Tehran's Trials: Blaming the West, Google and Twitter

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An Iranian British-embassy employee being tried for opposing the results of the Iranian presidential election

Iran's hard-line regime sharply escalated the postelection confrontation on Aug. 8 by putting two foreign embassy staffers and a French teacher on trial alongside dozens of political dissidents. The stepped-up campaign to characterize the widespread unrest since the June 12 presidential election as a foreign-led attempted "soft overthrow" appears to be an effort by the ruling faction to rally the increasingly splintered conservative base against a popular — and old — enemy: the West.

Following on the heels of an unprecedented mass trial of 100 opposition figures a week ago, Saturday's session at Tehran's Revolutionary Court focused on the British embassy's chief political analyst, Hossein Rassam; a local staff member of the French embassy, Nazak Afshar; and a 24-year-old French teacher, Clotilde Reisse, who was working and studying in Isfahan, according to IRNA, Iran's official news agency. In a vague and rambling indictment, the three were charged with espionage and "acting against the national security," and for inciting "riots." It went on to blame a litany of Western intelligence agencies, media organizations and software companies — including Israel's Mossad spy agency, Facebook, Twitter, the Voice of America, BBC Persia and even Google's new Persian-to-English translation software — for their roles in the supposedly vast conspiracy.

The trial will no doubt bring further condemnation from the international community. Indeed, the British embassy was stunned that Rassam had been put on trial: he had been released from the notorious Evin prison on July 19 on $100,000 bail. But the regime's judicial maneuvers aren't being staged for an overseas audience, even as it blames foreign powers for trying to topple the government; rather, Saturday's trial was part of an aggressive strategy to unite its power base, the coalition of conservative clerics in Qum and the Tehran-based commanders of the country's sprawling security apparatus. The masterminds behind the trial — believed to be either Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei or the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad Ali Jafari, or both — probably realize the proceedings will convince few supporters of the opposition or the average Tehrani. But the confessions may galvanize the still substantial bloc of conservative voters, many of whom are older and rely on state media for news.

In Tehran, a man in his late 50s said he had demonstrated in front of the British embassy in the aftermath of the election, writing nationalistic signs like "You are no longer a superpower. We are." He said he has no doubt that Western intelligence agencies played a significant role in fomenting postelection unrest, perhaps even in killing protesters. A 60-year-old veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, who lives in Qum, one of the most consistently conservative cities in Iran, wholeheartedly agreed with the regime's scripted story. "Our current problems are all because of foreign agents like the BBC ... This country is now under attack," he said.

However, it appears to be the opposition that continues to come under physical attack by the regime. According to reformist website Mosharekat, relatives and supporters of the dozens of defendants on trial gathered outside the courthouse and chanted Allahu akbar (God is great) until riot police moved in to disperse the crowd with tear gas. The other defendants, who all wore gray prison garb, include Ali Tajernia, a former opposition lawmaker; Shahaboddin Tabatabaei, a leader of the country's largest reformist party; and Ahmad Zeidabadi, a journalist who has written critically of the regime.

As in the previous trial, confessions were recited. Rassam, the British embassy's most senior Iranian employee, admitted to his involvement in the plot, according to IRNA, one of the few state news agencies permitted to attend the closed proceedings. He said the embassy had a budget of $500,000 to finance opposition groups and political activists and that he personally contacted the office of thwarted presidential candidate and now leading opposition figure Mir-Hossein Mousavi in the run-up to the election. He also admitted that a local staffer wore green, the color of Mousavi's campaign, to one of the demonstrations.

"The British embassy, due to its hostile policies in Iran and fear of exposure of its contacts inside Iran, employed local staff to establish such contacts," Rassam was quoted as saying. "I established such contacts based on orders from embassy officials." The admissions of gathering intelligence on the demonstrations and opposition movement, according to the prosecutors, amount to espionage.

Local diplomatic staffer Afshar, who works in the cultural mission of the French embassy, wept as she explained her role in the postelection unrest, "I physically attended gatherings ... Brothers at the Intelligence Ministry made me understand my mistake." Human-rights activists believe the confessions at these trials have been made under duress. In last week's trial, observers noted that former Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi appeared confused and seemed to have lost some 20 lb. during his monthlong incarceration.