Since hotly disputed presidential elections in June, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been the focus of the opposition’s contempt; Sunday was certainly no exception.
Protesters chose Shiite Islam’s most significant religious holiday, Ashura, when Iranians traditionally take to the streets for festivities, to demonstrate against the government of Ahmadinejad. But Iran’s security forces, on full-alert since dissident cleric Grand Ayatollah Hoseyn Ali Montazeri died last week at the age of 87, were armed and ready for unrest.
Iran's state-owned Press TV on Monday quoted a spokesperson of the supreme national security council as saying that eight people had been killed in Sunday's clashes between protesters and security forces in the capital of Tehran.
It was also reported that the nephew of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi was among those killed in Sunday's clashes, which marked the worst violence since June's contested elections.
According to Mousavi’s website, Seyed Ali Mousavi was shot in the back as security forces fired on demonstrators.
According to witnesses and opposition websites, thousands of protesters ignored official warnings not to use the religious celebrations as a pretext for a political demonstration and began chanting “death to the dictator” in reference to President Ahmadinejad.
Police failed to disperse protesters on a central Tehran street with tear gas and warning shots.
Iranian authorities deny responsibility for any of the killings, while foreign media, which remains severely restricted in the country, could not verify all of the reports.
Ahmad Reza Radan, Iran's deputy police chief, on Monday told state-run Press TV that one of Sunday's victims died after falling from a bridge, while two were killed in a car accident and a fourth was fatally shot.
“The police did not use firearms so this incident is absolutely suspicious and is under investigation,” he said.
Police said dozens of officers were injured and more than 300 protesters arrested.
Meanwhile, Iranian opposition websites are reporting that at least seven anti-government activists have been arrested in a new crackdown on the opposition. The sites say the arrested include Ali Riza Beheshti, the closest aide to opposition leader Mir Mousavi, and former Foreign Minister Ebrahim Yazdi.
In many ways, the circle of dissent seems to be tightening around Iran’s hardnosed president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has enjoyed little calm ever since the June elections, which opposition leaders claim were illegitimate.
One Israeli newspaper painted the protests as a political “earthquake” for the Iranian leadership.
“To refer to what has been happening in Tehran over the last few days as ‘riots’ is to gravely underestimate… the unrest,” wrote Zvi Bar’el in Haaretz, the Israeli daily. “The latest events are best described as further symptoms of an ongoing earthquake.”
“The country has seen major events since June,” Bar’el continued. “The death of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the reformists' spiritual leader; the heckling of a speech by former president Mohammad Khatami; the violence of the Ashura holiday; the show trials; the revelations about torture and executions.”
“These factors have been coming together to create the perfect backdrop for the street protests that have refused to abate for nearly half a year.”
Dr. Evgeny Satanovskiy, President of Middle Eastern Studies, says the ongoing demonstrations may spell the end for the Iranian regime.
“These increasingly violent protests,” Satanovskiy told RT, “indicate that the regime is not legitimate for a large number of people.
“It might happen later, or it may happen sooner, but this regime will ultimately fall,” he concluded, while warning of a potential “Iranian-style Tiananmen Square” [The Tiananmen Square protests were a series of demonstrations in Beijing beginning on April 14, 1989. Led mainly by students and intellectuals, hundreds were killed following a government crackdown].
Meanwhile, Moscow is holding onto hopes that the Iranian leader will eventually come to the negotiating table over its nuclear ambitions, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in an interview published in Monday's issue of Rossiyskaya Gazeta.
“We welcome US President Barack Obama's intentions to discuss not only the nuclear program [a concern that must be eliminated quickly] but also other issues with Iran,” Lavrov said. “That was one of the foreign political initiatives forwarded by President Obama after taking office at the White House.”
“I hope that his intentions have not changed,” he noted.
“At least it would meet the position coordinated with America, Europe and China and offered to Tehran. We are waiting for a response [from Tehran], but it has been very slow to come,” the Russian Foreign Minister added.
Iran is presently working on developing its nuclear program, which, it insists, is for strictly the purpose of generating electricity. Other countries, specifically the United States and Israel, argue that Tehran is working to secretly develop a nuclear weapon.
Meanwhile, The United States has sent a message of condemnation against Iran’s crackdown on protesters, offering its support to those who seek universal rights.
National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer on Sunday denounced Tehran's “unjust suppression of civilians.”
Hammer quoted President Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, saying “it is telling when governments fear the aspirations of their own people more than the power of any other nation.”
It seems that such advice will do little to prompt Ahmadinejad to contact his American counterpart to resolve the nuclear standoff in the near future.