Ayatullah Khomeini Returns to Haunt Iranian Politics

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Masked Iranian students, supporters of opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, shout slogans while holding pictures of the Islamic revolution's father, Ayatullah Khomeini, during a rally in Tehran

As students in Tehran press the latest round of protests into a second week, the late Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini is emerging to play a role in Iran's unsettled politics. Soon after the demonstrations started, on Dec. 7, a video on state television showed an unidentifiable person tearing up a poster of Iran's revolutionary father figure. The Iranian media erupted with accusations. Conservative papers called for opposition leaders' heads, while reformist papers alleged that the video was manufactured by the regime to justify its attacks on protesters. Indeed, a website affiliated with opposition leader and former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi sent out a notice that opposition leaders may be arrested in the coming days in connection with the sacrilegious abuse of Khomeini's image.

Former President Mohammed Khatami, a supporter of the opposition Green Movement, bluntly said in a recent speech, "[Khomeini] should not be used as a scapegoat." The newspaper Abrar, part of the beleaguered reformist media, wondered aloud what punishment would have befallen a newspaper like itself if it had displayed an image of revolutionary desecration like the one being repeatedly shown on state television. (Additionally, a video of pictures of Khomeini, Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being set afire is circulating outside of Iran. Unlike the torn-poster video, however, the fire video has not been shown on Iranian television.) Even the Imam Khomeini Works Institute, situated in downtown Tehran and dedicated to preserving the writings and speeches of Khomeini, criticized state television for inappropriately airing the video. The institute is headed by none other than Khomeini's grandson Hassan, a quiet supporter of the Green Movement. An unconfirmed report out of Iran says that police have arrested one suspect in the poster-tearing incident.

While not all Iranians remember Khomeini fondly, and most of the youth barely remember him at all, the late Ayatullah seems to be inching closer to the center of the political crisis in Iran. This is likely because, as with most revolutionary leaders in history, what Khomeini symbolizes to the country and its political system has become more important than what he actually did.

For conservatives, Khomeini represents unfolding loyalty to the religious hierarchy and the main institutions of the state, even at the expense of public opinion. For reformists and even some young Iranians, Khomeini's promised benefits of Iran's 1979 Revolution can only come true if a genuine democratic government is allowed to emerge out of the current system. And then there is the Khomeini as seen by a third and growing segment of Iranians: those who are disillusioned with any notion of Islamic democracy — an "oxymoron" for some of the Tehran students who spoke to TIME. They expressed little anger at the video of Khomeini's image being torn, fake or not. They had no real feelings for him.

The battle over Khomeini's legacy, which slowly began in the Islamic Republic months after his death in 1989, is now front and center in Iran's turbulent political environment. And many in the opposition worry that the government may now use the poster-tearing incident to crack down harder.

For over a week, a heavy police presence has remained outside of the main campus of the University of Tehran, in the center of the Iranian capital. Intense green-clad opposition protests occurred at universities in most major Iranian cities on Students Day, Dec. 7. Yet unlike the demonstrations in previous months, which lasted no more than a day each, students have remained defiant at Tehran's oldest university. In addition to showing support for opposition leaders like Mousavi, who ran against Ahmadinejad in the disputed June election, students are demanding the resignation of University of Tehran President Farhad Rahbar because of allegations that he allowed paramilitary Basij forces into the dormitories one evening in June to attack students who were sleeping.

Classes have been frequently closed, and running battles — mostly nonviolent scrambles — have occurred on campus grounds. Even the famous July 1999 student protests, known in Iran by their initial date in the Persian calendar — the 18th of Tir — did not last this long.

In addition, the Islamic month of Muharram begins on Dec. 18 this year, kicking off 10 days of ceremonies in Shi'ite Islam that culminate on the holy day of Ashura, when the martyrdom of Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, is mourned. Public events occur in every city, town and village in Iran, and as with other religious holidays that have occurred since June, the opposition is likely to encourage supporters to come out and defy the regime. To prevent this, the conservatives who control the government may try to portray the protesters as desecraters of the legacy of Khomeini. The trouble is, many protesters say the same about the current rulers of Iran.