British Embassy row: Why Iran's hard-liners are inviting isolation

A senior cleric called Friday for British Embassy employees to be tried for allegedly inciting mass protests. The move signals a heightened effort to portray recent unrest as a foreign plot.

Vahid Salemi/AP
In a sermon Friday, Iranian cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati (l.), head of the powerful Guardian Council, said the mass protests following Iran's contested June 12 election resulted from premeditated foreign efforts.

A leading Iranian cleric's call Friday for some Iranian employees of the British Embassy to be tried for allegedly inciting prodemocracy protests has ratcheted up Iran's confrontation with both global powers and the sizable proportion of its own citizenry who believe the country's June 12 presidential election was rigged in favor of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In a sermon at Tehran University, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati suggested that the mass demonstrations against the official election result – the largest since the 1979 Islamic revolution – were premeditated by foreign powers.

"[The enemy] had plotted the velvet revolution prior to the election, and even on the British foreign ministry website in March it was announced that Iran's election might be accompanied by some unrest and that British citizens were warned to be careful," he said, according to the Guardian newspaper in London. "What is the meaning of these predictions?"

The statement by Ayatollah Jannati, head of the country's Guardian Council – a sort of theocratic Supreme Court – was swiftly condemned by European leaders. Britain has called for European Union members to recall their ambassadors from Tehran, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for sanctions so that Iran's leaders "will really understand that the path they have chosen will be a dead end."

The hard-liners in Tehran appear to be consciously pursuing increased isolation for themselves and their country to create an impression that dangerous outside forces – and not legitimate domestic grievances – were behind the outpouring of national anger at the election result. They appear to believe such a course will make it easier to silence their opponents.

"This is their way of saying we have a focal point of attack – keep sending out the message that this is all a foreign plot. I don't have any faith that the government really believes this, but I don't forsee them giving up this card very easily," says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council in Washington. "In fact these demonstrations ... are disorganized, spontaneous. They're out there because of their rage and frustration at seeing their election stolen."

Mr. Parsi and other analysts say now the government's biggest hurdle is credibility with its own citizens.

"If you proceed the way [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei and Ahmadinejad have proceeded, then gradual change through the ballot box cannot occur," says Parsi. "If they don't have that minimum level of credibility, the social contract has collapsed, leaving ruling by force their only option."

The real crisis: Undermining of theocracy's moral power

When the 1979 Islamic Revolution deposed the shah, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his followers came to power draped in a rhetoric of Islamic justice and legitimacy that promised to restore the rule of law with an Islamic bent.

That seemed a fair deal to millions of Iranians at the time, even among those who would have preferred a secular government but saw the revolution as an improvement over a monarch's arbitrary will.

But now, with the entire electoral process distrusted by many Iranians, and with tales of young protesters detained and tortured for their political views, the Islamic revolution itself – and not outside powers – may have engineered the greatest crisis for its authority in 30 years.

"The profound, great crisis of legitimacy for Iran's theocracy is not people jumping up and down calling for fair elections, it's the undermining of the theocracy's main claim: its moral power," says Babak Rahimi, an Iranian-American professor at the University of California San Diego. "In a lot of people's minds, the regime has been shown to be just another worldly power ... that is no longer divinely ordained."

Why hard-liners see Mousavi as a threat

The principal challenger to Ahmadinejad in the June 12 election was Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister and loyalist of the late Ayatollah Khomeini who favors more engagement with the West and a more open economy and political system.

But he is also a staunch nationalist often praised for his leadership during Iran's war with Iraq in the 1980s. He has said he would not support abandoning Iran's nuclear power program, and has promised that he wouldn't consider peace with Israel or withdrawing support for "resistance" groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.

The fact that his views aren't exactly radical in the context of domestic Iranian politics has raised the question of why hard-liners, particularly Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini, appear so threatened by Mousavi and his supporters.

Parsi says part of the answer lies in the fact that Khameini and his allies view the United States an implacable threat to the Islamic Republic, and that only they have the fortitude to negotiate with the US.

"I think they started to realize that Mousavi was the winner, and they realized there was an opportunity to make one big change in foreign policy, which was to make up with the US and negotiate. And they did not want the other faction to be in control of that process or receive credit for it," he says. "In the past, when they've made decisions of this magnitude, they've eliminated the opposition. You saw Khomeini ordering mass executions in Evin just days before announcing peace with Iraq" in 1988.

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