As Iran faces its worst crisis since the Islamic revolution, the regime is hitting out at the West and cracking down on journalists. The persistance of the opposition movement and disunity among the powerful clerics may be revealing cracks in the regime but the leadership is fighting back with force.
With 17 people already reported killed since the disputed June 12 elections, opposition leaders on Monday called for people to show their solidarity with the victims by carrying black candles with green ribbons. Mir Hossein Mousavi, the opposition leader who is contesting his defeat at the hands of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, also asked motorists to drive for two hours with their headlights turned on "to show their solidarity with families of martyrs killed in recent events." Meanwhile, the powerful Guardian Council has admitted that there were some voting irregularities in the elections but said it should have no effect on the final results.
Guardian Council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhoadai stated that the number of ballots in 50 districts exceeded the number of legal voters in those areas. He added, however, that "this has no effect on the results of the elections."
According to the official results, Ahmadinejad received 63 percent of the vote, with Mousavi securing only 34 percent. The extent of the president's win provoked widespread protests, particularly amongst young people and women who had been hoping for an end to Ahmadinejad's hardline regime.
The outburst of street protests continued for days, but by the weekend the regime had started to respond with brutal force. At least 10 people were killed on Saturday and 457 were arrested. Images posted online, including footage that purports to show the fatal shooting of a young woman, suggest that sharpshooters belonging to the religous militia, the Basij, may have been targeting the crowds.
According to reports, the streets of Tehran remained quiet on Monday. The challenge for the opposition now is to maintain the momentum of the demonstrations while at the same time avoiding further bloodshed. Mousavi, in statements posted to his Web site on Sunday, said he would stand by protestors "at all times" but added that he would "never allow anybody's life to be endangered because of my actions. Significantly, the former prime minister called the Basij militia "our brothers" and "protectors of our revolution and regime." He also urged supporters to refrain from violence and show self-restraint. On Saturday, Mousavi emphasized that he did not question the foundations of the Islamic Republic but that he simply aimed to renew it and purge it of what he called deceit and lies.
In what could be a sign of a split among Iran's ruling clerics, relatives of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who runs the powerful Assembly of Experts, were briefly arrested. Rafsanjani and his family have been accused of corruption by Ahmadinejad and the 75-year-old ayatollah was notably absent on Friday when Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave an address calling for national unity and backing of the current president.
Meanwhile, the government has continued its attacks on foreign interference in Iranian affairs and is cracking down on the media. It expelled a BBC correspondent and arrested a reporter with Newsweek. In an English-language broadcast, Iranian state television accused an exile group known as the People's Mujahedeen of being behind the street protests, while broadcasting the alleged confessions of what it described as agents working for Britain. An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman on Monday lashed out at "meddling Western powers and international media."
Reactions in Europe
British Foreign Secretary David Milliband rejected the accusations that protestors were being "manipulated or motivated" from abroad and denounced Tehran's attempt to turn the election dispute into a "battle" with the outside world.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel meanwhile called on the authorities in Iran to conduct a recount of the votes. "Germany stands on the side of the people in Iran who want to exercise their right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly," she said in a brief statement released on Sunday. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that Iran stood at a "crossroads" and appealed to the leadership in Tehran to "do everything to prevent further escalation."
Most German newspapers on Monday are searingly criticial of the Iranian leadership while some ponder what the opposition movement can do to keep up the momentum.
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"Those who so brazenly manipulate elections and then use brutal repression to beat down people who would protest are clearly not interested in any kind of dialogue ... much less that which would include talks on its nuclear program. The US government cannot just look over recent events and renew its offer of talks."
"It is correct that US President Barack Obama's tone has become sharper and called a spade a spade. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been more decisive in this regard and has clearly sided with those in Iran who are, despite the grave dangers, demanding their human and civil rights. For the powers that be in Iran, this is all too much: They have attacked Germany, Britain, France and the US, regardless whether they have been reserved in their critique. The president of Iran's parliament, Ali Larijani, has called election-related comments from these countries 'shameful.'"
"Shameful? He knows only too well that these elections were a farce. It will take more than just a recount before Iran can win the 'respect of the international community,' as Barack Obama said on Saturday. It must change its behavior. The regime is not prepared to do this, much less change its own character."
The Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"With his political sermon, the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei missed a big opportunity to bring the two camps closer. His open threat to the opposition will, if anything, have the opposite effect. The revolt now has its heroes, its martyrs. Blood is flowing and the opposition will do everything to ensure that its victims haven't died in vain."
"It remains unclear where the opposition's courage will lead. But the longer the protests last -- and the longer the regime refuses to compromise -- the less the protests will be about the actual election results. 'The Islamic Republic is dead' and 'when we say dictator, we mean Khamenei,' are remarks heard among the protesters after the election."
"But the man spearheading the uprising is seeking everything but revolution. Mousavi wants to preserve and improve the Islamic Republic -- not overthrow it. The same applies to his most important supporter, Iranian former President Hashemi Rafsanjani."
"The momentum of the protest movement may soon steam past both of them. Even if that doesn't happen, even if the security forces manage to crush the protest, nothing will be the same again in Iran. The resistance has reached a point of no return. There is no longer a feeling that nothing can be changed. Iranians have seen to what extent they can upset the power status quo and now, it is no longer about electoral fraud but rather systemic change. The revolts will not just change Iran, but the whole region."
The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:
"With his sermon on Friday, Khamenei slammed the door shut on any possible solution for the current crisis. He threw in his obvious support for Ahmadinejad and, by doing so, made clear that he will not accept any fundamental reforms and that he wants to continue his regime's radical course -- in foreign policy, too."
"The leadership of the Islamic Republic has now come to a point where it can only be shored up with weapons and violence. The broad opposition against it has grown. In addition to millions of pious people who don't want this leadership and some of whom no longer want this state, it also now includes numerous prominent politicians who not long ago were in top leadership roles."
"No less important is that fact that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad have lost the support of almost all religious authorities in the Shiite faith. All of the grand ayatollahs have distanced themselves and some have even spoken positively of the opposition. There are even rumors that some members of the Revolutionary Guard have defected to the opposition. With this development the already so shrunken leadership has lost its legitimacy and must step down."
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes that the brutality of Iran's security forces threatens to dangerously escalate the situation:
"The security forces, which are mostly given free hand by the spiritual leaders, ruthlessly beat the protestors down. That, for several reasons, has made the situation a lot more dangerous. What started as peaceful marches last week have become bloody confrontations led by radicalized opponents of the regime. They aren't just criticizing the counting of votes -- now they are directly challenging the leading ayatollah, who has been unwavering in his support of disputed President Ahmadinejad. Even defeated candidate Mousavi has expressed criticism of the system on his Web site, the last place where he can freely speak."
"Mousavi can't remain static. He needs to move forward so that he doesn't lose supporters. Even now, people are continuing to protest, and he isn't even calling for them. Some of his partisans who are willing to engage in violence have gotten ahead of him and are acting on their own. If he allows the movement to turn into daily protest marches and night time rooftop choruses, his political role will end. Because the large majority of Iranians, who even in normal times are skeptical of the regime and apolitical, fear nothing more than the idea that their country could slide into the kind of chaos seen in Iraq or Afghanistan."