Iran's main opposition leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, defiantly proclaimed his readiness to sacrifice his life for justice and reform yesterday - but also offered the flailing regime a way out of its self-inflicted crisis.
It was his first statement since hardliners brayed for his execution this week after mass opposition protests on December 27, when his nephew was among at least eight people killed in a violent crackdown by security forces on Ashura, Shia Islam's most sacred day of mourning. "I am not unwilling to become a martyr like those who made that sacrifice after the election for their rightful national and religious demands," Mr Mousavi declared on his website amid growing speculation in opposition circles that his arrest is imminent. "My blood is no redder than theirs."
Mr Mousavi, whom millions of Iranians believe was the true winner of June's "stolen" presidential election, warned the regime that it was making more mistakes by resorting to violence, mass arrests and other repressive measures that "will create internal uprising". There was a "serious crisis in the country" which could not be resolved unless the government acknowledged its existence and took "direct responsibility" for it.
Presenting a five-stage solution, he said the government must also create a "transparent law" for trustworthy elections, release political prisoners and recognise press freedoms as well as the right to demonstrate. The regime, arrogantly confident of its power, rejected similarly modest demands in the wake of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election six months ago. It was a gross miscalculation of the popular mood.
By refusing to address any of the opposition's grievances at the time, the regime may have lost a chance to resolve its greatest challenge since the founding of the Islamic republic in 1979, analysts said. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, now seemingly fears that making concessions will be viewed as weakness. Many hardliners believe it was the vacillating Shah's decision to accede to some of the protesters' demands that emboldened the opposition, spurring his downfall 31 years ago.
The current regime's attempt to bludgeon its critics into submission has only deepened the opposition's anger and resolve. The Ashura protests were the biggest and bloodiest since June. Hardliners, in turn, have accused their opposition rivals of fomenting the unrest on behalf of the United States and Britain - and made increasingly strident calls for them to be punished. Mr Mousavi, a former prime minister, yesterday scornfully rejected charges that he and other opposition figureheads were western lackeys. "We are neither Americans nor Britons. We have sent no congratulation cards to the leaders of major powers," he said, mockingly referring to a card that Mr Ahmadinejad sent to Barack Obama on his election as president last year.
The opposition's main leaders all have impeccable revolutionary credentials and are committed to reforming to reforming Iran's Islamic system, not removing it. Their followers are angry and frustrated but, instead of another revolution, most favour evolutionary change under which clerics would have an oversight role - without executive power, analysts said. "We are loyal to the constitution," Mr Mousavi, insisted, dismissing accusations that his followers want to topple the regime. "We want an honest and compassionate government that considers diversity of opinion and the popular vote to be opportunities."
Fearing it would enflame the situation, the authorities have so far refused to heed the urging of some hardliners to arrest the opposition's three main nominal leaders. But to pressure the trio, government agents have hauled away at least 20 senior aides close to them. Without referring directly to his nephew, Mr Mousavi said: "I clearly and explicitly say that the order to execute, kill or jail Karrubi or Mousavi and people like us will not solve anything."
Mehdi Karrubi, a septuagenarian cleric, was, like Mr Mousavi, an ostensibly defeated candidate in June's election. Both have encouraged demonstrations without organising them, robbing the authorities of a pretext to arrest them. The regime has exposed its ossified thinking in its vain attempt to crush the opposition by decapitating its leadership. Hardliners recall the symbolic power of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the revolution against the autocratic Shah.
But today's remarkably resilient, inventive and growing opposition has thrived without either charismatic leaders or an organisational network. Professor Gary Sick, a pre-eminent Iran expert at New York's Columbia University, said: "The Iranian opposition most resembles a ganglion, a tangled bundle of nerve cells where each part of the system is constantly and instantly in touch with all other parts."
"We may see a real leadership of the opposition emerge from Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, SMS, cell phone, website, digital camera, email, internet collective," he wrote in The Daily Beast, a US news and opinion website. Writing before Mr Mousavi's statement yesterday, the renowned Iranian scholar Farideh Farhi, said that the "actions and words" of Iran's hardliners suggested that "they are more willing to court civil strife - than probe the possibility of reconciliation within the framework of the Islamic Republic" offered by Mr Mousavi and his fellow opposition leaders.
Confirming those fears yesterday, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a hardline cleric leading Friday prayers at Tehran University, insisted arrested "rioters" should remain behind bars while the heads of the "sedition" should be punished as "obvious examples of corrupt on earth". @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org