To refer to what has been happening in Tehran over the last few days as "riots" is to gravely underestimate the power of the unrest erupting in the country since the June elections. The latest events are best described as further symptoms of an ongoing earthquake.
The country has seen major events since June - 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.
The longer the demonstrations go on, the clearer it becomes that they're not aimed only at President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but also at Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The chants of "Death to the Dictator" and the placards with caricatures of the leader indicate that the protest movement is changing gears.
Khamenei's rule and the regime that he represents are not endangered yet, as Khamenei controls the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij paramilitary. The authorities' response seems to indicate the regime still sees suppression by force as the best remedy for discontent. The free use of live ammunition against protesters, which has claimed the lives of nine so far, is ample illustration of the official strategy. However, those casualties, and especially one of them, the nephew of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, are likely to inspire more rallies and demonstrations in the coming days.
These events may well turn out to be a critical standoff between the regime and the opposition, between theologians opposing Khamenei and the radical clerics supporting him, and between the anti-Ahmadinejad conservatives in the Iranian parliament and the president's supporters.
As the sides continue to face off, the possibility for dialogue between the parties dims, and the likelihood of administering the country through political maneuvering without direct military intervention grows slimmer by the day. The recent decision of the U.S. Congress to enact further sanctions on Iran is contributing to the gap between the rulers and the citizenry, but this decision may also work in the regime's favor in its bid it present the opposition as friends of the American foe. What's needed now from the Americans is restraint until the direction of the events becomes clear.
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