Iran’s political crisis intensified Wednesday when the nation’s main opposition figure announced that he would create a political organization to “lay the groundwork for a large-scale social movement” stemming from his disputed election loss to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Many supporters of Mir-Hossein Mousavi had feared the announcement would amount to a disavowal of the civil disobedience campaign that has sprung up since the June election in which the government has been accused of massive vote fraud. Instead, Mousavi explicitly praised the protest movement as a cornerstone for change in Iran.
In his most extensive remarks in weeks, Mousavi said that “power is always inclined to become absolute, and only people’s movements can put a hold on this inclination.” Several other opposition figures, emboldened by high-ranking clerics and unbowed by the severe government crackdown on protesters, have also issued challenges to the authority of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his ally Ahmadinejad.
A senior cleric on Wednesday issued a fatwa, or religious edict, encouraging Iranian officials to skip Ahmadinejad’s inauguration in early August, and former President Mohammad Khatami warned that if his proposal for a referendum on the disputed election was rejected, “all other legal channels would be practically closed on people,” leading to unpredictable consequences.
And in a further slap at Khamenei, Iran’s highest political and spiritual authority, Aftab, a newspaper close to moderate Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, dropped the word “supreme” from his title, referring to him in reports only as the leader of Iran.
Increasingly, disparate reformists appear to be acting in concert, coordinating announcements and strategy. In recent days, photographs have begun appearing on the Internet showing opposition figures at well-attended meetings with supporters. Mousavi said his new political organization would begin on a small scale with “influential figures” and eventually expand into a large movement.
The war of words has followed a government crackdown on massive street demonstrations that followed the June 12 election. Dozens of Iranians were killed in the public protests and hundreds imprisoned by government forces and militiamen.
Hard-liners have returned fire, with multiple warnings from Khamenei and security officials that protesters are undermining the system and playing into the hands of such foreign enemies as the United States, Britain and Israel.
On Wednesday, a pro-Ahmadinejad lawmaker demanded that the minister of intelligence and security begin airing prison confessions on TV that were extracted from opposition figures detained in the solitary confinement wing of Tehran’s Evin Prison.
Those held include former Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi; Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former deputy interior minister; and Behzad Nabavi, a former deputy speaker of the parliament. Hard-liners in the Revolutionary Guard allege that such reformist figures masterminded riots at the behest of Iran’s foreign rivals.
But several observers in Iran said airing such confessions could backfire badly, serving to further fan the flames of the protest movement.
“The amount of mistrust toward the public television networks and security forces has gotten so high that the people will feel sympathy for those who are forced to make these interviews,” said Saeed Madani, a Tehran social scientist who was once locked up in the solitary confinement wing of Evin.
Khamenei on Monday warned the country’s political establishment to end a campaign against Ahmadinejad’s presidency.
Mousavi, a first cousin of Khamenei, has emerged as the figurehead of the grass-roots political movement outraged over what it calls forged election results and the subsequent crackdown.
The former prime minister did not challenge Iran’s Islamic system, saying its constitution allows enough leeway to accommodate public demands. Rather, he criticized Ahmadinejad’s ruling faction.
“The government’s level of tolerance has sharply dipped,” Mousavi said. “We are facing a government unwilling to recruit our elites to use their experience. In the meantime, our elites have no desire to cooperate with this government. It means lack of legitimacy and efficiency.”
Mousavi urged his followers to maintain unity above all by avoiding divisive slogans. “Our green symbols managed to bring together people from different inclinations to reach agreement,” he said. “Consensus is doubtlessly our main objective.”
Other reformists have directed sharper barbs at Khamenei. At a meeting with families of political prisoners Tuesday night, Abdullah Nouri, a former interior minister, compared Khamenei to Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown in the revolution that established the Islamic Republic 30 years ago.
“In the 1970s, nobody imagined that limited struggles would drive the shah out of the country,” he said, according to a reformist website.
Meanwhile, two high-ranking reformist clerics declared support for the protest movement and openly challenged Khamenei’s leadership. They also gave tacit permission for government officials and clerics to boycott Ahmadinejad’s inauguration.
“The supreme leader’s confirmation of a president born out of a rigged election could not grant him any legitimacy,” Grand Ayatollah Asadollah Bayat Zanjani said in a religious edict. “Both the supreme leader’s confirmation and the president’s swearing-in are acceptable if and only if the president is elected in a clean vote.”
Ayatollah Mohammad-Ali Dastgheib Shirazi called on other top clerics to support those protesting the election results.
“Using firearms and crude weapons against people and incarceration of the revolutionaries will never help safeguard Islam and the establishment,” he said, according to several websites.
Security forces and the highest echelons of government appear convinced that any concession or compromise would only encourage their opponents to demand more, possibly leading to the collapse of the government, several analysts and former government insiders say.
But the popular swell won’t be crushed by conventional means, some analysts predict.
“The protest movement is a new social movement, a network of relations that cannot be stopped by any security force,” said Madani, the social scientist. “There’s no way to stop this. It will change Iran’s political system.”
Rafsanjani, whose Friday prayer sermon last week buoyed the opposition, subtly made such an allusion by posting on his website an excerpt from his memoirs about his imprisonment during the time of the shah.
In it, he quotes a report about him by the SAVAK, the shah’s notorious secret police. “Jail has failed to calm Rafsanjani and it has even encouraged him to increase his activities,” the report said. “We should think of another solution.”