The Iranian regime and the opposition increasingly seem locked in a test of wills to find the other’s breaking point.
Stung by the green movement's success in transforming the funeral of dissident Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri into a massive anti-government demonstration Monday, the regime cracked down violently in several cities and warned opposition leaders to call off a mass protest planned for Sunday.
Protesters at Montazeri’s funeral in Qom used a telling new slogan to highlight that their struggle has gone way beyond its initial demand that the supreme leader recognize the election of Mir Hossein Mousavi and unseat the “coup government” of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“Mousavi is just an excuse,” they chanted. “The regime is the target!”
That point was not wasted on regime officials, who promptly warned the opposition that it had overstepped the bounds of acceptable dissent.
"Today, it has been proven to the people that they are moving in violation of the law," said police chief Brig. Gen. Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam. "We once again urge them to stop their actions, or else severe action will be taken against them under the law.”
Moghaddam’s warning was aimed at the organizers of the demonstration planned for Sunday to coincide with Ashura, the holiest day in the Shiite Muslim calendar.
The crackdown started on Tuesday, after thousands of residents of the central Iranian city of Sirjan swarmed into the city center and prevented the public execution of two detainees. Determined to go ahead with the hangings, the authorities opened fire on the crowd later that day, killing three and wounding 20, according to reports from opposition sources.
On Wednesday, the security forces attacked dissidents simultaneously on several fronts.
In Isfahan, police beat mourners trying to enter a mosque to commemorate Montazeri's death. In Qom, the religious "capital" of Iran whose many seminaries have become hotbeds of anti-regime activity, hired thugs believed to be working for the Revolutionary Guards broke windows in the compound of Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei, widely seen as a supporter of the green movement.
In Tehran, Ahmadinejad abruptly fired his rival, Mousavi, from his job as head of the Arts Academy, a post he has held for 10 years. The capital is awash with rumors that Mousavi could be arrested in the coming days along with other opposition leaders and put on trial, The Associated Press reported.
“I am worried that violent repression will deter the demonstrators,” Israeli media official Menashe Amir told Newsmax in Jerusalem this week.
“They brought millions of people to the streets when they had guarantees of no violence from the regime, but only tens of thousands once the killing began,” said Amir, director of Radio Israel’s respected Persian language service.
Although cracks have begun to appear within the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), the main faction appears to be fiercely loyal to Ahmadinejad, who has showered them with rewards since taking power in 2005. Today, companies that Revolutionary Guards generals own or are under IRGC control run 80 percent of the Iranian economy.
“These people have no values, either religious or moral," Amir said. "According to their ideology, the real life comes after this one, so mass casualties for them don’t count. The real question is what will the army do in the event of an IRGC bloodbath?”
Last week, a group of senior Air Force pilots and general staff officers from the artillery corps in Isfahan gave some hint of their intentions in an open letter warning the IRGC and the supreme leader against violence.
“The army is with the people,” they declared. The letter castigated “a few corrupt members” of the IRGC who had turned against the people, while saluting “our brothers of the Revolutionary Guards” who fought side by side with the regular army against Iraq during the 1980-1988 Gulf War.
“If the IRGC fires on protesters on Ashura, the army could get involved,” a retired Israeli intelligence officer with deep knowledge of Iran told Newsmax this week. “The internal situation in Iran is boiling water. No one can foresee what will happen.”
Although a forceful crackdown against protest might look impressive to outside observers and could slow the momentum of the green movement, the fragile coalition that has ruled Iran for 30 years has been smashed.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei "can no longer satisfy everybody at the same time, because he took sides for Ahmadinejad in the elections,” the former intelligence officer said. “This showed his weakness. Now everyone knows that he needs Ahmadinejad to survive.”
Until now, the supreme leader has been able to balance the interests of different groups, playing one off against the others. But by taking sides with Ahmadinejad, he alienated his longstanding ally, former President Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and pushed the reformist camp into breaking openly with the regime, which many including Mousavi had hesitated from doing before.
“We are united around one goal: The coup government must be overthrown,” said Mohsen Sazegara, one of the founders of the Revolutionary Guards who has defied the regime since 1989. “Khamenei is supporting the coup government, so this means he should be overthrown, too. That’s his fault, not ours.”
Sunday’s demonstrations will be a key benchmark for the opposition. Should they succeed in bringing millions of people to the streets, it could be the tipping point that marks the beginning of the end of the regime.
But should the regime succeed in tamping down the protests without mass violence, it will prolong the regime’s lifespan, at least until the next big protest date comes along in February.
“In one sense, this is all going too fast,” an opposition strategist told Newsmax.
“On black Saturday, when they killed Neda Aghasultan and 82 others, the movement was just an infant. Now it’s a teenager. We need to grow it into a powerful 20- or 25-year-old man, a powerful woman. So we are not in a hurry. The army of the people needs to get better organized if it is going to succeed.”
For the regime leaders, those are dangerous words.
“No one expects them to go down without a fight,” a top Israeli Iran specialist told Newsmax this week. “Don’t think they are just going to walk away and hand over the keys to the opposition. It’s going to get bloody before this is over.”
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