x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Mousavi urges peaceful protests

Fear among opposition activists in Iran has given way to anger and resentment against the Ahmadinejad regime.

A riot policeman hits a motorcyclist with a baton during a protest against the election results this month.
A riot policeman hits a motorcyclist with a baton during a protest against the election results this month.

With brute force and dire threats, the Iranian regime has succeeded in crushing the biggest anti-government demonstrations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Waves of night-time arrests have spread fear among opposition activists. But the regime's victory may yet prove to be Pyrrhic. Millions of Iranians are seething with fury and the leadership of the Islamic Republic has never been so divided, its rifts never so damagingly transparent. And despite intimidation and harassment, Mir Hossein Mousavi, the man millions of Iranians believe was the rightful winner of the June 12 election, remains defiant in his demand for a new election.

By allowing the presidential elections to be rigged, as it is alleged, the regime and its unelected supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have chosen raw power over any semblance of popular support they once cherished. And by committing himself to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's tainted victory as president, the supreme leader no longer can claim that he is above factional politics. With cavalier recklessness, even relish, the regime is attempting to scapegoat what Ayatollah Khamenei yesterday called "idiotic" western powers for the post-election street unrest. Britain has been singled out for particular rhetorical venom and other action: eight local staff at its Tehran embassy were arrested yesterday. All this is serving to deepen Iran's international isolation at a time when the republic needs to resolve the nuclear dispute with the United States to reduce the possibility of external threat.

The hardliners now at Iran's helm appear unperturbed by this. "Although the antipathy between Iran and the West dates back to 1979 and beyond, the external threat is only really there at the pitch it is at today because Iran has ramped up the nuclear issue," said Michael Axworthy, the director of the centre for Persian and Iranian Studies at Exeter University in England. "The regime is happy to be in this extreme position where they camp in a corner and abuse everybody else. They are bringing the external issue on to the domestic front by accusing foreigners of organising the demonstrations and so on," said Mr Axworthy, author of Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran. The iron-fisted tactics deployed by the regime to quell street protests has left millions of Iranians stunned, reeling and depressed - but it has only fed their feelings of anger, resentment and betrayal. "Under the ashes, the embers are burning" is now a commonly heard phrase in Tehran.

Police are watching Mr Mousavi's every move. Many of his aides have been arrested or put under house arrest and he has only limited ability to communicate with his team and followers. With Mr Mousavi so constrained, there is no figurehead to channel and organise the widespread popular anger and resentment against the regime. A hardline ayatollah last Friday called for people who protest on the streets to be charged with waging war on God, an offence that carries the death penalty in Iran.

In one of the most extensive crackdowns in three decades, the Iranian government has detained more than 2,000 people with hundreds more missing, according to human rights groups. Among those arrested are hundreds of activists, journalists and students across the country. The arrests have drained the pool of potential leaders of a protest movement that is convinced Mr Ahmadinejad "stole" the election by fraud. The detentions also point to the potential for high-profile trials - and serious sentences - before a special judicial forum created to handle cases from the unrest. State media have been running clearly forced confessions from alleged protesters who say they acted on behalf of Britain and other western countries in an attempt to destabilise the government.

Sensibly, Mr Mousavi has told his followers to hunker down for a long struggle that he insists must remain peaceful. That struggle has now shifted from the streets to the fractured inner core of the Iranian system. Here, Mr Mousavi has been supported by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an influential cleric, the former president and founding father of the Islamic Revolution, and one of Iran's wiliest political operators. Tehran is swirling with rumours about how he may be manoeuvring behind the scenes. One suggestion is that he is lobbying members of the Assembly of Experts - Iran's top clerical body which he chairs - to replace the supreme leader with a small council of senior ayatollahs, of which Ayatollah Khamenei would be a member. But most analysts doubt Mr Rafsanjani would dare such a drastic move without a firm indication in advance of success.

Certainly, Mr Rafsanjani has deep grievances with the supreme leader and his protégé president. During the election campaign, Mr Ahmadinejad publicly accused Mr Rafsanjani's wealthy family of corruption. Mr Rafsanjani wrote an angry open letter to Ayatollah Khamenei, urging him to rein in his turbulent president or risk "fire ? flaring during and after the election". A daughter and four other members of Mr Rafsanjani's family were also briefly detained in the post-election turmoil. But his dispute with the supreme leader and the president is more than personal. Mr Rafsanjani is concerned about the future of the Islamic Republic he helped found and to whose preservation he remains dedicated.

He, like many of Iran's clerical and political old guard, is said to be deeply concerned that the centres of influence they have built up and depended on over the years are being sidelined by the militarisation of the Islamic Republic. Abetted by Ayatollah Khamenei, the president has elevated former members of the Revolutionary Guard to important political posts while the elite force itself has been given lucrative economic roles in Iran's ports, oil fields and missile and nuclear programmes.

The president and supreme leader in turn can rely on the loyalty of the Revolutionary Guard, which has a vested interest in preserving the situation created by the disputed election outcome. "It's a different sort of Islamic Republic now, one that is heading in a direction that would leave him [Mr Rafsanjani] isolated," Mr Axworthy said. "He has influence and a degree of power but it's mainly soft power and whether he's able to actually make anything happen at this stage remains to be seen."

Last night, Mr Rafsanjani was avoiding open confrontation with the regime and appeared to be mediating an end to the crisis behind the scenes. He was quoted by Iranian news agencies praising a decision by Ayatollah Khamenei last week to extend a deadline for Iran's top legislative body to receive and look into complaints of electoral fraud by the nominally defeated presidential candidates. mtheodoulou@thenational.ae