By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 6, 2009
TEHRAN, Aug. 5 -- As President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took the oath of office for a second term Wednesday, security forces used tear gas and batons to break up street protests, and opposition leaders braced for an intensified purge of dissidents who refuse to accept his disputed reelection.
In his acceptance speech before parliament, Ahmadinejad vowed to protect individual freedoms. But opposition politicians, clerics and artists said they fear a broader crackdown now that Ahmadinejad is beginning his final four-year term. They said they expect the crackdown to go beyond the suppression of street protests, targeting an influential faction that includes founders of Iran's ruling Islamic system.
Opposition leaders and dozens of lawmakers critical of the president boycotted the ceremony, state news media reported. Two days ago, Ahmadinejad, 52, was formally endorsed by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a constitutionally required prelude to the oath-taking.
Speaking in the northeastern city of Mashhad on Friday, Ahmadinejad issued a new threat against unspecified enemies, the opposition newspaper Etemad-e Melli reported. "Let the swearing-in ceremony occur," it quoted him as saying. "Then we will take them by the collar and slam their heads into the ceiling."
"There is no saying what they will do if they are still drunk with power," Rasoul Montajabnia, deputy secretary of the party of defeated opposition candidate Mehdi Karroubi, said in an interview. "This resulted in them losing all their senses. If they want to act outside the law, everything is possible."
In a trial that began Saturday, dozens of prominent political figures were accused of planning a "velvet revolution" to remove Iran's leaders. If they are convicted, analysts said, the government could move to declare their parties illegal, ban their newspapers and jail senior opposition leaders.
In an editorial in the pro-government Kayhan newspaper, editor in chief Hossein Shariatmadari, an adviser to Khamenei, labeled opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, former president Mohammad Khatami and Karroubi "corruption on the earth," a term that calls for cleansing and possible capital punishment under the country's Shiite Muslim system.
"Their unforgivable criminal activities include the killing of innocent civilians, creating unrest, and cooperation with enemies and foreigners," wrote Shariatmadari, whose recommendations in the past have been followed up by intelligence officials. "If these persons are not brought to justice and only the middlemen are prosecuted, a safe margin will be created for them to continue their instigation of sedition," he added.
Other signs of tighter government control are less visible. After the intelligence minister was removed last week, two key directors in the ministry -- including its counterintelligence chief -- were ousted, according to the Ayandeh news Web site. Analysts said many of the ministry's managers are being replaced because they are known supporters of Mousavi.
Even actors who supported Mousavi now fear retaliation. Actress Pegah Ahangarani was arrested last week, and others said they feared that they would be prevented from appearing in films or on television by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
Some analysts said, however, that the opposition has invited the crackdown by promoting demonstrations against the June 12 election results as a way to remain politically relevant. Mousavi and Karroubi have called for the protests to continue.
"They thought they could take over the streets and force the country's leadership to back down," said Amir Mohebbian, an analyst who supports Ahmadinejad's ideology but is critical of his actions. "So the extremists are being purged. But their supporters in the elections, at least 13 million people, cannot be denied."
Mohebbian raised the prospect that Mousavi could be arrested. "If he doesn't stop his continuous calls for protests, he will be put on trial," the analyst said. "Any sentence will be possible."
In his speech to lawmakers Wednesday, Ahmadinejad asserted that there are no divisions in Iran.
"All the people are first-class citizens," he said. "No one must feel that their rights have been taken away from them." Outside parliament, near century-old Baharestan Square, teenage members of the pro-government Basij militia stood guard as members of the Revolutionary Guard Corps used tear gas to disperse people who tried to gather for a demonstration against the inauguration.
"Move along," shouted a man wearing a black uniform and holding a bullhorn. A middle-aged woman in a black chador grabbed a friend's elbow for support but continued walking past dozens of security agents. "Let's just say we are on our way to the hospital," she whispered.
In the United States, meanwhile, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said he misspoke Tuesday when he called Ahmadinejad Iran's "elected" leader. "He's been inaugurated; that's a fact," Gibbs told reporters. "Whether any election was fair, obviously the Iranian people still have questions about that, and we'll let them decide about that."
Pressed on whether the White House thinks the election was fair, Gibbs said: "I think that's for the Iranian people to decide, and obviously there are many that still have a lot of questions."
Special correspondent Kay Armin Serjoie contributed to this report.