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Page last updated at 19:45 GMT, Wednesday, 24 June 2009 20:45 UK

Iran poll row set to rage on

By Jon Leyne
BBC News

Opposition protesters behind burning barricades in Tehran. Photo: 20 June 2009
The opposition will almost certainly try to hold more rallies

Nearly two weeks after Iran's bitterly contested presidential election, there are signs that the government is beginning to regain control.

With a heavy security presence on the streets, Wednesday appears to have had the least protests of any day since the result was announced.

But any idea that the opposition is about to go gently into the good night is probably an illusion. There is still a depth of feeling in this argument, on both sides, that suggests the dispute could rage for weeks or even months.

With the security forces and the state media under its control, the Iranian government has some powerful tools.

It has been reluctant to use live fire on the demonstrators, if only because that would just stir more protests, though guns have certainly been used on occasions. Short of that, the government has been pressing hard to close down and discredit the opposition protests.

Opposition's options

But the opposition has avenues open to it as well. It will almost certainly try to hold more demonstrations.

IRAN UNREST
12 June Presidential election saw incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad re-elected with 63% of vote
Main challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi called for result to be annulled on grounds of electoral fraud
Street protests saw at least 17 people killed and foreign media restricted

The opposition could try to evade the security presence by simply urging supporters to go out onto the pavements or sidewalks across Iran's cities and stand in solidarity, something that has already begun to happen spontaneously.

Or it can launch a general strike, a radical step the leadership have so far been reluctant to authorise, or other forms of civil disobedience.

The government would be particularly nervous of a strike amongst oil workers, or amongst the rich merchants, the Bazaaris, whose role in bringing down the Shah is almost legendary.

There are options within the political system as well.

Former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a key figure behind the opposition, chairs the Assembly of Experts, a powerful body of clerics that has the power to monitor the performance or to dismiss the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

Dismissal would be a political earthquake bigger than anything seen since the 1979 revolution, but even a hint of criticism of the Supreme Leader from an official body would be highly damaging.

In recent days Mr Rafsanjani has reportedly been in the clerical capital, Qom, rallying support, though he has not yet openly shown his hand.

Then there is the parliament, the Majlis. The majority of MPs are conservative, certainly not Mousavi supporters, but also quite hostile to President Ahmadinejad.

They could cause problems when the president presents his new cabinet for approval from July 26 to August 19.

Already the Majlis speaker, Ali Larijani, has voiced criticism of raids on student dormitories by the government militia, the Basij, and a committee of MPs called in the interior minister for questioning.

Western role

In recent days the government has been trying to move the focus, increasing the volume of criticism of the outside world, particularly Britain.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei 24.6.09
Ayatollah Khamenei had ordered protesters to stop their protests

The Iranian foreign minister has talked of perhaps lowering the level of representation between Iran and the UK - a hint that the British ambassador might be expelled from Tehran.

Targeting Britain is a tactic that will certainly rally the support amongst the faithful. Even opposition supporters are curious about Britain's role.

So foreign leaders, particularly US President Barack Obama, have been astute in limiting their comments and their criticism to the treatment of demonstrators, not the conduct of the election or the count.

Mr Obama has already played his role by opening the door to dialogue with Iran.

It is clearly one of the factors behind the current turmoil within the Iranian establishment. Hardliners must wonder whether the system can survive even a partial reconciliation with the US.

But above all this is an argument within Iran about the future of the country.

It is much more complex than pro- versus anti-Westerners, or even Islamists versus secularists.

President Ahmadinejad has his supporters even amongst Iranians who have chosen to live in the West and in the US.

Opposition supporters insist they are good Muslims, and argue that they would defend Iran's independence as fiercely as anyone.

But the two sides have deeply differing views on how Iran should be run, and its place in the world. And neither is about to give ground.



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