ISTANBUL, Turkey — Iranian 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 Web sites reported the clashes.
"While people were reciting the Quran (in the mosque), plain-clothed 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
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 1/8and3/8 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
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."