Fears of a "Tehran Tiananmen" Growing as Iran Crisis Deepens

The post-election unrest and turbulence now sweeping Iran, following the presidential election of last Friday, did not figure into anyone's analysis and calculations. It took everyone by surprise, but so have the most momentous events of contemporary Iranian history. The 1979 Revolution was not on anyone's radar screens either until it was well underway.

The root cause of such singular and unanticipated upheavals lies in the way fundamental tensions in Iran simmer for a long time below the surface and then suddenly explode into the fore.

What is happening in these days is a reflection of two such long-running tensions. One is the differences within the ruling elite that have mushroomed into what appears to be a full-scale confrontation over the recent election results.

The other underlying tension, which is unfolding daily in huge protests across the country, comes from the deep dissatisfaction of much of the population with social and political restrictions imposed on them by the state, coupled with failing economic policies.

Let us not confuse these two trends. One is a political catfight within the regime, and the other is an outburst of popular demands for greater civil liberties and basic freedoms, and for effective economic policies. The former is serving as a vehicle for the latter.

The huge participation of the electorate in Friday's election, over eighty percent, included many who had never before participated in the political process, but saw this as a unique opportunity to bring about positive change.

The disillusionment caused by the strongly contested election result quickly translated to an outpouring of protests on the streets because many people felt their sense of honor and integrity has been insulted beyond limit.

Meanwhile the political catfight continues to develop without any clear winner emerging. On one side of the equation are Ahmadinejad's government, the Revolutionary Guards commanders, and the Office of the Leader. The Leader, Ayatollah Khamanei, has clearly come out in support of this faction, although historically he had implied he acts only as an arbitrator of power, and is above factionalism. But this time his sympathies are squarely placed behind this camp, at least up to this point.

It is of the utmost importance that none of the Grand Ayatollahs and clerics in Qom has come forward to endorse the election results or congratulate Ahmadinejad. The core political conflict appears to be expressing itself in a fissure between Ayatollah Khamanei and the rest of the traditional clerical establishment in Qom.

Khamanei's legitimacy base lies in an assembly of such clerics, known as Assembly of Experts, who have blessed his position as the Leader. Now this legitimacy is under question. Rumors circulating in Tehran tell of attempts by Hashemi Rafsanjani, a supporter of the opposition candidate Moussavi and head of the Assembly of Experts, to convene a meeting and challenge Khamanei.

With such a complex landscape and fast-moving developments on the ground, what should the international community's response be?

Iran is situated in an already volatile region with most of its neighbors, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq, undergoing their own crisis of historical proportions. The last thing we should encourage is the destabilization of Iran and having it join this pack of explosive and barely functioning states.

The Iranian government's violent response to peaceful public protests should be harshly condemned around the world, but that is not to say we should take political sides. The political outcome must be determined within Iran and by Iranians. As long as the political dispute remains unresolved, foreign governments should withhold recognition of Ahmadinejad's government.

But the government's actions in confronting its own people should be of concern to all of us. Iran must be told that its further reliance on violence, curtailment of civil liberties and basic freedoms, widespread arbitrary detentions and disappearances will not earn it public peace or international legitimacy. That message should be delivered by United Nations officials, particularly the Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay.

Iran is closed to independent human rights observers including those of the UN. The government is rapidly moving to shut down communication channels amongst Iranians and with the outside world. There are serious fears of a "Tehran Tiananmen" in the coming days. The High Commissioner should move rapidly to send an envoy to Iran to prevent an all-out closure that could lead to serious violence and attacks on protestors undertaken with total impunity. There have already been at least a dozen fatalities due to government forces opening fire.

The situation is tense and our responsibility is to ensure that it does not become more violent and unstable. The presence of UN envoys in Tehran and major cities would inhibit the government to contemplate resolving the conflict through the use of force; it would promote accountability and respect for international standards.

President Obama is correct to stay that the US should not become part of the political fight in Iran. Ahmadinejad's government could eagerly use statements of support for the political opposition as a license to portray the conflict as instigated from abroad and justify its harsh measures. The US should not fall into that trap.

At the same time, this is not the time to leave Iranian people on their own. The focus on Iran, now more than ever before, should be on human rights issues: restoration of civil liberties, release of political prisoners, withdrawal of police and Special Guards from the streets. If there are concerted and unified voices from the international community on this front, it will make a difference. It must be made clear, that voices from the international community are not aimed at picking a political favorite, but rather making sure that the political crisis is resolved in an environment free of violence and threats and coupled with respect for the Iranian people's fundamental rights.

The Iranian people, particularly the energetic youth who represent seventy percent of the population, has made it abundantly clear they are not interested in revolutionary upheaval and violent change. For the past month, both before and after elections, the world has witnessed their peaceful rallies, numbering in the hundreds of thousands of participants. They are doing their best to convince the powers to be that peaceful change is unavoidable and urgent. They are doing their best to prevent chaos and violence from engulfing their country, while insisting on standing up for their rights. Let's do our best to support them, in ways that do not harm their ultimate goal of non-violent change.

Hadi Ghaemi is the Director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (www.iranhumanrights.org )