Trial of protesters seems only to hurt Iran, analysts say

The alleged French spy stood at the lectern Saturday in Tehran and described her dastardly act of collusion.

Clotilde Reiss, a pale, soft-spoken 24-year-old who had been teaching French in the central Iranian city of Esfahan when she was arrested, confessed to sending a single e-mail to a colleague in the capital.

In it, she described the unrest unfolding in Esfahan after taking part in a couple of peaceful protests against the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"I apologize to the Iranian nation and the court, and hope they will pardon me," the aspiring scholar was quoted as saying, appearing in court after spending five weeks in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison.

As a prosecutor sketched a vast foreign conspiracy against Iran at the second session of an extraordinary trial of alleged ringleaders of the unrest, experts were struggling to figure out the intent of the televised proceedings. More than 100 people were paraded before the cameras a week ago, followed by dozens more Saturday.

Not only has the government failed to silence the opposition or quell protests, including one that erupted outside the court building as the proceedings were underway Saturday, analysts said, but it appears to be seriously damaging the international credibility of the Iranian judiciary and political system.

Even among five supporters of Ahmadinejad approached Saturday in Tehran, all but one said they believed the stilted confessions being read by the defendants were forced, especially those of prominent figures such as former reformist Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi.

The trial, observers said, may be the symptom of fierce fighting within the country's institutions, an attempt to build a case against the opposition by hard-line political novices loyal to Ahmadinejad.

"I don't know who has the power, and that is the problem in Iran," said Bernard Hourcade, a French expert on Iran who has regularly visited the country since the 1960s. "It's anarchy. No one has got the power. It's dangerous for the people of Iran. It's dangerous for everybody."

Huge street protests broke out after the June 12 election in the greatest domestic challenge to the authority of the Islamic Republic's rulers since the 1979 revolution. A violent crackdown ensued, but supporters of opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, backed by powerful clerics and politicians within the establishment, continue to protest.

Hard-liners have claimed that the West is behind the unrest, accusing Western intelligence agencies of infiltrating Iran's domestic reform movement and colorful civil society organizations to foment a "velvet revolution."

The lengthy indictment read by the prosecutor Saturday conjured up a sordid conspiracy in which U.S., British and Israeli intelligence agencies collaborated with exile opposition groups to try to topple the Islamic Republic.

Along with Western intelligence, BBC's Persian-language service and the U.S.-funded Voice of America television channels allegedly were in on the plot.

The West also allegedly provided "rioters" with Twitter, Facebook, Persian-language translation software and access to "advanced software" that enabled people to watch Internet videos despite low bandwidth, according to the indictment.

But the awkward confessions by defendants, some held for weeks without access to counsel in solitary confinement wings of Iranian prisons, lacked specifics about such a plot.

As with Reiss and the e-mail, some merely appeared to describe fairly innocent events: Journalists last week acknowledged gathering news and photos to send to their employers abroad. Hossein Rassam, a political analyst at the British Embassy, confessed to diligently gauging public opinion and sending his insights to his bosses. Nazak Afshar, an official with the cultural mission at the French Embassy, said the mission offered medical services to protesters injured by security forces.

By provocatively showcasing confessions by the French citizen, Iranian American scholar Kian Tajbakhsh and Iranian Canadian Newsweek reporter Maziar Bahari, as well as by British and French embassy staffers, the trials will almost certainly further Iran's diplomatic isolation, highlight its sometimes erratic political system and reduce its leverage just as the West and Tehran are considering talks on resolving differences over the Iranian nuclear program.

The French Foreign Ministry called for the immediate release of both Reiss and embassy employee Afshar, saying that the charges against them were without basis.

British officials were stunned by Rassam's unexpected surfacing at the mass trial. "I am deeply concerned by the unjustified charges today laid against Hossein Rassam in Tehran," British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said, adding that the trial "only brings further discredit on the Iranian regime."

But few have a concrete grasp of who exactly is staging the trial.

The outgoing chief of the judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, has been invisible over the course of the trial. Meanwhile, the nation's lead prosecutor, Qorban Ali Dori-Najafabadi, was quoted last week as distancing the courts from the confessions, saying the "judicial system will base its ruling on the suspects' files and the evidence presented at courts," as opposed to the confessions alone, according to news agencies.

Even the feared Tehran prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi, who usually takes on national security cases with relish, has faded into the background, allowing a relatively unknown deputy to make the public case against the defendants.

Many wonder about the goal of the trial. Some analysts suspect that the proceedings, which even some Iranian conservatives have criticized, highlighted a hurried and botched attempt by hard-liners to build a legal case against Mousavi and his powerful allies, former President Mohammad Khatami and Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

"It could be that they're trying to frame one specific person, potentially Rafsanjani, which could explain why he's been so quiet lately," said one analyst in Tehran, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He's probably lobbying and working to ensure that they don't succeed. But failing that, which appears to be the case, they'll go for another scenario."

Factional battles have long shaken the country's political establishment, foiling its attempts to achieve consensus on big issues, such as relations with the West.

In the past, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was able to impose such consensus. But it appears that this time he is unable to paper over the differences between various camps. Analysts fear the trial is symptomatic of a far deeper fissure that could make it difficult for the Obama administration to engage with Iran diplomatically, as it has vowed to do.

"Who in Iran has the authority to discuss the nuclear issue?" Hourcade said. "Nobody could answer this question now."

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daragahi@latimes.com

Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.

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