Baton and belt-wielding Iranian riot police beat mourners and forced away opposition leaders who gathered at a sprawling, historically-important cemetery to commemorate protesters killed in last month's post-election turmoil. The images of yesterday's violence, flouting sacred mourning traditions, may have further tarnished the Iranian regime still reeling from a bitter row over government appointments sparked by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He received a thinly-veiled warning from his own hardline camp this week that he could be deposed unless he tempers his aggressive ways.
Some 3,000 people attempted to mark the end of the 40-day mourning period at the grave of Neda Agha Soltan, a 26-year-old music student shot dead on June 20 as she watched protests from the sidelines of a huge demonstration. Her death, one at least of 10 that day, was filmed on a mobile phone and the harrowing footage was broadcast around the world, making her an instant icon of Iran's opposition and a tragic symbol of the regime's brutal treatment of pro-democracy protesters.
When Mir Hossein Mousavi, the man millions of Iranians believe was the true winner of last month's vote, arrived at the Behest-e Zahra cemetery 18 miles south of Tehran, he was greeted by delighted supporters. They chanted: "Mousavi, we support you!" and "Death to the Dictator!" - a reference both to the president and his patron, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who endorsed Mr Ahmadinejad's ostensible election victory as a "divine blessing".
But Mr Mousavi was confronted by riot police as he reached Soltan's flower and candle-decked grave. "He was not allowed to recite the Quran verses said at such occasions" and was bundled back to his car by riot police, a witness said. Mehdi Karrubi, another defeated reformist presidential candidate, was also ringed by police on his arrival. "I don't understand this policy to deploy and surround the cemetery with security personnel," he said. Mourners lobbed stones at the security forces and shouted: "Today is a mourning day." Among those arrested was Jafar Panahi, a prominent filmmaker who attempted to lay flowers on Soltan's grave.
The regime crudely attempted to negate the "martyrdom" of Ms Soltan whom witnesses say was shot dead by a basij militiaman. The authorities variously blamed her killing on fellow demonstrators, the CIA, agents of Iran's foreign enemies and even - most absurdly - the BBC. Opposition leaders were denied permission to hold a silent memorial ceremony for protest victims at the Grand Mosala, a huge prayer complex in the Iranian capital. They instead accepted an invitation from Soltan's mother, Hajar, to visit her daughter's grave, despite threats from the Revolutionary Guards to stay away.
Nevertheless, thousands of protesters flashing victory signs gathered around the Grand Mosala and set fire to rubbish bins while anti-riot police on noisy, high-powered motorbikes circled them. Police also used tear gas and baton charges to disperse crowds at other nearby locations. The Iranian authorities say at least 20 people have been killed since the elections, although human rights groups believe the figure is much higher.
The regime is acutely sensitive to the historical resonance of mourning ceremonies. In the months leading up to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Shah's security forces opened fire on student demonstrators, igniting 40-day "Arbayeen" mourning ceremonies that created more "martyrs" - and fresh protests - each time. Ultimately the ailing and autocratic, US-backed Shah went dejectedly into exile, apparently stunned by his unpopularity.
The regime had appeared confident in the turbulent aftermath of the election, deploying an iron fist to smash mass protests within days and arresting the opposition's brain trust. But Mr Ahmadinejad's hardline camp is now torn by bitter internal disputes. Yesterday's memorial service at Behest-e-Zahra, Iran's biggest and most famous cemetery, was imbued with potent historic resonance. On the very morning that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned home in triumph from exile in France on February 1, 1979 - two weeks after the Shah fled - he immediately drove from Tehran airport to the cemetery to pay homage to those buried there who had given their lives for the revolution.
Ayatollah Khomeini focused on a particular section of the vast cemetery where hundreds of demonstrators shot dead by the Shah's troops on September 8, 1978, a day known as Black Friday, were buried. Behest-e-Zahra is also home to the graves of thousands of Iranians killed in the eight-year war with Iraq. Ironically, yesterday's arrests came just days after the regime freed some 140 protesters from Tehran's Evin prison and promised to release more today. The rare concession came after an outcry from reformists and hardliners alike over the deaths of several protesters in prison and numerous reports of torture.
Ayatollah Khamenei on Monday also ordered the closure of the notorious Kahrizak detention centre, which has been likened to Guantanamo because it was outside the control of the official prison service. One detainee, Mohsen Ruholamini, 25, was badly beaten during two weeks there and later died in hospital. He was the son of a prominent conservative and his death provoked condemnation from leading hardliners. They have joined reformists and leading clerics, including grand ayatollahs, in condemning the treatment of prisoners.
Nevertheless, in a move certain to infuriate the opposition, some 20 protesters are to go on trial from tomorrow on a range of charges, including "attacking military units and universities, sending pictures to enemy media, carrying firearms and explosives, organising thugs and rioters, and vandalising state property". Officials have suggested that some senior pro-reform politicians will be tried later for allegedly ordering riots.
Mohammad Khatami, the reformist former president, declared yesterday that just releasing some protesters was not enough. "Illegal and un-Islamic acts have been committed against the people ... Lives have been lost," he said. The opposition has been invigorated by ruptures within the regime. Mr Ahmadinejad, who is to be sworn in next Wednesday, infuriated his own hardline base by taking a week to obey an order from, Ayatollah Khamenei, to sack the man he appointed as his first vice president. But the recalcitrant president immediately - and provocatively - appointed Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie as his chief of staff.
Mr Mashaie, who is related to the president by marriage, is a bête noire of the hardliners because he once said Iran had no quarrel with Israelis, only their government. The president also sacked his powerful intelligence minister, Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei, in a heated row over Mr Mashaie: the spy chief had angered the president by urging him to sack Mr Mashaie immediately to comply with the supreme leader's wishes.
Meanwhile, the Islamic Society of Engineers, an influential conservative body that has strongly supported Mr Ahmadinejad, issued an implicit warning this week that he could be deposed if he again defied the supreme leader. The group said its support for him would now depend on his "unconditional obedience" to the supreme leader. A similar warning was issued by Ya-Lesarat, a newspaper that serves as the mouthpiece for the most radical of the president's supporters. "Your adopted measures in recent weeks have surprised your supporters," the weekly said. "If such moves continue, we will strongly urge you to give back our votes."
Iran's ruling elite, split among itself and stunned by the opposition's resilience, would have little appetite for a new crisis that would erupt if Mr Ahmadinejad resigns or is forced out. But powerful hardliners will attempt to rein in the volatile president and curb his defiant independent streak. Mr Ahmadinejad's bizarre behaviour in antagonising his own support base is also likely to cause him difficulties in getting those he chooses as his new cabinet ministers approved by parliament. The assembly is dominated by conservatives but has in the past rejected some of the president's cabinet picks. Opposition leaders have already declared that Mr Ahmadinejad's new government will be "illegitimate".
To maintain the pressure on the regime, Mr Mousavi has vowed to establish a new political front to "preserve people's votes" and seek justice and democracy. Opposition figures say Mr Mousavi will be joined in heading the movement by Mr Khatami and Mr Karrubi, a former parliamentary speaker. All are insiders of the system committed to restoring the republican aspect of the Islamic republic and resurrecting founding principles of the revolution, primarily that of justice.
A senior cleric, Ayatollah Asadollah Bayat-Zanjani, said: "We are witnessing sorrowful acts committed in the name of the regime and under the banner of God that bring pain to the heart of all supporters of the Islamic republic." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org