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Political Discontent, Divisions Deepen In Iran

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Political Discontent, Divisions Deepen In Iran

Middle East

Political Discontent, Divisions Deepen In Iran

Political Discontent, Divisions Deepen In Iran

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The political situation in Iran remains tense as protesters continue to march in significant numbers, despite the heavy presence of riot police and militia in the streets of Tehran.

At the same time, disagreements within the ruling clerical establishment in Iran appear to be deepening. All of this has made it difficult for the Obama administration to fashion its approach to Iran.

Ex-Iranian President Speaks Out

On Tuesday, protesters came out into the streets of Tehran in hundreds, perhaps thousands. They were met with more police violence. Once again, video and audio turned up on the Internet showing people running in the streets, blocking traffic and clashing with police.

The demonstrations followed by just four days a huge gathering — tens of thousands of people — attending Friday prayer services conducted by former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Rafsanjani has been somewhat of a mystery during this political crisis, which began with the disputed June 12 presidential election. Since then, there has been much speculation about Rafsanjani's opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Last Friday, Rafsanjani made it clear publicly that he sympathizes with those who believe the election was rigged and those who have been imprisoned during the protests.

'Lines Have Been Drawn'

That only served to highlight the huge gap among Iran's top clerics, and it forced Khamenei into another public appearance Monday where he warned Iran's elites to be careful what they say in public.

The elite should know that any comments, deeds and analysis that help them will be counter to the direction the nation is moving in, the supreme leader said. All of them should be very cautious, he added.

Lines now have been drawn quite clearly, says Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University, who was attending a protest Wednesday outside the United Nations headquarters in New York.

"If you put Rafsanjani's and Khamenei's speech next to each other, it means the fracture that has been created in the post-June 2009 presidential election is getting deeper and deeper," Dabashi says.

Open Defiance Threatens Islamic Republic's Foundation

Clerical disagreement is only one factor in Iran's evolving political crisis. Just as important, if not more so, is the open defiance of Iran's government in the streets. Protesters have looked for any excuse to mount marches or demonstrations.

Rafsanjani's speech was one obvious moment. Tuesday was a relatively obscure anniversary of a nationalist challenge to the Shah of Iran 57 years ago.

With chants such as "Down with the dictator," the protests in the streets are now challenging the very foundation of Iran's Islamic republic, Dabashi says.

"So we are no longer talking about simply a group of demonstrators pouring into the streets and demanding a recount. We are talking about the open and public manifestation of a deep fracture in the very body politic of the Islamic republic," Dabashi says.

The police presence in the streets of Tehran has not been able to stop this movement. The police are out in force, and they have orders to use tear gas, truncheons and aggressive tactics to break up even small protests.

Nevertheless, many in Tehran and other Iranian cities are challenging the police, says Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of Middle East studies at Syracuse University.

"Fear as a deterrent is not as effective as it used to be. Even though the government seems to have the upper hand right now controlling the situation, we certainly have not seen the last chapter of the events by any stretch of the imagination," Boroujerdi says.

U.S. Faces Dilemma

The continuing turmoil has made it difficult for the Obama administration to work out an approach to Iran.

Last week, in a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had some highly critical words for the Iranian authorities.

"We watched the energy of Iran's election with great admiration, only to be appalled by the manner in which the government used violence to quell the voices of the Iranian people, and then tried to hide its actions by arresting foreign journalists and nationals, and expelling them and cutting off access to technology," Clinton said. "As we and our G-8 partners have made clear, these actions are deplorable and unacceptable."

Yet the Obama administration made it clear from the start that it wants to pursue engagement with Iran, and Clinton said that is still the goal, with some limits.

"We remain ready to engage with Iran, but the time for action is now. The opportunity will not remain open indefinitely," she said.

Just how the administration can take that step while protesters in Iran are still facing police truncheons and arrest is not clear.