In Iran today no one is safe

Iran has shown that a regime that is not afraid to use violence against its own citizens can crush a protest even when it has broad popular support.

Iran’s supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was categorical: the protests against the controversial outcome of the presidential election had to stop, he said in a speech after last Friday’s prayer.

That was all the Revolutionary Guard and the Baseej street fighters needed. When supporters of opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi took to the streets again on Saturday, they were mercilessly bludgeoned into submission or even shot dead.

The Iranian authorities have acknowledged that at least ten people – “terrorists” they called them – were killed on Saturday. Unconfirmed reports suggest the real death toll may be higher.

For the powers that be in Iran, namely ayatollah Khamenei, who has the last word in the Islamic republic, and his protege Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the situation is crystal clear. The people have spoken – even if they disagree about what they said – and they have chosen Ahmadinejad over Mousavi with 63 to 34 percent. This result, Khamenei said in his speech, cannot be questioned.

And so anyone who disobeys the order of the supreme leader, can now be beaten off the street or arrested. The events of the past weekend show that a regime that is not afraid to use violence against its own citizens can indeed crush a protest – even when it has broad popular support. There are historic precedents in the region: in Syria in 1981, president Hafez al-Assad ordered the town of Hama bombed to quell a revolt by Islamic fundamentalists there. Thousands of people were killed, but the rebellion was crushed.

Parallel to the street protests is a power battle in the highest regions of the Islamic establishment in Iran. Two of the three defeated candidates, Mousavi and the former speaker of parliament Mehdi Karroubi, have said they refuse to accept the official election result. (It is not clear where the third candidate, the conservative Mohsen Rezaie, who initially also questioned the result, now stands.) By doing so, Mousavi and Karroubi are effectively challenging the supreme leader.

Mousavi and Karroubi are both reformist leaders, but they have also been loyal servants of the Islamic regime since the first days of the Islamic revolution. It was only when the massive street protests against Ahmadinejad’s monster score propelled him to the front of the stage that Mousavi revealed himself as a true opposition leader. In a statement on Sunday, he said he had “an historic mission” to “renew the life of the nation”.

Others are on the fence. The conservative speaker of parliament Ali Larijani, has condemned the actions of the Baseej, the paramilitary volunteer forces, against the student protesters. Larijani is not in the Mousavi camp, but last week he distanced himself fom Ahamdinejad on two occasions. Larijani was present when ayatollah Khamenei delivered his sermon on Friday, but he was clearly uncomfortable. On Saturday, he accused the Guardian Council, whose job it is to officially confirm the election result, of being partial – he didn’t need to add that he thought they were being partial to Ahmadinejad.

Mousavi has the support of the powerful ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who presides over the Committee of Experts, which can appoint or remove the supreme leader, and over the Expediency Council, which arbitrates in case of a conflict between the parliament and the Guardian Council.

Two weeks ago, Ahmadinejad launched a public attack on Rafsanjani during a TV debate, accusing him and his family of corruption. In another unprecedented move, Rafsanjani wrote an angry letter to ayatollah Khamenei to complain about Ahmadinejad’s behaviour.

During Friday’s sermon, Khamenei conceded that Ahamdinejad should not have named names during the TV debate. But the supreme leader also said that his outlook was “closer” to that of Ahamdinejad than that of Rafsanjani. By publically endorsing Ahamdinejad, Khamenei effectively ended the myth that the supreme leader is above the fray of politics.

There is speculation inside and outside Iran that Rafsanjani, who has kept quiet since the June 12 election, is trying to gather a majority in the Guardian Council to depose the supreme leader. The question remains whether he still has enough power to do that.

By arresting Rafsanjani’s rebellious daughter Faezeh Hashemi and other members of his family on Saturday – even if some sources say she has since been released – the regime has sent a clear signal: in Iran today, no one is safe.


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