The weight of Iran's electoral crisis is turning into a tug-of-war over the fate of the country's Islamic revolution, as opposition leaders continue to defy the orders of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei to accept defeat and halt protests.
But despite street violence on Saturday that officially claimed 13 lives – sources in Tehran suggest the real toll may be several times higher – opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi again on Sunday called for the election results to be annulled.
The uprising is challenging the legitimacy of Iran's Islamic system of rule – which places Ayatollah Khamenei at the top, as "God's deputy on Earth" – like never before.
"This is about the very survival and legitimacy of the Islamic Republic," says Ahmad Sadri, an Iran expert at Lake Forest College in Illinois. "The excuse is the [voting] irregularities, but the real complaints go very deep, to the very nature of the system."
Mousavi seeks reform, not a new system
Mr. Mousavi has taken care to distance himself from any attempt to overthrow a system that he, as a revolutionary prime minister in the 1980s, helped to create and preserve.
"We are not against the Islamic system and its laws [but] against the deviations and lies, and we want to reform them; a reformation that returns us to the pure principles of the Islamic revolution," Mousavi said in a statement late on Saturday.
He said the record 85 percent voter turnout for the presidential race was because of new hope to deal with "widespread social dissatisfaction" that "can target the bedrock of the revolution and the Islamic system."
"If the high volume of cheating and vote manipulation" were to stand, Mousavi said, "the republicanism of the regime will be slaughtered and the idea of incompatibility of Islam and [democracy] would be practically proven."
While Mousavi may be limiting his ambition to a re-run of the election – which Khamenei all but ruled out in an uncompromising sermon during Friday prayers – damage to Iran's ruling system has been done. The political crisis has exposed many fissures within the establishment and across a divided society.
"These days and nights a turning point is being forged in the history of our nation," said Mousavi.
'Crisis of legitimacy'
"The Supreme Leader's speech on Friday deepened that crisis of legitimacy, and deepened that crisis of unity over the whole Islamic establishment," says Massoumeh Torfeh of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. "It was a dangerous speech because he's now played all his final cards. He cannot go back now.
"The opposition has a clear choice: Either it has to be quiet enough for a while, and work things out and come back with a plan and a strategy. Or it will be heavily confronted by force, as it was [Saturday]" says Ms. Torfeh. "I think they will keep it intact.... But [with] a discredited Supreme Leader, and a totally unaccepted president, it is going to create serious crisis for the establishment."
Cutting off communication
To prevent further marches, authorities in Iran have cut off all text messaging – and often cellphone use – to prevent organizing. A police general told state TV that the protests had become "exhausting, bothersome, and intolerable," and promised a "serious confrontation" if there were any more attempts to gather.
Anti-riot police and religious militia fought off demonstrators on Saturday with batons, clubs, water cannons, tear gas, and live rounds. State TV portrayed would-be protesters as "terrorists" and "rioters" who have support from outside Iran, and reported that they had set fire to a mosque and burned buses and motorcycles.
Among those "terrorists" was a woman who had been on the streets every day, and got within half a mile of Revolution Square before she had her biggest scare.
"One young woman's head was broken in front of us," said the protester in a message, and then other communications. "We all jumped in the gutter, and some of the men protected us from the batons. The girl was in a bad way. We dragged her out."
Her clothes became covered with blood in the incident, and she said she was not sure whether the girl would live.
But that was just the first round, says the protester who could not be named for fear of reprisals. Trying to leave the area meant threading a gauntlet of riot police, who had deployed behind her and other would-be marchers across a broad swath of central Tehran.
"At the cross section ... the robocops were waiting, the ones in black with the rubberized gear," says the protester. "They were out in force [and] even had communication officers with their [radio] boxes on their backs.
"One of our friends was hit on the knee, another was run over by a car," says the marcher. "She says the hospital was full of people coming in with broken heads and limbs."
Late Saturday, finally at home, this protester was frustrated.
She was trying to steel herself for any future rallies: "We were scared, but we went. We don't know what will happen next, but if they organize it we have to go again, there's no other way," she said.
Protesters now have second thoughts
On Sunday, however, she was not so sure about returning to the streets again, after the brutalities of Saturday.
Experts say the heavy hand in Iran these days is a direct lesson from the final months of Shah Mohamad Reza Pahlavi before he was overthrown. The monarch's security forces had fired directly on demonstrators – sparking a cycle of bloodshed – but ultimately the Shah did not give the order to vanquish huge protests at any cost.
"The thinking has been in the last three decades, among the hardliners, that the Shah was too weak, so I am afraid ... an iron hand will be the way to go," says Mr. Sadri. "The problem ... is it assumes that the soldiers, in the final analysis, are going to shoot. We don't know."
Reformist politicians warn of consequences
Former President Mohamad Khatami warned the government of "dangerous consequences" if protesting the vote is not allowed to continue, and called for the release of all those arrested. Parliament speaker Ali Larijani also noted that the "majority" of people on the streets do not believe in the election result.
"This is a theocracy, with a kind of democracy software inside. Its legitimacy is based on democracy," says Sadri. "But now as people start to get disenchanted, there is a rift between the democratic, 'republic' part and the 'Islamic' parts of the Islamic Republic."
"It is entirely possible that the Islamic system will win, but it will enter a new phase," Sadri continues. "If they can suppress this uprising – and they might – then the regime will have become a tyranny ... and once the election is gone, the legitimacy will be gone, because who are they going to convince that this is a regime sanctioned by God?"