The dust of dissent can still choke this regime

In 80 cities across the globe this weekend, demonstrators belatedly gathered in support of Iran’s voters. But international solidarity has taken a full six weeks since the stolen elections to manifest itself, and many people outside Iran must have wondered whether it was not too late to “make a difference”. Iran’s million-strong post-election armies of protest have been bludgeoned off the streets by vicious militias, cut off from each other and the outside world by a draconian and expensive censorship drive, and terrorised by shootings, disappearances and the open use of confessions obtained by torture.

On the surface, “order” has been enforced. But only on the surface. Inside Iran, public anger still burns, flaring up wherever opportunity presents. At the core of the Islamic regime, a struggle has been unleashed that — by stepping off his pedestal into the thick of the fray — the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has lost his once- undisputed power to bring under control. Far from subsiding, dissent is shaking the regime to its roots.

“The dust of sedition has risen into the air from every corner” and “the elements involved are no longer even concealing their faces,” thundered the hardline newspaper Kayhan last Thursday. “The deceit of the enemy has become mixed with the affection of friends.” With gross and deliberate exaggeration, the article charged “extremists” with “concentrating their efforts on the sole source of indestructible power of the political system” — theological rule under the Velayat-e Faqih — and of using Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the champion of Iranian rights, as their dupe.

Even the hardest of Iran’s hardliners knows it is not so simple. The system of Islamic rule is not yet under open challenge, but the dust of dissent is indeed choking “every corner”. Battle has been joined not only between the regime and the cheated voters, and between the powerful supporters of the election’s “losing” candidates and the duopoly of Ayatollah Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Inside the hardline camp, discord is also rife; last week the first signs emerged of a power struggle between Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader, his co-conspirator against the voters’ wishes. Even Khamenei’s own family is split; his eldest son is a key Ahmadinejad lieutenant, while his brother is close to one of the three opposing candidates, the “progressive” cleric Mehdi Karroubi.

Khamenei is set on toughing it out, but he is between a rock and a hard place. Within the hardline camp, Mr Ahmadinejad held out for an entire week before complying with the Supreme Leader’s explicit orders to cancel his offer of the senior vice-presidency to Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei — an Ahmadinejad chum detested by conservative mullahs — and then cheekily appointed him head of the private presidential office. Khamenei cannot even afford to be angry: there is already a risk that the presidential inauguration ceremony next week will be a farce notable for the number of prominent absentees. For the moment, Mr Ahmadinejad has the Supreme Leader where he wants him.

The opposition, meanwhile, is increasingly demanding deeper reforms than the regime’s key enforcers, the commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, would tolerate. The mullahs are stuck, disunitedly, in the middle. And the more insistently the Supreme Leader orders that debate be closed, the more insistently it bubbles.

The pressure has intensified over the ten days since the wily and well-organised former President, Hashemi Rafsanjani, broke weeks of silence with a Friday-prayers sermon that spoke of “crisis” and public loss of faith in the political process. Last Monday Mr Mousavi’s influential ally, the former President Mohammad Khatami, called for a referendum on the election result. Mr Rafsanjani’s call for the release of detainees, respect for law and freedom of speech has also emboldened the opposition. In one of his strongest statements since June 12, Mr Mousavi dismissed allegations that protesters were being manipulated by foreign powers as “an insult to the nation” and declared intimidation and threats to be useless. The opposition leaders Mr Khatami, Mr Mousavi and Mr Karroubi denounced prison interrogation methods as “a reminder of the dark era of the Shah”. Explosively, in a public letter co-signed by 67 other prominent figures, they have written to Iran’s nine pre-eminent clerics in the holy city of Qom — men of enormous spiritual influence in Iran — to protest against arbitrary arrests and appeal to them in their capacity as marja taqlid (sources of emulation) to remind the authorities not to use unlawful methods and to “warn them about the spread of tyranny”.

These clerics have traditionally held aloof from politics, routinely congratulating each winner of the Iranian presidential elections. But this year only one has congratulated Mr Ahmadinejad, and three have spoken out against the brutality of the crackdown. General Yadollah Javani, a senior Revolutionary Guards commander, suggested last week that broadcasting prisoners’ confessions would “restore confidence” by exposing the reformists’ “dangerous scenarios”. Leading clerics issued fatwas — religious instructions — that such confessions are invalid.

The revered Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, once Ayatollah Khomeini’s designated successor, has gone much farther. He has condemned the Khamenei administration for relying “on force, oppression, and changing people’s votes”. The word he used was jaer — usurping despotism. That word has historical resonance in Iran. It was used in the constitutional revolution of 1906 against the Qajar Shah Mohammed, subsequently dethroned in favour of his son; and later by Khomeini against Reza Pahlavi, the Shah driven from his throne in 1979.

Shades of 1979 will be evoked this Thursday, when Iranians mark the end of the 40-day mourning cycle for the first protesters — including the iconic Neda Agha Soltan — mown down by the regime. Yesterday Mr Mousavi and Mr Karroubi requested permission to hold a memorial service for them in Tehran’s main mosque. To ban such a ceremony would be seen as un-Islamic. But everyone remembers that in 1979 the cycles of 40-day mourning, and the shooting of mourners, turned opposition to the Shah into an irresistible mass movement.

Iran is not nearly at that point yet. Inoculated against the “martyr culture” by 30 years of Khomeinism, and the horrendous “Islamic human wave” death toll in the Iran-Iraq war, the young are far less prepared than their parents to die for any cause, even freedom, unless it appears to be attainable. The Revolutionary Guard is an incomparably more powerful and ruthless coercive force than any at the Shah’s command. And the regime still has the will to hit back.

Khamenei told Iran’s elites last week to be “careful” not to risk “flunking a test they could never retake”, adding with deliberate menace that “anyone, with whatever title and position, who pushes the society towards insecurity would be a hated figure”. The message was clear: the Supreme Leader will not shrink at destroying Iran’s mightiest, if that is what it takes to retain power.

But Mr Rafsanjani’s website countered with a passage from his memoirs. “The term fear is meaningless. There is a test in the waiting for each generation, and the most important test is how to relate to the people.” The passage, his office innocently but pointedly commented, recorded Mr Rafsanjani’s considered reflections — on the 1979 revolution.

Rosemary Righter