A darker shadow over Iran

The Iranian government has displayed brutality and disdain for its own people in numerous ways since the disputed June 12 election that prompted mass demonstrations. The latest was a show trial this past weekend of at least 100 prominent reformist politicians, journalists and foot soldiers, with some high-profile "confessions" that family members and Iran- observers say were coerced. This is dangerous political theater meant to counter claims of vote fraud during the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and to present the Iranian public with an alternative view that blames the West for the country's unrest.

The indictments and supposed confessions by jailed former Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi and detained Newsweek reporter Maziar Bahari, for instance, make the case that reform leaders had been conspiring for years to launch a "velvet coup" against supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Islamic conservatives. The way the government spins it, the United States and Britain financed the plot and fueled street protests on behalf of opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Human rights activists, academics and journalists who reported on the chaos all supposedly were complicit. In short, just about any critic of the regime was an enemy and part of the conspiracy.

This is paranoid fantasy. Iran's fight is internal. Splits among the ruling elite are as home-grown as discontent among average citizens. What began as a protest against voter fraud is turning into a questioning of the regime's legitimacy. Officially, about 30 Iranians have died in protests, but opposition leaders say the death toll is much higher and that scores more have been arrested; two dozen journalists are known to be among those detained. The defendants put on trial were held for weeks, often in solitary confinement, many of them allegedly beaten, drugged and denied access to lawyers.

Mousavi and leading clerics have denounced the mass trial for violating "legal and religious norms," while hard-liners from the court warned that those who cast doubt on the trial are acting against God and will be punished. The regime appears to be laying the groundwork to arrest Mousavi and other reform leaders or, worse, to eliminate its enemies using the death penalty.

On Monday, Ahmadinejad received Khamenei's blessing for a second term. With the backing of the ayatollah, as well as the Revolutionary Guard, Ahmadinejad will be president. But it will be a weakened presidency. Ahmadinejad is unlikely to respond positively to the United States' call for nuclear talks. He's watching his back, not looking to negotiate with the very country he blames for undermining him.

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