Iranian authorities dramatically intensified a crackdown on the country’s burgeoning opposition movement Monday, rounding up political activists and seizing the corpse of one leading dissident’s nephew, along with the bodies of other victims of weekend violence, in an apparent effort to stem further protests.
Authorities positioned swarms of police at main squares in Tehran, dispatched helicopters and shut down some subway stations and telephone service to prevent demonstrators from arriving as protests broke out Monday afternoon in the capital, news websites said.
In Najafabad -- the hometown of the late dissident cleric Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, whose Dec. 19 death fueled the opposition’s determination over the weekend -- martial law has reportedly been declared amid an outbreak of civil unrest there.
At least eight people were killed Sunday in civil disturbances in Tehran, according to Iranian news outlets, with dozens of police officers and protesters injured and huge swaths of the capital littered with debris and ash from a weekend of rioting. Protests coinciding with the Ashura religious holiday also broke out in other cities and towns across the country. Hundreds were arrested in a dragnet targeting opposition figures and activists that continued into Monday.
Authorities said Sunday that 300 people had been arrested in the day’s fiery protests. Iranian opposition websites put the number of arrestees at 550 in Tehran and more than 400 in Esfahan, including the brother of reformist politician and former Interior Minister Abdullah Nouri.
The crisis sparked by the disputed reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the subsequent violent crackdown on his opponents continues to dominate the country’s social and political life, contributing to the sense of a spiraling crisis. One leading reformist cleric on Monday called on fellow clergy to speak out forcefully against the government’s continuing actions, which over the last six months appear only to have added fuel to the fires of public resentment against the Islamic Republic.
“I call on all true clerics, and all men of God in all cities, to break their silence . . . and to demand that the government act in line with the constitution in order for this revolution, which is the fruit of the blood of thousands of martyrs and the sacrifice of thousands of veterans, to be delivered from the grasp of reactionaries,” Ayatollah Mohammad-Ali Dastgheib Shirazi said.
Images of the weekend’s violence captured by protesters using cellphone video cameras, uploaded to the Internet and broadcast globally grabbed headlines and roiled capitals. Western officials urged Iranian authorities to deal peacefully with their opponents and release prisoners.
“For months, the Iranian people have sought nothing more than to exercise their universal rights,” President Obama said while on vacation in Hawaii. “Each time they have done so, they have been met with the iron fist of brutality, even on solemn occasions and holy days. We call upon the Iranian government to abide by the international obligations that it has to respect the rights of its own people.”
Even Russia, a frequent supporter of the Islamic Republic, joined in an international chorus of concern about the violence.
“The main thing in such a situation is to exercise restraint, search for and find compromises on the basis of the law [and] make political effort to prevent further escalation of internal standoff,” said an official commentary posted on Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.
The mass arrests of activists, some of them with minimal roles in the ongoing unrest, and the snatching of corpses suggested frustration on the part of Iranian authorities. They have been unable to stem the tide of an opposition movement that appears to be growing in size and gaining new geographic and demographic footholds despite the use of police power, the judiciary and state broadcasting, which has been airing a steady stream of disparaging reports about the opposition.
“They can’t believe this system of organizing ourselves by ourselves,” said one political activist reached in Tehran. “They think there must be some infrastructure, and they are dying to find it.”
Although there were scattered reports of security units declining to assault demonstrators, there were no apparent signs of any breakdown in the security apparatus.
Most analysts assume Iranian authorities are drawing a parallel between the current political strife and that of the tumultuous first years after the 1979 revolution, when clerics managed to stay in power by purging certain political factions and imprisoning their opponents. But Iranian society has changed a great deal since the 1980s, analysts say, and new communications technologies make the use of blunt force more risky.
The media furor over the seizing of the corpse of Ali Habibi-Mousavi -- opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s nephew, who was allegedly shot by security forces or allied militias during massive anti-government Ashura protests Sunday -- highlights the potential pitfalls for the Iranian establishment. Analysts reached in Tehran said authorities probably seized his body to prevent demonstrations from forming around his funeral. Instead, authorities came off as gruesome and heartless.
“Unfortunately, they have taken the body of my brother from the hospital, and however much we search, we can’t find the body,” Reza Mousavi told a news website. “No one is accepting responsibility for the body or is accountable.”
A report by the official Islamic Republic News Agency said Habibi-Mousavi’s body and those of four other victims of the day’s violence had been taken away for “investigation” by the police, citing no sources.
Meanwhile, security forces Monday swept up numerous prominent activists, including Iran’s leading death-penalty opponent, Emadeddin Baghi, trashing his home and roughing up his wife, his brother said in an e-mail.
Authorities on Monday also arrested the leader of a reformist party, Ebrahim Yazdi, who served as a deputy prime minister in the first months after the revolution, opposition news websites said.
Others arrested, according to news agencies and websites, included two of opposition leader Mousavi’s deputies, student activists, journalists, reformist cleric Ayatollah Hossein Mousavi Tabrizi in Qom, and the mother and brother of Sohrab Aarabi, a young Iranian man slain during protests in June.
Reza Basha, a 27-year-old Syrian journalist employed by the Arab-language Dubai TV network, was among those arrested Sunday.
Iranian officials say the unrest was caused by a few people backed by foreign powers defiling the sanctity of a religious holiday. Brig. Gen. Masoud Jazayeri, the deputy commander of Iran’s armed forces, described the violence as “the actions of a group of hooligans,” according to an article on the website of Iran’s state-owned Press TV news channel.
“We should take action against certain European states, particularly the British government and leaders who, alongside America, are the leading designers and supporters of such seditions and plots and teach terrorism in their media,” he said, according to the Iranian Labor News Agency.
Opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi, who ran against Ahmadinejad in the disputed June election that triggered what has become one of the Islamic Republic’s worst political crises, compared the government’s behavior unfavorably with that of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, who faced Ashura protests during his reign.
“The dictatorship regime of the shah was respectful to Ashura and avoided killings, punishment and arrest of opposition leaders,” he said, according to an opposition website, Rahesabz. “Why is it that a government, which had risen from Ashura riots, orders the killings of people and causes horror among society during the holy day of Ashura?”