Iran on the verge of a nervous breakdown

Iran has entered a new and dangerous period as opposition protests escalate and the Government reacts with a fierce crackdown. No-one can say what will happen next. As Richard Silverstein says in Al Jazeera, Iran could either be at the stage of Eastern Europe just before the Berlin Wall fell or just as likely, as China was before the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Silverstein says the death this month of Ayatollah Montazeri is equivalent to the death of Chinese reformer Hu Yaobang that unleashed the Tiananmen protests. While Yaobang’s death was unsuccessful, Silverstein sees hope in Iran’s fragmented and chaotic leadership. “I doubt there is a unified Iranian command that can overwhelm the opposition in much the same way the Chinese government did after the massacre,” he said.

The Iranian Government is cracking down hard on the second round of protests since the disputed 12 June re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over Mir Hossein Mousavi. Yesterday it issued an ominous warning that “trying to overthrow the system will reach nowhere … designers of the unrest will soon pay the cost of their insolence.” They are also facing down foreign critics. Foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, threatened Britain with “a slap in the mouth” for encouraging protests.

Meanwhile the Iranian regime has been on the receiving end of several slaps lately. The country had been relatively peaceful for months after the traumatic events that saw hundreds killed in post-election riots. But protests have been on the rise since 87-year-old Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali-Montazeri died. Montazeri was a former leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution who Khomeini was grooming to replace him as Supreme Leader. He fell out of favour in 1989 after he called for a more open political system. He was demoted when Khomeini died and later held under house arrest for four years. But he remained a thorn in the side of the theocracy up to his death on 19 December. Two days later thousands attended his funeral in Qom with reports of clashes between supporters and security forces for three days afterwards.

Protesters ignored the bans on further protests until the Government used the climax of Ashura, Shia’s holiest festival, to strike a decisive blow. Ashura commemorates the martyrdom of Muhammad’s grandson, Husayn ibn Ali, killed in battle by the sovereign Yazid. The symbolism of the day and the Iranian Government’s action has not been lost on protesters. Burnt-out cars, motorbikes and other debris littered the streets of Tehran. Hundreds were arrested and at least 15 people were killed by authorities.

One of those who died on Sunday was Mir Hussein Mousavi’s 43-year-old nephew Seyed Ali Mousavi. A 4WD vehicle smashed through a crowd near his home and five occupants got out. One approached Mousavi and shot him in his chest. The men then sped away. Mousavi died before reaching hospital. Government authorities removed his body from the hospital without explanation and without a family burial.

Dozens of key opposition figures were arrested during the crackdown. Among those detained were three of Mir Hussein Mousavi’s top aides, two advisers to the reformist former President Mohammad Khatami, and human rights campaigner Emadeddin Baghi. Also arrested was Opposition leader Ebrahim Yazdi. Yazdi was secretary general of the outlawed but tolerated Iran Freedom Movement and was foreign minister at the start of the Islamic revolution. A neighbour told his American-based son Youseph Yazdi he was arrested at home at 3am Monday. Also arrested was Nooshin Ebadi the sister of Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi. Ebadi said her sister, a professor of medicine, had not been involved in any social, human rights and political activities.

Ahmadinejad theatrically blamed the US and Israel for the troubles his own election created. “Americans and Zionists are the sole audience of a play they have commissioned and sold out,” he said. “A nauseating play is performed.” Iranian authorities have urged its own supporters to take to the streets in a show of force against the opposition it called “pawns of the enemies.” It has called for a counter-demonstration “against those who have not respected the values of Ashura”.

Writing in The Drum, Iranian expatriate journalist Arash Falasiri says the major difference between earlier protests and the current ones is the focus of anger has shifted from Ahmadinejad to the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He says while the main slogan in the first two weeks after the election was “Where is my vote”, it has now been changed to “Death to Khamenei”. But Khamenei could yet unleash death of his own before he is forced to stand aside. Iran successfully tested a medium-range missile earlier this month. Israel has announced it believes Iran will have nuclear capability by early 2010. Dangerous times lie ahead before the world can tell if it has another Berlin Wall on its hands or just blood.

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