Iran’s opposition leaders remained defiant Wednesday despite calls from hard-liners for them to be brought to trial and put to death. One reform advocate said he was willing to “pay any price” in pursuit of democratic change.
Iran’s beleaguered opposition brought tens of thousands of its supporters into the streets on Monday, ostensibly to display solidarity with Egypt’s anti-government protest movement. It was also a chance for the opposition to put on its first significant show of strength in more than a year, and it set off clashes with police that killed two people and injured dozens.
Editorial: Support a free Iran
Iranian MPs call for opposition leaders to be executed
A day later, furious hard-line lawmakers pumped their fists in the air in parliament and called for opposition leaders to be tried and sentenced to death.
One of the pro-reform figures, Mahdi Karroubi, was unmoved.
“I declare that I am not afraid of any threat,” said Karroubi, who has been effectively kept under house arrest since first calling for the demonstrations earlier this month. “As I’ve demonstrated in serving the nation as a soldier (political activist) since 1962, I am ready to pay any price on this noble path.”
Karroubi was one of two proreform candidates in the 2009 presidential election that sparked months of street protests which mushroomed into a movement against Iran’s ruling system. The unrest, put down with a heavy security crackdown by the military and a mass trial, posed the biggest challenge ever to Iran’s clerical regime, which came to power in the 1979 revolution.
Iran’s regime said it called a rally in Tehran Friday to express “hatred” for the opposition movement, AFP reported.
Wednesday’s call for the mass rally came as clashes erupted between regime backers and “apparent” supporters of the opposition at a funeral, attended by thousands in Tehran of a student killed in anti-government protests on Monday.
“The noble people of Tehran will take to Enghelab Square after Friday prayers with their solid and informed presence,” the Islamic Propagation Coordination Council, which organizes regime-backed programs, said Wednesday.
It said those joining the rally will “scream out their hatred, wrath and disgust for the savage crimes and evil movements of sedition leaders,” AFP reported.
A hard-line cleric, Ahmad Khatami, said the two opposition leaders were playing into the hands of the US and Israel – a familiar accusation.
“Leaders of sedition, specifically Mousavi and Karroubi, are aiding the US and Israel most,” Khatami said in a televised address before a group of clerics in the holy city of Qom, 130 kilometers south of the capital.
“This (opposition rally) is a big service to the US and the Zionists, and a disgraceful blot on the face of seditionists.”
Those present chanted “Death to Mousavi, Karroubi and Khatami,” in a gesture of support.
Khatami also said that by calling for Monday’s anti-government protests, the two leaders had committed a crime known as moharebeh, or “fighting God,” which carries the death penalty.
Karroubi urged Iran’s Islamic ruling system to learn from the fate of governments that remained aloof from their people, alluding to the toppling of autocratic leaders in Tunisia and Egypt.
“We warn (the ruling system) before it is too late: Stop being stubborn and listen to the voice of the people,” he said in remarks posted on his website, sahamnews.org. “Exercising violence and opposing people’s wishes can last for a limited time. Take a lesson from the fate of governments that distanced themselves from the people.”
Both sides in Iran have sought to make gains from the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose regime was a regional adversary of Iran’s leaders. The government cast it as a repeat of Iran’s Islamic Revolution.
Monday’s protesters said the 18-day uprising that ousted Mubarak was similar to their own campaign for change after Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election.
Another Iranian opposition figure, Mir Hossein Mousavi, praised protesters who turned out for Monday’s rally.
“Praise be on you. Your glorious rally on February 14 is a great achievement for the nation and the (opposition) Green Movement,” Mousavi said on his website, kaleme.com.
Mousavi’s claims that he was the rightful winner of the 2009 election, deprived of victory through fraud, set off Iran’s protest movement.
State TV on Wednesday called Mousavi and Karroubi mercenaries carrying out a plot designed by Iran’s enemies, and urged government supporters to rally on Friday.
The two sides even differed over the identity of one of those killed in Monday’s clashes: Sane Jaleh, a 26-year-old student at Tehran’s University of Art.
State television said he was a government supporter and a member of the paramilitary force known as the Basij, which has been instrumental in putting down opposition protests.
Mousavi’s website said Jaleh was a member of Mousavi’s election campaign team. Seeking to prove it, the website published a photo of Jaleh standing next to the late Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, Iran’s most senior dissident cleric, who died in December 2009.
In the Persian Gulf island state of Bahrain, protesters demanding sweeping political reforms held their ground Wednesday in an Egypt-inspired occupation of the capital’s landmark square. The rally marked a third day of demonstrations that have brought unprecedented pressure in one of Washington’s most strategic allies in the Gulf.
Security forces have pulled back sharply – apparently on orders to ease tensions – after clashes that left at least two people dead and dozens injured.
Police helicopters, however, flew low over a major funeral procession for one of the victims, in which mourners called him a “martyr” and pledged more protests in the island nation – home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet. The fleet’s base is one of the Pentagon’s major counterweights against Iran’s growing military reach, making Bahrain a linchpin of the US military framework in the Gulf.
Thousands of people spent the night in a makeshift tent camp in Manama’s Pearl Square, which had been swarmed by demonstrators a day earlier. One demonstrator used a bullhorn to call on protesters to remain until their demands were met, as the Arab wave for change takes hold in the Gulf.
The pan-Arab broadcaster Al- Jazeera, founded by the emir in nearby Qatar, also gave sporadic coverage. That compares with nearly round-the-clock attention to Egypt’s turmoil, suggesting worry by Qatar’s Sunni rulers about the unrest coming to their doorstep.
Social networking websites were abuzz with calls to press ahead with the protests, as well as with insults from presumed government backers calling the demonstrators traitors and agents of Shi’ite powerhouse Iran. Bahrain’s state TV gave limited reports on the protests.
The protests began Monday as a cry for the country’s Sunni monarchy to loosen its grip, including hand-picking most top government posts, and open up more opportunities for the country’s majority Shi’ites, who have long complained of being blocked from decisionmaking roles.
But the uprising’s demands have steadily reached further.
Many protesters are calling for the government to provide more jobs and better housing and free all political detainees.
Increasingly, protesters are also chanting slogans to wipe away the entire ruling dynasty that has led Bahrain for more than 200 years.