Tehran faces winter of discontent


WORLD VIEW:Iran has to address widespread unrest over the elections and huge economic challenges, writes PATRICK SMYTH

AS AFGHANISTAN this week began to come to terms with the dubious re-election of Hamid Karzai – largely so far, peacefully – in neighbouring Iran, opposition groups made clear that the matter of their own fraudulent re-election in June of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is far from settled.

Using the opportunity presented by official anti-US commemorations of the 1979 seizure of hostages in the US embassy, tens of thousands of demonstrators on Wednesday took to the streets of Tehran and other cities in the biggest show of strength in two months. Police and the conservative Basij militias responded with tear gas, beatings and arrests. Reformist cleric Mehdi Karroubi had a tear gas canister fired at him, injuring a bodyguard, while defeated presidential candidate Mir-Hussein Moussavi was prevented from attending.

“I was beaten up with a baton so badly that one policeman begged his colleague to have pity on me and stop beating me,” a 54-year-old mother of three told the Los Angeles Times. “But I am not scared. I will keep protesting until the end.”

Amateur videotape on the internet suggested unrest across the country. Boisterous demonstrations broke out in the agricultural hub of Qazvin, the Caspian Sea port city of Rasht, the oil-rich southwestern city of Ahvaz, the eastern holy city of Mashhad and Isfahan, Shiraz and Najafabad in central Iran. And for the first time in months, there were reports of sizeable protests in the main university in the northwestern city of Tabriz, the commercial capital of Iran’s powerful ethnic Azeri region and a hotbed of political activity.

The regime is ultra-sensitive to criticism of the election: only a couple of weeks ago state television reported supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as warning that questioning the results of the election was “the biggest crime”. An estimated 100 opposition supporters remain in jail, many of them prominent figures who supported, or were believed to have supported, reformist candidates in the June 12th presidential elections.

Many faced mass trials reminiscent of the Moscow show trials of the 1930s, complete with public confessions, some clearly given under duress.

One of those most severely dealt with is the US-Iranian scholar Kian Tajbakhsh, a mild-mannered researcher on urban planning who was not involved in the street protests, and whose cause was taken up in this paper in August by his friends Chandana Mathur, an anthropologist in NUI Maynooth, and her husband Dermot Dix, headmaster of Headfort School in Kells.

On October 20th, the Revolutionary Court sentenced Tajbakhsh to 12-15 years in prison on charges of espionage, co-operation with an enemy government, acting against national security by participating in Gulf 2000 (an internet forum housed at Columbia University), and for once working for the Open Society Institute financed by George Soros.

In reality, it appears, Tajbakhsh’s real offence is holding a US passport. He has been held in the notorious Evin prison for four months, much of it in solitary confinement.

Tajbakhsh had previously been targeted by the Iranian government. Between May and October 2007, he was held in solitary confinement in Evin prison on similar charges. Amnesty International considers him a prisoner of conscience and has launched a letter-writing campaign calling for his release – www.FreeKian09.org – and President Obama and the EU have appealed to the Iranian authorities for clemency.

The government is also under huge economic pressure, wrestling in parliament with a reform package that may inflame the public by cutting subsidies on food, fuel and electricity.

A series of Bills would trim the country’s $30 billion (€20 billion) debt, much of it incurred from spending projects that bought Ahmadinejad support in the provinces. The overhaul package would also regulate energy consumption and allow the government to manipulate prices as a buffer against the possibility of western sanctions targeting Iran’s petroleum industry.

The package, which would phase out many subsidies over five years, has the potential to spur anger similar to the 2007 nationwide riots over petrol rationing. The second-largest oil producer in the Middle East, Iran spends about $90 billion a year on subsidies – fine when oil prices were high, reaching nearly $150 a barrel in 2008. But with oil now down to about $80 a barrel and years of debt incurred by Ahmadinejad’s public works projects, Iran is overburdened. Some economists, however, believe the new plan will further damage the economy by triggering inflation and reducing retail spending and investment.

Meanwhile, Iran’s embattled private sector is looking with some consternation at the sell-off of the state’s Telecom Company of Iran to a consortium associated with the Revolutionary Guards.

“The guards are after the most profitable companies in the privatisation programme . . . while they easily put aside rivals by force,” a businessman told the Financial Times.

The privatisation programme, stepped up about four years ago, has largely seen assets transferred to other semi-state bodies or quasi-state actors, and the move by the Revolutionary Guards into telecoms only emphasises the extent to which the organisation has been able to extend its near stranglehold of political and economic power under Ahmadinejad.