Iranians knew that Friday Prayer in Tehran on June 19 would be a turning point. For those tuning in to watch, its significance could be approached visually, like the old May Day parades in Moscow under the Soviet Union. You scan the faces of the people present to see who is there and who is not, attaching meaning to attendance. Among those there to hear the pronouncements of the Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, were most of the top leadership, including powerful personalities like Ali Larijani, the Speaker of parliament, and one of his predecessors, Gholam-Ali Hadad Adel (who also happens to be related to Khamenei through the marriage of their children). The President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was there too, as was one of his election rivals, Mohsen Rezaei. But dramatically absent were two other candidates for the presidency: Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. Also invisible was Ahmadinejad’s true nemesis: Ayatullah Hashemi Rafsanjani.
But Kremlinology was dispensed with once the Supreme Leader began speaking — and the country began to parse his words. He spoke of how “the enemy” had been plotting to declare the elections fraudulent even before the vote took place. He spoke of the illegality of street protests. The recent election, he said, was the most significant in the history of Iran apart from the vote in 1979 that created the Islamic republic. Iranians, he said, should remember that their country represents a third way, the best way, between dictatorships and the false democracies that populate the rest of the world.
Khamenei dismissed accusations that the election was stolen. He said cheating occurs by way of small numbers, a vote here or there, a few thousand or ten thousand. He indicated that an 11 million margin could not be manufactured. Still, he said, the Guardian Council, which must certify the results, would recount ballots with representatives of all candidates present. In the meantime, he declared that the way of the law, rahe qanun, had to be respected and the violence in the streets brought to an end. He condemned the violent excesses of both the Basij, the volunteer paramilitary that supports Ahamdinejad, and the green-garbed backers of Mousavi. [continued…]
The daytime protests across the Islamic republic have been largely peaceful. But Iranians shudder at the violence unleashed in their cities at night, with the shadowy vigilantes known as Basijis beating, looting and sometimes gunning down protesters they tracked during the day.
The vigilantes plan to take their fight into the daylight on Friday, with the public relations department of Ansar Hezbollah, the most public face of the Basij, announcing that they planned a public demonstration to expose the “seditious conspiracy” being carried out by “agitating hooligans.”
“We invite the vigilant people who are always in the arena to make their loud objections heard in response to the babbling of this tribe,” said the announcement, carried on the Web site Parsine.
The announcement could be the first indication that the government was taking its gloves off, Iranian analysts noted, because up to this point the Basijis, usually deployed as the shock troops to end any public protests, have been working in stealth. [continued…]
… in conversations with friends and relatives in Tehran this week, I’ve heard the opposite of what I had expected: a resounding belief that this time the United States should keep out. One of my cousins, a woman in her mid-30s who has been attending the daily protests along with the rest of her family, viewed the situation pragmatically. “The U.S. shouldn’t interfere, because a loud condemnation isn’t going to affect Iranian domestic politics one way or the other. If the supreme leader decides to crackdown on the protests and Ahmadinejad stays in power, then negotiations with the United States might improve our lives.”
I heard these sentiments, remarkably thoughtful for such a passionate moment, echoed from many quarters. President Barack Obama’s outreach to Iran, and his offer of a mutually respectful dialogue, has raised the possibility of better relations for the first time in years, and many Iranians worry that a false step might jeopardize that prospect altogether. A friend of mine who studies public relations in Tehran noted that other American allies in the Gulf, Arab dictatorships with no pretence of democracy, are thriving economically. “In the end, a dictatorship that doesn’t face U.S. sanctions is better off than one that does,” she said. “Now that after 30 years it seems that we have a chance to negotiate with America, it would be a shame if we lost the chance.”
Other friends I spoke with cited various reasons why the United States should maintain its discrete posture. “If Obama’s position until now has been to respect Iran, then he really has no choice but to watch first how things unfold. Mousavi hasn’t produced any facts yet, no one has produced evidence of fraud,” said my friend Ali, a 40-year-old photographer. “That’s what is needed before Obama takes a major stand.” [continued…]
(Part one of this interview with Pepe Escobar can be seen here.)