Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Iran: The Protest Grows.

It's all the more astonishing because it is taking place in a country where protest is rarely seen.

The government are calling protesters "treacherous", which is upping the stakes to an enormous degree.

And yet, still they flow on to the streets, making their displeasure at the election result known, facing down the government and the police.

Precise figures were not available, but some estimates suggested that more than 500,000 people were involved in the protest against the election "theft". Such large-scale protest has not seen in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

"Mousavi we support you! We will die but regain our votes," shouted supporters, many wearing the green of the moderate's election campaign and carrying signs with the message "Where is my vote?"

Unconfirmed reports suggested that up to 12 people were also been killed in confrontations between riot police and ­students in Tehran and the city of Shiraz.

Several vehicles were set alight in Tehran's streets and there were reports that protesters had taken to city rooftops at nightfall, shouting "Death to the dictator". Last night protesters promised they would be back on the streets again today.

The presence of huge crowds on the streets – and reports of other fatalities – appeared to dash earlier predictions that the unrest of the past three days would fade away. There was also a fresh twist when it was announced that Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had ordered the powerful guardian council to investigate claims of election fraud.

Diplomatic sources said this was not a major shift, suggesting that Khamenei had merely warned Mousavi that he should proceed with his fraud complaints carefully, using only "legal" means available to him. Khamenei, who stands at the apex of Iran's complex political system, endorsed the election result on Saturday, dashing opposition hopes that he might be persuaded to order a recount or even annul the result.

Khamenei appears to be playing for time, but I'm not sure that he has time on his side. These crowds certainly do not appear willing to wait the ten days which he is asking of them to allow him to look into the calls of election fraud.

There protests are not merely a threat to Ahmadinejad, they are a threat to Khamenei and the entire regime in Iran, which is why this will now become a showdown with violent repercussions.

Observers were stunned by the size of the Tehran rally, in defiance of a ban. And there was no sign of the anger diminishing: "Many of my friends are in prison," said Saman Imani, a student beaten by police. "Iran is becoming a dictatorship. Ahmadinejad is denying the Holocaust because he's as brutal as Hitler was."

Ebrahim Yazdi, leader of the banned opposition Freedom Movement and a veteran of the revolution, warned that Ahmadinejad's attacks on his opponents had opened a "Pandora's box" which had led to a deep crisis within the regime.

"The result of such a crisis now is that the rift among the ... personalities of the revolution is getting deeper," he said. "It is also between people and their government ... a rift between state and the nation. It is the biggest crisis since the revolution."

I am stunned that such protests should be taking place in a country where actions like this have been, until now, unthinkable.

It really does feel like a revolution is afoot.

And, already, we have had our first fatality:

Iran's post-election political unrest claimed its first confirmed fatality today when shots were fired at supporters of the defeated presidential candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who had defied an official ban on a mass rally in central Tehran.

Basij militiamen loyal to the hardline incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, were said to be responsible for the shooting, which took place as hundreds of thousands of pro-Mousavi demonstrators marched through the city centre to Azadi (Freedom) Square demanding the result of last Friday's election be annulled.

Photographs taken at the scene appeared to show one man dead and ­several others with bullet wounds.

I have no idea where this is all going to end, but I am simply astonished that the crowds are not backing down.

I also note that even Obama is carefully avoiding coming down on one side or the other.

Barack Obama, in his first comments since the Iranian elections, said he was "deeply troubled" by the post-election violence. But the president held back from publicly criticising Iran, anxious to avoid accusations from Tehran of interference in internal elections, and derailing Washington's diplomatic overtures to Tehran.

Obama, adopting a softly-softly approach, said it was up to Iran to determine its leaders. But he added: "I am deeply troubled by the violence that I've been seeing on television."

He said the world was inspired by the demonstrators who had taken to the streets to protest at alleged election fraud. "The democratic process, free speech, the ability of people to peacefully dissent – all those are universal values and need to be respected."

He was careful, though, to avoid any confrontational remarks that Iran could use as an excuse to rebuff his call for direct negotiations.

He's keeping his options open should Ahmadinejad survive, careful to avoid the charge that this protest is US inspired.

But I am sure, like the rest of us, he can't quite believe what he is witnessing.


Here a dead Iranian boy is carried through the streets.


Iran’s Guardian Council has announced a recount of disputed votes, following protests in Tehran involving hundreds of thousands of people. It’s not clear how extensive the recount will be or whether it will threaten to upset the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who flew to Russia, Tuesday.

A spokesman was quoted by state media saying the council was “ready to recount the disputed ballot boxes claimed by some candidates, in the presence of their representatives” and “It is possible that there may be some changes in the tally after the recount.”
They say it is still unlikely that the result will change in any meaningful way or that Ahmadinejad will be forced to step down. But, it just might calm things down a little.

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