Mood in Iran ominous after latest violence

Thu, Dec 31, 2009, 00:00

ANALYSIS:The fightback by the Iranian government and its supporters creates a deep sense of foreboding as to what might happen in the country

BLOODIED FACES on burning streets. Crowds fleeing tear gas and baton charges. Hands raised in defiant fists and V signs. Mass arrests, followed by thunderous denunciations of opposition leaders as mohareb, or enemies of God.

The reports from Tehran and other Iranian cities over the past week cannot but stir memories of the violent upheaval that followed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s bitterly disputed re-election in June. They also raise questions about where this, the most serious bout of unrest since the summer, may ultimately lead.

The most recent clashes come after many observers had all but completed the obituary for what had become known as the Green Movement in reference to the campaign colours of Ahmadinejad’s main challenger, the greying former prime minister Mir Hussein Mousavi. The brutal response of the Iranian authorities to what were initially peaceful mass demonstrations against an election which Mousavi’s supporters believe was stolen appeared to snatch the wind from the opposition’s sails, and protests largely sputtered out as the summer drew to a close.

Those who sought to write off the movement argued that it was too disparate and confused in its goals to keep momentum. Some, like Mousavi, once a protege of Ayatollah Khomeini, clamoured for reform within the parameters of the Islamic Republic, while others would stop at nothing but its collapse. Many wondered whether this largely grassroots campaign, with Mousavi and fellow reformist candidate Mehdi Karroubi only nominal leaders, had the will and vision to sustain itself. The fact that a large number of the demonstrations had taken place in affluent north Tehran was enough for some to dismiss the June disturbances as merely the pangs of a small westernised elite.

Nevertheless, the opposition found ways of circumventing the ban on protests to continue its challenge to a regime that has killed dozens, arrested hundreds, and jailed scores of dissidents in the six months since Ahmadinejad declared victory.

Because the authorities cannot prevent people gathering for official political and religious events, activists have hijacked such occasions with anti-regime slogans and displays. As a result, some of the most potently symbolic dates in Iran, including Qods Day – a government-backed day of protest supporting the Palestinians – and the November anniversary of the US embassy siege in 1979, have served as further evidence of how far Iran’s fissures widened this year.

Other Iranians have chosen more subtle means of defiance. Thousands of banknotes have been defaced with opposition insignia, walls have been daubed with anti-government graffiti, and the nightly rooftop chanting of Allahu Akbar [God is most great], a ritual that harkens back to the days leading up to the Shah’s ousting three decades ago, continues.

But the street protests and pockets of civil disobedience are not the only signs of Iran’s current turmoil. Talk of divided loyalties and deep unease abounds behind the scenes within the country’s opaque political, security, and clerical spheres.

One of the most chilling video clips to emerge from Iran in the last week shows masked vigilantes storming Jamaran, the Tehran mosque complex from which Ayatollah Khomeini ruled revolutionary Iran before his death in 1989, on Saturday, as Mohammad Khatami, the mild-mannered reformist former president, attempted to address a gathering. On June 12th I had stood inside this hall, watching Khatami and other Iranian luminaries cast votes in the ill-fated election. The fact that Jamaran, revered due to its place in the annals of the Islamic Republic and usually well guarded, could be breached by thugs is an ominous sign indeed.

The day after Khatami was forced to abandon his speech amid the sound of breaking glass and frenzied yelling, Iran witnessed the deadliest street violence since the summer. More than eight people were killed, including Mousavi’s nephew, and many others arrested. Serious disturbances had been expected that day. The death a week beforehand of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the dissident cleric who had become something of a spiritual guide for the opposition, meant the religiously significant seventh day of mourning for him took place on Ashura, the most emotionally charged occasion in the Shia calendar. Ashura commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the prophet Muhammad’s grandson, who was killed by the caliph Yazid.

The bloodshed on this year’s Ashura will only serve to reinforce the parallels which opposition supporters had already drawn between their narrative and Shia traditions which tell of how Imam Hussein, denied his rightful position as caliph, challenged the tyrannical rule of Yazid. Acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, now based in Paris, argues that, with the Ashura deaths, the Iranian regime has crossed a perilous line. “No religious person would accept the killing of Muslims on this day,” he said this week. “Now with the killing of [Mousavi’s] nephew, [Mousavi] is Imam Hussein and [Iran’s Supreme Leader] Khamenei is Yazid in the minds of many people.”

It all adds up to a deep sense of foreboding as Khamenei plots his next move to further shore up the legitimacy of his own rule as Supreme Leader, and the regime itself. Contacts in Tehran and other Iranian cities – whether opposition supporters or critics of the movement’s aims and methods – tell me of their fear over what might unfold next.

One friend described her family’s desperation after a relative was swept up in last weekend’s arrests, despite having no connection with the protests. Nothing has been heard of him since. Another contact, related to a high-profile reformist figure detained earlier this week, told me his family has urged him to abandon plans to return to Iran for the time being.

Earlier this month, before the violence of Ashura, Mousavi issued a statement saying the regime was fighting “shadows in the streets” while “its strongholds are constantly falling” in people’s minds.

The events of the past week have poisoned the atmosphere to a far more dangerous degree. It may herald a more violent and unpredictable phase of the existential crisis that has convulsed the Islamic Republic during this, the 30th anniversary of the revolution that brought it into being.

Many expect the traditional cyclical mourning periods for those killed this week to result in fresh waves of protests and unrest far into 2010. The coming year may well prove to be the Islamic Republic’s greatest test yet.


Mary Fitzgerald is Foreign Affairs Correspondent