Iran security forces stepped up clashes with protesters in Isfahan Wednesday, the birthplace of dissident cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, whose death has energized the opposition.
By Scott Peterson
Iran security forces and opposition protesters stepped up clashes on Wednesday in the city of Isfahan, the birthplace of Iran’s top dissident cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. Montazeri’s death this past weekend, and the rituals marking his passing, coincide with a new push by regime opponents during a 10-day religious commemoration.
The government has responded by harassing two reformist clerics who could replace Montazeri, as well as stripping the opposition’s top political figure – Mir Hossein Mousavi – of his sole official post.
In Isfahan, pro-regime basiji militiamen used batons, chains, and stones to beat mourners who gathered at the city’s main mosque to remember Montazeri, the spiritual mentor of the Iranian opposition, whose websites reported the clashes.
“While people were reciting the Quran [in the mosque], plainclothed forces attacked them and threw tear gas into the mosque yard and sprayed those inside with pepper spray after they closed the doors,” reported the reformist Parlemannews. “They severely beat the people inside,” then doused the clerical speaker with pepper spray and arrested him.
“Tens of thousands gathered outside for the memorial but were savagely attacked by security forces and the basijis,” witness Farid Salavati told the Associated Press. He said that dozens were injured as riot police and vigilantes clubbed and kicked men and women alike – some in the face – and arrested 50 people who had gathered to mourn the grand ayatollah.
Montazeri – the chosen successor of Iran’s first supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, until a falling out in 1989 – had been unrelenting in his criticism of the officially declared reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last June, as well as of Iran’s current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“Khamenei is a murderer, his rule is invalid,” protesters shouted on Wednesday, referring to violence since June, in which severe force has been used against Iranians who marched to reverse the official result. They wanted to see the “Green Movement” presidential candidate, Mr. Mousavi, elected. Scores died in June and thousands were arrested; protests have flared repeatedly around the nation since then.
Government announces state of emergency, calls in military for help
In Isfahan, the clashes on Wednesday portend more violence, as protesters and pro-government forces alike prepare for the religious peak of the Shiite calendar, Ashura, which falls on Sunday. By the end of the day on Wednesday, it was reported that the governor had announced a state of emergency and reportedly called in the military for help.
“The regime has no alternative but to try to block the commemorations of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, because it has been state policy to demote him,” says Mehrdad Khonsari of the Center for Arab and Iranian Studies in London. “But given the events of the last six months, this only aggravates the situation [and] becomes a catalyst for more protests and is counter-productive.
“Every demonstration is a dress rehearsal for the next demonstration. Once Ashura is over next week, there will be more demonstrations,” says Mr. Khonsari. “The fact is there is no likelihood that these protests are going to come to an end anytime soon.”
Mousavi stripped of title
Mousavi, a former prime minister who has vowed not to back down in his challenge, was on Tuesday stripped of his one official post – as president of Iran’s Academy of Art since 1999 – after joining mourners for Montazeri’s funeral in the Shiite holy city of Qom on Monday.
Mr. Ahmadinejad was reported to have broken off a domestic trip to take part in the meeting that removed Mousavi. Judicial officials last week made clear they had “evidence” against Mousavi, and might arrest him – an act that analysts say would surely provoke a popular outpouring on the streets.
Pro-regime forces expanded their crackdown to include the two high-ranking reformist ayatollahs who might fill Montazeri’s shoes as spiritual guide to the opposition.
Security forces on Wednesday reportedly surrounded the compound of Ayatollah Jalaledin Taheri, the former Friday prayer leader for Isfahan. Originally appointed by Ayatollah Khomeini – the founder of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution – he resigned in 2002 in protest then at the direction the regime was going.
Taheri has called the June results “illegitimate,” and was the organizer of the Wednesday commemoration in Isfahan. Until he resigned, his sermons were sometimes disrupted by pro-regime vigilantes – the same ones he lambasted in his 2002 resignation letter as “louts and fascists, who are a mixture of ignorance and madness, but whose umbilical cord is connected to the center of power, and who are completely uncontrolled and beyond the law.”
Pro-reform grand ayatollah’s offices also attacked
Those same vigilantes and their more formal basiji militia brethren on Tuesday also attacked the offices of the pro-reform Grand Ayatollah Yusuf Saanei in Qom. They broke windows, insulted and beat up his staff, and put up posters of Khamenei, according to a report on the main reformist party website. Police prevented the staff from defending the premises.
The semi-official Fars News Agency on Tuesday reported that pro-regime theology students staged a protest against “the insult against sanctities” during the Montazeri funeral, and their protest ended up outside Grand Ayatollah Saanei’s offices. They signed a statement for Saanei to be stripped of his religious authority.
Saanei told the Monitor in late 2003 that vigilantes were “criminals … and wild wolves,” and decried the regime’s tyranny, violence and prisons for rendering Iran unfit to be “presented as an Islamic example.”
Clerics distancing themselves from government to retain legitimacy
Opposition websites reported that Montazeri’s family have called off the traditional third and seventh mourning nights to prevent further disturbances, after vigilantes and basijis attacked the offices of Montazeri and his son following the funeral on Monday.
“Montazeri was the spiritual leader of the Green Movement … but the situation is really beyond the need for having a spiritual person back this movement,” says Khonsari. “You don’t need a cleric to legitimize it. But the clerics are legitimizing their own positions by distancing themselves from the ruling establishment, to indicate they are in tune with general aspirations.”
The Times quoted Western intelligence sources as saying the Iranians completed their research program to create weaponized uranium back in 2003.
Contrary to a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate report which claimed that Iran halted its nuclear activities because of the threat of an American invasion following the occupation of Iraq, the real reason for the halt was that the Iranians had figured out how to detonate a warhead that could be fitted on its long-range Shehab-3 missiles, according to the Times.
“If the Supreme Leader takes the decision [to build a bomb], we assess they have to enrich low-enriched uranium to highly-enriched uranium at the Natanz plant, which could take six months, depending on how many centrifuges are operating,” an intelligence source told the Times. “We don’t know if the decision was made yet.”
Aside from the Natanz plant, the source speculated that Iran may have built a number of small, secret facilities which store materials that can be developed for a nuclear bomb, the Times reported.
American officials briefed Israel last week on the administration’s ideas for intensifying sanctions against Iran if it fails to respond to U.S. President Barack Obama‘s offer of dialogue.
In his meeting with Israeli officials, U.S. National Security Advisor James Jones indicated that Tehran has until the UN General Assembly in the last week of September to respond. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates delivered a similar message during his visit here earlier this week. If no satisfactory answer is received, the Americans said, they would work to form an international coalition to impose harsh sanctions on Iran.
A senior source in Jerusalem said the American message to Israel in these talks was to “lower its profile” and refrain from “ranting and raving” about Iran in public until the international evaluation on Iran takes place at the end of September. “Until that date, we must give diplomacy a chance,” the official said.
“If they want to, they will be able to set off a uranium bomb within six months,” an analyst with Germany’s intelligence service, Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), told the magazine.
“Nobody would have thought this possible some years ago,” an intelligence official told Stern.
The UN Security Council has imposed three sets of sanctions on Tehran for defying its demands to suspend uranium enrichment.
Some analysts say Iran may be close to having the required material for producing a bomb, but most say the weaponization process would then take one to two years due to technical and political hurdles.
“Weaponizing” enrichment would not escape the notice of UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), unless it was done at a secret location.
Until now there have been no indications of any such covert diversion, a point made by the IAEA’s incoming director-general shortly after his election earlier this month.
Current IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei has said it is his “gut feeling” that Iran is seeking at least the capability to build nuclear weapons, in order to protect itself from perceived regional and U.S. threats.
Libyan leader: Peaceful nuclear program should be encouraged
Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi says Iran should be encouraged to pursue its nuclear program as long as it is for peaceful purposes.
He said it is “unjust” to stop Iran from enriching uranium for peaceful purposes, but that it must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons.
The United States and Israel say Iran is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. Iran denies the charge, saying its program is for generating power.
Libya in 2003 abandoned its own program to develop nuclear and chemical weapons.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office refused to respond to a report today purporting to quote an Israeli defense official stating the recent deployment of warships across the Red Sea should be seen as serious preparation for an attack on Iran.
“It is not our policy to comment on such reports,” Mark Regev, Netanyahu’s spokesman, told WND.
Earlier this week, two Israel Navy gunboats openly sailed through the Suez Canal into the Red Sea with permission from Egypt.
“This is preparation that should be taken seriously. Israel is investing time in preparing itself for the complexity of an attack on Iran. These maneuvers are a message to Iran that Israel will follow up on its threats,” the Times of London today quoted what it said was an Israeli defense official as saying.
The warship movements follow the passage last month of an Israeli Dolphin-class submarine through the canal, later returning the same way.
The Times today quoted an Israeli diplomat explaining the Jewish state has been bolstering its ties with certain Arab nations that are also threatened by Iran. The diplomat cited a “shared mutual distrust of Iran” between Israel and Egypt.
In a report denied by Netanyahu’s office, the Times of London two weeks ago claimed Saudi Arabia would turn a blind eye to Israeli warplanes flying over the kingdom in any raid on Iran’s nuclear sites.
The Times said Mossad director Meir Dagan had held secret talks with Saudi officials to discuss the possibility.
“The Saudis have tacitly agreed to the Israeli air force flying through their airspace on a mission which is supposed to be in the common interests of Israel and Saudi Arabia,” the newspaper quoted a diplomatic source as saying.
Marzieh Amirizadeh, 30, and Maryam Rustampoor, 27, have been held for over four months in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison apparently for converting to Christianity from Islam.
Iranian Christians and rights investigators said the two young women, who were arrested March 5, suffered sleep deprivation as part of police interrogations and were held in solitary confinement for three weeks in May and early June.
Later, they were put together in one small cell for about two weeks before being moved to a larger area to make place for other inmates as many protesters were detained following last month’s disputed presidential elections, said Christians with close knowledge about the situation.
About 600 women were reportedly brought to Evin prison during the protests.
After international pressure, the Iranian Government’s Parliamentary Committee reportedly removed articles stipulating the death penalty for apostasy from the Islamic Penal Code Bill, but the changes have to be approved by legislators.