As Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is anointed, his victims pay the price of dissent
With a kiss on the shoulder for the supreme leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sealed his second term as Iran's President.
At a formal ceremony in Tehran yesterday, he received the official blessing of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, thus clearing the way for his inauguration tomorrow.
But if the endorsement ceremony, broadcast on Iranian state television, was meant to be a show of political unity after weeks of political turmoil, it did more to highlight the power struggle still raging within the senior ranks of the Iranian hierarchy. It was boycotted by two former presidents, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami, as well as the two defeated presidential candidates, Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.
Nor was the symbolic kiss, planted hastily on the shoulder of the Ayatollah's clerical robe, the warm embrace that Mr Ahmadinejad was allowed to deliver to the Supreme Leader's cheek and hand after being elected for the first time four years ago. There was even a moment of confusion when Mr Khamenei looked as if he wanted only to shake the incoming President's hand, but an awkwardly grinning Mr Ahmadinejad instead leaned in for a kiss. The relationship between the two men has often been strained, most recently by infighting over Mr Ahmadinejad's choices for his incoming cabinet.
Rumbling in the background also, is a sense of mounting public revulsion at another televised event: the extraordinary start at the weekend of a mass trial of 100 people, many of them prominent figures in the reformist camp, on charges of fomenting a "velvet revolution".
As Mr Ahmadinejad was bowing his head before Ayatollah Khamenei, the wife of Mohammed Abtahi, another leading cleric, claimed that her husband was drugged or tortured by the regime into confessing to organising anti-regime protests.
Mr Abtahi, a former vice-president sometimes referred to as "the cool blogger" for his genial manner and his writings about reform and democratisation in Iran, was the first Iranian official to start blogging. He was jailed shortly after the 12 June election and denied access to lawyers or his family for weeks. When he appeared on TV screens on Saturday, minus clerical turban and robes, his gaunt, almost haunted look horrified many people who immediately concluded that his change of heart had been beaten or coerced out of him.
"I personally believe what he has gone through has made him speak the way he has," his wife, Fahimen Mousavinejad, told the Associated Press. She saw her husband in prison two days before the trial began and said she was "in no doubt" that he had been drugged because he appeared so disoriented.
On the last entry of his blog (webneveshteha.com) Mr Abtahi had described his pain and shock at the news of the Ahmadinejad victory and dismissed the result as a "a huge swindling".
But during Saturday's show trial, he confessed to having colluded with other reformists to whip up public unrest. He also accused Mr Rafsanjani of using Mr Mousavi's candidacy to avenge his defeat by Mr Ahmadinejad in the 2005 election. He told the court: "In prison, I changed, I had time to think. It was like a family, we all reached a new understanding."
The cleric served as a senior official in Mr Khatami's administration from 2001 to 2004 but even after many reformists of this period fell out of favour with Iran's youth for the snail's pace at which they delivered change, he continued to use his blog to urge the authorities to open the doors of communication and reach out to an increasingly secular youth.
Mr Abtahi also broke a big political taboo by using his blog to reveal the cases of Iranian journalists and bloggers who had been beaten and brutalised in prison.
Ayatollah Khamenei yesterday called the election "a golden page" in Iran's history. But his endorsement of Mr Ahmadinejad has tainted his legitimacy in the eyes of many Iranians. Analysts predict he may yet have to sacrifice the former traffic management expert if the backlash from within the regime's hardline ranks against him intensifies.