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Scandal Over Torn Khomeini Portrait Fuels Iran's Postelection Fire

Iranian flag with portraits of Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (left), and his successor, Ali Khamenei, at a Tehran protest in mid-December.
Iranian flag with portraits of Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (left), and his successor, Ali Khamenei, at a Tehran protest in mid-December.
Who would dare tear up images of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini?

That's the question being asked in Iran, after state television broadcast footage showing the tattered remains of a portrait of the founder of the Islamic Republic that was allegedly defaced during an opposition protest last week.

The images have sparked uproar and deepened divisions in Iran, where the leader of the Islamic Revolution is held in the highest esteem across the political spectrum.

Iran's hard-liners are pointing the finger at the opposition Green Movement, saying that its leaders should be held responsible for the incident, which reportedly took place during Students Day demonstrations on December 7.

On December 12, government supporters and seminary students denounced the "insult" in protests across Iran.

One day later, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei blamed opposition leaders and defeated presidential candidates Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karrubi for creating the conditions that allowed the insult to happen.

"They [the opposition protesters] chant slogans about following the law, but they are openly violating the law. They chant slogans in support of the Imam [the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini], but they are insulting Imam Khomeini," said Khamenei.

He added that as a result of their actions, Iran's "enemies got hope and insulted the Imam," a reference to Khomeini, who died in 1989.

Convenient Pretext?

Members of the opposition counter that the whole portrait incident was staged to discredit the opposition. They allege that the Iranian establishment is using the incident as an excuse to clamp down with even greater force against opposition protesters and leaders who have challenged the results of June presidential election.

Musavi has branded the incident as "suspicious and antirevolutionary" and said that he is confident that university students, who have been active in antigovernment protests, would not commit such an act.

During a protest that took place over the weekend at Ghazvin University, students suggested that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and his supporters are behind the alleged incident.

"Those who cheated [in the June 12 vote] tore the picture" chanted dozens of students, who continued to voice their belief that Ahmadinejad was reelected on the basis of massive electoral fraud.

Serajedin Mirdamadi a pro-reform journalist who campaigned for Musavi in the run-up to the disputed June 12 vote, told RFE/RL that the crackdown against the Green Movement had failed to put an end to opposition protests. Iranian leaders are thus looking for new ways to silence the opposition, Mirdamadi said.

"[The establishment] is trying to take the game to a new level and is using certain sanctities to awaken the religious and political feelings of some parts of Iranian society and pave the way for additional crackdowns on the movement and the arrests of its leaders." Mirdamadi said.

Possible Escalation

The growing uproar over the portrait-defacement controversy has also fueled speculation that it could be used against Musavi, and possibly even lead to the former prime minister's arrest.

On December 12, Musavi's website "Kalame" warned that the government was likely to try to smear his reputation.

The website called on Green Movement supporters to remain vigilant and stay informed of the latest news. The reformist website "Norooznews" quoted "reliable" sources as saying that the risk of Musavi's arrest has increased.

A statement issued by the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps warning it will not tolerate "any shortcoming in identifying, trying and punishing those behind the insult and those who carried it out" has added to concerns over opposition leaders' arrest.

Mashaollah Shamsolvazezin, a well-known Tehran-based journalist, told the "Los Angeles Times" that he believes the Iranian establishment doesn't dare arrest Musavi or Karrubi, "as it may lead to an explosion."

However, reformist journalist Mirdamadi believes there is a debate raging within the Iranian establishment over whether to arrest the leaders of the opposition movement.

"One part of the establishment believes that arresting the leaders of the Green Movement would be irrational," Mirdamadi said, "another part tries through extremism to pave the way for the arrest of Musavi and Karrubi."

'Suspicious' Act

Tehran Prosecutor Abbas Jafari Doltatabadi announced today that one person had been arrested over the destruction of Khomeini's portrait and others identified. He said the culprit, reportedly arrested during the Students Day protests, had already confessed.

In comments published today, Musavi blamed hard-liners for creating an atmosphere that could foment radicalism.

"If people's questions had been answered and they had not been confronted with violence, we would not have seen some of the controversial moves we are seeing today," Musavi was quoted as saying.

Karrubi, meanwhile, was quoted today as saying that he and Musavi will seek authorization from the Interior Ministry to hold a demonstration to condemn the recent events.

Karrubi described the portrait-destruction claims as "suspicious" and characterized the state television broadcasts showing the torn-up Khomeini portrait as agitation of public opinion, which is considered a crime in Iran.

Karrubi said that, in the past, state television acted rationally by opting not to broadcast inflammatory scenes.

Images of the current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, have been torn down or set alight at a number of opposition demonstrations, but those images were not broadcast on state television.

But in this case, Karrubi suggested, state television's airing of the footage appeared to be part of a plot.

Karrubi said that if the authorities refuse to issue a rally permit, he and Musavi cannot be held responsible for spontaneous actions by their fellow Iranians.

Said Razavi Fagheeh, a reformist journalist who campaigned for Karrubi in the run-up to the June vote, told Radio Farda that the government's brutal crackdown on dissent could backfire.

"The use of naked force and repression in the current situation will damage all," Fagheeh said. "And most of all, it can be damaging for the leaders of the Islamic republic."

An unconfirmed report has meanwhile emerged to suggest that Iran's state news agency, IRNA, was effectively demoting Musavi sympathizer and former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, saying a directive instructed editors to describe Rafsanjani as a "hojatoleslam" rather than an "ayatollah."

RFE/RL's Radio Farda broadcasters Mir Ali Hosseini and Behruz Karooni contributed to this report
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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