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Iran Is Likely To See A Harsher Crackdown

In a photo released by his official website, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei listens to a speech by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad during an official ceremony in Tehran.
In a photo released by his official website, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei listens to a speech by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad during an official ceremony in Tehran.
There are fears that the Iranian regime may intensify the crackdown on the opposition in the next few weeks.

Six months after a rigged presidential election wherein Mahmud Ahmadinejad was hastily confirmed the winner, the resistance has not disappeared despite tear gas, beatings, and hundreds of detentions, torture, imprisonment, and even killings.

At every given opportunity, there are demonstrations and protest actions calling for change and even challenging the rule of Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ahmadinejad's most powerful supporter.

There is an even deeper division among clerics, with more openly criticizing the crackdown on protesters and others calling for a dialogue to save the system of the Islamic Republic.

Now imagine the following scenario: In order to split the ongoing resistance and prevent a further weakening of the clergy's support for Ahmadinejad, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' intelligence service plants a few agents in the student demonstrations of December 4. Those agents tear posters of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini. Other agents shoot video of them doing so, and state television shows that "processed" footage a few days later to convince the undecideds that the protesters are not only opposed to Ahmadinejad and his mentor, Khamenei, but to the Islamic republic as a system and its founder.

Tried And Untrue?

I am not suggesting that this is what happened in the latest episode to divide Iranian society, although it cannot be ruled out. The video footage doesn't show who "desecrated" Khomeini's portraits, where, or when.

But it has provoked orchestrated outrage among hard-line conservative and pro-Ahmadinejad forces across the country who have called for the arrest and even death of the alleged perpetrators and those who some suggest planned it: opposition leaders Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karrubi, and other activists.

Addressing the opposition's leaders last week, Ahmad Khatami, a ranking hard-line cleric of the Experts Assembly and a close associate of Khamenei, said: "You have done everything and anything just short of an armed uprising to harm the Islamic regime.... [U.S. President Barack] Obama supported all your actions and you didn't bother to condemn him." The cleric called for the "ruthless punishment" of opposition leaders, including execution.

The opposition quickly denied any involvement and called for rallies to demonstrate continuing support for the founder of the Islamic Republic and its original principles of freedom, which they consider "betrayed." Some suspected a regime-planned provocation to justify an even harsher crack down on the opposition, including the arrest of their most prominent leaders.

It's unlikely that we'll ever know with certainty who initiated or carried out the "desecration" of Khamenei's posters that gave the ruling clique the excuse to call for the total elimination of the opposition.

Not that it would be anything new in times of crisis. In the turbulent months preceding the 1979 Islamic revolution, a cinema in the southern city of Abadan was set on fire and more than 400 people killed. The Shah's regime blamed the then-opposition led by Ayatollah Khomeini, who countered by blaming the Shah's government, with neither able to prove its claim. In the heated atmosphere of the revolution, Khomeini's version was believed more and it dealt a final blow to the Shah's regime that was falling apart.

It's impossible to predict the effects of the "desecration" affair in the next few weeks on the showdown between Iran's ruling group and the opposition. Quite obviously, the regime, from hard-line clerics to leaders of the Revolutionary Guards, is campaigning for a harsh crackdown, while the opposition hopes for a continuing and even stronger demonstration of strength in the holy month of Muharram, which starts on December 18, when Iran's Shi'a Muslims hold mass gatherings to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein in the 7th century.

Keeping Up Appearances

Most observers believe that the final word on how to deal with the opposition in the immediate future will be spoken by Khamenei. Talking to a gathering of clerics on December 11, he sharply criticized opposition leaders but stopped short of calling for their arrest or execution. Emigre analyst Farrokh Negahdar told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that Khamenei's top priority is to ensure his own survival and that of the system, and for that reason he is still weighing the pros and cons of a complete crusade against the opposition. But Ahmad Ghabel, an observer inside Iran, noted that it was Khamenei himself who prepared the confrontation everybody is facing now in Iran by "confirming Ahmadinejad as the winner just a few hours after the closing of the ballots on June 12 and rejecting any dispute."

Before the election, some analysts were hoping that Khamenei would throw his support behind any conservative candidate other than Ahmadinejad to avoid the harm that Ahmadinejad had inflicted and would continue to inflict on Iran's internal stability and foreign policy interests. But the supreme leader clearly indicated his preference for Ahmadinejad on the eve of the election and categorically rejected all objections to the legitimacy of the vote results. The protest demonstrations that followed and that continue to this day were harshly suppressed, with the supreme leader tacitly, and occasionally openly, approving them.

Khamenei, for the sake of his position, needs to maintain the impression that he's above groups and factions. In the last four or more years, he has demonstrated that he is the main supporter of an Ahmadinejad government that is virtually run by Revolutionary Guards, the security services, and the justice authority, all of which directly report to the supreme leader. The officially supported and orchestrated campaign that started last week to persecute the opposition across Iran leaves few doubts that Khamenei is just waiting for the moment to give the "order to open fire."

In the short term, an even harsher crackdown is foreseeable if the opposition presses ahead with the planned demonstrations for the month of Muharram -- and many bet they will.

But whether or not that would help Ahmadinejad and his mentor, Ayatollah Khamenei, in the medium term, is unclear. Mohsen Sazegara, an emigre opposition activist now addressing Iranians in daily video analyses, predicts that "millions will come out in demonstrations." He admits that "it won't break yet the neck of the regime as the Muharram demonstrations 31 years ago did with the Shah regime...but it will clearly demonstrate to the Iranian and world community the illegitimacy of the regime and the fact that they want a change."

Abbas Djavadi is associate director of programming with RFE/RL in Prague