It’s far from over
- Arvind Kejriwal calls 'emergency' Assembly session to discuss Centre's notification on Lt Governor's role
- Celebrations in AIADMK camp as Jayalalithaa becomes Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu
- No full statehood rights to Delhi unless there is consensus, says Arun Jaitley
- Gujjar protest to continue as talks with Rajasthan govt fail
- Heat wave toll in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana reaches 223
The difficulties he faces were symbolically exposed at a confirmation ceremony held on August 3rd to launch his second term. In a pointed break with protocol, many senior officials, including two former presidents, found themselves too busy to attend. So was the family of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the revolution of 1979 and the Islamic Republic's founding father, which by tradition is prominent at such events. And when Mr Ahmadinejad tried to repeat the unprecedented show of fealty he performed at the last such ceremony in 2005 by kissing Mr Khamenei's hand, this time the supreme leader flinched, prompting a clumsy kiss of his shoulder instead.
Hardly had the ceremony closed before street protests erupted anew across Tehran. Bonfires were set alight, slogans chanted, horns tooted and pitched battles with police ran far into the night, when cries of Allahu Akbar (God is Great!) echoed as loud as ever from rooftops, as they have done nightly since the election that millions of Iranians still believe was stolen. Though far smaller in numbers than the mass demonstrations in the poll's immediate aftermath, the protests have continued sporadically, despite campaigns of sweeping arrests and intimidation, as well as increasingly Orwellian efforts to brand dissidents as agents of an enemy plot.
The most recent effort to blame foreigners has taken a more ominously farcical twist as a show trial of alleged conspirators was aired on television. Promising to be a prolonged spectacle, it was launched with a parade of scores of prominent reformists in prison garb. After a lengthy indictment was read out, repentant ringleaders were shown making their confessions.
Alleging links between a range of Western (especially American) foundations and Iranian conspirators, including three reformist parties, the prosecutor suggested that vigilant security forces had foiled a "velvet" coup modelled on successful uprisings in Serbia, Georgia and elsewhere. His accusations swept up not only an array of notable academics with ties to foreign universities, but whole categories of activist groups, including those seeking to protect the rights of women, ethnic minorities, labour unions and students.
The carefully edited confessions appeared to implicate Western media and intelligence agencies along with the defeated reformist presidential candidates and their backers in Iran's establishment. Looking drawn and vacant before the camera, Muhammad-Ali Abtahi, a cherubic, mid-ranking cleric who served for several years as a vice-president in the reformist administrations (1997-2005) of Muhammad Khatami, insinuated that Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, another former president and long a linchpin of Iran's power structure, had joined the conspirators out of a wish to avenge his defeat by Mr Ahmadinejad in the 2005 election. Appearing alongside Mr Abtahi, Muhammad Atrianfar, a newspaper editor and known protégé of Mr Rafsanjani, chided the former president for his errors and asked for forgiveness from the supreme leader ("whose wisdom and alert leadership is guaranteed by nightly secrets between him and God").
This cloud of conspiratorial innuendo had several purposes. One was to flesh out a narrative to explain the post-electoral unrest and to excuse the harshness of a crackdown that has cost at least 30 lives and sent hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Iranians to prison. Another, say dissidents, is to pave the way for a more direct attack on the most senior opposition figures. Conservative mouthpieces in parliament and the press have amplified calls for trials of the accused ringleaders, including Messrs Khatami and Rafsanjani, as well as the leading defeated candidate, Mir Hosein Mousavi. Were this to happen, it would mark the Islamic Republic's abandonment even of its filtered pluralism and shift it finally towards a unipolar political system.
Yet far from crumbling in fear, the opposition has responded to the confessions with renewed outrage and calls for more protests. In a letter posted on his website, Mr Mousavi said the trial displayed the moral collapse of those directing it, promising that one day they would themselves be tried for what he called "Iran's tragedy". Mr Abtahi's wife and daughter, ignoring warnings to remain silent, asserted that his confession had been forced.
Among the wider public, the trials appeared only to widen the rift between conservatives and their opponents. Although many still cling to foreign devilry as an excuse for Iran's woes, others have long since grown cynical — and with good reason. In the past, televised confessions have been followed swiftly, as soon as the supposed penitent has been freed, by vehement repudiations. Most Iranians are aware of the duress people suffer in jail. Among recent victims, apparently beaten to death in police custody, was the son of an aide to Mohsen Rezai, a former head of the Revolutionary Guard who was the sole conservative candidate to compete against Mr Ahmadinejad for the presidency.
Many conservatives are, in fact, far from enthusiastic about their president. Even if he can withstand the opposition's scorn, dismay and anger, he faces trenchant distrust within his own camp. A tussle with the supreme leader last month forced him to scrap the appointment of an in-law as vice-president. Personal clashes have led him to sack several top officials in the intelligence service, including its minister. These may be just the opening shots in what may be a sticky process to win parliament's approval of a new cabinet.
Such struggles will also handicap Mr Ahmadinejad in economic and foreign policy. The Iranian economy was buffeted by international sanctions and lower energy prices even before political unrest shrivelled investment nearly to zero. It is in poor shape to endure still more of its president's erratic populism. And Mr Ahmadinejad's regime, now fully exposed in its ugliness, can expect little mercy from the world at large.
Weakened as they are, Iran's leaders may find it expedient to curb some of their enthusiasm for foreign adventures and perhaps even their controversial nuclear programme. But their heightened xenophobia and demonisation of contact with the West augur badly for Barack Obama's effort to engage with Iran's rulers. Indeed, he is already tempering his early call for dialogue. Instead, there is more talk of tightening sanctions and developing even bigger bunker-busting bombs.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009