April 5, 2007 -- WAS the crisis over the cap ture of the British host ages part of a smoke screen for a crackdown on dissidents in Iran?
The question is posed in Tehran as the establishment debates the future of the regime's foreign and domestic policies.
The crackdown is beginning to gather pace. Several publications critical of government have been shut down, and numerous officials regarded as "not revolutionary enough" elbowed out, especially in the provinces. And now the regime seems to be setting the stage for show trials that recall the worst days of Stalinism in the Soviet Union.
Last month, a member of the Majlis, the regime's ersatz parliament, was sent to prison for six years on trumped-up charges. The real "crime" of Salaheddin Ala'i: He had criticized the killing of dissidents in Iran's Kurdistan province.
Next week, it will be the turn of former Deputy Interior Minister Mostafa Tajzadeh, who'll stand trial on charges of undermining the security of the Khomeinist state.
Tajzadeh is one of the establishment's most interesting figures. A man with impeccable revolutionary credentials, he has always insisted that the regime cannot ensure its future by silencing or murdering critics.
The next on the block is expected to be Muhammad Reza Khatami - a brother of former President Muhammad Khatami - who also has an impressive revolutionary resume.
In 1979, he was one of the two dozen or so "students" who raided the United States' Embassy in Tehran and seized its diplomats hostage. Later, he built a career in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and solidified his revolutionary credentials by marrying a granddaughter of Ruhallah Khomeini, the ayatollah who created the Islamic Republic. During his brother's presidency, Muhammad Reza acted as deputy speaker of the Majlis.
Yet, he too, is targeted by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's new radical administration - charged with "activities that undermine the Islamic system."
Ahmadinejad believes that people like these three represent dangers for the system - if only because they insist that the authorities should obey the laws set by their own regime. In his view, a revolutionary regime, because it stands outside the normal framework of history, simply cannot be bound by any law.
According to dissident sources in Tehran, the regime's security apparatus is preparing show trials for scores of others. The chief targets: thousands of middle-class elements who joined the Khomeinist revolution because of a misunderstanding. Ahmadinejad calls them "the half-pregnant ones" - people who dream of being revolutionaries but also crave for a comfortable, Western-style bourgeois life.
Ahmadinejad's supporters speak of a "third revolution" - which, in practice, would amount to a purge of dissidents within the establishment.
Many actual or would-be dissidents have already left Iran for what they hope will be temporary exile in Europe or America. They include a dozen former Cabinet ministers and hundreds of lesser functionaries and apologists. If the looming crackdown gathers pace, thousands more may join them.
To prepare the ground for his "third revolution," Ahmadinejad has worked on three schemes.
* First, he has radicalized political discourse.
Under his two predecessors, Presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami, the regime had gradually changed its vocabulary by abandoning the revolutionary terminology and borrowing terms of ordinary politics.
Those two mullah-presidents spoke of economic development, civil society and a dialogue of civilizations. They also allowed some space for non-revolutionary (though not overtly counter-revolutionary) expression in such fields as art, cinema and literature.
Yes, both also banned hundreds of newspapers and magazines, and imprisoned scores of critics. They also organized the murder of numerous real or imagined opponents inside and outside Iran. But they targeted the regime's own children.
They divided Iranians into two categories: khodi (our own) and biganeh (outsider).
Rafsanjani and Khatami allowed khodi some latitude to criticize the regime - and also used these critics as safety valves to reduce tension in society.
The biganeh, however, were allowed no space for expression. Their writings were blacklisted by the Ministry of Islamic Guidance, and their names banned from the media or used only in vilification campaigns. When perceived as too much of a threat, they were murdered, their corpses thrown in the streets - as was the case under President Khatami.
The radicalization of discourse under Ahmadinejad makes it hard for the "half-pregnant" to speak with forked tongues.
Khatami was able to tour the world, speaking of a dialogue of civilizations while allowing no dialogue inside Iran. Ahmadinejad recognizes the fact that a revolution is, primarily, a monologue - or even a soliloquy, addressed to itself.
* Second, Ahmadinejad aims to link any criticism of the system with foreign powers.
In the decisions to close newspapers or put "khodi" figures on trial, the authorities drop hints about illicit relations with "foreign enemies of Islam." This amounts to a return to classical revolutionary lore in which anyone who criticizes the regime must be an agent of a foreign enemy.
* Ahmadinejad's third and perhaps most important scheme is to revive the regime's pretension of sacredness. He claims to receive periodic instructions from the Hidden Imam - a Mahdi-figure who, according to Shiite lore, went into hiding in 940 A.D. and will someday return to preside over the end of the world. He has thus restored the concept of the Hidden Imam to a central position within the Khomeinist doctrine.
The concept was pure fiction from the start, and most leaders of the Islamic Republic realized that retaining it posed insurmountable theo-political problems. This is why the Hidden Imam was given a back seat under Rafsanjani and Khatami, although both are Shiite clerics.
By restoring the Hidden Imam, Ahmadinejad makes it impossible for anyone to claim that Shiism, let alone Islam, admits of a range of interpretations. In this version of the Khomeinist doctrine, Islam is equated with Shiism, Shiism with the Hidden Imam - and the Hidden Imam with the Khomeinist regime.
THE "half pregnant" had hoped that "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenehi might, would, at some point, restrain Ahmadinejad. Earlier this month, however, Khamenehi, in his Iranian New Year message, paid glowing tribute to Ahmadinejad, and endorsed his strategy.
The "half-pregnant" are now forced to choose between becoming full-blown revolutionaries - or joining the counter-revolution.
Iranian-born journalist Amir Taheri is based in Europe.