Iran under pressure
As internal political conflicts intensify, Iran will be subjected to ever more stringent scrutiny of its nuclear programme and subsequent sanctions, writes Mustafa El-Labbad
Iran was hurtled into the New Year by repercussions of the protests that took place in numerous cities on the occasion of Ashura, the day that Shia Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of Al-Hussein who they regard as their third imam. Iranian security forces came down with a much heavier fist than ever against demonstrators in Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz and Tabriz, successfully quelling the demonstrations before they could build up into a mass civil disobedience movement or even attract new segments of society to their ranks. The Iranian regime elevated security measures to an unprecedented level as Iranian Intelligence Minister Heidar Maslahi announced that some 60 foreign organisations were involved in the "soft war" against Iran.
Iranians were cautioned against dealing with such notable universities, research centres and human rights and democracy advocacy groups such as Yale University, the National Defence Collage, Stanford University, the Soros Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute, the Brookings Institute, the Carnegie Foundation, the Middle East Media Research Institute, the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe, the German Marshall Fund, the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, the International Republican Institute, the Inter- American Institute for Human Rights and the Council on Foreign Relations. The aftermath of the heavy-handed clampdown on the Ashura day protests will continue to haunt the regime in 2010, domestically, in its foreign policy and in its handling of the Iranian nuclear question.
Evidently, the Ahmadinejad camp is content with branding his opponents as agents of the West. Western powers desperately want to change Iranian intervention in the region and it wants Tehran to make major concessions on its nuclear enrichment activities.
However, does the West really have all that influence inside Iran? Does it control the means to set mass demonstrations going on in several cities at once? The very notion is rather farfetched, which leads us to believe that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad feels confident enough in the power of his security agencies to avoid having to engage his opponents in dialogue. And, as a matter of fact, his security agencies have not let him down yet. However, the "soft war" rhetoric indicates that the regime has notched up its campaign against the opposition several degrees, as it lays the legal groundwork for mass arrests and witch trials of opposition leaders and their supporters.
In spite of the iron grip over the streets in Iranian cities, the demonstrations resulted in a net loss for Tehran. In the eyes of the region and the rest of the world, it has exposed itself as a regime that brutally represses the opposition after long having boasted of its democratic lead (within the framework of its Islamic republican system) over other countries in the region. In terms of domestic balances, the last two weeks have brought a significant development in the reference to the protesters in the media and political literature. Whereas until this point they had been termed "reformist demonstrators" they are now labelled "opposition demonstrators".
This may well signal the end of the days of the conservative and reformist wings within the regime and usher in a period of sharper polarisation reminiscent of the pro- and anti-government camps during the pre-revolutionary period.
The shift in rhetoric may also be tacit acknowledgement of another development. Until the past few weeks, the opposition, from the supporters of the Shah and the monarchists on the right to the communists and Mujahideen--e Khalq on the left, were located on the outside. The United States and Europe served as the bases for their political parties and organisations, which had lost all effective presence in Iran. Now, however, it appears that there has emerged a new opposition to the regime, one located inside the country and spread across its major cities. And, there is another that has not locked itself into ideological pens. This development should not be underestimated in terms of its impact on the political balances and dynamics in Iran.
Former prime minister Mir-Hussein Mousavi was cast into centre stage in the Iranian scene following the 10th presidential elections. Mousavi fielded himself as the reformist candidate and the election results triggered widespread protests among reformists against alleged electoral fraud and the "forging of the will of the electorate".
Mousavi refused to cave into pressures to accept the result and sustained his protest against Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guards behind him. Over the following months, the Iranian president adamantly persisted in ignoring the demands of the demonstrators, formed an ideologically uniform hardline government and lashed out at the reformists as traitors. Eventually, however, the opposition found the opportunity to vent its anger during the funeral ceremonies held for the late Ayatollah Hussein Ali Muntazari and the commemoration of Ashura.
Mousavi's call issued in the wake of the suppression of these demonstrations reflects an acute awareness of the most important weak points of the new domestically based opposition movement. It lacks an explicit coherent ideological framework, as it consists of a heterogeneous following in terms of age and political outlook, even if the majority belongs to the upper and middle urban classes. His call consisted of five points.
- The government, parliament and the judiciary were responsible before the nation for the violent repression of the demonstrations.
- There must be guarantees for free and transparent elections.
- All political detainees should be released.
- The freedom of the press must be upheld.
- The people's right to the expression of their opinion had to be respected.
If, as the foregoing points indicate, the initiative was couched in a loose ideological framework, it nevertheless raised the threshold of demands. The first demand, which was clearly intended to sustain the popular momentum behind the opposition, was by far the toughest for an acknowledgement of its legitimacy by the three branches of government would constitute a total political victory for the demonstrators.
The prospect of such an eventuality, of course, is very weak in light of the current balances of power. The other four demands, while logical and popular, offer little new or particularly defiant. Still, when the former conservative presidential candidate Mohsen Rizai took this statement to indicate that Mousavi was not challenging the regime, the editor-in-chief of the conservative Kayhan newspaper, Hussein Shariatmadari, who is close to the Office of the Supreme Guide, responded with vehement criticism.
The Ahmadinejad camp's tactics were probably unwise and counterproductive in other ways. If they had been softer on the opposition and engaged it in dialogue, they could have brought to the fore the contradictions in interests and outlooks among the various groups of the opposition mosaic, while preventing the deterioration in Iran's image abroad.
More importantly, they could have softened international pressures that will soon weigh upon Tehran now that it has ignored the deadline set by the six major powers for accepting their offer to give Iran uranium fuel rods in exchange for Iran sending its uranium abroad to be enriched to a degree lower than nuclear weapons grade.
Instead, Iran now anticipates more intensive pressures from abroad against the backdrop of heightened media focus on the demonstrations. Iran rejected a visit by US Senator John Kerry not only because he is not officially empowered to negotiate but also because the Iranian authorities' handling of the opposition would have topped the agenda. For the same reason, Tehran also postponed a visit by an EU delegation, ostensibly because it "needed more time to prepare". In that visit, the members of the EU delegation were to meet with Iranian parliamentary figures and opposition members.
On the other hand, Iran did take an initiative to forestall the accumulating storm clouds. Hardly had the West's deadline lapsed than Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki parried with an Iranian deadline giving the six powers a month to agree to give his country uranium enriched to 20 per cent. If they refuse, he said, Iran would continue its own uranium enrichment operations. Clearly, however, this was not so much an attempt to turn the tables against the West as a bid to buy more time, which is undoubtedly why French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner immediately rejected the Mottaki initiative and the Foreign German Ministry announced that "it changed nothing". But even setting official posturing aside, it is highly unlikely that the positions of Iran and the six countries it is negotiating with can be bridged, which means that Iran is probably in store for a fourth round of sanctions.
With the end of the era of the "conservative" versus "reformist" wings embraced by a single regime and the drawing of the battle line between "the system" and "the opposition", the opposition has become an internal factor in the Iranian political dynamics. This development has given rise to a dialectical equation: the sharper the internal contradictions the tougher it will be to reach understandings on the Iranian nuclear question and the greater the prospect of harsher international sanctions against Iran.