Iran rulers' move to tighten grip shuts out dissenters

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 21, 2009 

CAIRO, Egypt — More than two months after a disputed presidential election threw Iran's ruling class into turmoil, the country's leaders are showing themselves increasingly unwilling to compromise with their critics, a trend analysts say could mean even tougher steps against would-be reformers in the future.

This week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began assembling his Cabinet and was quickly assailed for stacking his administration with hard-line cronies and ignoring more moderate candidates with better qualifications.

The government in recent days also defied international calls for the releasing of political prisoners by adding two dozen new defendants to a mass trial of opposition figures that has polarized Iran's elite.

The developments have persuaded many analysts that the country's current rulers are far more concerned about keeping their grip on power than on smoothing over post-election divisions.

With reformist leaders languishing in jail or under virtual house arrest, Ahmadinejad is now working to keep his allies in crucial government posts, frustrating even his conservative critics and aggravating longstanding turf wars within the clergy, the military, the judiciary and the intelligence apparatus.

"The people in power are not really worried about the overthrow of the regime if they're squabbling about posts in the cabinet," said Ervand Abrahamian, an Iran analyst and historian at Baruch College in New York and the author of several books on Iran. "They may not have their popularity, they may even lose their legitimacy, but as long as they have the instruments of power — the military might — then they are not worried. I suppose we could see them soon like other governments in the region — a lot of power, but no legitimacy."

A more authoritarian Iran could prove even tougher for the West to deal with on thorny issues such as Iran's nuclear program and Tehran's role in the violence in neighboring Iraq. The prospects for U.S.-Iran talks seem even more unlikely now, with Iran accusing Western governments of interfering in the election and human rights organizations criticizing Iran for its handling of the post-election protests.

Since the election, the Iranian leadership has rounded up hundreds of dissidents, turned a blind eye as its paramilitary forces attacked unarmed protesters, and shut down newspapers. It's been accused of raping and abusing people detained in the crackdown, and coercing confessions from them.

The government counters that it's acted in the interest of national security, protecting Iran from a destabilizing, Western-influenced agenda.

The most hard-line supporters of Ahmadinejad say the crackdown hasn't gone far enough: They'd like to see opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Hashemi Rafsanjani prosecuted for allegedly fomenting unrest and plotting against the regime, according to Iranian news reports.

Already the government has hauled prominent opposition figures, including a former vice president, into revolutionary court on such charges. Few — if any — of the 135 defendants have had regular contact with a defense attorney since the trial began Aug. 1, according to human rights groups. The stilted confessions read aloud in court are widely believed to have been coerced. If the government hoped for judicial cover for its crackdown, the attempt appears to have backfired.

Clerics have grown increasingly uneasy with almost daily accounts of poor conditions and harsh interrogations inside Iran's prisons. One case has been particularly troublesome — the death apparently from torture of the son of an adviser to a prominent conservative. Supreme leader Ali Khamenei swiftly closed the prison, a move some observers said was to prevent an investigation rather than to prevent further abuse. And now some online reports say the prison remains in operation.

The Web site of Tehran Bureau, a journalist-run portal for original and aggregated analysis on Iran, keeps track of the clergy's public statements on the crisis through a feature called, "Ayatollah Watch." Clerics' messages are printed under headings such as "Ayatollahs Against the Protesters," "Ayatollahs in Prison," and "Ayatollahs in Support of Protesters." The last category has the most entries, with cleric after cleric calling for the release of political prisoners, an investigation into allegations of abuse and an end to "violence acted on defenseless people," as one ayatollah put it.

Even Khamenei, who's typically off limits for public criticism, has come under fire, with one group of anonymous clerics flatly calling him a dictator who ought to be removed, according to statements posted on opposition Web sites.

Other clerics have signed their names to open letters that remind the supreme leader that he's subject to oversight by an elected panel and that his directions should fall within constitutional boundaries.

Still, Ahmadinejad and his government refuse to compromise, raising concerns of an all-out purge. That option is likely to further fragment the ruling class: Many of the regime's most outspoken critics were themselves part of the 1979 Islamic revolution or have held government positions since.

"Since some of the public criticism has come from within the ranks of the state and clerics, there is now an open question as to whether Ahmadinejad and Khamenei are leading a regime that is abiding by the Iranian constitution and according to basic Islamic principles, such as (justice)," said Shiva Balaghi of the Cogut Center at Brown University. "The longer this crisis continues, the more acts of civil disobedience continue, the more clerics and officials who speak out, the harder it will be to resolve this political crisis."

Khamenei's camp has worked quickly to counter some dissident clerics' accusations that the government's post-election behavior was "un-Islamic," a bold swipe at the foundation of the self-proclaimed "Islamic republic."

The cleric said to be Ahmadinejad's spiritual adviser, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, struck back with a ruling that said obeying Khamenei and the president was akin to obeying God — a proclamation that not only incensed the opposition, but also religious conservatives who don't share the cleric's hard-line perspective.

"Their real problem is long-range," Abrahamian, the Iran expert in New York, said of the regime's leadership. "Until now they had a lot of legitimacy because of the republican part of the Islamic Republic. If that goes away and all that remains is a divine right, I think the majority of people wouldn't accept that in the 21st century."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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