Thirty-one years since the downfall of the U.S.-supported dictatorship of Shah Reza Pahlavi, the Islamic Republic has developed a formula for celebrating the anniversary of the Iranian Revolution.
The opposition leadership has called on its supporters to use the occasion - which this year falls on Thursday - to continue the series of protests that began after the disputed victory of Mahmhoud Ahamdinejad in June's presidential election. But with the Iranian government declaring in advance that no mercy will be shown to anyone trying to disrupt the official celebrations, the stage is set not just for a battle over the streets of Tehran, but for the legacy of the Iranian revolution. (See pictures of the rise and fall of the Shah of Iran.)
Both Iranians and the outside world will be watching how events unfold tomorrow to see just how much life remains in the opposition movement, months after the government began cracking down on public displays of dissent. Knowing this, the Iranian government has spent weeks in advance trying to prevent a large opposition turnout. Internet and text messaging services have ground to a virtual halt, which the government has explained by citing technical difficulties, but which the opposition says is timed to prevent them from organizing supporters. At least 1,000 people have been arrested in the last two months, according to human rights groups, under new laws that allow blanket detentions. Iran now has more journalists imprisoned than anywhere in the world, with at least 65 in jail, according to Reporters Without Borders. Last month, the government executed two people it claimed had participated in opposition demonstrations under the charge of waging war against God. At least nine other people accused of being opposition supporters are on death row. "We are closely watching the activities of the sedition movement," Tehran's police chief, Ismail Ahmadi-Moghaddam, said on Wednesday. "If anyone wants to disrupt this glorious ceremony, they will be confronted." (See pictures of the legacy of Ayatullah Khomeini.)
With normal telecommunications blocked or censored (including reported plans to shut down Google's gmail service and replace it with a homegrown product), opposition organizers have spreading information by word of mouth or in public places by mobile phone text messaging using Bluetooth wireless protocol, which though it has limited range, is also hard to block. The opposition has also asked its supporters who are too afraid or unable to attend demonstrations to gather in their gardens and release green balloons, a reference to the signature color of the opposition, which is also known as the Green Movement. Other tactics proposed by organizers include joining in the official ceremonies and then switching into green clothing, or changing the meaning of government-sanctioned slogans such "Death to American" into satirical ones such as "Death to Russia" or more pointed ones such as "Death to the Dictator." And though some have called on demonstrators to be both as peaceful and silent as possible, disruption is the order of the day. "The more overwhelming we are, the more difficult it will be for the security forces to handle us," read one opposition e-mail. Another opposition memo called on supporters to try their utmost to disrupt Ahamdinejad's planned speech.
At stake in the coming clash could be the future of the Islamic Republic. What was once a spontaneous movement to contest the results of the presidential election, which opponents of Ahmadinejad say was fraudulent, has become a broader critique of the regime itself. Though most of the opposition's leader say they still support Islamic government, they say the current leadership has abandoned both the democratic norms of the Republic, and the moral legitimacy of Islam by abusing its own people.
Meanwhile, Iran's government appears ready to confront not just opponents at home but abroad as well. On Monday, Iran notified the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna that it would begin enriching its uranium stockpiles to 20% concentration, from its current low-level of 4%. Though the Iranian government says that this higher level of enriched uranium would be used to fuel a medical reactor, each step Iran takes in advancing its nuclear development program has also increased international suspicion that it intends to build a nuclear weapon.
The U.S., meanwhile, has responded to the failure to reach an agreement in nuclear talks by stepping up its pressure on the Iranian government. The Obama Administration is preparing new sanctions on Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, the elite military branch that controls much of the economy and which the opposition accuses of orchestrating the post-election crackdown. But the Iranian government has in the past effectively used American and Western pressure to de-legitimize internal dissent, and it is doing so again. Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, who in the past has accused demonstrators of being agents of foreign intelligence services, said on Monday that the celebration for the anniversary of the Revolution would be a "punch in the mouth" to the arrogance of foreign powers. Hopefully, the dispute between Iran and American will be limited to such verbal fisticuffs.