Borrowing a page from Stalin's Russia, Iran's increasingly wobbly regime has embarked on a contemptible spectacle of show trials as a means of punishing opponents who dared question the disputed June 12 elections. The idea is not only to humiliate the more than 100 figures — including prominent former politicians and high-ranking government officials — who were herded into court Saturday on trumped-up accusations of threatening national security, a charge that potentially carries the death sentence. It is also to send a chilling message to others who would challenge the regime's already shaky authority. As the chief prosecutor warned, anyone who questions the legitimacy of the trials may be arrested.
Like the Moscow show trials of the 1930s, the mullahs' sham display of "justice" in Tehran over the weekend featured disoriented-looking defendants using stilted language to "confess" to seeking to destabilize the regime at the behest of Western powers. As in the Moscow show trials, incredulous colleagues, relatives and allies of the accused have watched, stunned, as people they know well have made public pronouncements in words that are clearly not their own. And as in the Moscow show trials, no one is immune: Among those accused in the rambling, manifesto-like indictment is Mohammad-Ali Abtahi, a reformist former vice president; Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian Nobel laureate; and Maziar Bahari, a Newsweek journalist who, brought out to speak to reporters covering the trial, asked forgiveness from the Iranian people for what he described as the media's supposed role in promoting a "velvet revolution."
The "confessions," almost certainly produced under duress, are meant to frighten the community of Iranian reformers, up to and including top-ranking figures such as former Presidents Mohammad Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, as well as Mir Hossein Mousavi, the opposition candidate whose official defeat at the polls in June triggered street protests that left at least 20 dead.
Having miscalculated the mood of at least a segment of the public by prematurely pronouncing seemingly lopsided electoral results in June, the regime now may compound its error by moving directly against those opposition leaders. The fundamentalist media loyal to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is calling for their prosecution on charges of treason; a defiant Khatami, for his part, is publicly condemning the trials as a "show."
The trials have reinforced the image of a regime whose extremely modest tolerance for public dissent has shriveled as its own grip on power has weakened. Opposition protests continue in the streets of Tehran despite a crackdown by hard-line militias loyal to the regime. Public spats are reported between Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president who was sworn in Monday. These are dangerous days in Tehran, which only underscores the dilemma the Obama administration faces as it clings to a strategy of engaging Iran to contain its nuclear ambitions: Who is there to talk to?