Saturday, January 2, 2010

Standoff in Iran Deepens with New Show of Force

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The New York Times / Michael Slackman

Iranian authorities filled the streets of Tehran with hundreds of police officers and armed militia members to deter protests on New Year’s Day as Mir Hussein Moussavi, the leader of the opposition, said in a statement that he did not fear giving his life as “a martyr.” The overwhelming show of force in the capital and Mr. Moussavi’s declaration, which said that even killing him would not end the unrest, were part of a day of charges, counter-charges and warnings from both sides, illustrating the deep divisions that have emerged in Iran since the outbreak of its political crisis six months ago. The government and its hard-line supporters continued to rely on force, and the threat of force, to quell protests and demand loyalty, while the opposition refuses to back down. There was no indication that compromise was on the agenda. During Friday prayer services in the capital city, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a fundamentalist cleric who heads the powerful Guardian Council, called protesters “flagrant examples of corrupt on Earth” and effectively called for them to be executed as “in the early days of the revolution.” For his part, Mr. Moussavi issued a statement on his website,, which took a broad swipe at the government for its use of force against civilian protesters. It also criticized the government’s handling of the economy and foreign policy and its failure to address institutional corruption. Mr. Moussavi offered a prescription for the government to restore its lost legitimacy that called for the release of political prisoners, the repair of electoral laws, as well as freedom of expression, assembly and the press.

Then he addressed head-on those who in recent days have called for his arrest — and execution — along with other opposition leaders, like the cleric and former parliament speaker, Mehdi Karroubi. “I’m not afraid of being one of the post-election martyrs who lost their lives in their struggle for their rightful demands,” he said in the statement. “My blood is no different than that of other martyrs.” But Mr. Moussavi also acknowledged what has become increasingly evident during recent events, that neither he nor Mr. Karroubi is actually in charge. Presenting himself as more of an analyst than a participant, Mr. Moussavi framed Iran’s internal conflict as one between the leadership and the people. It was a tactical move that apparently sought to take the opposition’s weakness — its lack of organization and leadership — and present it as a strength. “I say openly that orders to execute, kill or imprison Karroubi and Moussavi will not solve the problem,” he said in the statement. Iran has been locked in conflict since its disputed presidential election in June, when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared a landslide victory. That led to widespread protests against charges of fraud, prompting a harsh government crackdown. Since then, Iran has found itself caught in an increasingly hostile stalemate. “The reform movement won’t die, but it also can’t unite,” said an Iran expert who said he needed to remain anonymous in order to maintain relations with officials inside Iran. “The regime retains control, but can’t put out the opposition. So it’s a see-saw battle.” Both sides have stuck with established strategies. The opposition continues to take advantage of public holidays and religious observances as an opportunity to protest. The government, meanwhile, has tried to transform itself into a more efficient police state with efforts to professionalize the pro-government Basij militia, for example. (Read more...)