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In Iran, New Burst of Demonstrations Escalate Political Tensions

July 30, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Hundreds of Iranian opposition supporters gathered Thursday to mourn slain demonstrator Neda Agha Soltan. Police reportedly used tear gas to break up the crowd. A Los Angeles Times reporter discusses the latest developments.
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MARGARET WARNER: Borzou Daragahi, welcome. Thank you for being with us.

The authorities in Iran refused to grant permission for this mass mourning event today, and yet thousands of people showed up. How unusual is that?

BORZOU DARAGAHI, Los Angeles Times: Well, it’s not only that they didn’t get permission and showed up anyway, it’s also that they’ve been coming out fairly regularly for protests, being beaten, being hurt, being tear-gassed, being in some cases followed home and arrested, and yet they continue to keep going.

And they say that they’re going to keep going even if they get hurt or jailed, and that that’s the unusual part, and this is kind of unprecedented in that way.

The Islamic republic has a playbook by which it usually deals with this kind of unrest, as it dealt with it in 1999 and 2003, and even in the early years of the revolution, when there was still a lot of opposition to the type of clerical rule that was established.

All of their methods — the jailings, the beatings, the threats, the threats of airing forced confessions on television — are not working this time. And so you’ve got a sort of panic in the establishment as they try to figure out what to do to contain this movement.

Perilous Rift for Islamic Republic

Borzou Daragahi
Los Angeles Times
This is a very dangerous sign for the Islamic republic, if there's any kind of serious rift within the security forces.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you one other question about today's event. The ITN piece had an eyewitness, Iran audio -- of an eyewitness saying that some of the security forces were actually encouraging the demonstrators. You reported a similar thing quite early this morning. What can you tell us about that?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: Well, we're not exactly sure what happened here. But from one thing that we understand, not only in terms of eyewitness accounts, but YouTube video that I've seen, although there were some reports of clashes between the security forces and the mourners at Behesht-e Zahra, Tehran's greatest and largest cemetery, there were also reports that they were getting along quite amicably, the mourners and the police, at some point.

And what we had thought was that this was because they just thought that they were so overwhelmed by the numbers that they stepped back. But it's definitely true that within the security forces there's a rather perilous split.

And we've seen evidence of this on the street, where some security forces refuse to beat any of the demonstrators and, in some cases, even stop some of the pro-government Basiji militia who are beating the demonstrators. This is a very dangerous sign for the Islamic republic, ifthere's any kind of serious rift within the security forces.

MARGARET WARNER: And yet the arrests are continuing; there were more this week.

BORZOU DARAGAHI: Indeed, there were more arrests this week of some prominent politicians, as well as others who were not so well known. But there were also a bunch of people being released from prison.

Again, the sense that we get, the understanding that we have is that the top levels of the establishment are rather confused about what to do and they're flailing about trying to find different formulas to cool people's anger, while at the same time not appearing to accede to any of their demands in an attempt to stop this movement from burgeoning.

Controversy over Video Confessions

Borzou Daragahi
Los Angeles Times
Right now, there seems to be...a kind of a fight between different factions in the government over the airing of taped confessions from prisoners that were involved in the recent unrest.

MARGARET WARNER: You mentioned videotaped confessions. I gather there's also a big controversy about whether to air those videotaped confessions. Tell us about that. What's the status of that?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: In the early years of the revolution and at other points, there have been times when people who were political dissidents were jailed, sometimes held for weeks or even months in solitary confinement, and as a condition for their release, they had to make videotapes confessing to various crimes, being opponents of the government, being foreign dupes.

Right now, there seems to be, according to the comments that we're seeing from public officials, as well as reports we're getting from within the establishment, a kind of a fight between different factions in the government over the airing of taped confessions from prisoners that were involved in the recent unrest.

And on the one hand, you have some hard-liners saying that, you know, yes, we have to do this. It worked in the past. On the other hand, there are others who are very concerned that, in this current climate, with the new conditions and the dynamics of this current movement, that airing these confessions would only further anger and alienate people from the government, and this fight is going on.

Hard-liners Pressing Ahmadinejad

Borzou Daragahi
Los Angeles Times
They compared Ahmadinejad to previous Iranian leaders who had won elections and been deposed because they went up against the clergy. And this was a real harsh warning against Ahmadinejad.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, I have to ask about a little tidbit that was in a story you wrote yesterday. You said that one hard-line political group had actually fired a shot across President Ahmadinejad's bow with a letter.

BORZOU DARAGAHI: You know, indeed. This is not only just some hard-line political group; this is a hard-line group that Ahmadinejad was once a prominent member of.

And in this letter, which was picked up by official Iranian news outlets, they compared Ahmadinejad to previous Iranian leaders who had won elections and been deposed because they went up against the clergy. And this was a real harsh warning against Ahmadinejad.

Indeed, since this warning came out, Ahmadinejad has been kind of out of the picture. From our understanding, in the last day or so, he's gone off to the Iranian eastern city of Mashhad.

MARGARET WARNER: Borzou Daragahi of the Los Angeles Times, thanks so much for being with us.

BORZOU DARAGAHI: It's been a pleasure.

JIM LEHRER: You can follow our coverage of the election crackdown on our Web site, newshour.pbs.org. There's also a lesson plan for teachers on the prospects for democracy in Iran.