Iran’s Leader Derides Protests; Lawmakers Urge Death for Opposition Leaders
Published: February 15, 2011
A day after the largest antigovernment protests in Iran in more than a year, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Tuesday dismissed opposition attempts to revive mass demonstrations as certain to fail, while members of the Iranian Parliament clamored for the two most prominent leaders of the protest movement to be executed.
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Critics have called in the past for the two men, Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, to be prosecuted for alleged crimes that would merit the death penalty. The calls for punishment on Tuesday, however, appeared to be the most strident yet — with members of Parliament shouting in unison, “Moussavi, Karroubi should be hanged!”
But while the government has tried and convicted many opposition members since large street protests in 2009, it has so far shied away from putting the two men on trial, perhaps fearing that would lead to further unrest.
The government on Tuesday continued to try to squelch reports about the demonstrations on Monday, arresting or sequestering critics and revoking the working credentials of about a dozen foreign correspondents who had been ordered not to cover the protests.
Opposition supporters were elated about the demonstrations, saying they felt people’s willingness to come out despite beatings by the police proved that the antigovernment movement born after Mr. Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election was still alive after 20 months of brutal government suppression.
“The friends I talked to in Iran were so happy that people had shown up after months of nothing going on,” said Sadra M. Shahab, who helped spread the word about the demonstrations from overseas.
Mr. Karroubi, who has been under house arrest since the eve of the protests, said Tuesday that “the government should take the cotton out of its ears and hear the voice of the people,” according to a statement posted on Saham News, his Web site.
“Violent and aggressive actions in response to the will of the people can halt continuing protests up to a point,” he said, addressing the government, “but you should learn from the history of the governments that have fled.” He was referring to the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, who were recently driven out by street protests.
Mr. Karroubi did not mention any future plans, and it is unclear if the opposition has a clear idea of what to do next. Organizers of a special Facebook page dedicated to the protests in Iran said the authorities would never allow Iranian demonstrators to set up the type of permanent encampment that came to represent the tenacity of the Egyptians in Tahrir Square in Cairo as they called for Hosni Mubarak to leave.
There were reports at least two people died in the protests in Iran on Monday. Few reporters were able to cover the demonstrations, but witness accounts and some news reports suggested that perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 people took to the streets in several cities, including Tehran.
Mr. Ahmadinejad, in a live interview on state television, pursued the government line that such demonstrations were foreign attempts to undermine a great nation, according to reports by the official news agency, IRNA.
“The Iranian nation is like the sun in that it is so brilliant. And of course this brilliance has enemies and they make true efforts,” he said. “but ultimately their efforts are like throwing dirt at the sun. It falls right back on them.”
By chanting against the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on Monday, protesters were demanding that the entire government system should go, rather than simply attacking Mr. Ahmadinejad. In doing so, they forged rare unity between him and Parliament, which have been at odds over domestic policy.
Of the 290 Parliament members, 222 signed a statement on Tuesday demanding that the government prosecute Mr. Moussavi and Mr. Karroubi, according to IRNA. It was at least the third time that the two men have been threatened publicly with prosecution.
“They would like to provide an atmosphere for the government to take harder action against the opposition leaders,” said Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, an exiled former member of Parliament now at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. “But I do not think they could do anything like execute the leaders — even if they arrested them, it would motivate a new round of the uprising.”
On Tuesday, pro-government demonstrators staged a sit-in at Mr. Karroubi’s house, according to opposition Web sites.
President Obama, speaking Tuesday at a Washington news conference, expressed support for the courage of the Iranian demonstrators and criticized the Tehran government’s response.
“I find it ironic that you’ve got the Iranian regime pretending to celebrate what happened in Egypt,” he said, “when in fact they have acted in direct contrast to what happened in Egypt by gunning down and beating people who were trying to express themselves peacefully in Iran.”
The leadership of the Islamic republic has been hailing the demonstrations in the Arab world, saying they show the triumph of popular support for Islam, even though Islamists had a low profile in both the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings.
Reports of the number of people arrested over the latest protests in Iran varied, with the official number put at 150 and the opposition’s estimate at 1,500.
The protesters who died Monday were identified as Saane Zhaleh, a Kurdish student at Tehran Art University, and Mohammad Mokhtari, 22, a student at Islamic Azad University in Shahrood.
The government and the opposition issued conflicting accounts of what happened to Mr. Zhaleh. The authorities said Mr. Zhaleh was a Basij, one of the student vigilantes on many campuses, who was shot by a government opponent. Opposition accounts said plainclothes security officers roaming the streets beat him to death.
The government and the opposition have scheduled separate memorial services for Mr. Zhaleh on Wednesday, creating a potential for renewed clashes.