Iran regime sought legitimacy, but it got calls for its removal

McClatchy NewspapersJune 19, 2009 

TEHRAN, Iran — It was the morning of Friday, June 12, and Massomeh Ebtekar had just cast her vote. A supporter of challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi, Ebtekar had no doubt that she was voting for a continuation of Iran's Islamic revolutionary experiment, but with more freedoms and an opening to the West.

Ebtekar, 49, wasn't just one more voter at the splendid turquoise-and-purple Hosseiniyeh Ershad mosque. She was a face of the 1979 revolution, serving as spokeswoman for the students who seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran before becoming a reformist and Iran's first female vice president.

From those like Ebtekar to hard-line President Mahmoud Ahamadnejad, Iran's ruling class expected the 2009 elections to lend a fresh injection of legitimacy to the Iranian system of rule.

It has instead called that system into question for hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of Iranians.

Looking back to the closing days of Iran's compressed, three-week election campaign, it's now clear that Iran's rulers took an enormous gamble, betting that a full-throated display of democracy would bolster the country's fortunes at home and abroad.

On Tehran's streets and highways, omnipresent posters bearing huge fingerprints exhorted Iranians to vote. Announcements on state-run television played the same theme over and over.

Iran's powers-that-be, chiefly Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sanctioned unheard-of one-on-one television debates between the candidates.

The debates were a turning point. They became forums for bitter public finger-pointing among Iran's elite, never before seen by the country's citizens.

Ahmadinejad accused one of the country's most powerful men, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, of corruption. (The running joke for days afterward was that a vengeful Rafsanjani, whose family had gotten contracts to construct major Tehran avenues named after revolutionary martyrs, would soon be building Martyr Ahmadinejad Street).

What followed next was a free-for-all by modern Iranian standards. Raucous rallies by supporters of Ahmadinejad and former parliament speaker Mahdi Karroubi, as well as Mousavi, revealed a deeply polarized society.

While it's hard to know what Iran's leaders were thinking, they appear to have been confident that they could keep any post-election unrest in check and were stunned when they couldn't.

Long before all votes were counted, Ahmadinejad's government claimed that he'd won in a landslide, and protests began within hours.

Two days later, on Sunday, a confident, grinning Ahmadinejad, serene in his trademark spotless white jacket, gave a two-hour press conference, breezily dismissing the protesters as "dust" and the equivalent of soccer hooligans. He then jetted off to Russia for diplomatic meetings.

However, the protests haven't stopped. Instead, they've morphed from denunciations of Ahmadinejad and the election in some instances into challenges to the legitimacy of Khamenei and the entire system he represents.

With Khamenei on Friday demanding an end to the demonstrations, and the protesters apparently unwilling to back down, some senior aides to President Barack Obama say they fear a bloody crackdown as soon as Saturday by Iran's security forces.

That, they say, would force Obama to react sharply, abandoning the cautious rhetoric he's used so far and perhaps torpedoing his hopes of diplomatic engagement with Iran for a long time. Officials say they're preparing for such an eventuality. The aides spoke on condition of anonymity because of the situation's sensitivity.

Other aides cautioned that the U.S. government doesn't know what will happen next — and neither, probably, do the major players in this drama.

"This is not the first time (during the crisis) I've heard someone say, tomorrow's a really big day," one senior administration official said Friday.

The response in the streets of Iran and in Tehran's corridors of power to the election results couldn't have been more different. Official state-run media immediately begin trumpeting the record turnout of about 40 million voters, a message that was still going strong more than a week later.

"A Divine Miracle" was the Monday headline in the English-language Iran News.

However, unrest began almost immediately, by some accounts in the wee hours of Saturday morning when it became clear the government was claiming a big win for Ahmadinejad.

At least three types of security forces suddenly appeared in the streets: special anti-riot squads with shields, armor, helmets and batons; the Basij, a motorcycle riding militia that constitutes a standing civil defense force for the regime; and plainclothes security operatives that some Iranians described as the most frightening of all.

On Saturday, the Basij rampaged up and down Vali Asr Street, scattering groups of students as soon as they could gather, and knocking license plates — a vital form of national I.D. for Iranians — off of cars caught in Tehran's endless traffic jams. Witnesses said that shopkeepers offered shelter to protesters, waving them indoors as they ran from security forces.

The first confirmed deaths of protesters occurred Monday night, and U.S. officials say worse repression has probably occurred in cities outside Tehran, where there's no international media presence.

The students — and it increasingly appears that they've been joined by members of Iran's middle class and even some elderly Iranians — have refused to back down, despite beatings, arrests, the use of tear gas and the threat of worse.

Khamanei has made limited concessions, meeting with the candidates' representatives and authorizing a recount of a limited number of ballots.

It hasn't worked, at least as of late Friday. He appears to have one last option, unpalatable for everyone — throwing the full power of Iran's security forces at the crowds, which would certainly mean large-scale loss of life and throw the country further out into uncharted waters.

What began as a feisty national debate and turned into a battle over Ahmadinejad, now seems something else entirely.

"I actually think there's something bigger going on," another senior U.S. administration official said.

Ebtekar's hopes, expressed just a week ago, seem dashed at least for now.

The election, she'd predicted, would bring to power a reformist president, who would seek a more "rational" approach to differences with the West, and "a modern interpretation of Islam . . . that's compatible with freedom."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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