With Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sworn in for a second presidential term, opponents of his re-election face a choice between humiliating surrender and high-risk dissent. Which option they choose could determine not only their individual fates but also the future of a nation heading for uncharted waters.
So far, the quartet of dissent, consisting of two former presidents, Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami, the former Prime Minister Mir-Hussein Mousavi and the former Speaker of the Islamic Majlis Mehdi Karrubi, has managed to keep its nerve and remain reasonably united.
Their boycott of ceremonies marking Ahmadinejad’s investiture highlighted the deep rift within the establishment.
How long will the quartet maintain its unity, is anyone’s guess.
The four men have never been friends. On occasions, they have even been rivals.
In 1989, Rafsanjani allied himself with Ali Khamenei, then President of the Islamic Republic, to destroy Mousavi’s political career by abolishing his post of Prime Minister.
In 1997, Rafsanjani helped arrange for Khatami’s election as president. Eight years later, however, Khatami refused to support Rafsanjani’s candidacy against Ahmadinejad.
The possibility that the four may diverge on strategy cannot be ruled out.
Rafsanjani, known for navigating in mined waters, may end up trying to hedge his bets once again. He has already made noises about his “life long admiration” for Khamenei.
Khatami has never been a long distance runner. He is short tempered and easily discouraged. Even now, there is talk of him leaving Iran for an international post in Geneva.
Karrubi has proved to be a surprisingly resilient fighter. Many believe that his stock has risen sharply since the election. Nevertheless, being a mullah, he is unlikely to appeal to the urban middle and working classes who provide the biggest battalions of the anti-regime movement.
That leaves Mousavi whose 20-year long “occultation” on the sidelines of Khomeinist politics has turned him into something of a mystery.
Right now, he is the most popular member of the quartet. Nevertheless, part of that popularity may be due to the fact that, to many Iranians, he is a blank page on which they could draw their own dreams.
The tactic that the regime has adopted against the quartet resembles the so-called “Tennessee turkey shoot” in which the hunter starts by shooting the last bird in a flight of turkeys before proceeding, one by one, to the fastest bird leading the flock.
Thus the regime started by arresting a large number of “laggard turkeys”, in the first few days of the mass protest. At one point, those under arrest numbered more than 5000.
To everyone’s amazement, the mass arrests provoked little reaction in the outside world.
President Barack Hussein Obama kept repeating that the still wanted to “engage” Iran. The European Union made some noises about “violation of human rights” but took no action even when some of its own citizens were also thrown in gaol on charges of espionage and sabotage.
Even when it became clear that at least half a dozen prisoners had died under torture, the “international community” refused to budge.
Once that phase was complete, the authorities proceeded to arrest the mid-ranking members of the movement, putting some 200 “tactical ringleaders” under lock and key. Last week, the regime started putting some of them on trial, extracting televised “confessions” from a few of them. The regime is laying the ground for Stalinist-style purges and trials. According to Tehran sources, thousands of government functionaries will soon be asked to sign papers endorsing Ahmadinejad’s re-election or face dismissal. Clearly, the aim is to use this so-called “bay’ah” (allegiance) campaign as a pretext for purging the civil and the military and security services.
The next logical step would be to arrest all or some members of the quartet. The regime is already testing the waters and gauging possible international reaction.
The official media have started preparing the public for arresting the top leaders of the movement.
State-controlled newspapers claim to have received telephone calls and letters from their readers calling for Mousavi, Khatami, Karrubi and Rafsanjani to be put on trial as “enemies of Islam.”
Pro-Ahmadinejad mullahs, addressing mosque congregations, also call for the “leaders of the sedition” to be brought to justice.
The official news agencies accuse Khatami of being part of “a Freemasonry plot” to secularize the Islamic, and Rafsanjani of being in cahoots with the British to destabilize the country. Karrubi is accused of receiving money from a notorious conman who is in hiding. There are attempts at linking Mousavi with the renegade group Mujahedin Khalq (People’s Combatants) who worked for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war.
Khamenei himself has accused the four leaders of acting like those “hypocrites” (munafeqin) who built a mosque in Medina with the aim of dividing the newly emergent Islamic “ummah”. Official propaganda is also using the language of class warfare against the four dissident leaders. They are labeled as symbols of “the aristocracy of wealth and privilege”, men who wear expensive clothes and watches, drive foreign cars, live in sumptuous villas, send their children to Western universities, and own business empires.
The “Tennessee turkey shoot” a la Iranian could get very ugly indeed.
Amir Taheri’s new book ” The Persian Night” is published by Encounter Books in New York and London