Iran's Hard-Liners: How to Fight Spontaneous Combustion

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Iranian protesters, with their faces covered, shout during fierce clashes in central Tehran on Dec. 27, 2009

On New Year's Eve, days after the some of the bloodiest confrontations to hit the streets of Tehran since June's disputed election, security forces were still stationed in large numbers at major intersections and squares. Alongside regular uniformed officers stood civilian members of Iran's Basij paramilitary front, many of them teenagers with flossy beards and uncertain looks, lacking shoulder pads and body armor. Their borrowed batons and riot helmets looked incongruously large compared with their skinny frames. Meanwhile, the ranks of the opposition bristled with reports that they now plan to field armored antiriot vehicles purchased from China in their fight against street protesters.

However, there had been no riot police or civilian militia to deter one large gathering. On Wednesday, Dec. 30, in Tehran's Revolution Square, firebrand pro-government cleric Ahmad Alamolhoda stood before a large pro-government rally and tried to pump it up with language little short of an incitement to civil war. "Enemies of the leader, according to the Koran, belong to the party of Satan," Alamolhoda declared. "Our war in the world is war against the opponents of the rule of the Supreme Leader."

The makeup of the crowd in Tehran belied the popularity of Alamolhoda's message. The previous day, hundreds of buses had ferried families into the capital from outlying areas. Canceled school exams and days off from government offices ensured that some tens of thousands were at Revolution Square to receive free food and drink and to carry banners and shout slogans prepared for them by government officials, such as "Death to [Mir-Hossein] Mousavi" [the central figure of the opposition movement] and "Rioter Hypocrites Must Be Executed." There were no pro-government rallies in the large cities of Mashad and Isfahan.

The marchers on Ashura the previous Sunday seemed to materialize spontaneously in Tehran and elsewhere in the country, much to the government's chagrin. They did not receive nourishment from the government, just blows — or worse. At least eight people were killed as a result of the confrontations on that day. Some oppositionists say the police opened fire on protesters — though the government denies that its forces were armed. Grainy video footage on YouTube and elsewhere apparently shows protesters crushed under the wheels of police vehicles. Other deaths were reportedly caused by falls from bridges or as a result of clashes with men who had been goaded into violence amid the frenzied chest-beating of Shi'ite mourning ceremonies.

Even as the government was rallying support for itself on Wednesday, the funeral of Ali Mousavi, the nephew of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, took place under the watchful and wary eye of state security. He had died in a hospital shortly after reportedly being shot in the chest during Sunday's riots. An account of the funeral, said to have been written by a member of Iran's security forces with sympathies toward the opposition, is currently circulating. It describes a bleak ceremony, held just after dawn, with men and women from the Revolutionary Guards dressed in black mingling with family members. The undercover agents hissed the mourners to quiet down when the cries and wails grew too loud.

On his website, Mir-Hossein Mousavi makes no reference to his martyred nephew, nor does he offer strategies or issue any call to specific action. Instead, he accepts explicitly what many on the ground have been saying for months. "For the Ashura ceremony, despite numerous calls to do so, neither Mehdi Karroubi, Mohammad Khatami [the two other main leaders of the opposition] nor I or my associates issued statements," he wrote. "Once more, the god-seeking people showed themselves to be a broad social and civil network which ... has taken shape spontaneously and does not wait for statements or announcements."

"Water which has joined the stream cannot turn back," Mousavi wrote, apparently assuming a role that is less commander and more interpreter and spokesman for a movement that the government cannot seem to stem in spite of months of repressive action. "To execute, kill or imprison Karroubi and Mousavi will not solve the problem," Mousavi wrote. As for dangers to himself — "My blood is no different than that of other martyrs."