The Iranian regime went on the offensive again yesterday, arresting several prominent reformist activists and firing tear gas to disperse grieving supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the main opposition leader, whose nephew was among at least eight people killed in Sunday's violence. The regime's provocative response to the mass protests on Ashura, Shia Islam's most important day of observance, could prove a turning point in the six-month-old confrontation between the regime and an emboldened, angry opposition, analysts said.
Ali Habibi Mousavi's family complained that his body had been removed from a Tehran hospital without their knowledge or permission, preventing his swift burial in accordance with Islamic tradition. Iranian authorities last night said his body was one of five being retained for forensic tests into Sunday's "suspicious deaths". But the move was seen as a brazen and self-defeating attempt to prevent the funeral from becoming a flashpoint for further protests. Police used tear gas to clear mourning relatives and supporters gathered outside the hospital where the body was taken.
State television reported Mousavi was killed by unknown assailants. But figures close to the Mousavi family said he was shot in the chest at close range, the victim of a "well-planned" assassination intended to put pressure on his uncle. A western diplomat in Tehran told Reuters that although Iran's leadership was under great pressure, it showed no sign of losing its grip over the security apparatus. The deaths and scale of confrontations may signal a volatile new phase in which security forces loyal to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, might try to crush the reformist movement.
"The Revolutionary Guards Corps and Basij are fully prepared, if necessary, to eradicate the plot and urge the judiciary to react firmly, without any restriction against the plotters," the corps said last night, referring to the opposition. Police at first used tear gas and batons to disperse Sunday's huge crowds, but later resorted to live rounds, according to witnesses and the opposition. For the first time, protesters managed to push back security forces, which the authorities insisted had not used firearms. Opposition websites said some police did not fire on demonstrators.
The regime pressed ahead yesterday, arresting at least seven leading activists, including Mr Mousavi's top adviser, Ali Riza Beheshti. Others reported to have been detained were Ebrahim Yazdi, 78, who served as foreign minister in Iran's first government after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and now heads the tolerated though banned Freedom Movement of Iran, and Emad Baghi, an award-winning human rights activist and journalist.
The authorities also stormed a foundation on run by Mohammad Khatami, Iran's reformist former president, arresting two people, opposition websites reported. Another of the opposition's three main leaders, Mehdi Karrubi, condemned Iran's rulers for Sunday's "despicable violence", which the authorities attempted in vain to portray as the work of a small minority of foreign-inspired rioters. Yesterday they belatedly acknowledged that people were killed on Sunday, but denied any responsibility. State-run Press TV put the death toll at eight, quoting a senior government official.
Iranian state television earlier gave a contradictory toll of at least 15 killed in Tehran alone, branding 10 among them as members of "anti-revolutionary terrorist" groups. The other five reported dead were killed by "terrorist groups", the station claimed. Mr Karrubi, a liberal cleric and one of Mr Ahmadinejad's challengers in June's election, accused the government of "dipping its hand in people's blood and unleashing a savage group on the people".
Many reports were difficult to verify because the few foreign journalists remaining in Iran were ordered to stay in their offices. But mobile phone footage flooded international news desks. There were remarkable scenes of demonstrators - many daringly unmasked - brandishing helmets captured from government Basij militiamen, some of whose motorcycles were torched. Dubai TV, meanwhile, was said last night to be expecting a reply from the Iranian authorities on the whereabouts of its missing Tehran-based reporter, Reza al Basha. The 27-year-old Syrian national was arrested in Sunday's protests, the French news agency reported.
Analysts argued that by refusing to meet any of the opposition's original demands after Mr Ahmadinejad's election, the regime lost its chance to defuse its greatest challenge since the Islamic republic was founded 30 years ago. Demonstrators are now demanding more than a vote recount: they are pressing for a thorough overhaul of the system, insisting Ayatollah Khamenei has lost all legitimacy. "Death to the dictator" is a common slogan at protests that have spread well beyond Tehran in recent days.
"Ayatollah Khamenei could have changed this with one little speech" [in June], said Massoumeh Torfeh, a research assistant at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. "But that time has passed and they've missed their opportunity to calm the situation down," she told the BBC. Iran has "reached a point of no return". The opposition's three main political leaders - two of them clerics - all have impeccable revolutionary credentials and are committed to reforming Iran's Islamic system, not removing it. They are the regime's potential connecting lifeline to a disenchanted and furious public.
But by refusing to negotiate with them, the regime has radicalised many demonstrators. There could yet be a belated way out of the crisis for Ayatollah Khamenei if he dismissed Mr Ahmadinejad's government and replaced it with one of national unity, including opposition leaders, while announcing new elections in six months' time, some experts believe. But the ayatollah has shown no inclination to retreat.
Trita Parsi, a Washington-based analyst, said the latest violence might turn out to be a "breaking point" for Iran's rulers. "If so, it shows that the Iranian theocracy ultimately fell on its own sword. It didn't come to an end due to the efforts of exiled opposition groups or the regime change schemes of Washington's neoconservatives," wrote Mr Parsi, who is president of the National Iranian American Council.