Fooling themselves alone
08 Aug 2009 16:05
Iran's show trials resumed on Saturday. Photo/Fars News
By JASON REZAIAN in Dubai | 8 Aug 2009
As the trials of more than 100 political prisoners, charged with inciting the post-election unrest in Iran roll on, one not so rhetorical question keeps coming to mind: Who are they trying to fool?
These sorts of trials intended to restore order and pin blame in autocratic regimes may have succeeded when the proceedings were hidden from the rest of the world, broadcast only to a population intended to bend at the knees upon seeing once strong men reduced to emaciated ghosts of themselves. Public displays of intimidation like these may have terrified Soviet citizens in the 1930's to silence, but the now cliched comparison doesn't fit this situation. It appears that times have changed.
For one thing, Iran in 2009 is not as cut off from the rest of the world as many believe it to be. The population's use of modern tools of communication, and the large number of English speakers assures that as a nation, Iran is informed about global news and opinions, in this case specifically about Iran.
Furthermore the trials are being put on by a segment of the government, which doesn't entirely control the media. Iran's system is not a totalitarian autocracy nor has it ever been. These staged events might still be effective in Cuba or North Korea, but they aren't going to work in Iran, where a relatively vibrant press is openly debating the legitimacy of the trials.
On the surface it seems like one more miscalculation by the state in a long series of them dating back to the announcement of the official election results, however one cannot be so sure. Some who have lived under this regime their entire lives doubted that hypothesis; as they would remark, "These guys know what they are doing. It's just another trick. How else do you think they've stayed in power this long?"
Perhaps the trick this time is that there is no trick at all, only a weakened leadership fighting to hold onto its diminishing sense of power; the facade of simply being in control, making it so.
This would make sense, as Iran has always operated on a set of "as if" rules. Although this time, given the number of questionable stories the people of Iran have been asked to accept, it seems unlikely that they will ever again be able to take this regime seriously.
One of the confessions that has sparked the most debate is that of former Vice President under Khatami, Ali Abtahi. Among his remarks he stated that:
"After the election in a meeting Hashemi [Rafsanjani], Mousavi and Khatami swore to have one another's backs and I personally don't understand what the meaning of this backing is after an 11 million vote difference. The election was great and 40 million votes is not something that we can easily overlook. This was a victory for Iran."
He continued by denouncing his allies, saying that, "Maybe Khatami had his reasons, maybe Mousavi didn't know the country that well. But Khatami, with all the respect that I have for him, on the contrary knew the situation well. He was well aware of the Leader's capabilities and authority, but he went along with Mousavi due to certain incidents."
As, Maleheh, a 27-year-old secretary in Tehran told me, "No one blames (former VP) Abtahi. We understand that the words he says are not his own. Even taxi drivers are saying that this is a show."
"Speechless is the best way to describe the absurdity of the situation when you see the defendant argue for the prosecution," remarked one local journalist who asked not to be named. One theory, which she holds is that the confessions are to be taken as a series of public apologies for going against the Supreme Leader.
So perhaps it's the international community that these trials are intended to sway, but again, I doubt it. Public opinion on the situation in Iran is squarely on the side of the people and their vote. The handful of politicians and commentators abroad who support the shenanigans that have gone on are misguided idealists who will one day recognize themselves to be on the wrong side of history. We needn't worry about them, because no one--including the regime in Tehran--takes them at all seriously.
At times it seems as though we've been watching an old play, and not a very interesting one at that. If it is nothing more than a botched attempt to reduce dissent through intimidation coupled with using forced confessions to de-legitimize opposition, I think that is a recipe for failure.
If we've learned anything about the Iranian public over the past six weeks it's that 1) they have proven themselves very savvy at getting news from inside Iran to the outside world, and 2) they no longer buy into what the government tells them. Therefore, the trials fail on two counts, and all that's left is the crass humiliation of once dignified public figures, and even that's failing.
It more than likely has the desired effect of scaring off Iranians abroad who would like to come back and join in the fray. Despite having an opinion, very few of those commenting seem to have it in them to actually take that leap (yours truly included).
However, there's little on the ground we could offer in terms of help any way. With or without support from the outside world, everyday Iranians will continue this fight themselves. Still, they have yet to create a reasonable vision of what they would like to see replace their current situation. Anyone can protest against that which they despise, creating a viable alternative is a quest that has thus far eluded Iranians.
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau