The quiet enforced on Tehran’s streets by the postelection crackdown was shattered on July 9 in dramatic clashes between opposition activists and security forces. Plans had circulated for days on Internet social-networking sites calling for demonstrations to be staged to observe the 10th anniversary of the violent suppression of pro-reform protests at Tehran University in 1999. Opposition supporters were told to carry nothing more threatening than a rose. But the event failed to draw the huge crowds that had turned out to protest the June 12 election result, and numerous reports out of Iran suggest that the hundreds of protesters who took to the streets on July 9 were greeted with more brutality by the regime’s enforcers.
Earlier in the day, Tehran governor Morteza Tamaddon had promised a “crushing” response to any protests, and opposition supporters who braved the streets were met by baton-wielding riot police and plainclothes security forces, who arrested or dispersed the crowds before their numbers had time to build. Unconfirmed reports out of Tehran suggest widespread violence against suspected opposition supporters.
The crackdown has not necessarily harmed the Iranian regime’s prospects for dealing with the West. While condemning Iran’s handling of its election, the Group of Eight industrialized nations on July 8 nonetheless called for negotiations on the country’s nuclear program. And the U.S. on July 9 released five Iranian diplomats who had been held in Iraq since 2007 on suspicion that they were involved in supporting attacks by Shi’ite militias on American soldiers. Although their release may have been in the works for some time as a confidence-building measure between the U.S. and Iran, its timing has also raised hopes that it may help secure the freedom of an Iranian employee of the British embassy in Tehran. The embassy staffer remains in custody after the release of eight others arrested by Iranian authorities and accused of fomenting demonstrations against election fraud.
The Tehran regime has blamed the unrest in its streets on the Western media and foreign governments, especially the British, whom the Iranian government accuses of attempting to overthrow it through a “velvet revolution.” The Iranians have also long been irked by the millions of dollars the U.S. openly spends on regime-change propaganda targeting Iran and the Bush Administration’s admission that the U.S. is running covert operations inside the country aimed at destabilizing the regime. On July 9, the government-owned Press TV alleged that Jundullah, an extremist organization of Sunni Muslim ethnic Baluchis that engages in terrorist attacks inside Iran — including several bombings in the weeks before the election — has received money from U.S. intelligence operatives. (ABC News in 2007 alleged that while the CIA denied having a formal relationship with the group, U.S. intelligence officers had secretly met with Jundullah leaders, offering advice and encouragement of their efforts to destabilize the Iranian regime.) Iran’s state media have used allegations of U.S. and British covert action to drown out the voices of the movement challenging Iran’s election.
So when defeated presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi last week signaled his intention to form a political party to continue the election-protest movement through official channels, he was ignored by Iran’s official mass media and reduced to making the announcement on his personal website. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, not only has the backing of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Khamenei, and the country’s security services, but also he controls the other main centers of coercive power like the judiciary. The government has arrested many members of the opposition’s leadership and sympathetic journalists, though a government prosecutor said on July 8 that it has released most of the about 2,500 people detained during the demonstrations and will be prosecuting the 500 that remain in custody.
Although many of the country’s clerics have either spoken out against the election results or declined to endorse them, none has mounted a serious challenge to the regime. Indeed, the postelection crackdown in Tehran has revealed the extent of Iran’s shift from a system of Islamist democracy overseen by a clerical élite toward an authoritarian security state united by an Islamist ideology. On July 5, the leaders of the Revolutionary Guard — Iran’s élite military arm — publicly acknowledged they had taken over the nation’s security and that there was no middle ground in the ongoing confrontation over the presidential election. “These events put us in a new stage of the revolution and political struggles,” said Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari. And that suggests that even the regime’s limited tolerance for peaceful challenges by its own citizenry may have come to an end.