ISTANBUL, Turkey — Viewers of Iran's state broadcaster, IRIB, were surprised last week when Channel 3 departed from its usually staid programming of Islamically-appropriate serials, Quranic recitations and religious documentaries to feature a new current affairs talk show in which a conservative member of parliament unleashed raw criticism against the government.
And he shocked many by saying “the government must issue a protest permit to the Greens" (the term used to refer to Iran’s opposition).
Crossing the Islamic Republic’s invisible line that bans protesters from disobeying Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Iran’s ultimate authority, he added: “Even if someone does not accept the Supreme Leader’s words, we mustn’t say that this person is opposed to the system.”
This unprecedented criticism of the government on state television shows that the Ahmadinejad government is grappling to find an effective response to the continuing pressure from the opposition.
Iran’s state broadcaster has been wielded by the state as a political tool since the 1979 revolution installed the Islamic Republic in place of the Shah. Its directors are political appointees, all programming is strictly streamlined to government dictates and employees are obliged to undergo "gozinesh," a loyalty test featuring questions about Islamic trivia.
Then on Sunday regime-sanctioned criticism mounted. A parliamentary committee investigating abuses carried out in Kahrizak, a controversial detention facility south of the capital, delivered a report finding Tehran's former prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi directly responsible for the deaths of three prisoners and 150 others suffering from "limited space, inappropriate nutrition, unsanitary conditions, exposure to excessive heat, verbal and physical abuse," according to Iran’s ILNA news agency. The three deceased prisoners were first described as dying of “meningitis.”
The Supreme Leader himself appeared to backtrack in a Saturday speech where he called upon loyalist Bassiji militiamen not to interfere in policing demonstrations and ordered the judiciary to exercise “prudence and finesse” rather than “arbitrary” measures in quieting unrest.
"Hardliners have closed ranks, allowing certain criticisms to come out and act as a safety valve," said Shahram Kholdi, a lecturer of Middle East studies and Persian at the University of Manchester. "They've always had that kind of diversity and have managed to divide the Green Movement but without conquering it."
The change in tone comes two weeks after the bloodiest day of protests on the day of the Shiite mourning festival of Ashura. But opponents of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad argue that the opening is too little, too late.
“The system is employing carrot-and-stick tactics,” said a protesting student speaking on the phone from Tehran on condition of anonymity. “After the stick of Ashura and the threat to execute Greens, the government is now offering the carrot of slightly more open political debate on the television.”
Five individuals arrested during the recent unrest and accused of belonging to the anti-regime MKO organization are set to go on trial, as are 10 members of the Bahai religion. Charged with the crime of "mohareb," struggling against God, had their first court session today. They face a death sentence if found guilty.
Supporters of Moussavi point out that Khamenei has not addressed Mousavi’s five-step path out of this crisis, which called for responsible government, free and fair elections, freeing political prisoners and the press, and the right to establish political parties.
Opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi issued his own five points for reforming the system Monday that avoided calling for the resignation of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government but demanded that those involved in “abuses” be punished.
But opposition members claim the regime’s threats are running out of steam.
“There is no greater threat in this country than that made by Khamenei himself,” said the Tehran-based political analyst, “and that was used up on the first Friday prayer after the elections and disappeared in a puff of smoke.”
On the next day, June 20, defiant demonstrators again took to the streets. Security forces killed at least 11, including Neda Agha Soltan, whose videotaped death became iconic after being broadcast around the world.
More cracks are appearing in the regime. Last week, an Iranian diplomat resigned from his position in Norway, claiming political asylum for himself and his family. He may be just one of up to 27 defectors since the beginning of the post-election unrest, according to Ali Akbar Omidmehr, a former Iranian ambassador to India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Speaking to Voice of America's Persian service on Saturday, Omidmehr claimed that five diplomats and their families have resigned just in the past two weeks.
“More and more people are gearing towards a very slow and painful process,” said a reformist-minded Iranian journalist who escaped jail but has been unemployed since the June elections “We have to see what will happen on 22 Bahman (Feb. 11, the anniversary of the Revolution) but even that is not going to be the all-out event some pundits think.”
Editor's note: This article was updated to correct the date of 22 Bahman — it is Feb. 11, not Feb. 16.