Iranian security forces brutally attacked protesters in Tehran again on Wednesday, as Iran's supreme leader vowed not to compromise on the disputed June 12 reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"Neither the [Islamic] system nor the people will back down under force," declared Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, adding that he would "insist" on the rule of law to halt protests that have officially cost 20 lives and shaken Iran's theocratic regime.
Supporters of defeated candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who claims that Mr. Ahmadinejad's landslide victory was a fraud, promise to keep up protests that have exposed rifts in the leadership and deepened a cultural divide between hard-line ideologues like Ahmadinejad, and more moderate, Western-leaning backers of Mr. Mousavi. The tension is almost certain to slow down American attempts to engage Iran in dialogue.
A witness's account
A witness interviewed by CNN described hundreds of men with clubs suddenly emerging from a mosque and charging protesters.
"They started beating everyone," the woman said in English. "They beat a woman so savagely that she was drenched in blood and her husband … just fainted…. I also saw security forces, shooting on people…. This was a massacre. They were trying to beat people so that they would die."
Deepening regime resolve is taking a toll on the protests, which last week drew hundreds of thousands of people into the streets in a show of unrest unprecedented since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
"The movement has lost its momentum," says an Iranian professional, who could not be further identified. "And as you know, the more we move toward the end, the more savage the forces will get, since there will be less coverage [and] less [protesters]."
Impact of second Ahmadinejad term
As the regime accuses Western governments and media, especially the United States and Britain, of stoking the protests and "meddling," analysts in Tehran are divided over the likely impact of a second Ahmadinejad term on possible US-Iran dialogue.
"There is no doubt the president is enthusiastic about the prospects of renewing ties with the US," says a political observer in Tehran who could not be further identified for security reasons. "But I think given the present situation he might be in a weaker position to negotiate. The supreme leader might be suspicious, too."
Conducting a diplomatic balancing act between condemning the violence against protesters, and the strategic American need of negotiating with whatever Iranian government finally emerges, Mr. Obama on Tuesday made his strongest comments yet, saying that he was "appalled" by what he saw.
"Probably [Khamenei] is enraged by the recent [US] announcements. It remains to be seen if this is influencing his decision to engage," says the observer.
After days of silence during the protest, Ahmadinejad sought to portray business as usual on Wednesday, and was shown on state TV meeting a delegation from Belarus—a former Soviet state widely considered the "last dictatorship in Europe."
Possible downgrading of ties with Britain
Iran's Interior Minister laid explicit blame on Wednesday: "Britain, America and the Zionist regime [Israel] were behind the recent unrest in Tehran," said Sadeq Mahsouli, as quoted by the Fars News Agency, which is linked to the Revolutionary Guards.
After expelling two British diplomats from Tehran this week – and London responding in kind by kicking out two Iranian diplomats – Iran is considering downgrading ties with the UK.
Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki announced that he would not attend a G8 meeting on Afghanistan planned for later this week that has been in the works for month and was meant to be a first step of engagement.
Zahra Rahnavard, the outspoken wife of Mousavi who campaigned with the former prime minister, accused the government on Wednesday of acting "as if martial law has been imposed in the streets," according to a Mousavi website translated by the Associated Press.
She called for the release of hundreds of detainees – including 25 staff from Mousavi's own newspaper.
Supreme leader not yet ready to engage?
Amid continuing anti-West rhetoric, Khamenei stated in early 2008 that he would move toward détente with the US if it were in Iran's interest, and that he personally would decide. He makes final decisions on all important matters of state.
But Khamenei's decision to so quickly endorse Ahmadinejad's controversial victory has raised speculation about what it means for any future dealings. Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust and venomous rhetoric against Israel, along with his staunch defense of Iran's "right" to nuclear technology, does not make him Washington's top choice for interlocutor.
"I guess one reason [Khamenei] was so interested in Ahmadinejad was that he was seen as the best negotiator to talk to the US," says the observer. An equivalent move might be Obama putting Iran negotiations into the hands of high-profile anti-Iran hawks like former Vice President Dick Cheney or former ambassador to the UN John Bolton.
"The supreme leader probably trusts [Ahmadinejad], because he thinks he won't sell out the [Islamic] system," says the observer.
But another analyst in Tehran, who also could not be named, suggests that Khamenei's choice of the archconservative president indicates that the supreme leader is not ready to engage America, to ease 30 years of mutual hostilities.
"If [Khamenei] wanted rapprochement, Mousavi would have won," says this analyst. "If he does not see rapprochement with the US in his interest, he would elect Ahmadinejad."
Beginning dialogue with the US would be contrary to Iran's ideology, which has been codified weekly at Friday prayers since 1979 with chants of "Death to America." Iran may have the most pro-American population in the Middle East, but that may not mean Khamenei is ready to deal.
"In foreign policy, Iran wants to be insulated, but not isolated," says the analyst. "If you open up to the West and the US, you can't remain insulated…. The Islamic Republic only loses by formalizing relations with the US."