A fresh outburst of protests was repressed in Iran Saturday as the struggle deepened among hardliners over appointments in the new government and the opposition movement claimed another "martyr."
After Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei delivered an angry reminder at last Friday's prayers, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad backed down after a week of intransigence and accepted the ayatollah's written demand that he dismiss First Vice President Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. The president's close adviser, whose son is married to Mr. Ahmadinejad's daughter, is still slated for a leading Cabinet role that would give him oversight of sensitive files such as energy and national security, after he was appointed chief adviser to the president.
Ministers fired and rehired
Ayatollah Khamenei's intervention was a clear example of the Supreme Leader exercising his prerogative to have final say on matters of national interest, such as Iran's nuclear program. But fallout from the row included the reported resignations of Intelligence Minister Mohsen Ezheie, Culture Minister Mohammad Hossein Saffar-Harandi, and Labor Minister Mohammad Jahromi. The sackings of the latter two were soon rescinded, but Mr. Saffar-Harandi announced later that he would resign anyway.
The conservative Fars News Agency described Mr. Ezheie's departure as a result of an "oral disagreement between the Intelligence Minister and the President during a government committee meeting last Wednesday." It is unclear if the President was responsible for firing the two men in a bid to strike back against the Supreme Leader and escalate the row.
His backtracking on two of the firings is being linked to a stipulation in the constitution that any government that changes half its ministers must be subjected to a parliamentary vote of confidence.
Ezheie's dismissal was another blow to clerical participation in government. Ahmadinejad is one of only three elected Iranian leaders since the 1979 revolution that were not clerics. His opponents allege that his first presidency installed a devout military and technocratic elite that drastically reduced the influence of mullahs in government. Emboldened by four years in power, the theory goes, this clique carried out a soft coup that solidified its grip on power in the June 12 election.
The Iranian constitution stipulates that a cleric always hold the post of Intelligence Minister.
Crackdown on latest protests
Meanwhile, protesters flooded the streets of Tehran Saturday in another installment of the month-and-a-half struggle for public spaces that began when hundreds of thousands marched nightly in support of presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi during the election campaign period.
"The government has tried to control the level of violence but things could get much worse," says Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, a professor of Economics at Virginia Tech and a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "It appears more interested in winning than compromising with the opposition."
According to eyewitnesses, security forces established temporary checkpoints to control access to popular rallying points such as Enghelab (Revolution) and Vali Asr (Lord of Times) squares. Plainclothes and uniformed agents intimidated pedestrians or ripped off registration plates from cars believed to belong to demonstrators, to discourage people from forming a crowd. Once crowds formed, roving motorcycle riders ranged through the street grid, using two-way radios to call in centers of dissent to the riot police. Basij militiamen charged protesters chanting slogans with batons and beat them severely before handing them over to plainclothes agents to haul them off to detention centers.
"A delicate and prolonged period of balance of fear has started between the government and the opposition," says Nader Uskowi, a Washington-based Iran analyst and president of Uskowi Associates. "After enduring a month of relentless attack by government forces, the opposition reaffirmed its strength, but the government will hang onto power with support from the armed forces and a segment of the more traditional and rural population."
Frustrated at the protesters' coordinated nightly shouts of Allahu Akbar ("God is great") from rooftops around Tehran, security forces have recently shot in their direction.
Candidates fuel protests
Mousavi and other candidates' refusal to accept defeat in what they claim was a rigged election has emboldened protesters to continue with their campaign.
"They are certain that they have won the elections – not an established fact but this is a case where perception is more important than reality – and are not optimistic about improvements in the social and economic front if and when these tensions quiet down," says Salehi-Isfahani.
"Even before the election, young people did not find the future the government promised to them satisfying. And with the added tensions of the security environment, they have even less reason to be hopeful," he continues.
Mr. Mousavi and former reformist president Mohammad Khatami were two of 69 signatories to a public letter to high-ranking ayatollahs Saturday calling on them to "remind the relevant authorities of the damaging consequences of employing unlawful methods and warn them about the spread of tyranny in the Islamic republic system," according to a copy of the letter made available to the Associated Press.
"I don't understand why Khamenei is making these great mistakes," says Mohsen, a student in Tehran who asked that his last name not be used. "Day by day, his close associates are being alienated, which is reducing his influence over the regime."
The opposition movement claimed a high-profile martyr for its cause after the death of a top official's son was announced by two reformist newspapers.