Page last updated at 23:13 GMT, Thursday, 9 July 2009 00:13 UK

Iran learns from past to crush dissent

Supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi  18.6.09
Mass protests in the days following the election have been stopped or disrupted

By Jon Leyne
BBC Tehran correspondent

As opposition demonstrators came out in force after Iran's disputed presidential election, one exhilarated protester declared that his country was waking up.

Two nights ago someone told me that Tehran was now in a coma.

The mood swing could not be more dramatic, as the security and intelligence forces move to regain control.

Normally gregarious Iranians are afraid to speak in public places for fear that their words might be misinterpreted and relayed back to the authorities.

In the immediate aftermath of the disputed election result, the Iranian government appeared wrong-footed, astonished by the strength of protests.

An uncompromising speech by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei on 19 June - a week after the election - signalled that any doubts were over.

What has happened since then has been described as a crackdown.

But it is clear that the leaders of the Islamic Republic have taken their own lessons from the way they took power in 1979.

Burning police station in Tehran 11.2.79
Clerics are paying attention to the street anger, similar to that in 1979

The unrest that led to the fall of the Shah spiralled out of control.

Any time a demonstrator was shot there were more protests at the funeral and at the "arbayeen", the 40-day anniversary of the death.

Indecision on the part of the Shah only made his position weaker.

This time the Iranian security forces are trying to use the military principle of "minimum force".

They have been largely, though not entirely, avoiding the use of live fire.

Instead the police and the government's Basij militia have tried to spread fear, with mass arrests, repeated warnings in the media against unauthorised demonstrations, plenty of violence against demonstrators, but mostly not lethal force.

When protesters are killed, the families are prevented from holding public mourning ceremonies.

It has also become increasingly clear that the Revolutionary Guards are crucial in the crackdown.

Control of security

In a weekend news conference the head of the guards, Gen Mohammad Ali Jafari, came out publicly for the first time and announced that the guards had been given the task of controlling the internal security situation.

"This event pushed us into a new phase of the revolution," he said ominously. "We have to understand all its dimensions."

In other words - the Revolutionary Guards are in control.

That is the culmination of a trend that began as long ago as 1989, when Ayatollah Khamenei succeeded Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic.

Lacking the religious credentials, or the charisma, of his predecessor, Mr Khamenei built up a power base in the Revolutionary Guards.

Since Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was first elected four years ago, commentators have seen an acceleration of that trend, with the guards now assigned multi-billion dollar contracts to help secure their loyalty.

Plain clothes police beat a protester 14.6.09
Demonstrators have been on the receiving end of violence

As much as two years ago, some western diplomats were talking about a slow and silent military coup taking place. The power of the clergy has been steadily diminished.

So it should be no surprise that many senior ayatollahs and many members of parliament - the majlis - are deeply uneasy about what is going on.

For the moment, opposition and government have reached deadlock.

Public resentment means that even now, sporadic protests are continuing and there is a sense of burning anger amongst many Iranians about the election and what happened afterwards.

Even now, enough protesters gathering together on the streets could potentially overwhelm the security forces, or at least make them increase the use of force in ways that could be counter-productive to the regime.

But there is no clear strategy on how to achieve that.

At the same time the government faces the possibility of further challenges to its legitimacy, from the clerics and from the parliament.

Consolidating power is going to be difficult.

For the foreseeable future this is going to be a government that relies on force or the threat of force. The Islamic Republic will look much more like a traditional military dictatorship.

Elusive enemy

Ideally for them a new foreign threat might emerge. Already the government has tried to portray the protests as instigated by the West.

But President Barack Obama makes an elusive enemy.

On Thursday US forces even released five Iranian diplomats held in Iraq, removing a long-running sore between the two countries.

It is still possible that Mr Ahmadinejad's government will restore order and appear to rule as before.

There is no doubt he has a hard core of several million intensely loyal supporters, including members of the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militia.

But the Islamic Republic has been badly damaged, already change has begun, and it is hard to see how it will end.

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