Several hundred Iranians defied chilling warnings of a crackdown from the Revolutionary Guards to gather in a central Tehran square yesterday and continue their demonstrations against what they say was a stolen election. They did not last long, quickly dispersed by an overwhelming show of force from the security forces, who moved in, firing tear gas and live bullets into the air.
Yesterday morning, the hardline Revolutionary Guards had served notice that the gloves were coming off and they would mete out punishment to anyone continuing to protest the election results. "Be prepared for a resolution and revolutionary confrontation with the Guards, Basij and other security forces and disciplinary forces," they said in a statement on their website. "The Guards will firmly confront in a revolutionary way rioters and those who violate the law."
It seemed to be a direct ripost to Sunday's appeal by Mirhossein Mousavi, who believes he was cheated out of the presidency, for his supporters to keep up the momentum. "Protesting against lies and fraud [in the election] is your right," he had said. "In your protests continue to show restraint".
At first, it seemed the harsh warning from the Revolutionary Guards might have persuaded Mousavi supporters into more muted action. Early morning calls urged people to display black candles decked in green ribbons, and suggested motorists turn on their headlights at a designated time in protest. But a small crowd – reports put the number between 200 and 1,000 – shrugged off the threats and congregated in Haft-e Tir Square, where they were swiftly met by riot police and the Basiji militamen being used as street-level enforcers.
One witness described to Reuters how, from his balcony, he had seen the Basiji attack protesters chanting slogans and drag others out of a house where they had sought refuge. "The Basiji were really aggressive and swearing at me to go inside," the witness said. "I was scared they were going to break into my house too."
In a sign of heightened tensions in the capital, the British Foreign Office last night began evacuating the families of its diplomats, citing the increase in violence over the weekend which saw at least 10 people killed.
One of those was Neda Agha-Soltan, a woman in her 20s whose horrifying death from a gunshot wound was captured on film, swiftly turning her into the human face of what is being dubbed the Green Revolution.
Her fiancé, Caspian Makan, told BBC Persian TV how her grieving family had been banned from holding a memorial service at their local mosque yesterday.
"The authorities are aware that everybody in Iran and throughout the whole world knows about her story. So that's why they didn't want a memorial service. They were afraid that lots people could turn up at the event," Mr Makan said.
Official results for the 12 June election gave President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad 63 per cent of the votes, almost double that of Mr Mousavi, but there have been widespread allegations of vote rigging.
The Guardian Council, Iran's top legislative body looking into the complaints, has conceded that the number of votes surpassed the number of eligible voters in some constituencies but not in as many as the 170 that the defeated candidates had claimed.
"Based on initial information, 50 towns had this problem," spokesman Abbasali Kadkhodai was quoted by the state broadcaster IRIB as saying on Sunday. "However, the total votes in these constituencies do not exceed three million and consequently will not have any impact on the election."
Mehdi Karroubi, the cleric who officially came third in the race for the Presidency, dismissed the purported investigation into electoral fraud. "Instead of wasting time on recounting some ballot boxes ... cancel the vote," he wrote in a letter to the Guardian Council.
It is a plea that will fall on deaf ears. Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, was standing firmly by Mr Ahmadinejad at last Friday's prayers. Yesterday's bellicose language from the Revolutionary Guards, who are effectively under the Ayatollah's control, only served to spell out the strategy.
Meanwhile, the head of the Iranian parliament's judiciary committee hinted that while the security forces went after the protesters in the street, there might be an attempt to go after Mr Mousavi in the courts.
"Mousavi's calling for illegal protests and issuing provocative statements have been a source of recent unrests in Iran ... Such criminal acts should be confronted firmly," said Ali Shahrokhi, according to the Fars news agency. "The ground is paved to legally chase Mousavi."
Guards against change
*The Revolutionary Guards may need a new name as they have been staunchly on the side of the establishment. The 200,000-strong elite paramilitary force, with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a former member, was once charged with defending the leaders of the 1979 revolution; today, it is controlled by the Supreme Leader.
*The Basiji are subordinate to the Revolutionary Guard, but no less feared. A mix of very young men and those past the age of military service, they are said to be responsible for most of the violence against the opposition. They are the everyday "morality police", enforcing the wearing of the hijab, but are perhaps best known for their role in putting down student protests.Reuse content