Reproduced with permission from The Christian Science Monitor.
At the end of a rocky week, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sought to quash mounting evidence of a rift with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, claiming they were "like father and son."
"The efforts of ill-wishers to insinuate such doubts is fruitless, and they will surely take such wishes to their graves," said Mr. Ahmadinejad. "This road is blocked to the devils."
Demonstrators flooded the streets of Tehran on Thursday in large, countrywide protests. But in a development signaling a new stage in the confrontation, they adapted the Iranian Revolution's most famous slogan – "Independence, Freedom, Islamic Republic" – to their latest demand, shouting instead: "Independence, Freedom, Iranian Republic."
"Before, the demand was just for a rerun of the elections, but since yesterday, people are running a step ahead and asking for more," says Masih Alinejad, a Tehran-based reformist journalist, in a telephone interview. "They're also becoming divided. Some people still want [defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein] Mousavi, but others are demanding more than just a rerun of the elections: They now are calling for an Iranian rather than an Islamic republic."
What exactly an "Iranian republic" would look like remains unclear. The main message was discontent with the current system.
"The regime's behavior is increasingly driving people into a fury," says a human rights activist in Tehran who was reached by phone and could not for named for security reasons. "But now, with thousands in jail and tens of people killed, the people no longer just want a rerun of the election."
A video uploaded on Youtube from yesterday's clashes showed a T-shirted protester squaring up and standing his ground against a helmeted policeman who repeatedly struck him with his metal baton. Gunshots can be heard during the video, which ends with what appears to be a policeman shooting a flare-gun in the direction of the protester.
What will happen if regime is discredited?
With neither side showing signs of backing down, some observers fear that the Revolutionary Guard will step in to crush dissent, but in the process completely discredit the Islamic Republic in the eyes of the people – thus leading to a power vacuum or totalitarian regime.
The Guard has been one of Ahmadinejad's strongest supporters and charged with putting down unrest throughout Tehran Province. Seven weeks into the longest political crisis in the 30-year history of the Islamic Republic, protest days are marked by displays of public insubordination and contempt toward the government. Some protesters on Thursday even shouted slogans against Ayatollah Khamenei, traditionally an untouchable in Iranian politics. (See video.)
There is a heavy presence of security forces on the streets who hurry pedestrians along to discourage them from converging into crowds. Monitor sources in Tehran describe ministries and government offices that are still fully staffed, but whose productivity is grinding to a halt.
In factional infighting last week, Ahmadinejad ignored a demand by the supreme leader to dismiss his choice for vice president, then sacked his intelligence minister, a Khamenei loyalist.
Ahmadinejad's culture minister also resigned after denying rumors he had been fired. But when it became clear that his departure – which would have meant that more than half of the cabinet's ministers had been replaced over the four-year presidential term – would trigger a constitutionally-imposed vote of confidence by the parliament, he was brought back.
Khamenei's initially strident postelection support of Ahmadinejad has also hurt his credibility with ordinary Iranians who see the supreme leader getting mired in factionalism instead of playing arbiter between the various forces in the regime.
"There's now a demand to change our superiors," says one protester, speaking on the phone from Tehran. "Many people no longer give Khamenei credit as the rahbar [supreme leader] anymore, even among his own regime."
Ahmadinejad on Friday accused "enemies" of seeking to "split the president from the supreme leader and stated that "Westerners were angered" by the recent elections that "provided a new model for humanity."