Iran hardliners in control, but still nervous

By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent – Analysis

BEIRUT (BestGrowthStock) – Iran’s hardline rulers are keeping a tight grip on internal opposition and milking the nuclear standoff with the West to rally nationalist support, but hardly exude confidence that they enjoy wide popular backing.

“Iranian society is a powder keg of economic malaise, political outrage and social discontent, but the opposition currently lacks both leadership and a strategy,” said Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Cowed by repression, opposition forces seem disoriented and unable to stage the mass protests that riveted world attention after a disputed presidential election nearly 11 months ago.

“All the time I fear getting arrested,” said a pro-reform journalist in Tehran who asked not to be named.

“There’s no logic behind the arrests. You may get into trouble or even lose your job just for wearing a green T-shirt by mistake,” the journalist said, referring to the emblem of the opposition “Green Movement” led by Mirhossein Mousavi.

Mousavi, breaking months of silence, said on Sunday Iran was in crisis and the reform movement lived on, accusing authorities of smearing and imprisoning its opponents in the name of Islam.

He and his allies say the government rigged the June 12 vote won by hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The poll set off the worst unrest in the Islamic Republic’s 30-year rule, exposing rifts in its political and clerical elite as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sided with Ahmadinejad.

But the protests went off the boil late last year, leaving hardliners in control of the streets — if not the hearts and minds of sizeable swathes of Iran’s 70 million people.

The authorities, who say the election was fair, have stopped short of arresting Mousavi or other main opposition leaders, but have jailed many of their senior aides, closed a dozen reformist publications and banned two moderate parties since the vote.

“KILL AND DIE”

Sadjadpour said government supporters were far readier “to kill and die for their cause” — a more decisive factor than the opposition’s numerical strength, which he said the government indirectly acknowledged by continuing to bar free assembly.

“Their priority isn’t to be liked, but to be feared. In that sense, they have been successful,” he added.

The nuclear issue, often used by Iranian leaders as a symbol of national pride and independence, is back in the spotlight as the West seeks tougher U.N. sanctions to deter Iran from seeking nuclear weapons capability. Tehran disavows any such ambition.

A moderate former senior Iranian official said hardliners manipulated the nuclear row to divert attention from domestic repression in the world’s fifth biggest oil exporter.

“Dozens of moderate figures are in jail,” he said, asking not to be named. “Some innocent youngsters have been jailed since the election and almost forgotten because they are not leading figures. They have yet to be tried.”

Ali Ansari, an Iran expert at St Andrews University in Scotland, said it would take a dramatic event to catalyse a new round of protests or an even harsher government clampdown. “At present everything remains unsatisfactorily incomplete.”

The hardliners are not acting as though they have a firm hold on power, argued Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii, citing constant efforts to delegitimize an opposition that the government portrays as irrelevant.

“Their newspapers and websites are full of assertions about why Khamenei is the righteous leader of Iran, and about the sedition and foreign support of opposition leaders,” Farhi said.

FEAR OF CONTAGION

Iran remains a tinder box open to spurts of protest, which the authorities feared could spread by contagion, she said.

So they maintain security measures despite “all the economic costs that such an approach imposes on a government facing a budget deficit and required by law to embark on extensive economic restructuring through reform of the subsidy system.”

Ahmadinejad wants to phase out costly energy and food subsidies over five years, arguing that this would free up resources, while promising cash compensation for the needy.

He says fuel subsidy cuts would reduce demand and make Iran less vulnerable to any sanctions on petrol imports, although critics say they risk stoking inflation and consumer unrest. Parliament has refused to implement Ahmadinejad’s plans in full.

“The one short-term salvation the government has is high oil prices,” said Ansari, referring to a rise in crude prices to about $83 a barrel from half that level at the start of 2009.

The U.N. Security Council is unlikely to target Iranian petrol imports in any fourth round of sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear program, but the government can seize on any punitive measures or talk of military options to bolster its standing.

The opposition will feel constrained to spend time rejecting sanctions and foreign interference instead of focusing on criticizing the government, said Hawaii University’s Farhi.

“In contrast, sanctions and threats of war are perfect discursive tools for hardliners in their constant ‘You are either with us or with them’ drumbeat.”

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(Editing by Samia Nakhoul)

Iran hardliners in control, but still nervous