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Backers of Iran rulers decry infighting

Urge compromise with protesters to quell unrest

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post / December 7, 2009

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TEHRAN - With authorities threatening a strong response to new antigovernment demonstrations planned for today, prominent supporters of Iran’s system of religious rule are urging leaders to soften their approach to protesters and end high-level infighting that they say is paralyzing the country.

Violent crackdowns by security forces are turning demonstrators who do not oppose the Islamic republic into extremists intent on bringing down the country’s leaders, according to members of Iran’s political establishment.

Saying they fear for the nation’s future, they are stepping up demands that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other top officials work out a compromise with their political opponents.

“When you attack moderates, you breed radicals,’’ said Amir Mohebbian, a former politician who shares Ahmadinejad’s ideology but is critical of his policies. “Our leaders should say to the core of the protesters: ‘We are not against you.’ Otherwise our system might be in danger.’’

Opposition supporters have called for antigovernment demonstrations to mark Iran’s annual Students Day, which commemorates the 1953 killing of three university students by security forces of the then-monarchy. Authorities have warned that no such protests will be tolerated.

Iranian officials have slowed Internet connections to a crawl or choked them off completely before the expected student protests to deny the opposition a vital means of communication, the Associated Press reported. They also warned journalists working for foreign media to stick to their offices for the next three days.

Iran’s top leadership has been deeply divided since Ahmadinejad’s disputed June 12 election victory, which led to street protests and the arrest of about 100 leading opponents.

Leaders not only differ on whether to crack down or attempt to engage the opposition, but they also disagree strongly on foreign policy. Iran recently failed to provide a unified answer to a nuclear trust-building deal backed by the UN atomic watchdog agency - a deal Ahmadinejad defended but that other power players turned down.

“The gaps are being deepened because some of our elite are not careful,’’ said Saeed Aboutaleb, a former member of Parliament who once supported Ahmadinejad but now opposes him. “This problem won’t be solved as time passes; rather it will be increased,’’ he wrote last month in Iran’s Ettemaad newspaper.

During a live televised debate in May among presidential candidates, Ahmadinejad attacked Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president who heads two key supervisory councils, alleging that Rafsanjani’s family was corrupt.

Ahmadinejad and his supporters among Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders and hard-line clerics strongly disagree with Rafsanjani’s more pragmatic view of Islamic rule, which is shared by other politicians who played key roles in Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

The attack, part of a broad campaign aimed at discrediting Rafsanjani and his followers, brought simmering internal differences to the surface.

Now, members of the establishment say, unprecedented public fights among leading politicians are paralyzing the overall decision-making process, with virtually every important government decision generating an open spat.

The infighting even extended to a court case against opposition members who were arrested after Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection. Government supporters strongly defended a public trial in the case.

But when a new judiciary chief was appointed, the prosecutor was suddenly replaced, and many defendants were sentenced in closed courts, then freed on bail.