Police attacks that left at least five protesters dead in Tehran, including a nephew of the leading opposition figure, risk creating a new cycle of escalating rallies because of the nature of Iranian demonstrations and Shiite mourning.
Ashura, one of the holiest days in the Iranian spiritual calendar, was disrupted Sunday when police cracked down heavily on protesters who chanted anti-regime slogans. Cellphone videos posted on the Internet appeared to show security forces opening fire on protesters in some of the bloodiest confrontations Iran has seen since disputed elections in the spring sparked unrest.
Other images of Sunday's events showed police and members of the volunteer Basij militia being attacked and bloodied by large crowds, police motorcycles being attacked and burned, and fiery protests against Iran's clerical leadership overtaking wide swathes of downtown Tehran. Due to government restrictions on media coverage, it wasn't possible to independently verify the events.
The killings follow several days of confrontations between crowds of protesters and security forces in several cities across Iran and across Tehran, including some reports of large demonstrations in the city's poorest southern districts.
Five protesters were killed and 300 arrested Sunday, police confirmed, although official spokesmen claimed the police had not used firearms. One of the dead, shown in a video with bullet wounds to his chest, was Ali Mousavi, a 35-year-old nephew of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who is a respected reformist figure in government and a presidential candidate who opposed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the elections.
His electoral defeat, which opposition supporters consider fraudulent, was at the root of the mass protests that have became known as the Green Revolution. Those protests were quashed over the summer after police cracked down heavily, arrested hundreds, executed some and beat others to death in prison.
It was either a serious error or an overt provocation for the police to engage in violence on such a significant day as Sunday, one that resonates deeply in Iranian history.
During the fervent celebrations of the holiday of Ashura, when millions take to the streets to mark the martyrdom of the Prophet Mohammed's grandson, Imam Hossein Ibn Ali, the most faithful engage in chest beating and self-flagellation with whips and chains. Discord and violence during the holiday are considered sinful transgressions.
Given the widely disseminated videos of violence and the symbolic significance of the day, Iran's clerical regime is in danger of losing its mainstream credibility as a theological force.
Sunday's events fell seven days after the death of a popular reformist cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, further increasing their significance. The funeral last week had been a scene of anti-regime protests and crackdowns by the Basij militia, and Sunday's commemorations were an escalation of that dissent. In Shiite Muslim tradition, funerals are marked with gatherings three, seven and 40 days afterward. In Iran, these commemorations can turn into escalating protests.
A killing during a funeral commemoration can trigger mass outrage.
This was how the comparatively limited protests in Tehran during the early months of 1979 escalated into a complete overthrow of the Shah's government by millions of people: Police opened fire on protesters; the 40-day commemorations of their funerals brought much larger crowds and even more violent reprisals, and events escalated.
All Iranians are aware of this antecedent, as they are of the significance of a regime killing citizens at a funeral commemoration on the final day of Ashura. This does not mean that history will repeat itself, and it is impossible to gauge the breadth of public support for the protesters or the various branches of the regime.
But it does suggest that the next several weeks will be a volatile period in Iran, dominated by an aggressive effort to quash protests. Security officials said on Iranian media Sunday night that they would not tolerate any protest, and there were multiple reports that telephone lines, TV signals and Internet connections had been shut down in Iran.