As the number of arrests in Iran following the security-force-inspired violence of Dec. 27 continues to rise, tactics of intimidation are being employed by the regime and the Islamic Republic is facing a crisis of legitimacy.
Latest reports in the Western media suggest that 1,000 activists were arrested in clashes in Tehran alone during the festival of Ashura, the most significant festival in the Shia calendar. This unprecedented roundup of protesters has been followed by pronouncements form the Iranian regime that the protests were simply the work of "foreign enemies." Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki is said to have threatened Britain with "a slap in the mouth" for alleged involvement in the activities.
Quite how "foreign enemies" have the capability to mobilize hundreds of thousands on the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities is not made clear by Mr. Mottaki. Nor is it made clear why the relatives of known oppositionists have now become targets for arrest and assassination by the regime. Following the killing by security forces of Ali Mousavi Khamane, nephew of reformist opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, on Jan. 3, a wave of arrests have followed.
The sister of Nobel Laureate, lawyer and peace activist Shirin Ebadi, was arrested in Tehran Jan. 4. Noushin Ebadi, a lecturer in medical science at Tehran Azad University, has no history of political activism. Her arrest is a clear attempt to put pressure upon Shirin Ebadi, currently in London, to end her opposition to the regime.
Similarly, the arrest of Shahpour Kazemi, the brother of Mir Hossein Mousavi's wife, Zehra Rahnavard, is clearly aimed at increasing the pressure upon Mousavi and his family following the murder of his nephew. Other recent arrests include those of Ibrahim Yazdi, the leader of the nationalist Iran's Freedom Movement, and the first foreign minister after the 1979 revolution; Mohammad Moein, son of former Higher Education Minister Mostafa Moein; and the brother and nephew of former Interior Minister Abdollah Nouri.
The international Committee for Human Rights in Iran has compared the regime's tactics to those "consistent with the tactics of criminal gangs."
These arrests, along with the retreat to blaming foreign intervention for opposition activities, highlight the lack of control over events exercised by the leaders of the Islamic Republic. The protests following the stolen election of June 12 have increasingly brought the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic itself into question, as opposition to the Ahmadinejad government becomes more generalized opposition to the clerical regime. It is interesting to note that the protesters have repeatedly called for a return to the ideals of the popular 1979 revolution for democracy and against the pro-U.S. Shah's regime.
While initially drawing its support from the intelligentsia, professional classes and the universities, the popular Green Movement in Iran is now drawing in wider sections of the population in Tehran and other major cities. Even amongst sections of the ruling elite, including clerics such as Hashemi Rafsanjani and former President Khatami, there is increasing recognition of the need for change in order to save the credibility of the Islamic Republic. Such breadth of opposition does not yet have a single point of unity around which to rally, but it is a range of opposition it would be foolish of the regime to ignore.
The coming weeks will certainly provide the regime with some significant tests. The 40th day after the death of Ayotollah Montazeri, traditionally an occasion for further mourning, falls at the end of January, closely followed by the anniversary of the 1979 revolution in February. Other significant events and anniversaries will follow including International Women's Day (March 8), International Worker's Day (May 1) and the anniversary of Ahmadinejad's "re-election" on June 12.
There can be little doubt that the commanding heights of economic and political power in Iran remain in the hands of the clerical elite with the backing of the armed forces and the Guards Corps. Whether that power can claim a popular democratic legitimacy, however, has been severely tested since June 12 and is likely to face further tests in the months ahead. It may be too soon to predict a second revolution In Iran, but the theocratic regime that came to power as a result of the 1979 revolution is certainly facing its most significant and lasting crisis to date.