Ever since Grand Ayatollah Ali Montazeri’s sudden death last Sunday, events in Iran have been unfolding at a dramatic pace, and with Ashura now only a day away, the regime’s fate has never been more uncertain. In fact, Montazeri’s death may end up being the seminal event that takes the Green Path of Hope from being a social movement into becoming a full-fledged and national uprising.
The regime’s handling of the late dissident cleric’s death has had two discernable effects. First, it has only expanded public sympathy for the Green cause, and particularly to a more pious demographic. The shocking disrespect Khamenei showed in his message of "condolence" by saying he would ask God to forgive Montazeri for failing his “momentous test” -- a reference to the falling out the Montazeri had with Khomeini and his eventual renouncement of the Islamic Republic -- has enraged many Iranians. Khamenei, it should be noted, was not even an Ayatollah when he was anointed Supreme Leader after Khomeini’s death. Montazeri, on the other hand, stood alone with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani as the most senior religious authority in the Shia faith. Khamenei's recent delusions of self-grandeur have only made many religious Iranians become cognizant of a truth that Montazeri stated long ago: the Islamic Republic acts anything but Islamic.
The Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) has reportedly recognized just how ill-advised the regime’s provocation of those mourning Montazeri’s death may come to be. In a letter to the Interior Minister, the council blasts the attack on Ayatollah Taheri’s mourning ceremony in Isfahan, citing the enormous outrage it created after word leaked out and first reached Qom and then to the rest of the country. For a supposed theocracy to be targetting the clerical class is indeed telling of just how desperate (and paranoid) the regime has become.
Which is precisely why the most striking thing about the latest pro-regime protests was not the calls for Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s arrest, but rather, the chants of “Death to Sanei” that were heard. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sanei, a supporter of the Green movement and heir-apparent to Montazeri’s role as the most senior dissident cleric inside Iran, is one of a few living marjas and his views carry considerable weight. And should Ayatollah Ali Sistani break from his “quietest” tradition of Shia Islam and issue a fatwa against the regime, what little legitimacy Khamenei and the Islamic Republic still retain would instantly vanish. Though Sistani’s plans to take such unprecedented action is only being rumored at this point, it is worth noting that Ayatollah Montazeri issued just such a decree a few months before his passing.
Montazeri’s death has also taken the protests out of Tehran and into Iran’s heartland. There are unconfirmed reports that thousands upon thousands of people have effectively overtaken the city Najafabad, Montazeri’s hometown, and are nearing revolt. Qahderijan, another city in the province of Isfahan, has also reportedly seen a retreat of regime forces after a number of intense clashes with demonstrators. And in Mashhad, Grand Ayatollah Sanei is scheduled to hold a mourning ceremony for Montazeri today. This means that Sanei has left Qom after the regime closed his auditorium and barred him from holding any ceremonies on Ashura. His appearance and sermons in Iran’s second largest city is sure to only fan the flames of the very fire that the regime is trying so desperately to extinguish.
In fact, the number of cities that are planning demonstrations on Ashura is approaching two dozen. What this inevitably means is that the regime's problem of how to allocate the deployment of security forces in Tehran will soon take on macro dimensions. Just as reinforcement Revolutionary Guard agents and Basijis were bussed in to restrict the massive 16 Azar demonstrations (and those that came before it), the regime is now being forced to redeploy portions of its security apparatus to Isfahan. And yet with Ashura (not to mention the highly significant seventh day after Montazeri’s passing) only 24 hours away, the regime has never had a greater need for that muscle to remain in the capital.
At the same time, if security forces leave Isfahan in order to stand down protesters in Tehran on Sunday, that would leave Iran's heartland vulnerable just as protests there are becoming more and more blistering. Alternatively, if the government is to try to contain the fallout it has unleashed in Iran's interior since Montazeri’s passing, it will be leaving Tehran exposed on what is shaping up to be the most massive day of demonstrations the country will have seen since June. There are simply too many cracks for the regime to patch, and it increasingly appears that something must soon give.
Meanwhile, just as the regime’s need to exert force is becoming more pressing by the day, there are signs that its capacity to do so is waning. The presence of several retired military commanders and officers in the protests that rocked Zanjan yesterday indicates that what many have been speculating for some weeks now may in fact be true: the military is on the verge of mutiny. Further still, cohesion among the Revolutionary Guards is simultaneously weakening. There is talk of commanders transferring money abroad and of many in the guard wanting to join the people on Sunday. And after an urgent SNSC communiqué to Tehran requested the police force to devise a plan to gradually take control of the city should Revolutionary Guard forces withdraw, the Tehran police has reportedly informed the regime of its inability to contain large masses as sympathy with the opposition has become widespread amongst its ranks.
So while Ahmadinejad dismisses those who are "mistaken...[for] thinking that something is happening in Iran," his megalomania blinds him of the fact that something already has happened in Iran. Namely, an expansive grassroots movement has taken root, and is growing more strong and brazen by the day. Guided by an old, gentle cleric's memory and spirit, it may soon bring a once-formidable regime to collapse.
(Cartoon Credit: مانا نیستانی / Mana Neyestani)
UPDATE: Renewed clashes are now being reported in Tehran.