Monday, June 22, 2009

Streets of Tehran left empty as protesters wait in vain for sign.

It would appear as if force has won the day as, for the first time in a week, the streets of Iran fall silent.

Protesters who have shaken the authorities by venting anger en masse at the "stolen" elections that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to office spoke of a hiatus, even a despair, settling on the movement after yesterday'sSaturday's clashes killed at least 10 and wounded scores more. State television blamed the casualties on clashes between police and "terrorist groups".

Tonight, sporadic gunfire was heard in northern parts of Tehran, yet there was no repeat of the mass protests that have brought hundreds of thousands to the streets of the capital in the last week.

Some opposition figures were still hoping that their figurehead, the defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, would emerge tomorrow to lead another rally calling for the elections to be annulled. But Saturday's crackdown, in which police wielded guns, truncheons, tear gas and water cannon, showed that the state intends to follow through on veiled threats of zero tolerance from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Mousavi issued an elliptical statement today in which he spoke of a "turning point" being "forged in the history of our nation. People are asking each other and also me, when among them, what should be done and in which direction we should go," he said. But he stopped short of giving a clear answer. "Protesting against lies and fraud [in the election] is your [Iranians] right," the statement said. "In your protests, continue to show restraint. I am expecting the armed forces to avoid irreversible damage," he added.

It's hard not to think that this is the end of the matter. The army have shown that they are willing to kill the "terrorists" - is there anyone these days to whom that title cannot be affixed? - so it's perfectly understandable that ordinary people have begun to fear making their voices heard, especially when ten people have already died for doing so.

The state media are reporting that 457 people have already been arrested over Saturday's protests. And the BBC are telling us that their reporter in Tehran, Jon Leyne, has been asked to leave the country.

The will of the people appears to have come up against the power of the state, and the state's willingness to kill those who oppose them has had a sobering effect.

Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, urged Iran not only to allow peaceful protests but to conduct a recount of votes cast in the election. "Germany is on the side of the Iranian people, who want to exercise their rights of freedom of expression and free assembly," she said. France's foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, called the crackdown a "brutal repression". Italy's foreign minister, Franco Frattini, expressed similar sentiments but confirmed that Iran was still invited to discuss Afghanistan and Iraq at a conference in Trieste this week.

Barack Obama did not expand today on earlier comments in which he called on the regime "to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people".

As always, tiresomely, the regime have tried to portray this as the product of "foreign interference". But few will believe that. The people who protested did so because they did not believe the election result.

That fact has not changed. All that has changed is that people have realised that, if they protest, they might be killed.

So, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad might have got their way, but they govern over an unruly populace who believe that they have been duped.

Khamenei will one day regret this. He will never again be seen as an apolitical figure. There have been cries of "Death to the dictator!" Such emotions will not simply vanish. You can terrify people into not protesting against you, but that doesn't erase their anger. It merely drives it underground.

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