Page last updated at 19:50 GMT, Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Iranians gear up for key anniversary clash

Watch Tim Whewell's report assessing whether Iran is in the grips of a new revolution in full

By Tim Whewell
BBC Newsnight

Ayatollah Khamenei
Ayatollah Khamenei says Iran will use the anniversary to 'punch' the West

They are slick, rousing and show fast-cut scenes of mass street protests over lines from X-Men, V for Vendetta and other Hollywood thrillers.

They are self-described "trailers" for an anti-government uprising, which their producers hope will shake Iran this Thursday, the 31st anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Made by opposition supporters in the West, and in Iran itself, and posted on the internet, the aim of the videos is to bring out the largest number of young protestors to try to ensure that official marches to mark the anniversary will be drowned out, or taken over, by those who want the Islamic Republic overthrown.

Meanwhile the Iranian state is using all its more old-fashioned rhetoric, as well as its security forces, to achieve the opposite result - a maximum turn-out of loyalists to show the world that the people and their leaders are still united.

Arrests and checkpoints

According to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the nation will use the occasion to "punch the arrogance" - a revolutionary term for Western powers - "in a way that will leave them stunned".

Iran oposition supporters
The unrest is a culmination of protests which began after last June's election

In the run-up to the anniversary, there have been increasing reports of arrests of opposition activists, and of checkpoints put up around the capital, Tehran.

Whatever happens, the events of this Thursday will be a culmination of what began last June, when protestors took to the streets of Tehran claiming that elections which returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power had been rigged.

That claim was firmly rejected by Ayatollah Khamenei.

And as the police clashed with protestors, killing - according to opposition leaders - at least 72 people, the shouts began to turn from "Where's my vote?" to "Death to the dictator!" - a challenge, rarely heard before, to the Supreme Leader himself.

Since then the protestors have turned out for many more demonstrations.

Jailed journalist

They have become known collectively as the Green Movement after the green scarves and wristbands worn by supporters of Mr Ahmadinejad's challengers, opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi .

But the protesters' demands have widened beyond the original call for an election recount.

File photo of Maziar Bahari at a press conference after a trial hearing in Tehran, 1 August 2009
Newsweek's Bahari says demands have widened beyond a recount

"For some it has become a movement against the Islamic Republic, a movement for a more secular, democratic government," says Maziar Bahari, a reporter for the US magazine Newsweek, who was arrested during the protests and jailed for 118 days.

Certainly, attempts by the security forces to suppress the movement seem to have had the effect of radicalising many of its supporters, who include devout Muslim believers and some senior clerics.

Speaking about recent events, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, who campaigns for human rights in Iran, told Newsnight:

"Not only the people are questioning the basis of the theocracy, but even the clergy themselves are split as a result of the government's violent behaviour.

"It's not just the state that's in conflict with the people, the state itself has been divided in two."

Revolutionary Guard role

And attempts to start talks between government and opposition appear now to have broken down.

Opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi told Newsnight by e-mail that no discussions are currently taking place:

Shirin Ebadi, photo 19 June, 2009
Nobel laureate Ebadi says 'the state has been divided in two'

"An extremist force has taken shape in the government which considers its political survival in crisis. This force through irrational behaviour, such as recent arrests… is trying to drive the movement into violence. They don't want to compromise," he wrote.

In his message Mr Karroubi linked the suppression of protests to the growing power of the Revolutionary Guards, the force set up after the 1979 Revolution to defend the Islamic Republic:

"The source of many problems that our people are facing is the... presence of men in boots in politics, the economy and other affairs," he wrote.

Some believe the Revolutionary Guards, who control many key companies in Iran, are so determined to ensure the survival of the Islamic Republic that they may eventually try to turn it into a military dictatorship.

Lines drawn

In the meantime both sides seem to be hardening their stance ahead of the 11 February anniversary.

Mehdi Karroubi - photo May 2009
Mehdi Karroubi says no negotiations are currently taking place

On his website, opposition leader Mr Mousavi, who challenged Mr Ahmadinejad in the elections, goes further than before by denouncing the Islamic authorities directly, saying: "Dictatorships in the name of religion are the worst type of dictatorships."

In her Newsnight interview, Mrs Ebadi said: "I ask all my compatriots to go out to the streets. And show their protest with their green presence."

But Mr Karroubi said that in the past few days many young people, journalists and university students had been arrested.

And some believe that Mr Karroubi and Mr Mousavi themselves will be arrested after the anniversary.

Kian Mokhtari, a pro-government columnist for the state-owned newspaper Kayhan said of the protestors: "Nothing will come out of rabble rousing because the majority supports the (Supreme) Leader."

But he added: "The hierarchy should show more flexibility over time - perhaps set up meetings to discuss implementing changes. The opposition don't come from Mars or Mercury. They are Iranians and I support their rights."



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