As evening approaches, a sense of quiet has descended upon Iran. The tens of thousands of pro-government supporters have all been bussed back to their homes in distant villages, their bellies full with the free lunch they were promised for coming out in support of President Ahmadinejad. The streets are now eerily silent, though shouts of Allahu Akbar (God is Great), the rallying cry of the so-called Green Movement, can still be heard bouncing from rooftop to rooftop.
Weeks of anticipation about the 31st anniversary of the Iranian revolution came to a head today, as protesters and pro-government forces clashed on the streets of Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan, Mahshad, among other cities throughout the country. There are reports that more than 100 protesters have been arrested in the northern city of Mahshad alone. As Jason Shams reports in The Daily Beast, the Basij and security forces have a new tool in their arsenal against the protesters: They have been blasting demonstrators with paint balls, marking them so that they could be more easily followed home and arrested in the dead of night.
If the mullahs and the merchants begin joining forces with the protesters, even as the Revolutionary Guard becomes more entrenched in the political sphere, a civil war may be inescapable.
• What’s Happening in Iran: Photos, Video, Dispatches At the same time, the regime seems to have lost patience with the once-untouchable leaders of the Green Movement. Reports out of Tehran claim that Mehdi Karrubi, the firebrand cleric who has become the voice of the protesters, was viciously attacked on the streets by pro-government forces. According to Karrubi’s son, Hossein, his father is being treated for burns on his face and eyes. “He was badly attacked with pepper spray,” Hossein Karrubi told the Tehran Bureau. “Plainclothes agents [Basij] approached him and kept spraying it in his eyes. He's resting at home though; he's not been hospitalized.” Karrubi’s other son, Ali, was arrested while trying to defend his father. His status remains unknown.
Also arrested and detained today were former President Mohammad Khatami’s brother Reza Khatami and his wife Zara Eshragi, the granddaughter of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic (at writing both appear to have been released). Other reports coming out of Iran claim that Zahra Rahnavard, the immensely popular wife of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the chief challenger to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was also beaten by the Basij with batons and punches. Mousavi himself was forbidden from addressing his supporters who had gathered at Azadi (Freedom) Square; he was violently turned away and forced back into his car by security forces.
For the Green Movement, there is a collective sense of disappointment in their failure to disrupt the pro-government celebrations as they had planned. According to the Associated Press, “the opposition turnout was dwarfed by the huge crowd at the state-run celebrations,” though it should be noted that foreign journalists in the country had their movements severely restricted and were expressly forbidden to report on the anti-government protests. An additional blow to the opposition came from the presence of Ayatollah Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, former president and supporter of Mousavi, at the “official” celebration held by the government. This despite confirmed reports that Rafsanjani had excoriated the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei for his handling of the current crisis in a private meeting held earlier in the week.
Nevertheless, the opposition remains undaunted, buoyed by the fact that the government has declared Friday through Monday a holiday, which may give the Green Movement an opportunity to regroup and once again take to the streets. What happens next depends in large part on two factors. The first has to do with how effective President Obama’s new sanctions strategy, in which the White House is freezing the assets of businesses run by the Revolutionary Guard, will be—not in changing the behavior of the regime, but in turning the merchant class against the government. The Revolutionary Guard is more than a military-intelligence apparatus. It is a mafia that controls broad swaths of the Iranian economy through its various subsidiaries. By some estimates, the Revolutionary Guard controls one-third of Iran’s annual budget. It was therefore a clever ploy on Obama’s part to announce the new sanctions by arguing that they would actually help “ordinary Iranian businessmen” whose legitimate businesses have, in the words of Undersecretary of Treasury Stuart Levey, been displaced “in favor of a select group of insiders,” (read: Revolutionary Guard).
The other factor that could dramatically change the power dynamics in Iran is Ahmadinejad’s increasing independence from religious leaders. As Newsweek reports, the president has been consolidating power unto himself and his cronies in the Revolutionary Guard by distancing himself from the mullahs who used to run the country. The president has apparently stopped attending meetings of the Expediency Council, whose members represent the interests of the supreme leader, claiming that “administering the country should not be left to the [supreme] leader, the religious scholars, and other [clerics].” His chief of staff recently stated that, “an Islamic government is not capable of running a vast and populous country like Iran.”
Such statements are leading more of the religious classes, who despite their relative lack of support in the Green Movement nevertheless still command the loyalty of the masses, to take a more active role in challenging the Ahmadinejad regime. If the mullahs and the merchants begin joining forces with the protesters, even as the Revolutionary Guard becomes more entrenched in the political sphere, a civil war may be inescapable.
Reza Aslan is author of the international bestseller No god but God and How to Win a Cosmic War (published in paperback as Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized World ). Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.