Saturday, June 20, 2009

Tehran braces for crackdown as protesters vow to defy Khamenei.

I talked yesterday about the upcoming speech which Khamenei was about to make and wondered whether he would be conciliatory or threatening.

Well, he's rolled the dice in a big way and gone for the latter. And, he's warning the opposition that they will "bear the responsibility" for any bloodshed.

Khamenei rejected accusations of fraud in the poll, confirmed the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as the winner, and gave no ground to the millions of ­Iranians demanding their votes back.

Mir Hossein Mousavi, who claims he beat Ahmadinejad in the race, was said by an ally to have no plans for unauthorised rallies tomorrow following the warning, but supporters vowed to go on protesting.

One can only assume that Khamenei intends to use the full force of the state to quell all opposition. The real question now is how many people will take to the streets. In the past few days there have been so many people that the police have felt unable to intervene. Should that number drop to a manageable amount, then the violence will begin and Khamenei will ensure his will through force.

Khamenei's closely watched speech at prayers at Tehran University could hardly have been tougher. It had been hoped he might adopt a more conciliatory tone that would help defuse the gathering crisis, the worst in Iran's 30-year post-revolutionary history. But he warned: "If there is any bloodshed, the leaders of the protests will be held directly responsible. The result of the election comes from the ballot box, not from the street. Today the Iranian nation needs calm."

Tens of thousands of worshippers cheered as he told them: "It is your victory. They cannot manipulate it."

Mousavi, a moderate former prime minister whose "green" movement scared the regime with the support it was attracting, ignored a call to attend the prayer meeting and now faces a dilemma over his next step. Ignoring Khamenei's message risks bloodshed on a far larger scale than the eight people killed last week. Accepting it means surrender to the regime.

The reformist cleric Mehdi Karroubi, another candidate for the presidency, added to the pressure tonight by also calling for the election to be annulled. "Accept the Iranian nation's will by cancelling the vote and guarantee the establishment's survival," he urged.

Khamenei attacked opponents at home but also lambasted Iran's enemies abroad in hardline remarks that bode ill for any opening to the US, where Barack Obama is seeking talks to tackle worries over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

So, we were perhaps being naive to expect Khamenei to take heed of the message being sent by hundreds of thousands of his citizens taking to the streets in protest. He's stating that he has the power to make what he wants to happen a reality, and is banging the drum of foreign interference, despite the fact that we all know that Obama and others have been at pains not to be seen to be involved.

So, yesterday, for the first time, Obama toughened his comments in response:

"I'm very concerned – based on some of the tenor and tone of the statements that have been made – that the government of Iran recognise that the world is watching," Obama told CBS News. "And how they approach and deal with people who are, through peaceful means, trying to be heard will, I think, send a pretty clear signal to the international community about what Iran is – and is not."

Analysts and commentators were dismayed by the implications of Khamenei's speech. Sadegh Saba, chief analyst for BBC Persian TV, said: "Mousavi wants the protests to continue but Khamenei is saying if they do there might be bloodshed – and it will be on your hands."

Issa Saharkhiz, a Tehran-based pro-reformist commentator, said Khamenei's speech had transformed the crisis from a conflict over the election result into a trial of his own political authority, which was now being openly questioned. "Now the issue is that the supreme leader's sense of justice, management and competence is under question," he told Deutsche Welle. "The leadership cannot be left in the hands of such a person, who for the sake of preserving himself and his power threatens people with mass murder."

I said a couple of days ago that I was shocked to hear people talking of removing the supreme leader. I have never heard such talk before.

Well, now we have his response. He's promising war with his own people if they do not bend to his will.

This will now come down to numbers. How many can take to the streets? If it is more than the police can safely manage then Khamenei has set himself up for a fall.

Andrew Sullivan is reporting on what Iranians are posting online, amongst which is this:
people trust Mousavi's judgment and are waiting 4 him to give the word. If he backs down it's the end of it
And that's the truth. How far will Mousavi go? Will the Iranian people back down?

If they don't, Khamenei is promising that this is going to get violent. But that's a very dangerous card for Khamenei to play. He's setting himself up against tens of thousands of his own people.

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