Iranian government opponents see executions as warning

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 14, 2010

TEHRAN -- Iranian authorities are taking increasingly harsh measures to prevent protests marking the one-year anniversary of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed reelection, opposition leaders and analysts say, exacerbating political tensions.

Sunday's execution of five people, four of them members of the Kurdish minority, has sparked anger in and well beyond the Kurdish areas, analysts say. The five were accused in a series of bombings, but many here think that two of the convicted were innocent and were hanged in order to spread fear in advance of the June 12 election anniversary.

Analysts also saw a government warning in authorities' decision this week to hand down heavy jail sentences to student leaders in Tehran who were accused of involvement in anti-government demonstrations.

"The government is trying to create a security atmosphere as a crucial month approaches," said Ali Shakorirad, a known government critic. He is one of the leaders of the now-banned Islamic Participation Front, a party highly critical of Ahmadinejad's policies.

Iran's elections last year were followed by months of intense opposition protests and street riots -- the most significant challenge to the central government in years. There is growing speculation that this summer could bring more demonstrations.

Already there are some signs of unrest. Protests broke out at two Tehran university campuses this week when Ahmadinejad and other government officials paid visits. On Thursday, witnesses reported strikes in Iranian Kurdish cities, where many shops were closed in protest of the executions, witnesses report.

"At this point, anything can be a spark for new protests," said Abbas Abdi, a former journalist turned analyst and known critic of the government. "People are still angry and upset."

Government supporters dismiss charges that authorities have launched any crackdown ahead of the anniversary. They say opposition leaders are simply using the executions and fresh jail sentences to reignite anti-government sentiment.

They note that Mir Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, who challenged Ahmadinejad during the elections and now lead a largely dormant grass-roots movement, have called for "events" marking June 12, and both have issued statements harshly condemning the executions.

To government supporters, such moves reek of political opportunism.

"Their movement has lost steam, and its leaders are disillusioned and hopeless," said Amir Mohebbian, a political analyst close to Iran's leaders. "Those executed were terrorists. They who sympathize with terrorists are terrorists themselves."

In Tehran, the focal point of the earlier anti-government demonstrations, residents acknowledge that political tension is more subdued. That could change quickly, though.

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