As the world's attention remains focused on the uprisings in the Arab world, Iran's regime is now looking more vulnerable than in the past. Tens of thousands of Iranians protested March 1, according to unconfirmed reports, partially in response to the kidnapping and incarceration of the two leaders of the so-called Green movement and their wives.
The regime knows it has a problem; much like in the Arab world, the continuous and sporadic protests, which began Feb. 14 after more than a year, showed Iranians have overcome their fears.
Faced with the terrifying prospect of another Tahrir Square, the Iranian regime is choosing from a list of bad options. Outraged at the failure to prevent protests on February 14, 20 and March 1, a staggering number of hardliners within the government have frenetically issued calls for the execution of Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Moussavi.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who certainly is the only authority able to command the arrest of the two opposition figures, must have felt the need to silence these outspoken loyalists calling for action, particularly because more protests erupted on March 1. According to a number of observers, the government chose this time of the year, two weeks before the Iranian New Year, to arrest Moussavi and Karroubi hoping it would achieve two goals: first, the government continues to claim that large crowds on the streets are just holiday shoppers "going to buy supplies for the New Year." Second, the government hopes that by March 20, demonstrators will go back to their homes to celebrate the Iranian New Year, or Norouz.
Until the kidnapping and incarceration this past weekend of Moussavi and Karroubi and their wives, the government had kept the two opposition leaders under house arrest. However, the protests in February apparently led the regime to believe the two were somehow continuing to coordinate demonstrations, despite the fact that their internet and telephone lines had been cut.
The timing of the abductions appears to be counterproductive. The Coordination Council of the Green Path of Hope -- a group of prominent dissidents who assumed leadership of the Green Movement following the house arrests of Karroubi and Moussavi -- called for protests on March 1, and succeeded in mobilizing thousands of people in several major cities. The demonstrations, intentionally falling on Moussavi's birthday, are intended to express condemnation of the treatment of the opposition leaders.
According to BBC Persian Service, and eyewitnesses in Tehran, a large number of people appeared on the streets of the capital but faced a massive deployment of armed police and plainclothes security forces with weapons drawn. Moussavi's website, Kaleme, has asserted that the government fired into a crowd at one point, and that the level of violence seen on March 1 is "unprecedented."
Kaleme is also reporting that Karroubi and Moussavi have been moved to Heshmatiyeh Prison in Tehran, a military prison previously investigated and partially closed due to its poor conditions. As a military prison, it remains out of the jurisdiction of government oversight, and answers only to the Supreme Leader. Both Kaleme and Saham News, echoing the outrage of many Green supporters over the abductions, named Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in their headlines as responsible for directly ordering the secret detentions of the opposition leaders.
Until now, the websites avoided directly blaming Khamenei. But after the abductions of the men and their wives, the Green movement's leadership has apparently now crossed a new red line and dared to name Khamenei as being responsible for Moussavi and Karroubi's detention.
Prominent clerics are also speaking out against the regime's action. Notable dissident Grand Ayatollahs Yousef Saanei, Assad Bayat-Zanjani, and Ali-Mohammad Dastgheyb, who have been the primary clerical targets of the government since their support for protests following the disputed 2009 presidential elections, have issued statements against the detentions. Grand Ayatollah Saanei's statement condemned the abduction of Moussavi and Karroubi in no uncertain terms: "These are actions and behavior that demonstrate the failure and political weakness of the perpetrators [of the detentions] and agents [of the government] to sway public opinion."
The Grand Ayatollah's statement is accurate in that the detentions represent multiple failures on the part of the Islamic Republic's leadership to sway public opinion or head-off the renewed momentum of the Green Movement.
Unlike some Arab countries seeking to appease protesters, Iran's government is reacting with increased force. According to eyewitnesses who spoke to InsideIRAN on the condition of anonymity, Tehran resembles a "military base." The streets are filled with security forces, anticipating new rounds of protests.
Iran's Minister of Intelligence Heydar Moslehi went on state television last week to talk about "new evidence" against the "leaders of sedition." He even accused senior advisors to Moussavi and Karroubi aides, Ardeshir Amir-Arjmand and Mojtaba Vahedi, of being operatives of the terrorist Mojahedin Khalgh Organization. In Iran, any affiliation with the MKO could carry the death penalty.
Moslehi also upped the ante by labeling Moussavi and Karroubi "counterrevolutionaries." The long-held title of "leaders of sedition" was no longer deemed to be severe enough. In Iran, counterrevolutionaries are usually executed, or at the very least, thrown into prison for a very long time. Moslehi's remarks were chosen carefully to scare Green Movement supporters abroad, specifically those involved with the Coordination Council. Fearing the government would arrest Moussavi and Karroubi, leading opposition figures outside Iran remained silent and refused to give interviews to many broadcast television networks such as BBC Persian and Voice of America. With nothing to lose following the abduction of Moussavi and Karroubi, leaders of the movement abroad have broken their silence and are asking for international pressure on the Iranian government.
The next few weeks will be extremely important. There is a demonstration scheduled for every Tuesday, and the response amongst Green supporters to these rallies has proven positive thus far. It remains to be seen if the escalation of the violence and intensity of the protests will continue in the weeks ahead and how this will define both the actions of the Green Movement and the government.
Geneive Abdo is the editor of insideIRAN.org. Arash Aramesh and Shayan Ghajar are writers and researchers for the website.