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Trial of Protesters Proceeds as Ahmadinejad Endorsed in Iran

August 3, 2009 at 6:03 PM EST
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Political unrest continued in Iran Monday as the government pressed ahead with a mass trial of opposition supporters and President Ahmadinejad was endorsed by the supreme leader.
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GWEN IFILL: Iran’s rulers faced down new evidence of discontent today, as a mass trial of opposition figures got underway. The accused were arrested in the aftermath of June’s disputed presidential election.

The declared winner of that vote, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was formally endorsed today by Iran’s supreme leader.

Margaret Warner has our lead story.

MARGARET WARNER: The trial of 100 people accused of post-election violence began on Saturday in Tehran. But today, the wife of one, former Vice President Mohammad Abtahi, charged his televised confession had been coerced. Abtahi alleged opposition leaders conspired to misrepresent the election results as fraudulent.

MOHAMMAD ABTAHI, former vice president, Iran (through translator): The slogan of cheating was a slogan that immediately came up after the election. The political elites, including myself, for a few days made a great mistake, and I stress that that mistake inflicted heavy blows to our country.

MARGARET WARNER: In her statement, Abtahi’s wife told the Associated Press, “I personally believe what he has gone through has made him speak the way he has.” She said Abtahi seemed disoriented and was no doubt drugged when she saw him in jail two days before the trial.

Another leading reformer, former Deputy Interior Minister Mohammad Atrianfar, was shown confessing the protests were a foreign plot to topple Iran’s government.

In a 2006 interview with the NewsHour in Tehran, he described the regime’s belief that the U.S. wanted to engineer its ouster.

MOHAMMAD ATRIANFAR, publisher, Shargh Newspaper (through translator): Since the U.S. brought up this “axis of evil” slogan and talked about regime change in Iran — namely, the toppling of the present government — it meant that they are trying to play with our destiny.

MARGARET WARNER: The accusations of forced confessions came as Iran’s supreme leader formally endorsed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for a second term as president today.

At the ceremony in Tehran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei allowed Ahmadinejad to kiss the shoulder of his robe, a more restrained gesture than four years ago, when Ahmadinejad kissed the leader’s hand and cheeks.

Khamenei called the election a “golden page” in Iran’s history and derided the protesters for mimicking the tactics of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

AYATOLLAH ALI KHAMENEI, Iran Supreme Leader (through translator): The Islamic ruling system is alive. They must not imagine that, through a false emulation of people’s massive turnout in the 1979 Islamic revolution and with a caricature of that revolution, they can harm the greatness of the Islamic revolution and system.

MARGARET WARNER: Leading election critics boycotted the event — former presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, as well as this year’s reformist candidates, Mir Hussein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi — and no one from the family of Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979 revolution, attended.

On another front, in Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Iran to confirm that it’s holding three missing American hikers. Iranian state TV reported the hikers were seized last Friday when they ignored warnings from border guards and crossed over from northern Iraq.

And for more on these latest developments in Iran, we turn to Abbas Milani, director of Stanford University’s Iran Studies Program and co-director of its Iran Democracy Project. Saturday’s indictment cited him as a major figure in trying to overthrow the Iranian government.

And Hooman Majd, a journalist and writer who was in Iran in the lead-up to the June election, he’s the author of “The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran.”

Well, let’s wrestle with this paradox today. Professor Milani, beginning with you, what explains this latest spectacle, this mass trial, these public confessions?

A 'frightened' regime

Abbas Milani
Stanford University
It basically imprisoned the entire reform movement leadership and, through what seems to be barbaric torture, brought them out to confess to these rather silly and absurd crimes.

ABBAS MILANI, Iran Democracy Project: I think the regime feels frightened. It feels isolated. It feels that it is facing an uphill battle.

And in order to intimidate the opposition, in order to intimidate the other leaders of the reform movement -- particularly Mr. Mousavi, Karroubi, and Khatami -- it basically imprisoned the entire reform movement leadership and, through what seems to be barbaric torture, brought them out to confess to these rather silly and absurd crimes.

And the regime read an indictment that I think will go down in history as one of the most absurd commentaries and most absurd judicial documents.

MARGARET WARNER: Hooman Majd, do you see it the same way, that they are trying to intimidate the whole protest movement here?

HOOMAN MAJD, author, "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ": Absolutely. I think Dr. Milani is absolutely correct in that, but I think there's also another element here. I think they have made it clear that they have a story and they're sticking to it.

The story is that this is not -- that there wasn't fraud, that the whole unrest was caused by foreign agents and by foreigners and was a planned Western coup, and I think they want to show their supporters, at least -- and they do have supporters, there's no question they do have some supporters -- they want to show them through these televised trials and through these confessions that some people will believe -- although the vast majority, I think, will not believe -- and they seem, as Dr. Milani said, quite absurd.

But I think that they want -- it's really a case of them saying, "This is our story, and we're sticking to it, and we want to get past this, and this the way we're going to get past it," by proving in their minds that there was this conspiracy and then, you know, we'll see what the next phase is.

But, certainly, I think it came generally as a shock to most people in Tehran that they would do such a thing.

Coerced confessions

Hooman Majd
Author and journalist
Clearly these confessions are coerced or at least they're not voluntary, at an absolute minimum. Whether these people were promised freedom if they made these confessions, I'm not sure.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Professor Milani, is there any doubt in your mind that these were coerced confessions?

ABBAS MILANI: I have absolutely no doubt in my mind. These are 100 people who worked for a year -- some of them two years -- for these other candidates, who articulated repeatedly when they had access to all manner of information that the election was a fraudulent election.

And then isolated, imprisoned, without any contact to the outside world, without any access to lawyers, they suddenly in unison all decide that not only the election was fair and square, but that they were all pawns in the hands of American institutions. That is simply a silly scenario, and I don't think anybody buys it.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Mr. Majd, as you've said, you both have said that they've got a story and they're sticking to it. This is not a new theme, this idea, that any reform or any activist is just a pawn in an international plot.

Do you think members of the regime actually believe that? And is there some basis for it? I mean, the United States did help engineer a coup there in the '50s.

HOOMAN MAJD: Well, I think -- well, Iranians are generally conspiracy-minded. I would agree with Dr. Milani on what he said. I mean, clearly these confessions are coerced or at least they're not voluntary, at an absolute minimum.

Whether these people were promised freedom if they made these confessions, I'm not sure. Who knows what happened in jail, in the time they spent in jail?

But I think, yes, I think that's why I say that there are some people, at least among their supporters, who will believe this, because of the past history of the United States, because of the past history of international meddling in Iranian affairs. There are some people who believe it.

I don't think the majority of the regime, people who are in power today, do believe what they're putting forth right now. I think it's propaganda like it has been in the past.

But I think there are some people who believe it, yes, or at least believe there is some element of truth to the fact that some of these protests were engineered or calls for, you know, people to come out on the street and so on and so forth were engineered, if not engineered, were encouraged by Western countries.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Milani, how far do you think this is going to go? There were other figures like yourself -- but you're safely in the U.S. -- but like reformist candidate Mousavi who were also cited in this indictment. Do you think they are in danger, as well, of being arrested?

ABBAS MILANI: I think, if the regime feels like it can get away with it, they will arrest Mr. Mousavi, they will arrest Karroubi, and I think they will even arrest Khatami and Rafsanjani. These confessions were clearly a shot across the bow to these four people.

What Khamenei said himself today was, again, a confirmation that, if they can get away with it, they will go after these four people. Ahmadinejad has repeatedly threatened these people. The only thing that will stop them, I think, is their assessment that the cost will be too much.

Last night, I have numerous reports from Iran that the shouts of "Death to the dictator" and "Allahu Akbar" at night were the loudest they have been in a long time. So people have spoken. And, clearly, I think the way they can indicated that they find this to be a silly, unjust and brutal farce.

A united leadership?

Hooman Majd
Author and journalist
Kissing the shoulder is also a sign of respect, so I don't think -- I think they're absolutely hand in hand. They are united.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Hooman Majd, would you say that, despite the sort of awkward optics of today's endorsement ceremony, that it looks to you like Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are side by side in this and sticking together?

HOOMAN MAJD: I believe so, yes. I think a little bit too much is made of the awkward optics, as you put it.

I mean, four years ago, when he kissed the hand of Khamenei, there was a lot of criticism of Ahmadinejad for doing exactly that, which no other president had ever done in Iran. So I think he didn't want to kiss the hand of Khamenei.

Who knows whether Khamenei expected him to kiss him on the cheek or whatever? But kissing the shoulder is also a sign of respect, so I don't think -- I think they're absolutely hand in hand. They are united.

Certainly, the hard-line, the hardest of the hard-line element in the Iranian regime are very united. And as Dr. Milani points out, I do agree that this is all a warning to the reformists to back off. "This is our story; back off. This is what we have to present to the world, and we're going to move forward from here."

If the reformists were willing to back off, I do believe that they would be willing to make some concessions, but I don't see the reformists backing off right now. I certainly don't see Khatami or Rafsanjani backing off.

The great danger is that, if this continues this way and if they do arrest Khatami or someone like Rafsanjani or Mousavi, I mean, we could actually see something, you know, really, really dangerous in Iran, which could border on a civil war, for example. People are very unhappy.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Milani, brief final word. Do you think it could spiral out of control like that?

ABBAS MILANI: I think it could, if they insist, but I think there is a tension between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. The last two weeks have clearly indicated that Ahmadinejad has illusions of grandeur. He thinks he really has 25 million votes.

And his refusal to carry out the orders of Khamenei, in my mind, was itself a shot across the bow of Mr. Khamenei that, "I'm no longer the know-nothing mayor of Tehran of four years ago. I am now a landslide victor, and I am going to have my own friends and buddies and family in lucrative positions of authority."

MARGARET WARNER: And that landslide victor is to be inaugurated on Wednesday. Thank you both very much.

HOOMAN MAJD: Thank you.