Istanbul, Turkey – The young, unemployed college graduate joined Sunday’s bloody anti-regime protests in Tehran even after an army friend of his warned him that Iran’s security forces might use live rounds. After several hours on the Iranian capital’s smoky streets, he returned home in a daze.
“People took the fight to the police in several places, attacking them with stones for the first time,” he said, asking that his name not be used. “We saw them overturn a police jeep and set it alight.”
The pace of change in demonstrators’ attitudes has accelerated, he said.
“We started [in June] with peaceful silent protests but then slogans got more radical,” he said. “At first, all we wanted was ‘our vote back,’ then ‘our presidency,’ and when there was still no answer we demanded ‘Death to the Dictator.’ “
Iran’s so-called Green Movement has returned to international prominence after several months when it simmered without spreading to poorer sections of society or the provinces. The regime has met the swelling movement with force. The official death toll from Sunday’s crackdown stood at 10 on Monday and Harana, a website close to Iran’s reformists, said more than 500 activists have since been arrested.
Among Sunday’s dead was Ali Habibi Mousavi, a nephew of former presidential candidate and Green Movement leader Mir Hossein Mousavi. Reformists allege the younger Mousavi was targeted for assassination by the government. Reformists websites said Monday that his body was seized by government security forces, speculating that the regime is seeking to head off his funeral and ritual morning that could fuel further anti-regime protests.
“I’m very worried about the violence escalating,” said Djavad Salehi-Esfahani, a professor of Economics at Virginia Tech and a Brookings scholar who visited Iran last week. “Society is even more polarised and I can’t see the young pople easily giving up. It’ll take a lot more violence till they’re all scared off.”
The unemployed graduate has been captivated by the events unfolding around him. A child born after the Iranian Revolution, he has known nothing but the Islamic Republic. But his hope for change is tempered by caution.
“We’re just going to lose out if we change the whole regime now without knowing what we want to see in its place,” he said as the sound of people shouting “God is great” from their rooftops drifted in from an open window. “I even think that we’re not ready for such a momentous change.”
A galaxy of disparate and overlapping causes and social groups — human rights advocates, discontented clerics, women’s groups, students, and unemployed workers — now make up the Green Movement’s base. These groups have united on the streets of Tehran and half a dozen major cities to shout anti-regime slogans and defy the security forces in protests that have become more regular since Grand Ayatollah Ali Montazeri died on Dec. 20 at the beginning of the Shiite holy month of Muharram.
“This is a classic Iranian protest movement led by creative chaos more than anything else,” said Randjbar Daemi, an Iran analyst and Phd candidate in Contemporary Iranian History at London University. “We’re getting into the final stage of the confrontation and the ruling clique is waving all pretences of respect to faith, tradition, and memory goodbye. Muharram is a month of truce so the authorities in Iran are violating everything. It’s a regime that is feeling and smelling its own demise, ready to embark onto anything in order to avoid the sinking ship from capsizing.”
The death of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri and the beginning of a forty day period of mourning known as Ashura has galvanized the Green Movement. Monday was declared a day of mourning for Sunday’s dead and the opposition is calling for a national strike.
The absence of a clear leader has troubled Western analysts seeking to understand the fledgling Green Movement. Former presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi are its titular heads but government pressure and threats of arrest and trial block them from taking to the streets. In their place a slew of young student leaders, online organizers, and a keenly engaged diaspora are powering the movement forward.
“Mousavi is doing well so far, I can’t see him losing the leadership to others outside the country,” said Mr. Salehi-Esfahani. “He has wide appeal and will probably have to fight elements inside the Green Movement who’re pushing for overthrowing the Islamic Republic rather than reforming it.”
“The student organizations at major universities are still the most organised fora, but the youths have found other organizations that appear to be non-political, such as associations of painters and calligraphers, where the news of planned actions and slogans are passed along,” said Nader Uskowi, a Washington-based Iran analyst who works for the US government among other clients. “The students and the youths are still the engine of the movement but it is rapidly spreading to other segments including parents who are actively supporting their children.”