On the morning of the inauguration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to his second term, the regime knew it had the upper hand. Baharestan Square, next to the Majlis, the Iranian parliament, is not a good place to hold a protest rally. The space is small and the streets around it are large, easily filled with cops who can then see everyone and everything that tries to approach. One witness said there were three soldiers in full riot gear for every protester and that there were guard dogs and Basij wielding metal pipes to dissuade would-be demonstrators from gathering.
The regime’s security apparatus spared no measure to ensure that the opposition’s plans for a million-strong march would not materialize: cell-phone networks warned in advance of “technical difficulties” on inauguration day; subway stations neared Baharestan Square were closed; the élite Revolutionary Guards told hospitals near the parliament to expect wounded protesters in large numbers; and some 5,000 Basij and Guards waited for the crowds, according to state television.
“Keep moving, don’t stop,” shouted the Basij, many mounted on red motorcycles, as they pressed the crowds, which numbered in the hundreds, possibly thousands, many openly wearing the rebel green in support of Ahmadinejad’s closest rival in the election, Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Others, however, wore black to mourn another four years under Ahmadinejad. Many yelled, “Death to the dictators.” Because the area around the pyramidal parliament building was so tightly cordoned off, many protesters moved to the nearby Grand Bazaar, where they chanted “Allahu Akbar.”
Within the building, Ahmadinejad began his controversial second term, one that many political insiders do not expect him to finish. In a blatant slight, visible to all from the televised proceedings, few reformist lawmakers and no opposition leaders including former Presidents Mohammad Khatami and Ayatullah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani attended the open session of parliament. Several remaining reformists walked out when Ahmadinejad began his address, according to news reports.
“We will not tolerate disrespect, interference and insults,” Ahmadinejad warned the international community in his speech. “We heard that some of the Western leaders had decided to recognize but not congratulate the new government … Iranians will neither value your scowling and bullying nor will they pay attention to your smiles and greetings.” Ahmadinejad reasserted his hawkish foreign policy position but was otherwise relatively low-key, adding that he would “spare no effort to safeguard the frontiers of Iran.” The remark was most likely a reference to Israel’s threats to bomb Iran’s uranium-enrichment facilities if the country does not halt its nuclear weapons program.
Although Ahmadinejad has retained the presidency, his future remains shaky. He faces double-digit inflation, shrinking government coffers that may not support his expensive populist programs, and spiraling unemployment, particularly within the restless youth population. The regime’s obstinacy on the nuclear issue may bring further debilitating international sanctions, which, combined with slumping oil prices, may push fellow conservatives toward a vote of no confidence in their leader.
Even if the hard-liners can hold their faction together, they must deal with an increasingly unruly Ahmadinejad, who briefly defied the Supreme Leader in trying to appoint an in-law as his Vice President. Now, within two weeks, he must appoint a new Cabinet that a divided parliament must approve. But perhaps most pressing is the impending showdown with the West. U.S. President Barack Obama has given the Iranian government a September deadline to come to the negotiating table on the nuclear issue.
Meanwhile, even though the government forces had the upper hand in the morning, the protests continued on Wednesday evening. Hours after the inaugural rites in parliament, more protests broke out at Vanak and Valiasr squares, although the crowds were quickly dispersed by security forces already stationed throughout central Tehran for much of the day. There are apparently plans for further demonstrations on Thursday evening, when the Basij force which is established on conservative Shi’ite tenets may be preoccupied with celebrating the birthday of the 12th “hidden” imam, a messianic figure of the Islamic sect. Says one would-be protester in Tehran: “This way, we will make them exhausted.”