I've been struck today by what appears to be a turning point on several fronts in Iran, though sorting through the immediacy of the reports flowing through Twitter and YouTube makes the bigger picture virtually impossible to absorb.
But here's a fascinating perspective -- the Islamic Republic of Iran has taken to the streets in clear defiance of the country's military dictatorship. If you know anything about Iran, ponder that for a moment. As recently as eight days ago -- the day of the presidential election in Iran -- the Islamic Republic was the government, and Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, was the firm voice of that government.
And given that collapse of legitimacy and the mystique of the Islamic Revolution, Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and those who organized the head-crackers to assault Iran's citizens will probably have a fragile grasp on their lives from here on out.
The New York Times' Roger Cohen who has been braving the streets of Tehran today just filed a gripping account of today's events, but he too notes that Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader, has lost "his aura."
Khamenei had one opportunity to regain his footing, and that was during Friday prayers. But instead of lessening the tension his regime had been holding on the situation, he pulled in all the tighter. The irony? Khamenei has defaulted to the playbook of the last revolution, casting himself in the role of the deposed Shah whose military government collapsed beneath the strategic genius of the Islamic revolution 30 years ago.
Numerous people (including myself somewhere along the way) have wondered if Iran would have a Tienneman moment -- refering to the face-off between students and the Chinese government two decades ago. It's become clear that the strong cultural and religious differences between China and Iran will make for a far different outcome in Iran -- the culture of martyrdom means that the death of students and others in the streets will create a stronger reaction by the street.
The deaths allegedly came in droves today -- reports are that as many as 150 people have died this week, and the majority today. Clearly, the government thought it's strategy of massing the streets with soldiers and basiji militia to prevent large crowds from gathering as they did earlier in the week would be effective. It was -- to a point.
Earlier in the day, reports suggested that the crowds were smaller and more fragmented than the million people who massed the streets of Tehran on Monday. For a few hours, it was as if the air had been sucked out of the movement. Then the violence erupted.
Josh Shahryar AKA NiteOwl recently posted a summary compiled from Twitter and vetted fairly extensively. He paints an amazing picture of what transpired in the streets of Tehran and throughout Iran today.
Clemons mentioned Roger Cohen earlier. Here's a snippet of his reporting from the streets of Tehran:
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, had used his Friday sermon to declare high noon in Tehran, warning of “bloodshed and chaos” if protests over a disputed election persisted.
He got both on Saturday — and saw the hitherto sacrosanct authority of his office challenged as never before since the 1979 revolution birthed the Islamic Republic and conceived for it a leadership post standing at the very flank of the Prophet. A multitude of Iranians took their fight through a holy breach on Saturday from which there appears to be scant turning back.
Khamenei has taken a radical risk. He has factionalized himself, so losing the arbiter’s lofty garb, by aligning himself with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against both Mir Hussein Moussavi, the opposition leader, and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a founding father of the revolution.
He has taunted millions of Iranians by praising their unprecedented participation in an election many now view as a ballot-box putsch. He has ridiculed the notion that an official inquiry into the vote might yield a different result. He has tried pathos and he has tried pounding his lectern. In short, he has lost his aura.The taboo-breaking response was unequivocal. It’s funny how people’s obsessions come back to bite them. I’ve been hearing about Khamenei’s fear of “velvet revolutions” for months now. There was nothing velvet about Saturday’s clashes.
Watch for the students and religious moderates to take to the streets in the days ahead, using their own playbook from the 1979 revolution -- pulling millions into the streets to mourn those martyred by the regime's misplayed gambit.