The next month in Iran is likely to be extremely hot.
The Shiite mourning month of Muharram begins on December 18. It involves massive street marches of citizens mourning the death of Imam Hossein, the quintessential martyr in the Shiite faith. He was killed on the tenth of Muharram (Ashura) in the year 680 on the plain of Karbala, in what is now Iraq. He and a small band of devoted followers were killed, according to Shiite tradition, while opposing the oppression and the wrongful rule of the Caliph Yazid.
This event is rich in symbolism and is extremely emotional. The life and martyrdom of Hossein is relived in sermons and passion plays that touch all Iranians from their earliest days. It is well known for the sometimes grisly marches of thousands of young men, some dressed in shrouds, who march through the streets rhythmically beating themselves with chains or other instruments, not unlike the “mortification of the flesh” sometimes practiced by Christian believers, with the same intent of purification and as a demonstration of utter devotion.
The opposition has gone viral. Like the Internet that is its nervous system, it exists in small nodes and decisions emerge almost spontaneously.
This year, Ashura, the culmination of the mourning ceremonies, will fall on December 27.
Muharram and the story of Imam Hossein’s martyrdom have obvious political resonance. Hossein’s battle was one of an underdog fighting for his rights, certain of the justice of his cause, and willing to give his life to oppose a much stronger but oppressive monarch who was considered to be abusing the true meaning of Islam. This powerful imagery was used to great effect 31 years ago, when millions of Iranians came to the streets in support of Khomeini and in opposition to the shah’s regime. That moment is widely regarded as the culmination of the Iranian revolution. The shah left the country a month later.
Although no one believes that Iran’s rulers will topple next month, those leaders who helped engineer the massive demonstrations on Ashura in December 1978 now find themselves in the ironic position of defending themselves against a popular movement that sees them very much as they saw the shah.
Iran’s Green Movement has been taking advantage of major holidays and national celebrations to go to the streets in protest. This will be another dramatic opportunity, with the symbolism of protest and even the traditional Islamic green that is part of the pageantry.
The regime is intensely aware of the dangers. In the past few days, Iranian national television has repeatedly shown video clips of Ayatollah Khomeini’s photos being torn and burned by unidentified hands. Was this really the televised work of opposition forces? Possibly. There is certainly no shortage of increasingly radicalized opponents of the government who would be capable of such an act.
But in the symbolic battle of the media, it scarcely matters whether it was genuine or fake. The regime is sending a clear message that it intends to treat any political opposition as a challenge to the very concept of the Islamic Republic, as represented by its founder, Ayatollah Khomeini. The lesson is that any crackdown on demonstrators is justified in the name of the sanctity of the revolutionary regime itself. The video also appeared to legitimize vigilante actions by identifying Green reformists as enemies of the people. The Tehran and Tabriz bazaars closed briefly on December 16 as a show of protest against the desecration. Warring demonstrations between pro-regime and reformist forces are becoming a real possibility.
In the meantime, the war within the regime continues. Pro-regime clerics attacked Ayatollah Rafsanjani, one of the pillars of the Islamic Republic who has moved closer to the reformists. The deputy of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, who was a member of the Iranian negotiating team for the past five years, resigned without explanation. The most senior religious figure in Iran, Ayatollah Montazeri, who was a close associate of Khomeini and was once regarded as his successor, has denounced the current government as un-Islamic and has dismissed it as just another military dictatorship. The crisis of confidence is the deepest since the earliest days of the revolution.
The regime is determined to put on a confident face. In the short run, they hold all the levers of power, and they are willing to use all the force at their command in order to preserve their control.
The opposition, by contrast, has no real leader. Mir Hossein Mousavi is a symbol, but he has been thrust into his central position almost against his will and is not controlling events. Instead, the opposition has gone viral. Like the Internet that is its nervous system, it exists in small nodes and decisions emerge almost spontaneously.
A close friend of mine in Tehran says that the opposition is like “fire under the ashes.” It smolders and pops up at the least opportunity, with the slightest puff of oxygen. If there were a free demonstration, he adds, where people could come without fear, there would be three million people in the streets of Tehran tomorrow demonstrating against the regime.
The Revolutionary Guard and the basij are determined to make sure that Muharram and Ashura will not provide that opportunity. And they will probably succeed.
But the long-range forecast calls for more hot weather.
Gary Sick served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan. He was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis and is the author of two books on U.S.-Iranian relations. Mr. Sick is a captain (ret.) in the U.S. Navy, with service in the Persian Gulf, North Africa and the Mediterranean.