Late Wednesday, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei directly contradicted the narrative the country's hard-liners have spun about their reformist opponents in recent months: the reformists are not part of an international conspiracy to destroy the Islamic republic and move Iran into a US-controlled sphere of influence, after all.
His comments come as the US and other Western governments are threatening to increase the pressure on Iran over its nuclear program. On Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that if Iran does not enter meaningful negotiations on the program soon, new UN sanctions will be sought against the country. "If there is no positive answer by September we will have to consider further measures," said Mrs. Merkel.
In a statement read on state television, Khamenei – the most powerful man in the country's theocratic government – said weeks of show trials have failed to prove that leaders have been agents of foreign powers and the televised confessions to that effect.
The trials included an elaborate conspiracy theory by the state prosecutor that about 100 opposition politicians, clerics, academics, and journalists on trial were part of a plot orchestrated by the CIA, Israel, the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, and many others. Khamenei does continue to insist, however, that foreigners – and not popular dissatisfaction – were the ultimate causes of the protests.
Agence France-Presse quotes his statement as saying:
"I do not accuse the leaders of the recent incidents to be subordinate to the foreigners, like the United States and Britain, since this issue has not been proven for me," Khamenei said in a statement read out by a newsreader. "This plot was defeated, since fortunately our enemies still do not understand the issue in Iran," added the statement, which was read over pictures of Khamenei. "Our enemies were given a slap in face by the Iranian nation, but they are still hopeful and they are pursuing the issue."
However, the Associated Press reports that Khamenei said that protest leaders were still acting in the interests of foreign powers "whether or not
its leaders know."
The ayatollah's dramatic shift appears to be a reaction to the growing anger in Iran over allegations that torture and rape have been used to extract false, televised confessions from a number of Iranians. There have been signs of discontent within Iran's conservative camp over the harsh crackdown on political opponents for weeks.
The Tehran Times reported Wednesday that six senior lawmakers looking into allegations of the rape of detainees met with Mehdi Karroubi, the reformist cleric who originally made the allegations. Mr. Karroubi says four detainees raped by security officials are willing to testify to their ordeal, but need guarantees of their safety.
What all this means for the Iranians whose televised show trials are ongoing– among them is the apolitical Kian Tajbakhsh, a US citizen and academic who was living and working in Tehran as a consultant to the government and NGOs when he was arrested two months ago – is unclear.
Allies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have continued to press claims of treason and efforts to destroy the Islamic republic in recent weeks, and Khamenei does not appear to be making decisive moves to shut the trials down.
This week, Dr. Tajbakhsh was charged in court with seeking to foment violence and he "confessed" that post election unrest, in which millions of Iranians poured into the streets alleging massive vote fraud, was organized by foreign countries. "The root cause of the riots are found outside the borders," he said, according to the Iranian state news agency, though he hastened to add, "Since I've had no contacts with any headquarters inside or outside the country, I have no evidence to prove foreign interference."
Friends and family of Tajbakhsh described the charges against him as "ludicrous," said his comments were "made under duress" and that he "is not a member of the Iranian reformist movement and has had no involvement whatsoever in pre- or post-election unrest."
On Wednesday, State Department spokesman Ian Kelley concurred: "Mr. Tajbakhsh poses absolutely no threat to the Iranian government or to its national security. He played absolutely no role in the election, and he's a scholar. He's really devoted his life to promoting understanding between the Iranian and the American people and he's scrupulously stayed politically-neutral."
A number of political prisoners have died while in government custody in recent months, and not all of them in the "reformist" camp. In late July, Mohsen Ruholamini, the son of a staunch conservative and former commander of the Revolutionary Guard, was reported beaten to death while in regime custody.
For many Iranians, as ever, a picture has been worth a thousand words. These twin images of former vice president and reformist Shiite cleric Mohamed Ali Abtahi, the first showing him plump and smiling in crisp clerical garb in the middle of June, the second showing him gaunt, haggard and swollen-faced during his show trial on Aug. 1, have gone viral on the Internet.
Mr. Abtahi testified that he no longer believed the country's June presidential vote, which returned hard-line President Ahmadinejad to power, was rigged and said his and others claims to the contrary "was a lie brought up to create riots so Iran would become like Afghanistan and Iraq and suffer damage."
The show trial this week also included testimony from Saeed Hajjarian, a leading proponent of a more open Iranian political system and greater engagement with Western governments and Iran's neighbors. He was a key adviser to former President Mohammad Khatami when he implemented democratic reforms and today is partially paralyzed due to an assassin's bullet in 2000. Reformists say that crime, which was never solved, was carried out by a militiaman acting on orders from Iranian hardliners. Mr. Hajjarian's "confession" was read on his behalf, since he has trouble speaking since the assault.
Two people carried Hajjarian into the courtroom by the arms, the state news agency IRNA said. A prosecutor read out a long list of charges against him — among them, acting against national security, fomenting unrest, propagating against the ruling system, having contacts with British intelligence and insulting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei...
"I've committed grave mistakes by offering incorrect analysis during the election ... I apologize to the dear Iranian nation because of my incorrect analyses that was the basis for many wrong actions," Hajjarian's text said, according to IRNA. Hajjarian, a leftist thinker, renounced his own writings from the past 10 years and said his ideas "contradict the path of the Imam" — referring to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran's Islamic Republic.