Radio Netherlands reports indicate that the Supreme National Security Council has ordered a complete check-up of the jet which is on standby to fly Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei and his family to Russia should the situation in Iran spiral out of control
The killing of a nephew of opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi and the arrests of other dissidents signal a government fearful of losing its grip even as it seems to court civil war.
Amid ominous signs that political tensions were reaching breaking point, reformist websites reported that special forces fired teargas and attacked crowds gathered in some of Tehran’s main thoroughfares to begin two days of commemorations for one of Shia Islam’s holiest figures. The opposition website Rah-e Sabz reported confrontations in Enghelab, Haft-e Tir and Imam Hossein Squares. Unconfirmed accounts told of disturbances breaking out between Ferdowsi Square and Valiasr crossroads and between Choobi Bridge and Shahmirzadi Hosseinieh.
Deutsche Welle’s Farsi-language website carried reports of further clashes in Isfahan, Tabriz, Kermanshah and Ahvaz.
Times UK Online: Analysts heralded the start of what could be a bloody endgame as hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters poured on to the streets of Tehran and other cities and fought running battles with the security forces. Opposition websites claimed that some policemen had refused to fire on demonstrators.
The opposition claims that the unrest is spreading across Iran, and to every social class. It senses victory, but activists fear a bloodbath first. “The security forces, especially the Revolutionary Guards, are prepared to fight until the end as they have nowhere to go,” one member said
These dissident ayatollahs—such as the late Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who in a famous fatwa last summer declared the regime neither Islamic nor a republic—are no longer alone in turning against Khamenei. Even religious scholars who until recently did not openly defy the regime, have now joined the calls of the opposition. There is the well-respected Ayatollah Yussuf Sanai, for example, who was a friend of Khamenei, who went so far as to state that Khamenei’s continuing struggle for power is against Sharia law. There is Ayatollah Mousavi Ardebili, the former president of the judicial branch of Iran, who this summer openly declared his solidarity with the dissident Ayatollah Montazeri. And there are the ayatollahs Bayat Zanjani, Dastghaib, and Taheri who have aligned themselves with the protesting masses. Even Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in neighboring Iraq—who is held in great esteem by Shiites also in Iran—has declared that the oppression of the demonstrators is un-Islamic.
All this is significant because it broadens the protests to a truly popular movement. The students and educated class don’t need fatwas to turn against the regime. But due to the criticism by prominent ayatollahs, the regime is losing its moral legitimacy even in the eyes of less educated and more pious Iranians.
The regime is not only losing the clergy but also the military. The communiqués from opposition groups and those that reach me personally all indicate that a large part of the Revolutionary Guards is no longer willing to be used as an instrument of oppression. Video images from nearly every demonstration show Revolutionary Guards members joining ranks with the protesters. A declaration signed by air force and army officers and published on the Internet warned radical Revolutionary Guards members to “Stop the violence against your own population.”
This rift also explains why the much-anticipated “China Model” of ruthless and widespread use of force against the population, with thousands of deaths and executions in a matter of days, never happened. If Khamenei could have been sure about the loyalty of the military, he would have used it a long time ago to crush the rebellion for good. The only element of the Revolutionary Guards which still seems to be loyal to the regime is the Quds division, a hodge-podge of terrorists from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and other regions.
This does not mean this regime will go out with a whimper. During these past six months, the Iranian regime has undergone a dramatic change of character. It has eliminated all pragmatic forces within its ranks. For religious support, they rely on a small but extremely radical group of ayatollahs such as Mesbah Yazde and Ahmad Janati. These are apocalyptic worshippers of the twelfth Imam, or Mahdi. Understanding this group is of the utmost importance for Western policymakers. The Mahdi is viewed as a Messiah-like figure whose return will bring peace on Earth. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad frequently refers to him in his speeches, including those held before the United Nations. While most twelver imam Shiites believe that the Mahdi will appear by his own accord, this radical group believes that his appearance can be triggered by creating the apocalyptic conditions necessary for his emergence. Iran’s nuclear weapons program must be seen in this context. Ahmadinejad and the radical fringe group to which he belongs see themselves as the army of the Mahdi in his final jihad.
This is not to say that American-Iranian rivalry is inevitable no matter who is in power in Tehran (or Washington), or that Obama’s efforts to reopen dialogue with Iran’s current government is misplaced. It is rather to suggest that reform (or even revolution) in Iran is not a magic bullet that will suddenly cause all sources of friction to disagree, and to raise the possibility that a smarter and more capable Iran might turn out to be more of a challenge than the government we are dealing with today.