Ahmadinejad takes oath as Iran's crisis continues

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 5, 2009 

CAIRO, Egypt — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was sworn into office Wednesday, beginning a second term amid pointed questions about the legitimacy of Tehran's theocratic regime and no let-up in the crisis triggered by his election.

Ahmadinejad took his oath before the Iranian parliament in a ceremony that was boycotted by high-ranking detractors who've declared his June election victory a sham. Outside the building, thousands of security forces were dispatched to push back protestors who reportedly chanted "Death to the dictator!" and wore black to signify their mourning over another four years with Ahmadinejad at the helm.

Even as Ahmadinejad vowed Wednesday to "spare no effort to safeguard the frontiers of Iran" — a dig at his enemies in the U.S. and Europe — the real battle rages on the home front. The June elections unleashed the biggest popular uprising since the 1979 Islamic revolution, and even some of Ahmadinejad's conservative supporters have openly criticized the ensuing mass arrests of politicians, journalists and activists.

A court trial of about 100 opposition heavyweights was scheduled to resume Thursday, just 24 hours after the swearing-in. With defendants such as former Vice President Mohammad Abtahi and Mohsen Mirdamadi, a reformist leader who was one of the chief organizers of the 1979 hostage-taking at the U.S. Embassy, the public is witness to embarrassing confrontations among the very pillars of the post-revolutionary Iranian republic.

"It's not easy to accuse them of being enemies of the revolution because they are the children of the revolution," said Nevine Mossaad, an Iran analyst for a Cairo-based research institute affiliated with the Arab League. "It will be very difficult for Ahmadinejad to rule with all these giant symbols clustered against him . . . . It threatens the legitimacy of the regime."

A 15-part indictment charged the defendants with participating in riots, acting against national security, disturbing public order and associating with armed opposition groups, according to Iran's semi-official news services.

Few, if any, of those on trial have regular access to attorneys, and human rights groups have collected accounts of detainees being abused or coerced into false confessions of helping to stage a "velvet revolution," a reference to the kind of bloodless coup found in Eastern Europe's recent history.

In Iran, however, many of those charged with "counter-revolutionary activities" were only years ago in power, swearing fealty to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final authority over Iran's affairs.

Ahmadinejad didn't mention the court proceedings in his inauguration speech Wednesday, and he only briefly touched on the post-election turmoil, warning that his administration would "resist any violation of law and interference." Still, his tone was more conciliatory than at other recent appearances and he added that Iranians should "join hands as we move forward to fulfill our goals."

Opposition Web sites noted several empty seats belonging to members of Parliament who snubbed the ceremony. Two former presidents, who'd typically attend such an event, and Ahmadinejad's election challengers also stayed away.

It's not just dissidents who're disenchanted with Ahmadinejad: He's even sparred with the supreme leader, to whom he ultimately answers, over cabinet appointments. Among his harshest critics are the speaker of parliament, the mayor of Tehran and other prominent conservatives.

"His opponents do dislike him immensely," Seyed Mohammad Marandi, the head of North American studies at the University of Tehran, told al Jazeera International on Wednesday. "He's a divisive person, and although he has large numbers of supporters, among the political elite there are major differences, even among the 'principlists,' as they're called here, or the conservatives, as they're called in the West."

The fissures are far too complicated to be reduced to hard-line versus reformist, and analysts said how Khamenei maneuvers out of the crisis could shape the future of the Islamic regime and the legitimacy of his own office. Options range from widespread purges of political opponents to some sort of power-sharing framework — all unpleasant choices for the senior cleric, who's unaccustomed to having his orders questioned.

"What is happening goes to prove that Iranian society is very much alive, very active and for the general overall direction of moving toward democracy," said Pirouz Mojtahed-Zadeh, a professor of political geography at Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran and the director of the Eurosevic research foundation in London. "The shouting and screaming, at least on the surface, is about democracy. It is bound to have some effect on the way this country is governed for the next four years, even if Ahmadinejad is in charge."

(McClatchy special correspondent Miret el Naggar in Cairo contributed to this article.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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