A swearing-in in Tehran, a diplomatic controversy in Washington

ISTANBUL — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came out flailing at the West during his inauguration on Wednesday as a White House spokesman touched off a diplomatic crisis with Iran by retracting an earlier statement referring to the controversial Iranian leader as that country’s “elected leader."

“Let me correct a little bit of what I said yesterday,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said. “I denoted that Mr Ahmadinejad was the elected leader of Iran … Whether any election was fair, obviously the Iranian people still have questions about that, and we'll let them decide about that.”

Washington’s about-face may complicate the release of three Americans detained on the Iran-Iraq border earlier this week.

“It was complicated enough as it was and this will make it even more complicated now,” said Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council. “It’s different if the U.S. had diplomatic relations and could follow the case on the ground but now it’s even more handicapped than when European nationals are stuck in jail in Iran.” Helicopters buzzed today over the Majles, the Iranian parliament, as Ahmadinejad completed the second leg of his inauguration by blasting a depleted audience of parliamentarians with a combative speech. As security forces fought street battles with protesters outside, Ahmadinejad’s address set the tone for a campaign of retribution against his political enemies, proving he is a tenacious political survivor.

“They (Westerners) are interested in democracy only as long as it serves their interests,” Ahmadinejad said, speaking in the cavernous Iranian parliament to roars of encouragement from the assembled representatives. “They don’t respect the opinions and rights of peoples.”

Thousands of security forces, some of them little more than hastily added youth recruits to the Bassij militia, locked down the area around the Iranian parliament, violently moving on pedestrians over a one-kilometer range.

Cellphone camera videos circulating on opposition websites showed crowds ascending dark metro escalators shouting “Death to the Dictator” but neither buses nor the metro was making stops at Baharestan with commuters forced to get out before or after. Fearing coordination between groups of protesters or cellphone-activated bombs, all phone networks were disabled. Bomb-sniffing dogs patrolled the area. At the entrance to Tehran’s labyrinthine Bazaar and in the sidestreets around the parliament, plainclothes intelligence agents mixed in among protesters. Militiamen and gawkers roared around the area on their motorbikes, waiting for the protests to begin.

Short videos shot by participants on mobile phones showed ragged crowds lingering along sidewalks or being moved violently along by state agents wearing surgery masks to obscure their identity. The security services appeared to control all avenues and squares, frustrating protesters’ efforts to coalesce into a crowd. No demonstration materialized despite reports, which are unverified, that demonstrators set fire to a police kiosk, attacked several Bassiji militiamen.

Iran’s deputy police chief, Ahmad Reza Radan, said that “in spite of vast propaganda by satellite channels and foreign media for a gathering in front of the parliament building, no illegal gathering was held there.”

Some of the protesters claimed that, rather than braving the tumultuous streets, Ahmadinejad had been delivered to the parliament in one of the helicopters hovering over the area. Later in the day, the hardliner-aligned Fars news agency denied the claim that — true or not — reflected poorly on a man elected on a populist platform but who is increasingly forced by circumstances to take security precautions and appear more aloof.

As he seeks to shore up his power, Ahmadinejad has already made colorful threats to go on the offensive. His government banned the reformist newspaper Voice of Justice last week and arrested two more journalists, swelling even more the numbers in the Islamic Republic’s jails, already the world’s largest prison for media workers. Close Mousavi aide Mirhamid Hasanzadeh was taken from his office Tuesday by order of a Revolutionary Court. Reza Nourbakhsh, the editor of the Farhikhtegan newspaper, was also arrested Tuesday evening. Their arrests are the first in a renewed sweep of opposition personalities since a trial of almost 100 reformists opened Saturday.

As if direct pressure were not enough, a simmering campaign of intimidation of the reformists in the media exploded Tuesday into a very public psychological war as a number of Ahmadinejad-aligned religious figures attacked the opposition heads. “The judiciary must take away [former president Mohammad] Khatami’s permission to leave the country,” said parliamentarian Javad Karimi Ghoddousi, demanding the implementation of what is a typical first step toward arresting a political prisoner in the Islamic Republic.

“His followers are in detention houses and, after having been imprisoned in what looks like a prison, their free spirits have confessed to the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic,” Ghoddousi continued in a reference to the recent confessions of Khatami supporters televised in the tranquil surroundings of what appears to be a garden inside Evin Prison. “Such a transformation (denying earlier positions that the presidential vote was rigged) is the result of sincerity and morality of the Islamic Republic.”

“The crackdown will continue over the next few months and will be extensive and ruthless,” said Houchang Hassan-Yari, a professor of military and strategic issues at the Royal Military College of Canada. “No one will be immune from repression including Mousavi, Karoubi, Khatami and Rafsanjani. The line is traced and camps chosen.”

In anticipation of fresh influxes of inmates once the crackdown gets under way, Iran’s police chief announced that the controversial Kahrizak detention facility was being reconstructed and would be reopened as a “standard” prison.

“The government will have significant challenges governing and making decisions,” said a Tehran-based political analyst who asked for anonymity due to the great sensitivity involved in speaking to the foreign media at a time when several Iranians stand accused of collaborating with the West in fomenting a Velvet Revolution. “Just imagine trying to get the cutting of subsidies through (parliament) in this atmosphere. The current state of paralysis will have an enormous impact on the management of the economy over the next six to nine months.”

With hundreds of reformists locked in prison and the regime’s security forces rampant in the streets of Tehran, the conservative press is stretching to new rhetorical extremes. Hardliners’ favorite Raja News predicted that “the coming months will be the time of the final battle between bureaucratic aristocracy and the nation."

“The result of this battle will change the future of Iran, the region and the world, and of course as our leader has said, 'the future belongs to the Hezbollah (the Party of God).' Which camp do you belong to?”