DAVID GREENE, host:
From Iraq to neighboring Iran, a large police force is working to keep people off the streets of Tehran. And while several thousand people demonstrated over the weekend in the Iranian capital, it's become increasingly difficult to mount protests in the face of a clampdown. Iran's leaders have also intensified their campaign to paint the protests as the work of the U.S., Britain and Israel.
More on where things stand now in Iran from NPR's Mike Shuster in Dubai.
(Soundbite of crowd chatter)
MIKE SHUSTER: The Iranian government strategy is two-pronged: crack down hard on the protesters and blame foreign powers for the mayhem in the streets. These sounds combine both. It is the chaos that erupted when Neda Soltan was shot and killed during a peaceful demonstration on June 20th. Protestors believe Soltan was killed by a militia known as the Basij, firing indiscriminately into the crowd. Iran state-controlled press has portrayed the killing as the work of foreign elements. Yesterday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asked foreign investigation, claiming that enemies of the nation were responsible.
Iran's leaders accused the U.S. and Britain of plotting the protests. Those accusations gained strength after President Obama said he was appalled and outraged at what was happening in Iran. Ahmadinejad quickly responded with comments dripping with sarcasm.
President MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD (Iran): (Through translator): To take such a rude tone with a great nation, this is inexcusable. We understand that you're still gaining experience, and I want to give you a bit of friendly advice. We don't want to see a repetition of the mess that was created during the Bush era.
SHUSTER: A day later, Ahmadinejad had more challenging words for the U.S. He said he would take a tougher stance, harsh, and more decisive to make the West regret its meddling. And he demanded an apology from President Obama.
President AHMADINEJAD: (Through Translator) We are surprised at Mr. Obama. Didn't he say he wanted change? Why did he interfere? They have revealed their intentions before the Iranian nation, before the world. Their mask has been removed.
SHUSTER: It seemed that Ahmadinejad was trying to provoke the American president into taking a more hostile stance toward Iran. Mr. Obama retorted that there will be no apologies.
President BARACK OBAMA: I don't take Mr. Ahmadinejad's statements seriously about apologies, particularly given the fact that the United States has gone out of its way not to interfere with the election process in Iran.
SHUSTER: This is a tactic that Ahmadinejad has used frequently, as have the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and others. Abbas Milani, director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, says it is having little effect.
Professor ABBAS MILANI (Director of Iranian Studies, Stanford University): They are trying to do what Shakespeare suggested: keep giddy minds busy with foreign wars. They know Iranian society is agitated, and they're trying to concoct the foreign war. And it's not working. And nobody's taking it very seriously.
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SHUSTER: One reason it may not be effective is that too many people have taken part in the street protests. Too many have taken their own pictures of what happened. Too many have seen the police beating demonstrators ferociously and the Basij shooting into the crowds.
David Miliband, the British Foreign Secretary, expressed recently how he understands the conflict in Iran.
Mr. DAVID MILIBAND (British Foreign Secretary): It's not a crisis between Iran and America or Iran and Britain, however much the Iran government wants to suggest that. The people on the streets are there because of the crisis of credibility of the election results that were announced.
That is not a British motivation or a British organization. That is an issue for the Iranian people to decide. And we keep on saying it's for the Iranian people to decide their own government. It's for the Iranian government to protect their own people, not to abuse their rights.
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SHUSTER: The Iranian leadership is also divided. Numerous influential clerics have expressed concern, and in some cases, outright opposition to the actions of Iran's government.
The influential mayor of Tehran and the speaker of Iran's parliament, both stanched conservatives, have raised questions about the handling of the election and the treatment of demonstrators. This suggests a potential break with Ayatollah Khamenei, the first serious questioning of his leadership in 20 years. But from Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and other hardliners, there has been no compromise - quite the contrary, says Abbas Milani.
Prof. MILANI: Their experience, their conclusion is that if they give an inch, they will lose the war. They don't want to show any weakness because they'll have a million people on their hands the next day.
SHUSTER: For the moment, Khamenei retains the upper hand over the opposition, but many do not believe this fight is finished. In Milani's view, Khamenei has lost his reputation as a mediator and a compromiser presiding over Iranian society.
Prof. MILANI: If he survives, it will be as a military despot, supported by the Revolutionary Guards and the thugs in the Basij.
SHUSTER: As for the protestors, they may not be clear on what will happen next, but many invoke the same image. There is fire, they say, under the ashes.
Mike Shuster, NPR News, Dubai.
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