The Power of Iran's Iron Fist

By Dieter Bednarz, Der Spiegel - June 29, 2009

Tehran is in a state of emergency as the government continues its increasingly brutal crackdown against protesters. Hardliners and opposition politicians are searching for a compromise behind the scenes, but Iran's supreme leader is refusing to make any concessions.

The pressure must be great indeed when someone like Abbas Abdi no longer wants to talk. Whether as a revolutionary or a reformer, Abdi, 51, has never lacked courage and a willingness to take risks. During the 1979 occupation of the US Embassy in Tehran, he was one of the first to scale the embassy walls. With his calls to "fight against global arrogance," he became the most famous of the hostage-takers that held more than 50 US citizens captive for 444 days.


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But Abdi was also on the front lines when it came to criticizing the Iranian theocracy. A few years after the revolution, he sharply attacked the mullahs, accusing them of corruption and nepotism. He knows the inside of Tehran's notorious Evin prison well as a result. And yet Abdi continues to fight for liberalization and democracy.

But even Abdi has been left speechless by the brutality with which the regime is currently proceeding against critics of the supposed election victory of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The veteran politician rejects calls to his mobile phone if he sees a foreign number on the screen. He also politely but firmly declines to take calls on his landline, even when he knows the caller. Speaking in hushed tones, as if this could prevent the Iranian secret police from hearing his words, he reminds the caller of the consequences for Iranians of having contact with foreigners, especially journalists.

In last week's Friday prayers, revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme leader, himself characterized the international media as an "enemy" of Iran, claiming that it had "portrayed many things incorrectly." Since then, speaking with representatives of the foreign press has become dangerous for Iranians.

FROM THE MAGAZINE Find out how you can reprint this DER SPIEGEL article in your publication. The prohibition also applies to SPIEGEL, which conducted a two-hour interview with President Ahmadinejad a few weeks ago, and with his main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, a few days later. After last week's SPIEGEL cover story, entitled "Rebellion against the Radicals," Kayhan, the main pro-government daily newspaper, called the German news magazine a "Zionist paper."

Given the charged atmosphere, regime critics like Abdi could very well be accused of committing treason simply for giving an interview -- and the penalty for treason in Iran is death. The pogrom-like mood in Tehran has spread fear, especially now that the dreaded Tehran chief public prosecutor has assumed control over all investigations into "agitators" and has set up a "special court" to deal with such cases.

An Iron Fist

Will the so-called "Green Revolution" die at the hands of the Islamist justice system, which, for the past 30 years, has crushed all attempts to deviate from the precepts of the religious scholars who control the country? In the wake of mass protests against election irregularities, the country has been hit by a wave of arrests and repression not seen in Iran since the bloody early years of the republic. Even the otherwise reserved US President Barack Obama, who wants to resolve the nuclear conflict with the regime, said that he was "appalled and outraged" by events in Iran and sharply condemned the "threats, beatings and imprisonments" as evidence of the government's "iron fist."

The street protests are no longer just the result of what could well be the biggest election fraud in the history of the Islamic Republic. The protestors' chants of "where is my vote?" have since turned into calls for "death to the dictator." And their rhetoric is not intended solely for the official winner of the disputed election, Ahmadinejad. Instead, public criticism is increasingly being directed at the man behind the president, revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who was previously considered above all reproach. Having declared his protégé Ahmadinejad the winner so prematurely is proving to be Khamenei's biggest mistake in the 20 years since he has been in power.

The influential Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei considers Khamenei's involvement in the election fraud -- whether he was notified in advance or merely gave his blessing to the fraud after the fact -- to be "haram," or sin. The revolutionary leader's position requires him to remain neutral. Mohsen Kadivar, an imam and religious philosopher, speaks for many scholars when he says, referring to Khamenei: "He reminds me very much of the shah, who, in the end, was only concerned with preserving his regime."

Kicked, Beaten and Shot

In response to Khamenei's express orders, the Basij militias, which report directly to him, and the feared Revolutionary Guards, the Pasdaran, have embarked on a wave of beatings and killings. According to official figures, by the end of last week 18 people had died in clashes between largely peaceful protesters and government thugs, victims who were kicked, beaten or shot to death -- like the young student Neda, whose death transformed her into a martyr for the opposition movement and the object of nationwide mourning.

The real death toll is probably much higher, even though the mullah regime has so far avoided a response of the magnitude of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, with the resulting prospect of thousands of dead protesters. According to opposition claims, the clashes have resulted in more than 100 deaths nationwide. The kind of independent reporting capable of verifying these numbers has been impossible for days. The figures cited in emails, on Web sites and on social media sites like Twitter and YouTube are based on the protesters' reports.

Nevertheless, eyewitness accounts do suggest that the death toll is high. In mid-week, a medical student described the conditions in hospitals as "chaotic." Despite official orders to bring all casualties of demonstration-related violence to military hospitals, the student noted, city hospitals are "completely full." Many of those admitted had apparently suffered severe trauma. In the previous night, the student said, nine patients in the hospital where he works had died of their injuries; some 28 patients had bullet wounds. According to the student, government workers arrived in the early morning hours and took away the dead "on flatbed trucks, before we could even get their names or any other information."

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