IRAN was braced for more violent clashes today as opposition demonstrators planned further mass rallies, which are expected to lead to fresh confrontations between protesters and security forces.
Tension was running high at rallies yesterday in which soldiers of the elite Revolutionary Guard and the paramilitary Basiji used tear gas and pepper spray and fired warning shots into the air to disperse demonstrators chanting anti-government slogans in three areas of central Tehran. They also smashed the windows of cars that were hooting in protest.
The reports by opposition websites could not be independently verified because foreign journalists are banned from covering opposition rallies. But one eyewitness said opposition supporters had gathered in groups along one of the capital’s main streets, with the police out in force to keep them apart.
The opposition Jaras website claimed security forces had attacked a building housing Isna, an Iranian news agency, where it said some demonstrators had sought shelter during the clashes. An eyewitness said at least two people were injured when police chased after protesters into the building.
“They fractured the skull of one Isna person and badly beat up another employee,” the witness said. Isna’s news service appeared to be working normally and it later issued a report on the incident, saying one of its reporters had been injured without specifying who was to blame.
Iran has been marking the first 10 days of the Islamic month of Muharram, a time of mourning for the 7th-century martyrdom of the grandson of the prophet Muhammad. The opposition has used this religious commemoration to revive anti-government protests which have flared sporadically since June’s disputed presidential elections.
Yesterday the opposition urged people to gather again today to mark Ashura, the tense climax of the commemoration which also coincides with the seventh day since the death of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, Iran’s most senior dissident cleric.
The death at 87 of this fierce critic of Iran’s hardline clerical establishment has given new impetus to the protests. Montazeri was an architect of the 1979 Islamic revolution and was named as successor to the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as supreme leader. He fell from grace after criticising the mass execution of prisoners in the late 1980s.
The opposition claims the polls were rigged to secure the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while the authorities portray the huge demonstrations that swamped the streets as a foreign-backed bid to topple the Islamic establishment. Thousands were arrested and scores jailed, but the protests have endured.
Significantly, the memorials last week for Montazeri attracted not only young urban activists, who filled the ranks of the earlier protests, but also older, more religious Iranians who revered Montazeri on grounds of faith as much as politics. He was the spiritual patron of the movement supporting Mir Hossein Mousavi, the opposition candidate, in the June election.
Esmail Ahmadi Moghaddam, Iran’s police chief, has threatened to take tough action against protesters