Iran's political crisis is as explosive as its outcome is unpredictable, as leading reformists yesterday demanded that the regime apologise to the nation after at least eight people were killed in mass, anti-government rallies on Sunday.
The authorities, in turn, flexed their muscles, claiming that tens of thousands of its supporters had rallied to demand the punishment of opposition leaders for fomenting foreign-inspired unrest. The president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad absurdly branded Sunday's much bigger anti-government protests a "nauseating display" staged by the United States and "Zionists". Hardliners lashed out at the US president Barack Obama for expressing solidarity with "innocent" opposition protesters whose struggle for justice he said had met with "the iron fist of brutality" in Sunday's mass anti-government protests.
Tehran also summoned Britain's ambassador to complain after London hailed the "great courage" of Iranian demonstrators. "If Britain does not stop talking nonsense it will get a slap in the mouth," said Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki. With Iran at a possible turning point, some analysts said the US should wait before imposing tougher sanctions over Tehran's nuclear programme. The protests, they argue, could result in a more legitimate and democratic government that is readier to deal with the West.
Iran's conservative-dominated parliament warned that Mr Obama's support for the opposition would backfire. "Such praise disgraces you and causes the system to act more firmly," they said in a statement addressing the US president, which was read by the parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, on television. Demonstrating that "firmness", the authorities yesterday continued to arrest journalists, activists and some simply related to opposition figures in the tense aftermath of Sunday's protests.
Among those hauled away by intelligence agents was Dr Nooshin Ebadi, the sister of Iran's celebrated Nobel peace prize laureate, Shirin Ebadi. "She was neither politically active nor had a role in any rally," said Mrs Ebadi said, who is currently in London. Other female relatives of leading reformists have been detained in recent days in a clear attempt to pressure vocal activists. The opposition's strength, grass-roots base and anger are growing, but the regime is equally determined to smash the challenge. Any decisive outcome could be months away, preceded by sporadic bursts of opposition protests followed by swift repression.
Much depends on the zealous Revolutionary Guards, whose loyalty the regime has rewarded with huge economic and political clout. Their power and privilege is yoked to the regime's survival. There have been reports of police refusing to fire on protesters, but the Revolutionary Guards so far have betrayed no signs of such queasiness. "Trying to overthrow the system will reach nowhere," the Guards said in a statement yesterday. "Designers of the unrest will soon pay the cost of their insolence."
The Guards' reliability in a prolonged crisis, however, is questionable. "Many of the old-generation Guards object to crude force against the people," wrote Ali Ansari, an Iran expert at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Reformist elements in the Revolutionary Guards have been purged in recent years, but this has created what Mr Ansari called a "disenfranchised and discontented ex-elite". Some believe the Revolutionary Guards are pressing the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to launch an all-out, brutal campaign against the opposition. But there are also rumours in Tehran that Mr Larijani, who is close to the supreme leader and a scornful rival of Mr Ahmadinejad, believes the best way out of the crisis is for parliament to impeach the president. It would be a face-saving measure with popular support that could relieve the huge pressure on Ayatollah Khamenei.
Mr Obama is acutely aware of the pitfalls of speaking out on the six-month-old struggle between Iran's opposition and the regime. With the Iranian authorities desperately trying to portray the unrest as inspired by the US and Britain, the US president fears any American interference could damage the pro-democracy movement. As a result, his critics in Washington have accused him of appeasing a repressive regime in order to secure a deal to defuse the crisis over Tehran's nuclear programme.
Mr Obama offered Iran a historic olive branch at the beginning of the year with a goodwill message in which he used the term "Islamic Republic," signalling for the first time in 30 years Washington's acceptance of Iran's Islamic revolution. Mr Obama's condemnation of human rights abuses in Iran was his strongest yet - but his wording was skilfully nuanced to avoid providing ammunition to the regime.
"What is taking place within Iran is not about the United States or any other country. It is about the Iranian people and their aspirations for justice," he said on Monday night. The US and its allies have discussed for months how to tighten sanctions if Iran rejects their end-of-year deadline for a deal agreed in principle in October to defuse the nuclear standoff. With decision-making in Iran paralysed by domestic infighting, few expect an 11th - hour reversal by Tehran to accept the agreement.
Given the Iranian regime's crackdown on the resurgent opposition, Washington and its allies are now rethinking their sanctions strategy. Rather than the "crippling" sanctions threatened by Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, discussions are now aimed at focusing any punitive measures more tightly on the Iranian leadership. That is likely to rule out an embargo on selling petrol to Iran. Although a major producer of crude oil, it has limited refining capacity.
Critics of a petrol embargo argue it would help the regime, which could blame any hardship suffered by the population on a vindictive west. Moreover, most analysts say, Russia and China would never endorse a United Nations Security Council resolution for a petrol embargo. Email:email@example.com