The Iranian regime orchestrates an unconvincing show of support for itself as thousands rally to condemn alleged insults against Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Iran steps up its defiance
The Iranian regime orchestrated an unconvincing show of support for itself yesterday as thousands rallied to condemn alleged insults to the Islamic republic's revered late founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The turnout was far fewer than the "millions" reported by some state media and was seen as an embarrassing disappointment for the government which organised the protests.
"Apart from Press TV, it didn't appear this morning that Iranian state media was even trying to put out the story of a mass demonstration for the regime," said Enduring America, a well-informed blog on Washington's foreign policy, which monitors and analyses the Iranian media. The opposition has staged far bigger street protests in recent months despite threats of "merciless" retribution - while yesterday's rallies were officially sanctioned and encouraged.
Under pressure internally, the Iranian regime maintained its defiant stance to the world, declaring yesterday it would start full-scale uranium enrichment production by March 2011 with advanced models of centrifuges. The boast - following a provocative missile test this week - appeared to be part of a strategy to strengthen Iran's position ahead of an end-of-year deadline to accept a deal to defuse the nuclear stand-off or face further sanctions.
That strategy includes a diplomatic element: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's publicity-seeking president, was at the climate change summit in Copenhagen where he cheerfully blamed capitalism for global warming, blithely ignoring the traffic-induced smog that afflicts Tehran. The Iranian authorities have accused opposition supporters of tearing a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini, an iconic and sacrosanct figure, during student protests on December 7.
State television, which has given little coverage to opposition protests in recent months, repeatedly showed footage of Ayatollah Khomeini's stern-looking portrait being ripped by unidentified hands. Students have denied vehemently any such desecration of the revolutionary figure and voiced suspicions that the regime fabricated the inflammatory pictures to discredit them. Hardliners have called for the arrest of opposition leaders while Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, accused their movement of breaking the law by insulting his predecessor.
Yesterday's paltry turnout at the official rallies suggested the regime has been unable to tarnish the opposition with an anti-revolutionary brush. Opposition leaders also asked for permission to stage an independent demonstration in support of Ayatollah Khomeini's legacy yesterday. Such permission was unlikely to have been granted and it was unclear last night whether any opposition supporters attempted to take to the streets.
Some at yesterday's official demonstration were said to have chanted slogans against Mir Hossein Mousavi, whom millions of Iranians believe was the true winner of June's presidential elections. Mr Mousavi and the opposition's two other main figureheads, Mehdi Karrubi, a former parliamentary speaker, and Mohammad Khatami, the charismatic former reformist president, all have impeccable revolutionary credentials. The trio insist they are loyal to Iran's Islamic system and are striving to save it from dictatorship.
Whether the footage of his picture being desecrated was faked scarcely matters, said Gary Sick, a pre-eminent Iran expert at Columbia University in New York. "The regime is sending a clear message that it intends to treat any political opposition as a challenge to the very concept of the Islamic republic," he wrote in his blog, Gary's Choices. "The lesson is that any crackdown on demonstrators is justified in the name of the sanctity of the revolutionary regime itself."
Threats of arrest, however, have failed dismally to silence the opposition leaders, while repression has been unable to instil paralysing fear into their supporters. In a daring interview with the BBC - which is loathed by the Iranian regime - Mr Karrubi declared Mr Ahmadinejad's government was "only being kept in power by force" and would not see out its four-year term. It faces pressure from the Iranian public, members of parliament and the rest of the world, he said. The government's clampdown on post-election unrest "has not calmed things down at all. In fact, it's just made the chanting louder. It's just increased the people's demands", he said.
Iran is now in the grip of a dangerous stalemate, analysts say. The government is unable to quell protests while the opposition is incapable of forcing change. The way out is for the government to negotiate with the opposition leaders, who are loyal to Iran's Islamic system and are connected to the people, a senior European former diplomat in Tehran said. But the government has slammed the door on them, which could radicalise sections of the opposition into demanding more than just reforming the system, he said.
The authorities are also concertedly denigrating and sidelining another disenchanted pillar of the system, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who could help mediate an end to the crisis. Externally, the Iranian regime appears equally unbending. As well as proclaiming that Iran is testing a new, advanced generation of uranium enrichment centrifuges, Tehran's nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, yesterday announced that Iran has more than 6,000 centrifuges currently in operation. That is 2,000 more than the figure mentioned in last month's report by the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
"We plan to use them by 2011 after eliminating problems and defects," Mr Salehi said. Nuclear experts say the new centrifuges are capable of doubling or tripling the output rate of Iran's current P-1 machine, which are of 1970s vintage and prone to breakdown. Iran has been given three sets of UN Security Council sanctions for defying calls to halt uranium enrichment. The United States and major European powers are threatening to push for a further set next month unless Tehran accepts an IAEA-brokered deal to defuse the crisis.