A flood of security forces using tear gas and clubs quickly overwhelmed a small group of rock-throwing protesters near Iran's parliament Wednesday, and the country's supreme leader said the outcome of the disputed presidential election will stand — the latest signs of the government's growing confidence in quelling unrest on the streets.
As the election showdown has shifted, demonstrators are finding themselves increasingly scattered and struggling under a blanket crackdown that the wife of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi compared to martial law. In Wednesday's clashes, thousands of police crushed hundreds of Mousavi supporters.
The statement by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that the June 12 election of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would not be reversed was accompanied by a vow that the nation's rulers would never yield to demands from the streets.
Since last week's protests, the government has unleashed days of escalating force, including the full weight of the powerful Revolutionary Guard and its feared civilian militias on the opposition.
Social-networking sites carried claims of brutal tactics by police such as savage beatings with batons, but the report could not be independently confirmed.
In the battle for public opinion, the leaders also ramped up a familiar smear campaign: that the opposition was being aided by the United States and other perceived foes of Iran.
Dwindling street protests
What began as groundswell protest of alleged vote fraud increasingly appears to be splintering into random acts of rage and frustration against emboldened and well-armed security forces determined to hold their ground.
Many experts in Iranian affairs do not believe the dwindling street protests signal an end for the challenges to Khamenei and the regime. Many foresee lower-risk — but still potent — acts of dissent such as general strikes, blocking traffic with sit-ins, and the nightly cries of protest from rooftops and balconies.
"It will carry on until the regime changes: Weeks, months, years. You'd be a fool to predict," said Robert Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and head of Middle East Affairs in the Carter administration. "But the beast of the desire for something different is on the prowl."
Senior Israeli Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad told The Associated Press that he sees no "signs of Ahmadinejad's regime collapsing any time soon."
"The intelligence community worldwide were surprised by the protests," he said.
There are still signs of life in the protest movement. Small groups battled police Wednesday and there were calls on reformist Web sites for a gathering Thursday at the shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
But Mousavi has increasingly turned his back on mass street demonstrations, fearing the likelihood of more violence or deaths.
Outnumbered by police
Wednesday's unrest showed the lopsided odds. Groups of protesters — perhaps several hundred — tossed rocks and trash at riot police in running clashes outside parliament. The demonstrators fled as police used tear gas and fired in the air, possibly with live ammunition.
Throughout the day, black-clad security agents and police watched main streets and squares to prevent any major gatherings — a stark difference from last week when authorities generally stood aside and allowed a series of marches that brought more than 1 million people streaming through Tehran.
Mousavi's wife, Zahra Rahnavard — a former university dean who campaigned beside her husband — said on a Web site that the crackdown is "as if martial law has been imposed in the streets."
It also could be an indication of what's ahead — unless the protest movement can recapture its momentum.
Power of the Guard
The fallout may leave Khamenei and the ruling theocracy battered by once-unthinkable defiance of their leadership. But they still control the Revolutionary Guard and its vast network of volunteer militias that watch every corner of Iran.
The Guard — sworn to defend the Islamic system at all costs — has been steadily expanding its authority for years to include critical portfolios such as Iran's missile program, its oil pipelines and other energy infrastructure, and some oversight of the nuclear program.
Their stake in the Islamic system is deep and they appear now to have the green light to move against any perceived threats.
Their militia wing, known as the Basij, can operate like a neighbor-by-neighbor intelligence agency.
"The Revolutionary Guard may well emerge as the big winner of all this," said Patrick Clawson, deputy director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
State television aired a documentary Wednesday lauding the Revolutionary Guard and another show about the dangers of the Internet and claiming that "Iran's enemies" were using the Web to whip up dissent.
Dozens of activists, protesters and Iranian journalists — and at least one foreign reporter — have been detained since the election, human rights groups say. The overall death toll is not clear; state media said at least 17 people have been killed. Amateur video showed the death Saturday of a woman identified as Neda Agha Soltan, who has become a worldwide symbol of the bloodshed.
A 53-year-old Tehran woman described the intense security around Baharestan Square near parliament: "There was a lot of police, riot police and Basiji everywhere." The woman spoke by phone to the AP, asking for anonymity because of fears of reprisals from authorities.
The chief of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency, Meir Dagan, told a closed session of the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that he believes the demonstrations in Iran would die down and Ahmadinejad would stay in power.
He also said the Mossad expects Iran to have nuclear weapons by 2014. Meir's statements were recounted by a participant in the meeting, speaking on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed.
The United States and its allies worry that Iran's program could lead to nuclear weapons, but Iran insists it only seeks peaceful reactors to produce electricity.
President Barack Obama has offered to open talks with Iran's leaders to ease a nearly 30-year diplomatic estrangement. But he sharpened his rhetoric Tuesday, saying he was "appalled and outraged" by Tehran's heavy hand against protesters.
It's not clear how the unrest — Iran's worst internal turmoil since the Islamic Revolution — would influence possible talks with Washington. It's clear, however, that the leadership has no intention of abandoning Ahmadinejad.
An offer for Iranian envoys around the world to attend U.S. Embassy Fourth of July parties has been rescinded "given the events of the past many days," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. The invitation was part of a U.S. outreach to Iran, but so far no Iranian officials had accepted.
Khamenei said the government would not buckle to pressures over the election, closing the door to compromise over Mousavi's claim that the vote was rigged and he was the rightful winner.
"On the current situation, I was insisting and will insist on implementation of the law. That means, we will not go one step beyond the law," Khamenei said on state television. "For sure, neither the system nor the people will give in to pressures at any price." He used language that indicated he was referring to domestic pressures.
A conservative candidate in the disputed election, Mohsen Rezaie, said he was withdrawing his complaints about vote fraud for the sake of the country, state TV reported. Rezaie is a former commander of Revolutionary Guard and his decision suggests the Guard seeks to avoid possible rifts as Ahmadinejad begins his second, four-year term.
State TV reported that Ahmadinejad would be sworn in between July 26 and Aug. 19.
Khamenei also reinforced Iran's accusations that the United States, Britain and other foreign powers were encouraging the unrest — apparently part of a coordinated strategy to disgrace Mousavi and his followers.
State television showed detained demonstrators whose faces were blurred out. Some of them made "confessions," saying they had been incited by the British Broadcasting Corp. and Voice of America. They said demonstrators, not security forces, had used violence.
"We torched public property, threw stones, attacked cars and smashed windows," said one woman, who was not identified.
State-run Press TV also said police raided a building it identified as a Mousavi campaign office and allegedly used as a base to promote unrest. The report said the suspected plotters had been arrested and placed under investigation.