x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Public anger to fuel peaceful resistance

Mir Hossein Mousavi and his fellow reformists are urging their followers to pursue their protests against the government by peaceful means.

Iran's leading reformists, braving dire threats, have branded Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government "illegitimate" and signalled their resolve to undermine it by channelling public anger and frustration into new forms of peaceful protest that will neutralise the regime's main weapon: its proven ability and readiness to crack heads on the street. Mir Hossein Mousavi, the man millions of Iranians believe was the rightful winner of the "stolen" June 12 elections, urged his followers on Wednesday to use their "creativity" and find "effective" political, economic and cultural ways for continuing their protests.

"As long as we have hope, this government will not enjoy any real credibility," he proclaimed in a statement on his website, flagrantly defying a dictat from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to accept his president's "epic" re-election or face the consequences. Using a highly resonant phrase, Mr Mousavi also called for the release of "children of the revolution", referring to scores of reformist figures arrested since the election.

Washington is watching the Iran crisis closely. Optimists hope that the government in Tehran may move swiftly to engage with the US in the hope of appeasing Iran's disaffected public, the majority of which favours better relations with the "Great Satan". Such a move might help foster the semblance of stability and enable the government to claim it has credibility with the world's superpower. If such is Tehran's thinking, the administration of Barack Obama could be well positioned to gain concessions from Tehran on the pressing nuclear issue.

Bolstering this theory are attempts by the fundamentalist Iranian regime to scapegoat Britain more than the US for its self-inflicted woes. This could signify a pragmatic intention by Tehran to leave itself the option of responding to Mr Obama's overtures. Washington insists the door remains open for negotiations, despite its deep distaste for Mr Ahmadinejad and the circumstances under which he won re-election.

Pessimists, however, suspect that Mr Ahmadinejad, backed by Ayatollah Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard - which both men have empowered with lucrative oil and infrastructure projects - will shun Mr Obama's outreach to end three decades of enmity. Publicly, Tehran shows no sign of bending. Mr Ahmadinejad declared this week that "we must use all our capabilities to break the monopoly of global powers" in politics and science.

Meanwhile, Iran's top military commander, Major Gen Hassan Firouzabadi, brazenly demanded an apology from the EU for its "huge mistake" of "interfering" in Iran's domestic politics as a condition for re-engaging in stalled talks on Tehran's nuclear programme. For the time being, problems at home are likely to distract the Iranian government. Its power base has been narrowed significantly by its alleged electoral coup - not only against the people - but against leading insiders of the system, such as Mr Mousavi, a former prime minister, and figures who support him, such as Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an influential former president.

Apart from being buffeted by inventive challenges from the opposition, Mr Ahmadinejad can expect a turbulent period during parliament's confirmation of his new cabinet. The 290-seat assembly made apparent its disdain for the "president-select" - a phrase coined by an Iranian analyst - when two-thirds of its members failed to attend Mr Ahmadinejad's "victory" party last month. Mr Mousavi's strategy is two-fold. As well as harnessing people power, he will work with other prominent insiders of Iran's Islamic system who feel that the allegedly rigged election is threatening not only the Islamic republic that they helped found but also their own carefully-nurtured power bases within it.

Mr Mousavi said a group of politicians was joining him in creating a "legal political body to defend citizens' rights and votes that were crushed in the election, to publish documents about the frauds and irregularities and to start legal action". In other words, the opposition aims to create a civil society movement that operates within the law. Iran's charismatic reformist former president, Mohammed Khatami, on Wednesday accused the regime of a "velvet coup against the people and democracy". His words deliberately echoed and subverted those of the government, which has claimed that foreign powers such as Britain and the US stoked the post-election turmoil in the hope of fomenting a "velvet revolution" in Iran.

The opposition is making clear this crisis is of the regime's own making. The main reformist party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front, has declared that Mr Ahmadinejad's purported triumph was a carefully crafted coup - a year in the making - by a fundamentalist part of the regime. The feared government Basij militia, which fronted the iron-fisted response that crushed street demonstrations in the tumultuous wake of the election, has called for Mr Mousavi's prosecution on nine offences, including threatening national security, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail.

But the jittery regime, whose intelligence services are watching Mr Mousavi's every move, has held back from arresting him, although it has detained his inner circle. Hauling in Mr Mousavi himself, however, carries the risk of renewed mass street protests. Moreover, he has instructed his followers to go on general strike if he is detained. Acts of peaceful civil disobedience, such as strikes and work stoppages are options the opposition is clearly considering. Mr Mousavi is keen to keep protests off the streets where it is easier for the regime to respond with violence.

But intermittent mobilisation of his supporters on the streets seems likely on symbolic occasions. One falls on July 31 which marks the end of the 40-day mourning period for Neda Salehi Agha-Soltan, the young female student who was widely reported to have been shot dead by a Basij militiamen during a pro-democracy demonstration. She has become a tragic icon of the opposition, a symbol of the brutal repression meted out by the regime, which crudely has attempted to negate her "martyrdom" by variously blaming her killing on fellow demonstrators, the CIA, agents of Iran's foreign enemies and even - most absurdly - a BBC correspondent.

The government is aware of the spiral of resistance that unfolded during the revolution that toppled the US-backed Shah 30 years ago: his security forces opened fire on student demonstrators, igniting 40-day mourning protests, which created more "martyrs" each time. The regime denigrated pro-democracy protesters as "rioters" and "thugs". But it knows that to most Iranians, they are "children of the revolution".

They want what Mr Mousavi, an insider of the system forced into an opposition role, had campaigned for: the liberalisation of Iran's political and social systems by returning to the original principles of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. mtheodoulou@thenational.ae