Pro-government demonstrators in Iran launched a 10-day religious mourning period on Friday with nationwide rallies and calls for the execution of opposition leader and former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi.
Pressure has been building from Iranian judicial authorities in recent days to arrest Moussavi and other top reform figures, who have led protests against presidential election last June they say were fraudulent.
“Mousavi, this is our last warning. The sedition leaders should be executed,” people chanted in Tehran, according to Reuters.
But the opposition is nevertheless optimistic heading into the holy month of Moharram, which peaks with commemoration of the death in 680 AD of one of the most revered Shiite saints, Imam Hossein. The coming 10 days of mourning are heavily infused with religious symbolism, and offer ample opportunities for the opposition to promote their cause – a cause that they say has been steadily drawing a broader base of support.
“Inside Iran, the opposition are much more hopeful than we are outside Iran, because they witness the development and the progress,” says Ebrahim Mehtari, a 27-year-old Iranian opposition activist and software engineer who fled to Turkey after being arrested twice. He has since kept in close touch with opposition figures.
Antigovernment protesters made no attempt to hijack official rallies on Friday, as they have done with other regime-sanctioned events in recent months, resulting in clashes. Opposition websites told their people to keep away from the heavily policed events on Friday, and instead have plans to take advantage of street marches and ritual associated with the mourning period to make their political point.
“Moharram is very good for us, because Hossein’s ideology stood against oppression,” says Mr. Mehtari, who says he was subject to whippings, cigarette burns, and sexual assault with a baton while in prison. Those claims are supported by Mr. Mehtari’s medical report, highlighted in an Amnesty International catalogue of regime abuses released earlier this month.
Green Movement sees itself in heroic martyr role
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran’s Islamic leaders have always cast themselves in the role of the religiously pure Hossein, facing off against the modern-day equivalents of the evil Yazid. Yazid claimed his state was Islamic, but nevertheless killed Hossein, the grandson of the prophet Mohammad.
Known among the devout as the “Lord of the Martyrs,” Hossein’s example of willingness to die for his beliefs defines Shiite belief and is an ideological pillar of the Islamic Republic.
But today, the opposition Green Movement sees itself as the pure side of the Hossein saga, aided by the fact that Mousavi’s second name is Hossein, and the Green Movement’s choice of color is Islamic green, which is waved constantly at such religious events.
“Now from our people’s point of view, [Supreme Leader Sayyed Ali] Khamenei is close to Yazid, and Mousavi and the Green Movement is the Hossein figure,” says Mehtari in an interview in the Turkish capital, Ankara.
“The state can’t tell people not to shout ‘Ya Hossein,’” part of a chant that has become a pro-Mousavi slogan, says Mehtari. “They can’t tell people not to wave green flags…. For 10 nights and two days, people can come out onto the streets. It’s a religious regime; they can’t prevent people."
Fear of 'Yazid' label has made authorities cautious during Moharram
In the past, sensitivities about being branded “Yazid” have meant state authorities exercised a lighter touch on policing on the streets, for couples caught holding hands, for example. Instead of being arrested, they might be simply hurried on their way.
“They have all the tools of repression: the money, the guns,” says Mehtari. “[But] it’s impossible for the regime to stop people. If they slap one person in Tehran, they will be Yazid.”
“This show of force [on Friday] is intended to show the public that they [the regime] are many in number, hence inducing fear on the other side and discouraging them from coming out when a big even happens,” said one close observer in Tehran.
“TV has dedicated hours and hours of airtime to say: ‘The judiciary is obliged to carry out the will of the people, and arrest the heads of sedition,” he adds.
On Friday, the Tehran crowd heard: “The judiciary should confront people who continue this sedition … with the maximum punishment,” said Mohammad Hossein Rahimian, a representative of Ayatollah Khamenei, according to Fars News agency, as translated by Reuters.
Iran’s judiciary chief, Sadegh Larijani, meanwhile, gave this warning two days earlier: “I say to leaders of the sedition that we have enough evidence against you,” ILNA news agency quoted him saying. “If the regime has shown tolerance until now, don’t suppose that we do not understand.”
Larijani said the opposition leader actions were “contrary to national security” and a “clear crime,” according to a translation by Agence France-Presse. Their statements allowed “Western countries to make out that the government of the Islamic Republic was in disarray.”
Why Iran has held back from arresting top leaders
But the advent of Moharram – which Shiites have marked for centuries with dramatic public passion plays called Taziyeh – complicates the picture for the authorities.
The top tier of opposition leaders have not been arrested yet, it is widely believed, because the scale of the backlash would be unpredictable.
“The moment when the regime holds guns against its own people – that’s the end of dialogue,” says Mehtari.
Even outside Iran, there are dangers for those who criticize the regime. In Turkey, Iranian agents – who, like the Iranian asylum seekers, do not need a visa to enter – have stopped him twice on the street and told him to shut up, because “we know how to deal with you.”
Another asylum seeker, 21-year-old Maryam Sabri, was recently assaulted on the street in central Turkey after dark by two suspected Iranian agents, who slapped her so hard she fell, then kicked and beat her just two days after she repeated in a BBC interview her claims of being raped four times in detention.