Ali Reza Eshraghi
IWPR Iran Editor
Both the Iranian government and the opposition expect shows of strength on February 11, the anniversary of the revolution that overthrew the Shah, to be a turning point in the country's crisis. Neither side seems ready to compromise, leaving the battle to be fought out in the streets.
The faceoff that looms on Thursday, the date of the 1979 revolution, resembles a match between Tehran's two top soccer teams.
Arch-rivals Esteqlal and Persepolis lined up to play on February 3. The last six Tehran local derbies played over the previous three years all ended a draw, with many convinced that the state had ordered the outcome in order to keep the fans of both sides happy. This time, however, Persepolis won 2-1 in front of 70,000 spectators.
On the political front, both the government and the opposition - known as the Green Movement after the colour adopted following last June's contested re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - are urging their followers to take to the streets on February 11. The anniversary is a significant date for both sides. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has called for a "massive and united turnout" of pro-establishment demonstrators, saying, "We must be on the scene with all our might." In a live television interview, Ahmadinejad also promised his supporters would turn out in their millions.
The two opposition leaders, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, jointly called for the "mass participation" of their supporters. The opposition Reform Front Coordination Council, which groups 17 political and civil organisations, has urged Iranians to have no fear and take to the streets with their green banners.
Both sides are preparing for a showdown, in which there can only be one winner. One exiled opposition figure, Mohsen Sazgara, believes February 11 will be "decisive - a day on which the presence of the opposition in their millions can change the balance of power in their favour". This is also seems to be the conclusion drawn by the government.
Hardline cleric and interim Tehran Friday prayers leader Ahmad Khatami has predicted that the opposition movement will be "silenced and dissolved for good" on Thursday. The Tehran brigade of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, IRGC, which has been tasked with putting down protests in the capital for the past eight months, said in a statement it would be a day for "suppressing sedition". Its commander, General Hossein Hamadani, has warned that "severe measures will be taken against the opposition on this day".
The authorities have already started taking measures, and many green movement activists have been rounded up and detained.
No matter what happens on Thursday, Iran's future hangs in the balance. The opposition, which finds it easy to organise street protests, loses its cohesion once there is talk of low risk and more peaceful methods of showing dissent. Calls for nationwide strikes have met with failure at least three times, most recently on February 1, the anniversary of the return of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini from exile in 1979.
This lack of interest in nationwide strikes suggests that either more cautious (or less courageous) greens are still not ready to pay the price of that action or that the movement has yet to attract more onservative supporters. This is while the government has shown it has no hesitation in using maximum violence against protesters and will make no concessions to the opposition.
The opposition leaders - who are among the founders of the Islamic Republic - know they have gone as far as they can, while talk of regime change circulates within parts of the Green Movement. The country, which
is already struggling with economic and social crises as well as being faced with international and regional challenges, will inevitably have to pay a heavy price once the opposition's demands become more radicalised, such as seeking regime change or even just calling for Khamenei to be replaced as supreme leader.
Meanwhile, it also appears that the government is exploiting the concerns of the opposition leaders. It is as if the government is playing Russian roulette: while refusing to give an inch, it threatens that the regime will be doomed if the opposition is not silenced.
Conservative lawmaker Ahmad Tavakoli, who is a critic of Ahmadinejad's policies, openly warned Mousavi and former president Mohammad Khatami in a September 20 letter that if the opposition assumes power they will "isolate you. Of course that is assuming they leave you alive".
Khamenei has also rejected all offers of reconciliation and instead has repeatedly pressured those figures who seek to remain silent or take a moderate stand in the conflict to get off the fence and decide whether they are with him or against him.
In October, two prominent conservative figures, Ayatollah Mahdavi-Kani and Habibollah Asgaroladi, proposed forming an arbitration council in order to defuse the crisis and called for the reconciliation of the opposition leaders with Ahmadinejad. This proposal had the decisive backing of former president Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Khamenei rejected the proposal. Hossein Shariatmadari, the leader's representative, wrote in Kayhan daily accusing the two conservative figures of "continuing the velvet coup" against the establishment.
Rafsanjani, who has been repeatedly accused by Khamenei's confidants of plotting against him, has shrewdly and diplomatically in various proclamations said that the only person who can resolve the current crisis is Khamenei.
Khamenei's inflexibility has inevitably drawn direct criticism from the opposition leaders, something they were initially reluctant to do. For the first time, Khatami on January 31 criticised Khamenei for supporting one political faction and said, "We want the supreme leader to be the leader of the country and every Iranian." Two days later, Mousavi reminded Khamenei that if the Shah had respected the role assigned to him by the constitution, his regime would not have been toppled.
The problem here is that Khamenei has no desire to see his room for manoeuvre limited: his appointee, the IRGC commander, General Mohammad-Ali Jafari, announced on January 11 that the guard would not allow the opposition to succeed in its objective of "turning the leader's position into a ceremonial one".
The opposition leaders are unsure how to respond to Khamenei's determination. In the meantime, it will be no surprise if the demonstrations on Thursday end in a draw as the Tehran derby usually did.
Ali Reza Eshraghi is the IWPR Iran editor.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.