The show trials now on display in Tehran have several purposes. First, to purge the regime’s ranks of those who have shown tolerance or enthusiasm for the dissidents who are now calling for “death to the dictator.” Second, to intimidate anyone contemplating action against the regime. Third, to gauge the attitude and resolve of the West, in order to calculate just how far the regime can go without a potentially damaging reaction.
That is why Saturday’s procession of “spies and traitors” included French and British citizens or employees. The reaction must have been encouraging to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, his son, and his band of loyalists: thus far, the Brits and the French have limited themselves to diplomatic tongue clicking, with nary a whisper of serious sanctions, and no sign of active support for the millions of Iranians who pray, and fight, for freedom.
As the distinguished scholar and analyst Afshin Ellian tells us nearby, the regime has already prepared arrest warrants for the leaders of the national uprising, and an elite unit of the Revolutionary Guards has been charged with carrying out the arrests. Such a move is fraught with peril for the regime. The arrest of the dissident leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, would surely throw the country into convulsion, and, if it lasted long enough, might convince some Western leaders to finally defend its own ideals, and thus the Iranian people.
There is no doubt, as Professor Ellian stresses, that Khamenei’s people desperately want to crush the opposition. Those nightly chants and daily protests take a toll on the oppressors, and, as we have seen, even organizations such as the Revolutionary Guards will refuse to attack unarmed civilians, and occasionally intervene to protect demonstrators from the assaults of the Basij thugs. There has been an erosion of faith in the regime in many quarters, and we can see signs of a violent internal struggle. Two RG planes have gone down in recent weeks, and scores of officers, along with their counterparts from the Lebanese Hizbollah, have been killed. In addition, there have been several near-misses, pointing to sabotage of aircraft. By whom? I don’t know, but they certainly needed–and obtained– some help from the security and maintenance people working for the Guards.
The show trials themselves document internal conflict. If it were not so, the regime would hardly need to purge high-ranking intelligence officials, and the clear implication of the trials is that more victims are in the queue.
Like every regime that lacks popular consensus, the leaders of the Islamic Republic blame their troubles primarily on foreigners. It is the predictable response of those who know that their policies, and perhaps even their legitimacy, would not be sustained by an appeal to the “electorate.” Thus, for example, the Chinese tyrants blame the Uighur uprisings on the machinations of an emigre grandmother, Rebiya Kadeer, who lives in Washington, rather than on the rage of an oppressed people. The mullahs must silence their opponents, but time is not on their side. As with Gorbachev, the mullahs are showing a talent for being cruel enough to inspire anger, but not enough to dominate their critics.