TEHRAN With tens of thousands of police deployed Saturday to suppress the massive crowds that have been demanding new elections, it appears that the political crisis touched off by the disputed victory of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has entered a new phase.
Police were quick to attack groups of protesters as they moved from various parts of Tehran to rally at Enqelab (Revolution) Square in the afternoon, apparently in hopes of dispersing demonstrators in advance and thus preempting the opposition protests that have filled the streets for much of the past week.
It now appears that the highly anticipated speech by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at the Friday Prayer marked a major hardening of the regimes attitude toward the protests.
Iranians of all walks were glued to their television sets, listening for hints about ways to calm the mayhem that has engulfed Iran since election day, particularly in large cities.
Some were disappointed but said they really did not expect more; others watched in disbelief the leaders seeming inability to address the popular anger.
Although the speech did begin with a vow to soothe wounded feelings, it ended with defiance and a statement of readiness to sacrifice for the cause of revolution and Islam. The speech was widely perceived as an incitement, and was immediately greeted with piercing shouts by protesters of "Allah-o-Akbar" (God is great) from rooftops across Tehran.
The incitement came in the form of unusual clarity in support of President Ahmadinejad as well as the more explicit issuing of a threat.
Ayatollah Khamenei described the difference of 11 million votes between Ahmadinejad and leading reformist candidate Mir Hossein Moussavi as solid evidence that the election was not rigged, effectively closing the door to the possibility of the Guardian Council, the body that must certify the votes, finding its own way to redress the situation.
This was not the first time Khamenei had supported Ahmadinejad. But on previous occasions, his support was framed as a defense of a sitting president under heavy criticism and not necessarily support for his ideas and policies. This time the leader made his relationship to and support for Ahmadinejad clear.
He termed as baseless the oppositions criticisms of Ahmadinejad and explicitly stated that his views own about social, economic and foreign policy were closer to Ahmadinejad than to those of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. This was the first time, as acknowledged by the leader himself, that he named specific political figures, and the leader, who is expected to stand above the factional fray, announced his partisanship.
Most importantly, he asked the two candidates contesting the election Moussavi and Mehdi Karrubi to stop their "street muscle flexing" demonstrations or take responsibility for the violence that might ensue, possibly through a terrorist act.
The reference to a terrorist act was seen as particularly ominous.
There were reports Saturday morning of a bomb blast near the shrine of the Islamic Republics founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini Saturday morning.
According to the Constitution, the supreme leader is Irans highest authority, with far-reaching powers. He can certainly utilize those powers to intimidate opponents and incite his base to attack his opponents.
People in the streets are wondering aloud about whether Ayatollah Khamenei is aware of the depth of peoples anger and whether he is giving support to the president in spite of this awareness.
The protests that have so far taken shape are unprecedented in the history of the Islamic Republic in their seriousness and coordination in the pursuit of specific demands.
This appears to be a very different movement from the more limited student movement of the 1990s. It is an eclectic movement entailing people of all classes, educational levels, ages and gender.
Grandparents walk alongside their children and grandchildren. University professors, artists and intellectuals have joined. Even some members of the Iranian national soccer team wore the color of protest – green – on their wrists while playing South Korea to a 1-1 draw earlier in the week.
It is perhaps the breadth of the opposition movement that has so far kept the demands of protesters limited and focused only on the voiding of the election. Astonishingly, this movement appears very similar in many ways that that which generated the 1979 Revolution both in terms of symbols and tactics.
The opposition, which owes its existence essentially to the activities of campaign workers in various cities, managed very quickly to rally behind of one candidate Moussavi and against another Ahmadinejad. As one demonstrator said, "Those campaign nights and days caused us to meet each other and know that we have common demands."
The congregation of crowd this time is also similar to 1979 in terms of the relative lack of sophisticated electronic media or cell phones to bring people together.
Although social networking cites like Twitter initially played a large role, the governments efforts to block access to the internet and modern telecommunications systems have again forced people to rely on word of mouth, making "every individual a medium," an expression often repeated in the streets.
Silent walks allow people to trade numbers, talk to each other, learn about each others lives, and plan for the next demonstration.
Every night people climb to the rooftops of their buildings at exactly 10 p.m. and shout, "Allah-o Akbar" across the city, a haunting echo of the Revolution.
Even gunshots piercing the night have not prevented voices expressed in unison. This popular movement has so far received the support of Ayatollahs Mussavi Ardebili, Sanei, Amjad, Bayat, Makarem Shirazi, and of course dissident Montazeri, who, according to unconfirmed reports, has once more been placed under house arrest.
Iranian bloggers are asking people to send pictures and names of plain-clothes goons that are beating people in the streets and in student dormitories. So far, the pictures of seven people have been identified, including one who shot a young man from atop a station of the basij, a feared paramilitary group that often acts as the governments "morality police."
The incident led to the burning of the station and the hospitalization for severe burns of the basiji gunman.
The intent is to expose the assailants to the larger societys eyes and conscience and shame them into inaction.
Irans parliament, or Majles, has itself promised an investigation into an incident earlier this week when suspected basiji invaded dormitories at Tehran University and beat suspected student leaders. An appeal by the Majles deputy speaker to name the responsible individuals led to fisticuffs in the chamber.
But with his talk on Friday, Ayatollah Khamenei placed himself solidly on the side of the governments hard-liners, closing the path of return that the opposition had sought in calling for the voiding of the election results.
The Guardian Council has invited all candidates to participate in a meeting with the council. Latest reports suggest that neither Moussavi nor Karrubi attended the meeting.
At the same time, the police have been deployed to prevent protesters from gathering at Enqelab (Revolution) Square to march towards Azadi (Freedom) Square, the highly symbolic route that has been adopted by the opposition for the past week.
How Moussavi and Karrubi, not to mention their hundreds of thousands of supporters here, or, for that matter, the powerful Hashemi Rafsanjani, will respond remains to be seen.