By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 29, 2009
TEHRAN, June 28 -- With the opposition visibly weakening in Iran amid a government crackdown, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his supporters have begun to use his disputed victory in this month's election to toughen the nation's stance internationally and to consolidate control internally.
In recent days, they have vilified President Obama for what they call his "interventionist policies," have said they are ready to put opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi's advisers on trial and have threatened to execute some of the Mousavi supporters who took to the streets to protest the election result.
On Sunday, news agencies reported that the police broke up another opposition gathering -- witnesses said it numbered about 2,000 -- and detained eight British Embassy staff members, accusing them of a role in organizing the demonstrations.
The actions reflect the growing power of a small coterie of hard-line clerics and Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders, Iranian analysts say. Revolutionary Guard members, in particular, have proved instrumental to the authorities since the June 12 election, and analysts say their clout is bound to increase as the conflict drags on.
The emerging power dynamics leave Mousavi with tough choices. Confronted with increasing political pressure over what supporters of the government say is his leading role in orchestrating riots, he can either acknowledge his defeat and be embraced by his enemies or continue to fight over the election result and face imprisonment.
"Everything now depends on Mousavi," said Amir Mohebbian, a political analyst. "If he decreases the tension, politicians can manage this. If he increases pressure, the influence of the military and security forces will grow."
Should he continue to fight, other analysts say, Mousavi and many of his advisers could be jailed, which would mean the end of their political influence within Iran's ruling system. The exclusion of such a large group would end Iran's traditional power-sharing system. Authority would rest in the hands of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, and his supporters, leaving the parliament as the lone outpost of opposition voices.
On the other hand, accepting defeat might allow Mousavi to create a political party that, although unable to challenge the rule of Khamenei, could give him an opposition role during Ahmadinejad's second term. Mousavi's supporters, who are still enraged over post-election violence that they blame on the government, would be extremely disappointed by such a move.
The one possible wild card in Mousavi's favor seems to be coming from the holy city of Qom, one of the most influential centers of Shiite learning. There, several powerful grand ayatollahs have issued statements calling for a compromise and, most tellingly, have not joined Khamenei in his unequivocal support of Ahmadinejad.
"Events that happened have weakened the system," Grand Ayatollah Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardabili said during a meeting with members of the Guardian Council, the semiofficial Iranian Labor News Agency reported Saturday. "You must hear the objections that the protesters have to the elections. We must let the people speak."
Another grand ayatollah issued two fatwas, or religious edicts, on Saturday, saying Islam forbids security forces from hitting unarmed people. Grand Ayatollah Asadollah Bayat Zanjani said the protests were Islamic. "These gatherings are the lawful right of the people and their only method for informing the rulers of their requests," he said.
Mousavi and another opposition candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, have vehemently refused to recognize the election results, which officially gave Ahmadinejad a landslide victory. They have also declined to participate in recount efforts by the Guardian Council, which must certify the final results Monday but which the opposition insists is biased.
Their refusal plays into the hands of the president's camp, which, strongly supported by state media, has launched a campaign against Mousavi, the protesters and his advisers. According to the official narrative of this campaign, opposition unrest was fomented by Iran's foreign enemies -- including the United States, Great Britain and Saudi Arabia -- in an attempt to overthrow the regime.
The Iranian government and its allies are gearing up to use those accusations to bring to court some political opponents, a move aimed at silencing the opposition for a longer period, analysts here say. The Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights said Sunday that more than 2,000 people are in detention and that hundreds more have gone missing since the election.
"We are very worried about my husband's fate," said Mahdieh Mohammadi, wife of journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi, a government critic. He was arrested the day after the election. "When you know nothing at all for the past two weeks, naturally you start to worry about everything."
State media have rolled out a daily serving of alleged plots and conspiracies involving Mousavi supporters. They refer to the protesters as "rioters" and "hooligans." Mousavi's aides are linked to plans for "a velvet revolution" meant to overthrow Iran's complex system of religious and democratic governance. Some demonstrators have been forced to make televised statements in which they admit to being the pawns of foreigners.
The head of the parliament's judicial commission has said that Mousavi could be put on trial. Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a staunch ally of Iran's supreme leader, called Friday for "severe and ruthless" punishments for the "leaders of the agitations," asking the judiciary to try them as those who "wage war against God." Such crimes are punishable by death under Iran's Shiite Islamic law.
Khamenei has said that those organizing the "riots" will be held responsible for the "violence and bloodshed." He has openly supported Ahmadinejad, breaking with the Islamic republic's tradition of the supreme leader being above the fray.
The Revolutionary Guard Corps, whose power mushroomed after the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, respectively, is in position to gain even more sway in the government. The 120,000-member corps acts as a praetorian guard, protecting Iran's Islamic ruling system, and its commanders are close to top Iranian leaders. In recent years, the corps has added divisions, expanded its intelligence operations, helped professionalize the voluntary militia known as the Basij and taken greater control of the borders.
"We are now in a security situation. That is increasing their influence," said Mohebbian, the analyst, who is critical of both main presidential candidates. "Mousavi's extremist actions have made it easy for military people to get involved in politics, which is always bad for democracy."
Former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an Ahmadinejad rival who supported Mousavi, on Sunday broke his post-election silence and called for an investigation into complaints of election irregularities.
"I hope those who are involved in this issue thoroughly and fairly review and study the legal complaints," Rafsanjani said.
Special correspondent Kay Armin Serjoie in Tehran contributed to this report.