EVER since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was returned to power in June’s dodgy election, protests have erupted in Iran at irregular intervals. The most recent was on December 7th, officially “Student Day”. Across the country, tens of thousands of demonstrators managed to evade the security forces, forcing a way out of the universities into the streets, where non-student protesters joined them. There were reports of hundreds of arrests and severe beatings by the feared baseej militia, which answers to the Revolutionary Guard, the Islamic regime’s armed bullies. In Tehran, the capital and hottest spot, on the day after the demonstration students in the university’s technical faculty were again attacked by plainclothes agents, and further arrests were made.
To the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and senior members of Iran’s panoply of security organs, this is all part of a “soft war”—of disinformation, sabotage and provocation—being waged on the regime by the nation’s enemies. Earlier this month a troupe of pro-government actors performed a grotesque re-enactment of the last moments of Neda Agha Soltan, whose death by police bullet on June 20th was watched on television across the world, to perpetuate the fiction that she was somehow murdered by Western powers. Speculation swirls around the death by poisoning of a doctor who served in a prison where opposition detainees were killed and tortured this summer. Shirin Ebadi, a human-rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize-winner who has criticised the regime from abroad, has been threatened with prosecution on charges of tax evasion if she dares to return home.
Even on calm days, Tehran wears a scowling, joyless aspect. Phalanxes of police patrol the main streets and parks under the pretext of combating drug abuse, double parking and (in the case of Iran’s women) offensively thick amounts of eyeliner. The purpose of all the menace, most people think, is to intimidate the opposition.
Brutality and boastfulness have been the state’s favoured tactics to emasculate the “green movement”, as it is known after the campaign colours of its main figurehead, Mir Hosein Mousavi, who is widely thought to have won June’s election. During the summer there was a steady flow of reports describing deaths of dissidents on the streets and torture in jails. Scores of them were paraded in a show trial where they faced a range of capital charges.
But now such techniques seem to have given way to a subtler but equally determined type of tyranny. Having suffered grievously in jail, some prominent opponents of Mr Ahmadinejad have recently been let out pending appeal. The authorities seem to have silenced some of the freed detainees by demanding exorbitant bail or by threatening them and their families with further horrors. The judiciary has shied away from turning political personalities into martyrs. The five dissidents who are known to have been sentenced to death for their part in the summer’s disturbances were not well known.
At the same time, Iranians in many walks of life describe a slow but perceptible tightening of conditions. To the list of prominent activists, human-rights lawyers and filmmakers banned from leaving the country has now been added the name of Parastu Forouhar, the courageous daughter of dissidents murdered by government agents in 1998. On December 5th her passport was confiscated when she tried to leave for Germany, where she lives.
The number of banned anti-government newspapers and websites grows, while officials call for ever more strident measures to limit the pernicious influence of Western mores on an unsuspecting populace. The latest ideas include handing over control of some schools to clerics, segregating the sexes in universities and banning make-up for female television presenters. Some officials even promote the old Shia Muslim institution of temporary marriage as an alternative to illicit Western-style out-of-wedlock relationships. Conversation in middle-class households often revolves around visa and immigration applications.
Shades of green
In any event, despite this month’s efforts, the protests have lost some of their dynamism. Government propagandists depict the green movement as a busted flush. Fear and fatigue partly account for the dwindling number of demonstrators, but so does confusion over the protesters’ aims and capacity. In the words of a Tehran housewife, “The trouble is, the opposition is not agreed on what it wants.”
In the election’s aftermath, the movement had an attractively simple goal: to replace Mr Ahmadinejad with Mr Mousavi. The protests shrank when it became clear that the supreme leader, who has the last word on all state matters, would protect his president, and when he repeatedly turned overwhelming force against the protesters. Since then the authorities have refrained, despite loud exhortations by extreme hardliners, from arresting Mr Mousavi and a second defeated candidate-turned-opposition leader, Mehdi Karroubi.
Though they have conducted their pro-democracy campaign with tenacity and courage, Messrs Mousavi and Karroubi still proclaim their allegiance to the Islamic Republic, and notably to the “guardianship of the jurist”, the system of clerical rule that Mr Khamenei inherited in 1989 on the death of the regime’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. They also express broad support for Iran’s declared goal of self-sufficiency in nuclear fuel, and toe the official line, widely disbelieved in Europe and America, that Iran is interested solely in producing power for civilian use, not for nuclear weapons. But as the thwarted candidates’ backers become more radical, these views on nuclear issues are starting to sound rather quaint.
Enough of the jurist
For those tens of thousands of Iranians, in Tehran and other cities such as Mashhad and Isfahan, who are still willing to risk a truncheon charge or tear gas, not to mention the possibility of arrest and disappearance, the guardianship of the jurist (known in Persian as velayat-e faqih) has outlived its usefulness. When they are out demonstrating, many such people call not only for Mr Ahmadinejad’s head but also for Mr Khamenei’s. The old slogan, “Death to Israel!” has been replaced by “Death to Russia!” and “Death to China!”—allusions to the diplomatic and economic protection Iran enjoys from these two permanent members of the UN Security Council, and to Russia’s rumoured help in training Iran’s security forces in the dark arts of repression and crowd control.
Not long ago, a large majority of Iranians backed Iran’s nuclear programme. The efforts of Messrs Khamenei and Ahmadinejad to portray Western countries as vindictively hoarding technology for themselves and their Israeli clients found an appreciative audience. Some Iranians did not conceal their hope that the Islamic Republic, whatever its public words on the subject, would end up making a bomb.
Reuters Eyes wide shut
Though no reliable poll has recently been conducted, anecdotal evidence suggests attitudes on such issues are changing. Those who view Mr Ahmadinejad’s presidency as illegitimate tend to abjure all his policies. Though the supreme leader sets foreign policy, Mr Ahmadinejad has aggressively championed Iran’s pursuit of nuclear self-sufficiency, epitomised by his recent provocative statement that Iran would build ten more uranium-enrichment plants. Nowadays, some opposition people regard a nuclear-capable Iran with scarcely less alarm than Iran’s foreign foes.
A further change concerns the demonstrators’ attitude to violence. At the outset of the protests, many demonstrators saw non-violence as an article of faith. Since then, it has become an expedient but far from indispensable tactic. One middle-class Tehrani, a regular and non-violent marcher, frets for his teenage nephew, who has taken to demonstrating alongside a band of muscular toughs from south Tehran’s poor districts. “My nephew”, he says, “came back from a recent demo covered in blood, but it wasn’t his own. It was the blood of a baseej.” For the moment, younger male protesters arm themselves with bricks, rocks and screwdrivers, but few people would be surprised if more radical groups were stashing away firearms.
The main achievement of Iran’s democracy movement is to have survived. Mr Ahmadinejad, who has a winner’s chutzpah but little of the acumen, has helped. His still sizeable constituency of support, particularly among poorer Iranians, is more than offset by the passionate loathing he arouses in millions of his countrymen. One middle-class Tehran woman says that every time she attends a protest she vows it will be her last. She is unsure of the green movement’s aims and fears being beaten. “But then I see Ahmadinejad grinning on the television and I’m so appalled by him and what he’s done, I can’t bring myself to stop going.”
Moreover, the dictatorship that Mr Ahmadinejad shows every sign of wanting to set up is incompetent and fractured, its ability to make and implement policy increasingly weak. Iran’s prestige rose as America stumbled in Iraq. But talk of its becoming a regional superpower sounds overblown. Partly as a result of American pressure on international financial outfits, Iran is struggling to expand its oil industry. Separatist groups rattle the border provinces of Baluchistan and Kurdistan. Mr Ahmadinejad’s recent tour of South America and Africa showed Iran to be less isolated than the United States and Europe would like it to be. But its key friends, China and Russia, are not known for their constancy.
Indeed, the Islamic Republic may get lonelier now that its leaders have turned down the overtures of President Barack Obama and spurned a multinational proposal that Iran’s low-enriched uranium be turned into fuel rods abroad before being returned for monitored use in Iran—a deal which, its architects hoped, may have led to an accommodation on a range of matters. The president and his allies sounded most eager to cut a deal with Mr Obama but were undermined by internal rivalry and perhaps by the supreme leader himself, who does not hide his loathing of America. Mr Obama has high hopes of persuading China and Russia to harden UN sanctions.
The leaders’ last refuge
Messrs Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, whose denunciations of the West are as strident as ever, may well reckon that increased international pressure on Iran will—as in the past—galvanise Iranians in defence of their regime. But many in the opposition, taking their cue from Mrs Ebadi, now think Iranians will be pushed the other way. She has called for European governments to downgrade relations with Iran. Many of her followers dreaded the sight of Iran and the America achieving a detente that might bolster a regime they are now bent on undermining.
At home, Mr Ahmadinejad’s imperious and vindictive personality has alienated many conservatives, too. During his first term he annoyed parliamentarians, including those sharing his views, so that many proposed laws were blocked or watered down. Last week, they irritated the president by introducing a raft of amendments to a bill to phase out costly subsidies. For instance, Mr Ahmadinejad has tried in vain to seize control of Tehran’s underground railway from an ambitious and well-regarded mayor.
The president is also distrusted by some of Iran’s grandest ayatollahs. They are painfully aware of the damage months of repression have done to the Islamic Republic’s claims to moral rectitude.
Mr Ahmadinejad’s consuming vendetta has been against Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president who remains rich and influential. The president and his allies regularly impugn Mr Rafsanjani’s integrity and that of his children, one of whom happens to run the Tehran metro.
True to his reputation for wilfulness, Mr Ahmadinejad seems to have turned a deaf ear to Mr Khamenei’s request that he lay off Mr Rafsanjani, who remains a firm if undeclared supporter of the opposition movement. Mr Rafsanjani’s daughter, a former parliamentarian, was cheered when she appeared among the demonstrators on December 7th.
He won’t drop his guard
For the moment, Mr Ahmadinejad seems secure. The supreme leader has linked his destiny to his president’s, perhaps judging that to accede to the opposition’s demands would encourage scrutiny of his own unaccountable powers. The pair share a power base among the Revolutionary Guard and its underlings, the baseej. The guard has benefited greatly. Under the complaisant eye of Mr Ahmadinejad, a former guardsman, it has won a big, even dominant, place in the economy.
The Revolutionary Guard signalled its aggressive interest in business back in 2004, during the presidency of Mr Ahmadinejad’s reformist predecessor, Muhammad Khatami, when its people seized Tehran’s new airport from the government. Mr Karroubi, then parliament’s speaker, caused a stir when he complained of the traffic of contraband through unregulated, guard-controlled jetties.
Since then, particularly since Mr Ahmadinejad came to power, the Revolutionary Guard has built an empire that encompasses oil and gas, construction, food production and clinics. In October a consortium controlled by the guard bought 51% of Iran’s telecoms monopoly. The central bank has allowed a guard-owned finance company to set up a bank.
So is Mr Ahmadinejad set fair for the next three-plus years in power? He may yet reckon that his plan to phase out subsidies, assuming it is implemented, will free him to direct more aid at his own, poorer supporters. But sceptics say inflation will gallop if the scheme goes awry.
For Messrs Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, their immediate task, made more urgent by the demonstrations of December 7th, is to end the protests and, with them, a perception of their own impotence. Now, on the eve of the mourning month of Muharram, when mass open-air parades may be a pretext for more demonstrations, Mr Khamenei’s advisers may well be urging him to shed more blood and also to arrest Mr Mousavi or Mr Karroubi or both.
But this might not work. A massive show of violence could suggest panic in the corridors of power, and could bring more people onto the streets. The movement does not need Mr Mousavi or Mr Karroubi to survive. In the words of Mohsen Armin, an influential reformist who backs Mr Mousavi, “No one is controlling the street protests.”
Having previously played their hand quite skilfully, the Islamic Republic’s leaders face an acute dilemma. Each act of brutality, though perhaps effective in the short run, erodes the credibility of a regime that prides itself on being close to God. Each time the security forces arrest more people or inflict cruelties behind the doors of Iran’s prisons, more and more people are confronted by the ugly face of the Islamic Republic fighting for its survival.
So the protests go on. In the taunting words of Mr Mousavi, “In the streets, you are fighting with shadows. And your ramparts are collapsing, one by one, in the hearts of the people.”