Growing desperation – Iran’s increasing turmoil

Published on The Economist, December 29, 2009.

[But first this Link: Go to the raw story and scroll down to the video, recorded December 22, 2009 and uploaded to the Web December 26, 2009, showing a demonstration, how protesters stop hanging two men and how shootings occure ... voices all in Farsi ... (if there should be an error message, click on the first picture on the far left appearing inside the video screen)].

Increasingly fierce repression in Iran suggests that the regime has begun to fear for its future.

WHAT more can Iran’s ruthless rulers do to squash their opponents? Since nationwide protests broke out last June over the disputed results of presidential elections, the official winner, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has pulled few punches.

His security apparatus has beaten and arrested thousands, tried scores of dissidents in kangaroo courts, hounded others into exile, throttled the press and jammed the airwaves. But the massive and violent demonstrations that engulfed the capital, Tehran, and other cities on December 26th and 27th suggested that repression only deepens and broadens the opposition …

… Signs of the regime’s fading legitimacy are numerous. In December, for instance, the head of Iran’s central bank issued a stern warning that from January 8th it would no longer accept bank notes defaced by extra words. In practice, this would mean taking millions of notes out of circulation, following a quiet campaign by oppositionists to mark them with anti-regime slogans.

More embarrassing still for a regime that describes itself as Islamic is the government’s treatment of dissident clerics, including some prominent ayatollahs. The most senior was Grand Ayatollah Hosein Ali Montazeri, a confidant of the Islamic Republic’s founding father, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, with whom he fell out of favour shortly before the old man’s death in 1989. Placed under house arrest for a decade, Mr Montazeri continued to criticise the government, siding openly with the reformists after the tainted June elections.

Despite his isolation, Mr Montazeri remained popular, so his death on December 20th was yet another occasion for protest. Rather than risk demonstrations, the government saturated his official funeral with baseej agents and banned memorial rites elsewhere, sparking clashes in several cities. In recent days baseej forces have surrounded the homes of two other prominent dissident ayatollahs in a blunt effort to block them from becoming a focus for protest.

Perhaps worse yet for Iran’s government, its troubles at home have crippled its foreign policy, at a time when it faces rising pressure to curb its controversial nuclear programme. Western countries that had shied from too strong a condemnation of Iran’s human-rights record, for fear of empowering the more extreme nationalists and threatening nuclear diplomacy, are losing patience. Even the pragmatists among Iran’s friends, such as Russia and China, now fear their longer-term and potentially lucrative interests in Iran may be hurt by too close an embrace of the regime. If they refuse to vote against tougher sanctions expected to be proposed soon against Iran at the UN Security Council, even Messrs Ahmadinejad and Khamenei may start to fear that their days in power may be numbered. (full text).

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