Iran General NewsStandoff in Iran deepens with new show of force

Standoff in Iran deepens with new show of force

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ImageNew York Times: Iranian authorities sent police officers into the streets to deter protests on Friday as Mir Hussein Moussavi, the main opposition leader, said in a statement that he did not fear giving his life as “a martyr.” The New York Times

By MICHAEL SLACKMAN

ImageCAIRO — Iranian authorities sent police officers into the streets to deter protests on Friday as Mir Hussein Moussavi, the main opposition leader, said in a statement that he did not fear giving his life as “a martyr.”

The continuing show of force in the capital and Mr. Moussavi’s declaration, in which he said that killing him would not end the unrest, were part of a day of charges, countercharges and warnings from both sides, illustrating the deep divisions that have emerged since Iran’s political crisis began six months ago.

The government and its hard-line supporters continued to rely on force, and the threat of force, to quell protests and demand loyalty, while the opposition refused to back down. There was no indication that compromise was on the agenda.

During Friday Prayer services in the capital, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a fundamentalist cleric who leads the powerful Guardian Council, called protesters “flagrant examples of the corrupt on Earth” and effectively urged that they be executed as “in the early days of the revolution.”

Mr. Moussavi issued a statement on his Web site, kaleme.org, that took a broad swipe at the government for its use of force against civilian protesters. It also criticized the government’s handling of the economy and foreign policy and its failure to address institutional corruption.

Mr. Moussavi offered a prescription for the government to restore its lost legitimacy, calling for the release of political prisoners and the repair of electoral laws, as well as freedom of expression, assembly and the press.

Then he addressed those who in recent days called for him to be arrested and executed, along with other opposition leaders, like Mehdi Karroubi, the cleric and former Parliament speaker.

“I’m not afraid of being one of the post-election martyrs who lost their lives in their struggle for their rightful demands,” he said. “My blood is no different from that of other martyrs.”

But Mr. Moussavi also acknowledged that neither he nor Mr. Karroubi was actually in charge. Presenting himself as more of an analyst than a participant, Mr. Moussavi framed Iran’s internal conflict as one between the leadership and the people. It was a tactical move that apparently sought to take the opposition’s weakness — its lack of organization and leadership — and present it as a strength.

“I say openly that orders to execute, kill or imprison Karroubi and Moussavi will not solve the problem,” he said.

Mr. Moussavi’s nephew, Ali Moussavi, was killed during clashes on Sunday in what the opposition says was a government-sanctioned assassination.

The nephew was buried Wednesday in Behesht-eh Zahra cemetery in Tehran amid tight security in which phones were jammed and plainclothes agents mingled with mourners, the Rouydad News Web site said.

Iran has been locked in conflict since its disputed presidential election in June, when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared a landslide victory. That led to widespread protests charging fraud, and the government responded with a crackdown. Since then, Iran has been caught in an increasingly hostile stalemate.

“The reform movement won’t die, but it also can’t unite,” said an Iran expert who said he needed to remain anonymous to maintain relations with officials inside Iran. “The regime retains control, but can’t put out the opposition. So it’s a seesaw battle.”

The opposition continues to take advantage of public holidays and religious observances as an opportunity to protest. The government, meanwhile, has tried to transform itself into a more efficient police state with efforts to professionalize the pro-government Basij militia, for example.

Last Sunday, those two strategies exploded when tens of thousands protested in the streets during the Ashura holiday, chanting slogans calling for the death of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The authorities allowed security forces to fire into crowds of civilians; at least eight people were killed.

“In terms of longevity, this could go on for some time, but could also unravel quite quickly if the government loses its nerve,” said Ali Ansari, a professor of Iranian history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “In this respect Khamenei is the key. He’s the equivalent of the shah and is similarly weak.”

Iran analysts said they were bracing for the next potential showdown on Feb. 11, the anniversary of Iran’s 1979 revolution.

On Friday, New Year’s Day, residents of Tehran woke to a police presence in central Tehran, with officers stationed at several major intersections and squares. The authorities also deployed civilian members of the Basij militia equipped with batons, riot helmets and shields.

Forces were concentrated at Vali Asr Square, Seventh Tir Square and Revolution Square. Motorcycle-mounted police and plainclothes forces were seen patrolling the stretch of road between Revolution Square and Freedom Square.

Photographs and reports were circulating on the Internet about new armored police vehicles that were delivered to Tehran over the last few days. The reports said they were Chinese-made vehicles with twin water cannons also capable of delivering chemical irritants.

The show of force came in tandem with threats of prosecution for the many opposition supporters who had been arrested, and those leaders who had not.

From the beginning of the crackdown in June, the authorities have accused Britain and the United States of being behind the civil unrest as part of a plan to incite a velvet revolution — charges that the West denied but that have resurfaced after Sunday’s protests. On Thursday, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry warned “rioters not to be manipulated by foreigners seeking to once again dominate Iran,” state-run Press TV reported.

Iran’s prosecutor general, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, warned opposition leaders on Thursday that they could face trial if they did not denounce this week’s antigovernment protests.

The deputy chief of judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi, told the official IRNA news agency on Thursday that those detained in Sunday’s unrest would be charged with violating public order and “mohareb,” meaning enemies of God, a charge punishable by death.

But in his statement, Mr. Moussavi said the government’s hammer-fisted approach would only undermine its security. “Do they think that by removing the elite, intellectuals and activists from the political scene, and without addressing the roots of the problem, they will be able to return the country to the situation before the elections?” he asked.

He answered, “The results of terrorist acts will only rebound back to the center and make the current crisis insoluble.”

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