After two days of anti-government demonstrations in Tehran, there are reports that up to four protesters have been killed in clashes with security forces.
The deaths – which could not be immediately verified, because Iran's government has banned foreign media from covering the protests – would be a significant escalation in Iran's increasingly tense political clashes. Iranian authorities so far deny that any protesters have been killed in clashes.
This weekend’s protests, which coincide with the Shiite holiday of Ashura, are a continuation of those that began in June after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection was disputed and have continued sporadically since then. But, while protests left many dead this summer, fatalities have been uncommon. And now, increasingly bold anti-government groups calling for an end to the Islamic Republic.
While protests originally began in response to Mr. Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection, The Wall Street Journal reports that many protesters have now begun calling for an end to the Islamic Republic all together.
Pro-government forces remain determined to bring an end to the protests. Iranian police had warned anti-government groups that they would crush any attempts to use Ashura festivals as an opportunity to demonstrate, but the admonishment appears to have had little effect in deterring activists. In Tehran, police arrested hundreds of protesters, reports Al Jazeera.
“Hundreds of supporters of the Iranian opposition, mainly of reformist forces, have protested and chanted slogans supporting [Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali] Montazeri and [opposition leader] Mir Hossein Moussavi,” said [Al Jazeera reporter Mohammad Hassan al-Bahrani]. “The police had earlier threatened to face any unlicensed gatherings, and this is what really happened on Saturday and Sunday.”
Initial reports indicate that security forces fired into the air trying to break up the demonstrators, but the unconfirmed fatality reports indicate that their response may have escalated. As government security forces work to break up protesters, the BBC’s Persian TV correspondent, Siavash Ardalan, reports that police must perform a delicate balancing act between “not appearing weak but also not provoking opposition protesters.”
Already there is speculation that the alleged police violence, especially during the Ashura holiday could be used to lionize anti-government forces. The Shiite holiday commemorates the death of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, Hussein, who was killed in a battle against a powerful army. The Washington Post reports that opposition groups are likely to draw comparisons between the dead protesters and the martyrdom of Hussein.
The Guardian reports that by tying their protests to a major religious holiday, opposition groups may be working to further undermine the Islamic government by linking their cause with Iran’s religious heritage. The British paper adds that in addition to facing fierce resistance from government forces, anti-government protesters were also assaulted by members of the pro-government Basij militia. According to Rah-e Sabz, an opposition website that has provided many reliable accounts of protests since this summer, members of the militia armed themselves with knifes and confronted the protesters.