely clean. In the Bush administration there were attempts to encourage opposition to the Ayatollahs, but these were abandoned in 2005 when the election of Ahmadinejad showed that the policy was counter-productive. Instead, Mousavi's election campaign seems to have been bank-rolled by a group of more moderate Ayatollahs, led by Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjahni, who is also a wealthy businessman with a wide range of financial activities, many of them shadowy. Until 1997, he was president of Iran and played the part of kingmaker in Khamenei's election to the supreme leadership.
For reasons that are not apparent, the two men are now estranged, leaving Khamenei in a difficult position. He cannot afford to leave Mousavi unfettered as the presence of his supporters on the streets would lead to chaos. They could be cleared quickly and brutally by the Republican Guards, but even a modest death toll would cause outrage in the rest of the world. As Khamenei showed on Friday, his best defence is attack and his speech to the nation made it clear that he would neither yield to the protesters nor, in a coded warning to Rafsanjahni, would he allow any assaults on his personal integrity.
Khamenei's one hope is that the demonstrators will eventually leave the streets of their own accord and that his rival Ayatollahs will throttle back their criticism and not proceed with threats to unseat him as supreme leader. Either way, he is in a difficult position, attempting to run a fractured country which is defying all his efforts to silence it. "We are in for a long summer," says professor Ali Ansari of St Andrews University, who has been much in demand as an Iranian analyst. "The problem is that he will get short-term stability for long-term insecurity."