Outraged Religious Moderates Join the Green Wave

The dramatic narrative of Ashura—Imam Hussein's epic 7th-century struggle against the army of the tyrant Yazid—reenacted in passion plays in Shia communities around the world yesterday took on special resonance in Iran. Tens of thousands of antigovernment protestors recast the bloody historical event, claiming their own struggle mirrored that of Imam Hussein and his followers. Opposition Web sites posted grainy cell-phone videos of protestors chanting "This is the month of blood, Yazid is finished!"—referring not to the usurping caliph of old, but to their present-day foil, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Like Hussein and his followers, several of them died for the cause. And as a result, moderate, religious Iranians now appear to be hitting the streets to support the Green Wave—in a way they hadn't been before.

The protests in Iran have ebbed and flowed in the months since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed June 12 election. But when huge crowds in Tehran and at least half a dozen other cities turned out yesterday to chant slogans comparing Khamenei to Yazid, the crackdown began. Despite a religious proscription against violence during Ashura, security forces rained bullets and tear gas on the demonstrations. According to Press TV, the government-affiliated English language channel, at least eight were killed—though some opposition Web sites claimed the figure was higher—including the nephew of Mir Hossein Mousavi, Ahmadinejad's election opponent. The authorities have reportedly refused to hand over his body.

That was what galvanized the crowds. The protesters, who were already becoming more violent, posted videos and photos in which they beat and disarmed riot police and plainclothes security officials. At least one police station was set on fire in Tehran. The Basij headquarters at the Oil Ministry in Tehran was also vandalized and set ablaze. Some pictures even showed anti-riot policemen switching sides in response to the brutality of the official crackdown.

The same outrage is what brought even moderate but observant Iranians (the type who hadn't been involved in previous protests) to the streets yesterday: clashes were reported in the working-class southern suburbs of Tehran as well as Mashad, Arak, and Ardebil—all conservative cities. Many of them were already fuming because of a prohibition on funeral ceremonies for Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, Iran's leading dissident cleric who died last Sunday. Najafabad, Montazeri's hometown, was practically under a state of martial law yesterday, according to opposition Web sites. News of the irreligious Ashura-killings will be slow to spread, because official reports of the protests are elliptical, but once it does it will likely draw more of these moderates into the streets, to commemorate the third, seventh, and fortieth day after the deaths. Until now, Tehran hadn't concerned religious moderates—most of whom are apolitical—or posed any kind of threat to the government. But the violent paranoia Tehran has shown in the last week allied them with the Green Wave, awakening a new and very real threat to Ahmadinejad's administration—and maybe even the government itself.

The regime has already begun silencing prominent dissident clerics who could encourage more moderates to hit the streets. A religious ceremony conducted by former president Mohammad Khatami was attacked by members of the Basij, a government-run militia, on Saturday night. The ceremony was being held in Jamaran, the former residence of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. A video posted on YouTube shows a group of men violently pushing their way into the ceremony amidst screams and shouts. Khatami's bodyguards quickly surround him and whisk him off stage. But Khatami wasn't the only cleric recently targeted: earlier today, Ayatollah Hussein Moussavi Tabrizi, the head of a prominent clerical association in Qom, was arrested, according to the Rahesabz Web site. Yesterday, Mehdi Karroubi, a candidate in the June elections and one of the government's most outspoken critics, wrote a letter of condolence to the Iranian people and blasted the government's Ashura crackdown. "If you don't have religion," he wrote, "at least have honor."