Iranian Reformists to Protest Swearing-in

This story was filed by CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer, one of the last Western journalists to be forced out of Iran during the post-election unrest.

(AP Photo/ISNA)
Iranians are bracing themselves for more street violence Wednesday.

The country's reform movement intends to demonstrate outside Parliament tomorrow to protest the swearing-in of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (left) for a second term as President. Reformers believe he stole victory in a rigged election on June 12, and has no right to take office.

The swearing-in follows a show trial of jailed reformists. Iran's state television broadcast live from a courtroom on Saturday, where about 100 prominent activists and liberal clergy sat in prison uniforms that looked, ridiculously, like pajamas. One by one, they stepped up to a podium to make "confessions" - blaming the post-election reformist uprising on sinister foreign enemies.

Haleh Esfandiari, the distinguished Director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Middle East Program, says this spectacle is proof that Iran's hardline leaders are in a trap of their own making.

"This show trial was a farce, [but] the regime has to try to convince its followers there was a reason it clamped down and beat up or arrested people," she said, referring to attacks on demonstrators by Iranian police and militias.

No one knows exactly how many were injured, but the government has had to admit that at least 30 people were killed.

Esfandiari herself was arrested in 2007 after had she traveled to Iran to visit her 93-year-old mother. She spent three-and-a-half months in jail - much of the time in solitary confinement - and sat through countless hours of questioning. Her interrogators believed that Esfandiari's work encouraging academic and cultural ties between Iran and America threatened Iran's Islamic government.

"They'd convinced themselves that the United States had been trying to overthrow the regime for 30 years, and since it couldn't use military means, it would undermine the system through a 'velvet revolution' . . . by encouraging workshops, by supporting women's and workers' movements, and supporting students," Esfandiari said.

"No matter how much I tried to convince them that Iran was not a banana republic that could be overthrown by a bunch of scholars, I didn't make any headway."

The regime's paranoia is deeply rooted. Iran's leaders are now convinced the recent demonstrations that followed the June 12 election amount to the velvet revolution they dread.

"I think that's why they tortured some of the protestors with such viciousness," says Esfandiari, referring to pictures published online of badly beaten and disfigured demonstrators - both dead and alive. (Examples are posted at Salon, Hands Off the People of Iran, and International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran .)

"For the first time in three decades you saw the middle classes, the lower classes hand-in-hand coming out and wanting an open election.

"In fact, they didn't want to overthrow the regime. They just had a legitimate demand - just count all the votes and let us know what the result is."

In essence, it was a demand for transparency and accountability - both anathema to Iran's secretive and authoritarian government. It does amount to, if not a revolution, a direct and profound challenge to Iran's government.

The people who will gather in front of the Parliament in Tehran tomorrow are not being stage-managed by shadowy outside forces. This movement for reform comes from patriotic Iranians of all classes, many of them young, who simply want more freedom and more say in the future of their country.

Esfandiari is not optimistic that the regime will give in.

"Mr. Ahmadinejad will have to preside over a divided and unhappy country," she said. "I think probably they [the regime and security forces] will continue to intimidate people, and have show trials. This could go on for the duration of Ahmadinejad's presidency. Iran will be ruled by force."

Sad as that is, it's also proof that the broad-based movement for reform in Iran has not - and will not - go away.

  • Elizabeth Palmer

    Elizabeth Palmer has been a CBS News correspondent since August 2000. She has been based in London since late 2003, after having been based in Moscow (2000-03). Palmer reports primarily for the "CBS Evening News."