Iran seems set for prolonged internal struggle

Wed Dec 23, 2009 4:49pm EST
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By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent - Analysis

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Iran's rulers are tensing for a new trial of strength with protesters on Sunday, when an emotive Shi'ite ritual coincides with seventh-day mourning for a defiant ayatollah who was once a heartbeat from the pinnacle of power.

A loose reformist opposition movement that swelled after a disputed presidential election in June is exploiting the rhythms of the Islamic Republic's political-religious calendar to stage rolling protests and sustain the momentum of its struggle.

On Wednesday, security forces fought with protesters marking the third day after the death of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the reformists' spiritual patron, in the cities of Isfahan and Najafabad, his birthplace, a reformist website said.

The outcome of Iran's internal upheaval is uncertain -- and restrictions on independent reporting hamper any assessment of what is unfolding in a complex society -- but it may have set a new clock ticking, alongside the nuclear one that drives Western urgency in dealings with the world's fifth biggest oil exporter.

"It is going to get messier," said Ali Ansari, a professor at Scotland's St. Andrews University.

"It's wishful thinking when people say nothing is going to happen or there is going to be a smooth 'velvet revolution'. It is going to get very violent."

More protests may flare on Sunday when Montazeri's followers observe the traditional seventh day of mourning -- which falls on Ashura, the climax of passionate Shi'ite commemorations of Hussein, martyred grandson of the Prophet Mohammad.

Montazeri, aged 87 when he died at the weekend, had attacked Iran's "dictatorship" for its handling of post-election unrest.   Continued...