Iranian Opposition Under Threat

Khamenei was less neutral than the Press TV summary suggested, leaving the opposition exposed.

Following up on yesterday’s post about Khamenei’s response to Rafsanjani, Juan Cole had access to the full text of the speech, from the US government’s Open Source Center (which is closed to the public).

Cole identifies the following as Khamenei’s key remarks:

The people can only reach their goals in the light of security and tranquility. If security is maintained, education, science, progress, industry, assets, welfare, and worshiping can be achieved. .. .Disturbing the security of a nation is the biggest sin that could be committed by someone. Of course, if some one is linked to the foreigners will not listen to [this advice] and I am not going to address such groups.

I am going to address the elite. The nation is vigilant, our elite should be vigilant too. The elite should know that any remarks, action, and analysis, which help them (the enemies), will be against the direction the nation is moving. All of us should be very cautious. We should be very cautious. . . There are things that should not be said and uttered. If we speak about them, it means that we have acted against our responsibilities.

The elite are undergoing a test, which is a big one. If we fail in this test, we will not only fall behind for one year, it will also lead to downfall. In order not to have that fate, we should use the yardstick of reason, which invites mankind to worship God.

Khamenei is evidently in competition with Rafsanjani to see who can be the vaguest and most oblique. “All of us should be cautious” certainly puts the spotlight on the protestors but could equally be seen as an attack on some of the vicious statements being made by Iranian military leaders and the extremist remarks of Khamenei’s followers Jannati and Shariatmadari.

However, Khamenei’s remark that “disturbing the security of a nation is the biggest sin that could be committed” seems plain enough. It is the classic statement of a would-be dictator, and indeed could have come straight from the Cheney White House. More thoughtful people might offer leadership corruption, undermining of free speech, or threats by a country’s military to kill protestors as much larger sins. This one sentence seems to put Khamenei solidly in the Ahmadinejad camp, which explains the confidence and extremist nature of Yazdi, Jannati, and Shariatmadari: they feel they are on the winning side.

The Press TV report on which I relied for my previous post omitted this statement. It is not clear why, but the result was clearly to misrepresent Khamenei’s message.

Khamenei may not publicly be calling for the extreme measures his supporters are advocating but neither is there any evidence that he is doing anything to reign in the movement to charge Mousavi, Karoubi, Khatami, and now Rafsanjani with sedition. This would destroy much of a whole generation of Islamic Revolution leaders and destroy, once and for all, the democratic pillar ambiguously established by Khomenei along with his new concept of veliyat-e faqih (oversight by Allah’s representative).

The logic of events suggests that the lives of the protest leaders are now firmly on the line. With the regime refusing even to contemplate (in public at least) any compromise, it is hard to see how the protestors can afford to back down, so no option other than intensifying their opposition seems very rational. However, opposition also seems a poor choice. The relatively solid (though not perfect) unity of the instruments of state control (IRGC, Basij, regular army, intelligence, judiciary) and the split among the clergy (not to mention the apparent submissiveness of most of the clergy) may leave the legitimacy of the regime in tatters, but it nevertheless leaves the regime very much in control. The longer the arrests and torture and extreme rhetoric of regime supporters continues without the opposition being able to affect it, the more powerful the regime will grow.

Today’s reports of “dozens” of protestors arrested in Tehran constitute a case in point: tiny protests, apparently less than protests at recent Republican National Conventions, are (again, as with recent Republican National Conventions) effortlessly suppressed by totally unsympathetic authorities. What is happening on the streets in Iran does not hold a candle to, say, the Seattle protests against globalization. It is no threat to the regime. The parallel admittedly is not exact, however. The protests in Iran are news because of the incompetance of a extremist regime that could easily afford to be civil, to make some gestures to democracy, to seek compromise. That regime has a very strong hand; if it overplays that hand, it will have no one to blame but itself.

A second way of measuring the significance of the Iranian debate is to notice the degree of balance. So far, there is none at all.

Protestors, who are after all demanding nothing but a convincing case that the election was legal, are denounced as traitors, physically abused, and jailed. This behavior is the mark of a primitive state. Iran cannot ask to be respected as long as it fails to condemn and try to eliminate such behavior. Such behavior happens in the U.S., as well (e.g., police brutality toward demonstrators at national party conventions, the scandalous stopping of Katrina refugees trying to cross the bridge into Louisiana by Louisiana police, the torture of untried prisoners of war in Guantanamo and Bagram), but such actions are clearly recognized as violations of the American way, as shameful acts. But in Iran, it is those who call for fair treatment of these protestors who are attacked.

There are people undermining Iran: they are the extremists like Shariatmadari who deny Iranians the right to voice their disagreement or even their criticism and like the general who bragged that his soldiers would fight to the death against the protestors.

I will be impressed with Iran’s progress when I see people like Shariatmadari attacked by name in the Iranian mainstream media and told clearly that Iranians are a free people who have a right to voice their opinions.

The regime’s foundation has been weakened by its rejection of the democratic pillar. Democracy has nothing much to do with voting (except in the sense that cars have something to do with grease). Democracy is about the absolute right to express dissent. The Iranian regime has, by both blunt rhetoric and vicious behavior, rejected that right, in the process destroying the democratic pillar supporting the Islamic Republic. The other pillar was velayat-e faqih, but the split among the top clerics pretty much discredits that as well. Khomenei’s revolution has pretty much rusted away.

In its place, the regime has its rising reliance on oppression via the organs of state security. In return for short-term control, it is sacrificing long-term stability. As the Shah discovered, when misused, all that power can melt away very quickly. But the timing of such tipping points is always a mystery and the regime’s “short-term control” may last far too long to save the current opposition leaders. After all, despite the Riyadh Spring of 2003, the Saudi dictatorship remains in power. Like the opposition in Iran, the reformers who led the Riyadh Spring movement were not challenging the regime but simply calling for its reform. Nevertheless, they ended up in jail.

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