Divided Iran enters 2010 after a year of deadly protests

A divided Iran enters 2010 after a year marked by recurring deadly protests against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — some of the worst demonstrations since the shah’s fall — and tensions with the West over its nuclear drive.

The protests, which erupted after Ahmadinejad’s re-election, shook the pillars of the 30-year-old Islamic regime, split its clerical elite and prompted supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to publicly support the president.

The deepening political schism has turned some of those who helped build the regime after the 1979 Islamic revolution into its most bitter critics.

While Iran in 2010 is likely to continue on the path of confrontation over its nuclear drive, domestically it will be preoccupied with political upheaval and trying to bolster its dilapidated, inflation-stoked economy.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters who supported Mir Hossein Mousavi — Ahmadinejad’s main rival in the June 12 election — flooded Tehran’s streets after the vote, claiming it was rigged.

The streets echoed with anti-Ahmadinejad slogans such as “Give back our stolen votes” and “Death to the dictator”, which continue to reverberate six months later.

Dozens were killed in running street battles as protesters clashed with Islamist militiamen and security forces who fired tear gas and beat them with batons and steel chains.

Despite the initial crackdown, demonstrators have since taken every opportunity to stage anti-government rallies, most recently during Sunday’s Shi’ite Muslim Ashura ceremonies, memorials for dissident cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri who died on December 19, and Students Day on December 7.

On Sunday, eight people were reported killed, among them Mousavi’s nephew Seyed Ali. Police said “terrorists” killed him in an incident unrelated to anti-government riots.

Scores of opposition figures were rounded up after the latest protests, and police arrested 500 “rioters”.

Ex-premier Mousavi, reputed for steering Iran’s economy during the war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces in the 1980s, has become the leading light of the widely divergent but mainly young opposition movement.

Mousavi, former president canidadate Mehdi Karroubi, and other leading opposition figures such as Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami are now accused by the authorities of being “riot leaders”.

On Wednesday, IRNA news agency said some MPs and leaders have emphasised that the “prosecution of the heads of the sedition has become a public demand”.

Amnesty International says human rights violations in Iran are as bad as at any time in the past 20 years and has urged authorities to probe allegations of “torture, rape and unlawful killings”.

The crackdown has seen top reformists jailed and prosecuted in what the opposition has branded “show trials”, while restrictions have been imposed on the media, including barring foreign journalists from covering protests.

Several Iranian reporters for foreign media have been arrested, including an AFP journalist detained for four days in November.

But cyber-savvy protesters have side-stepped many restrictions by posting pictures and videos of wounded demonstrators — filmed on cellphones — on social networking sites Facebook and Twitter and on video-sharing site Youtube.

The authorities have reacted by slowing down internet speed and regularly cutting cellphone networks.

Tehran has stridently accused foreign powers Britain, the United States and Israel of stoking the unrest.

Two British diplomats in Tehran were deported while nine embassy employees were arrested on charges of fomenting violence.

World powers led by US President Barack Obama meanwhile are frustrated with Tehran’s refusal to come clean on its nuclear programme and have threatened it with a fourth round of UN sanctions.

The crisis escalated after Iran rejected a UN-brokered nuclear fuel deal and disclosed it was building a second uranium enrichment plant near the shrine city of Qom.

The disclosure further angered world powers, which suspect Iran is secretly making an atom bomb. Tehran says it is pursuing nuclear technology purely to produce electricity.

Obama, who began his presidency by making diplomatic overtures to Iran, lumped with North Korea and Iraq as “axis of evil” by his predecessor George Bush, now warns that “time is running out” for the Islamic republic.

Russia, Iran’s longest-serving nuclear partner, and China were among 25 UN atomic watchdog member countries which censured Tehran for building the Qom plant, in a major diplomatic blow to Iran.

Ahmadinejad responded by declaring Tehran would build 10 more enrichment plants, setting the stage for a clash with the West over the atomic drive which arch-foe Israel says will be halted militarily if necessary.

On December 16, a typically defiant Iran test-fired what it said was a faster version of a medium-range missile that could strike Israel, drawing international censure and warnings of “serious” fall-out. – AFP

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