Saturday, June 20, 2009

Supreme Leader Speech Poses Grave Dilemma for Opposition

June 19, 2009
By Andrea McMahan

TEHRAN - It is a dismal day here in Tehran. The opposition is struggling to keep itself together after being dealt a heavy blow yesterday. In a speech given at Tehran University, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, said in no unclear terms that any further election protests are unacceptable by the government, and those persons choosing to participate in the protests would be breaking the law and face grave consequences. In addition, he stated that the elections were devoid of any cheating and that he unequivocally backed former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the winner. This was a striking change in tone from earlier in the week, when the Ayatollah said that the government was looking into allegations of election fraud and had appointed a Guardian Council made up of the country’s clerical establishment to investigate disputed ballots. The Council was set to offer an answer on the election within ten days.

But instead they have now issued a warning to the people of Iran: if you do not accept the election outcome or any of our terms, you will be punished. They have said they will not tolerate dissent and will use the government’s power- presumably military force- to squelch further debate. Obviously the Opposition has a very difficult decision to make. They either continue to rally in the streets and face violent consequences—even possible death-- from the government’s Revolutionary Guard and Basiji, or they go under ground and risk losing the critical momentum that has helped propel their cause.

It is not confirmed where the Opposition’s presidential candidate, Mir Hussein Moussavi, is right now. Some say he is detained under house arrest while others claim he is moving surreptisously around the city. He continues to maintain a facebook page, offering details on upcoming protests and heightening rhetoric around the dissident’s cause. His supporters have found creative ways to access these updates since Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites have been blocked across the country, mainly by tapping into friends and family abroad who can relay his message. However, most agree that it is only a matter of time before Mir Moussavi is arrested by the government, after which supporters have said there will almost certainly be even greater upheaval.

Either way, the outcome is bleak for the Opposition’s future. At a small gathering in Northern Iran yesterday, I was able to talk to several of the Opposition’s supporters and get a sense as to where they go from here. Many of them said they were feeling depressed, that the day’s speech had left them hurt but not entirely broken. They agreed it was not enough to deter them from marching in the protests Saturday and described how they would continue to ‘protest in silence’ by carrying signs that read “Where is your 63 percent?” rather than shouting slogans. They emphasized that theirs is a peaceful movement and acknowledged that it would almost certainly be met with violence in the hands of the regime. One Iranian woman, an art gallery owner, explained to me why she was willing to risk her life to march. “We have to do this,” she said. “If we don’t get out there and protest they [the government] will think it’s okay and they have to be stopped. We cannot live like this.”

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