Iran is braced for a potentially volatile showdown today with the opposition set to hijack state-sponsored rallies marking the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution that toppled the US-backed Shah. Each side has predicted the event could prove pivotal in Iran's political turmoil. The iconic date on the 22nd day in the Persian calendar month of Bahman has been a traditionally festive occasion and an opportunity for the regime to showcase popular support for the establishment.
Today is likely to be very different. The anniversary comes as Iran is gripped by its worst political crisis since the 1979 Islamic revolution, ignited by the disputed re-election of the hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, last June. Despite government threats of a draconian clampdown, the opposition, which has used other key dates in Iran's calendar to take to the streets, is hoping for its biggest show of peaceful, popular strength in months. The leaders of the so-called "green movement" say the event could be a potential "turning point" in Iran's history.
They hope it will change the balance of power in their eight-month stalemate with the government, persuading the flailing but stubborn regime to compromise. The authorities, however, are equally bullish, predicting that the opposition will be silenced for good, which, according to Iran's deputy police chief, Gen Ahmad-Reza Radan, will "mark the burial of sedition". The government has urged its supporters to turn out in huge numbers while scores of students, journalists, human rights campaigners and women's rights activists have been arrested in recent weeks to stifle today's expected protests.
Revolutionary Guards and Basij militia have been deployed to Tehran, opposition sources said. Another convicted "rioter" was sentenced to death yesterday while several people preparing to "disrupt" official rallies were arrested, Iran's police chief, Esmail Ahmadi-Moghaddam, said. Foreign media for the first time have been banned from covering the revolution anniversary. At least eight people were killed in the last major street demonstrations on December 27, as Iran marked Ashura, Shia Islam's most sacred day of mourning.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, predicted that the anniversary will demonstrate national unity and give "all arrogant [western powers] a punch in the mouth". Each side portrays itself as the loyal heir to the historic legacy of late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the Islamic revolution. Government officials have branded the opposition western-backed stooges bent on undermining the Islamic state in a "velvet revolution".
The opposition's leaders, in turn, have repeatedly avowed their loyalty to the Islamic system but want it reformed, arguing it has strayed from the ideals of freedom and justice promised in 1979. Ayatollah Khomeini, they insist, would have supported their demands. "Stifling the media, filling the prisons and brutally killing people who peacefully demand their rights in the streets indicate the roots of tyranny and dictatorship remain from the monarchist era," Mir Hossein Mousavi, the man millions of Iranians believe was the real winner of June's "stolen" election, recently proclaimed.
"I don't believe that the revolution has achieved its goal - Dictatorship in the name of religion is the worst kind," added Mr Mousavi, who served as prime minister under Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1980s. Mohammad Khatami, Iran's reformist former president who is another opposition figurehead, said today was a potential turning point in Iran's history. "Those who accuse protesters of subversion are voluntarily or involuntarily derailing the revolution from its correct track," Mr Khatami, a cleric, said.
Such criticism from the opposition's leaders is particularly stinging because all have impeccable revolutionary credentials. Loyal to the system, but demanding an end to authoritarianism and force, they could serve as a vital connection between the state and the people - if the regime chooses to negotiate. They have insisted the protests must be peaceful and have made clear they are striving to rein in more radical supporters, some of whom have directed their anger at Ayatollah Khamenei with chants of "Death to the Dictator".
Mr Mousavi recently appealed to opposition supporters not to press for reforms that go beyond the constitution. And on Monday, he said: "Anger and bitterness should not take our control away." His nephew was shot dead during the Ashura protests. Several weeks ago, Mr Mousavi offered the regime a way out of the crisis. He said the government must take responsibility for the turmoil, create a transparent law for trustworthy elections, release political prisoners and recognise press freedoms and the right to demonstrate.
Some conservative politicians opposed to Mr Ahmadinejad have proposed differentiating opposition "critics" from "rioters". And opposition websites reported that Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, another former president and dissenting pillar of the revolutionary establishment, on Monday held an emergency meeting with Ayatollah Khamenei, in which he called for "the end of shameful actions" against protesters.
But Iran's supreme leader has shown no interest yet in exploring the possibility of reconciliation within the framework of the Islamic system offered by the opposition's main leaders. He seemingly fears any concessions will be viewed as weak. Many hardliners believe it was the Shah's decision to accede to some of the protesters demands that emboldened the opposition, spurring his downfall 31 years ago.