Fierce clashes between opposition protestors and Iranian security forces on the occasion of Ashura—the Shiite sacred day commemorating the seventh-century martyrdom of Imam Hussein, has accentuated the domestic political instability in the Islamic Republic. It appears that despite the absence of the right to protest, the dissidents chose the day of Ashura to take to the streets against the authorities. The challenge to the authorities of the 30-year old Islamic Republic has hardly ever been greater in the almost daily protests seen on the streets of Tehran now. In fact, the recent clashes were the most violent since the aftermath of the disputed presidential election in June 2009.
The December 27, 2009, clash left at least eight people dead including one nephew of the election runner-up and opposition leader, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, though, the exact number of deaths in the violence remains unclear. Hundreds of opposition figures have been arrested including the sister of Shirin Ebadi, who won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize. Iranian security forces also limited the movements of the other prominent opposition leader Mahdi Karroubi by declining to guard him if he leaves his home.
Protesters were chanting, “This is the month of blood,” and calling for the downfall of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. However, tens of thousands of Iranians also protested on Enghelab Street to voice support for Khamenei, chanting “Death to opponents.” It is getting clear that the recent clashes would only help intensify hostility between the hardline government and the pro-reform movement that has shown resilience in the face of frequent crackdowns.
To make matter worse for the authorities, the traditional seventh-day of bereavement for Ayatollah Montazeri coincided with the Ashura ceremonies. Montazeri had passed away on December 20, 2009. In 1985 Iran’s Assembly of Experts had selected Montazeri to succeed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. However, in 1989 it was determined that he should no longer be Imam Khomeini’s successor due to his views on political events at that time. More recently he had called President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election a fraud and stated that Iran’s leaders were in danger of losing their legitimacy. His views had received wide support from several opposition supporters.
The Iranian government blamed the US and other Western powers for triggering the recent clashes. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pointed out that the recent protests are also “a play ordered by Zionists and Americans” and condemned the US and Britain for allegedly supporting the opposition protesters. He also added that “the Iranian nation has witnessed this kind of play several times.” Britain, France, Germany and the US have strongly condemned Iran’s brutal reaction to the protests. On December 28 2009, President Barack Obama noted that “the courage and the conviction of the Iranian people” while condemning Iran’s government for attacking demonstrators with “the iron fist of brutality.” The recent harsh criticism of the US and Britain and counter condemnation by the Iranian leaders would further intensify tensions between Iran and the West. Recent tensions will also encourage the West to impose harsher economic sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.
A triumvirate of the supreme leader, Ahmadinejad and the powerful Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (the protectors of the Islamic Revolution and only answerable to the Supreme Leader) is arrayed against a broad pro-reformist movement, helped by a small group of powerful clerics. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad have become more reliant on Iran’s military, and allegations that Iran is imitating the violent crackdown of the Shah’s regime will begin to stick. Despite the absence of a united opposition—the protestors have been subdued. Yet the authorities’ assessment that the clashes would completely peter has proven incorrect.
The domestic political instability has begun at a time when Iran is facing the prospect of further international isolation and tougher economic sanctions if it fails to clinch a deal with world powers on its nuclear enrichment programme. Due to the ongoing internal disturbance, Ahmadinejad could accept the deal, which may also surprise the opposition. However, it is not easy for him to make such a decision.
Although Iran’s regime is under no immediate danger of being toppled, it however faces a growing number of internal and external threats which will necessitate prudent redressing.