Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Iran as seen from Jerusalem - Tuesday

A taste of freedom

The footage is surreptitious and lacks narration. Viewers see hundreds of protesters being chased by truncheon-wielding policemen on motorcycles; one motorbike on its side, is ablaze. The demonstrators, supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi, are certain their man defeated President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Friday's Iranian presidential election, and that authorities manipulated the results.

Though Mousavi was pre-approved to compete in the election by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his candidacy unexpectedly became a rallying point for an urbane constituency that felt socially and economically stifled by Ahmadinejad's demagoguery.

The protests in Teheran and elsewhere are relatively small and sporadic. Mousavi has asked the Guardian Council, the mullahs charged with validating the election, not to. Meanwhile, Khamenei declared Ahmadinejad the winner and invited the nation to celebrate a miraculous turnout.

The regime has cut off social networking sites (Facebook and Twitter), making it hard for dissidents to organize. Cell phone service is sporadic. SMS is blocked. Foreign news broadcasts are being jammed. The government-subservient media are playing down, or not covering the opposition.

Mousavi was spotted yesterday addressing thousands from the roof of a car after loyalists fought off Ahmadinejad's thugs. Scores of other Mousavi supporters are in jail. Earlier, he urged followers to continue their protests "in a peaceful and legal way."

But authorities, perhaps hearing the chants of "Death to the dictator" - a common refrain against the shah - and "We want freedom," say the opposition has crossed the line into treason. While there were popular expressions of discontent in 1999 and 2003, the BBC is reporting that nothing like the current disturbances has been seen in Iran since the 1979 Revolution. Iran's masses have tasted "democracy," only to have it snatched away. Their rulers now expect them to return to a state of somnolence.

Out of guile - or perhaps trepidation - Khamenei has decided to complement the regime's big stick with a carrot: He ordered the Guardian Council to "precisely consider" allegations that the election was marred by fraud.

IF HE did have the election rigged, Khamenei may have decided that the regime did not need a less malevolent persona. After all, he's done pretty well with Ahmadinejad as his number one: Iran's program to build an atom bomb is on track. Trade with the EU, Russia and China is brisk. The EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, enthusiastically parlays with his Hizbullah proxies in Beirut, even as Western European diplomats flirt with Iranian-backed Palestinian extremists in Gaza. The Obama administration seems pleasantly quiescent. Bellicosity has produced dividends. Why change a winning strategy?

As The New York Times reported, "Ahmadinejad is the shrewd and ruthless front man for a clerical, military and political elite that is more unified and emboldened than at any time since the 1979 revolution."

Ahmadinejad himself is demanding obeisance: "We are now asking the positions of all countries regarding the elections, and assessing their attitude to our people."

Dutifully, the emir of Qatar, and the leaders of Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Venezuela, along with the Arab League's Amr Moussa, Hamas and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, all congratulated him on his marvelous victory.

It is true that the German and French foreign ministries expressed mild disappointment at the way the election played out. The US, which lauded the campaign, was circumspect, saying it hoped the elections reflected the will of the Iranian people.

US policy on Iran remains unsettled. Dennis Ross, appointed in February as the administration's point man, is being shifted to another job. Before that he was known to support a dialogue with Iran on the grounds that it would make tougher US policies more palatable. His reassignment could signal that the America is getting wobbly.

So it seems whimsical to imagine - when negotiations finally commence between the West and Teheran, with the Obama administration's active involvement - that Khamenei will allow himself to be talked into abandoning his ambitions to make Iran a nuclear power. Ditto that he will stop supporting Hizbullah and Hamas.

Elections notwithstanding, real power in Iran rests with the Supreme Leader. Still, America's president could take the brazen Khamenei down a peg or two by expressing solidarity with Iranians' clear desire for real freedom.

Will he?

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