Questions are raised over who was behind the destruction of posters of the late ayatollah amid the government's struggle for legitimacy.
Iran is caught in the eye of a storm
A "hurricane of the revolutionary anger of the nation" is coming. This warning by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, not a political figure renowned for his moderate rhetoric, marking the latest controversy to engulf Iran is a chilling assertion of how volatile the Islamic republic has become.
What occasioned the president's threat was the destruction of posters bearing a photo of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. In the past week, state-run television has repeatedly aired footage of the alleged incident, and on Monday, authorities arrested several people accused of carrying it out, promising there would be "no mercy" for those who "insulted" Khomeini.
The arrests, reported by state media, will probably not put to rest the flurry of charges and counter-charges swirling across Iran, however. Were protesting students really responsible? Or did a government intelligence arm stage the incident to discredit the opposition? Either way, after six months of protest against June's presidential election, the republic's widely revered founder has entered political play in Iran in a particularly nasty way, with ultra-conservative factions in the regime using the episode to ratchet up pressure on reformist opponents.
Together with the continuing muddle over Tehran's nuclear programme and its reported spying on critics abroad, the government's struggle for legitimacy appears to have taken a desperate, harrowing and perhaps fateful turn. It is questionable how effective the government will be in using the alleged incident to quash the opposition Green Movement and shore up its support. For one thing, few in Iran will be fooled by the role of sole guardian of Khomeini's image and legacy that the government has arrogated to itself.
Even while the imam was living, ideologues along a wide band of the political spectrum cited his myriad - sometimes inscrutable - speeches, pronouncements and words to justify their views. Add to that body of work his "Last Message" before his death and this appropriation of Khomeini's views remains truer today. For another, scepticism about government claims has widened since June. Although it is not possible to conduct public opinion surveys in Iran, those with extensive contacts in the country say Iranians were "stunned" this autumn at disclosures that the government had a secret uranium-enrichment facility, despite their support of Iran's right to develop nuclear power.
As the repercussions of this alleged desecration unfold, it appears increasingly obvious the clerical elders who rule Iran are protecting neither political stability nor civil harmony, let alone the memory of the republic's founder. It is, rather, the cadre's own authority that it deems at stake among a population of 26 million people. On Sunday, as the pictures of Khomeini's torn image were broadcast over and over again, his successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, tried to rally support for the ruling system, known as the nezam, by hitting out at the opposition.
"Some have converted the election campaign into a campaign against the entire system," he said. What was notably absent from Ayatollah Khamenei's speech was criticism of opposition demonstrators for burning his picture in recent months. To mention it would be to underscore how unpopular he seems to have become. Castigating the opposition for maligning the late Khomeini was a safer bet. Of course, Iran's top clerics face an even deeper predicament than ripped pictures, one that leaders of all revolutions encounter. In short, how do you imbue succeeding generations with the values of the founding generation? Thirty years on, how do you renew a revolution that has begun to splinter?
For many Iranians, the revolution's heyday is a distant memory; for most, it is hearsay. Nearly two-thirds of Iran's people were not alive when the shah was overthrown and the republic established in 1979. A revolution in crisis reverts to the core events that define it, and in the case of Iran, that poses a grave concern. For what largely defines the Iranian revolution besides anti-imperialism is sacrifice and martyrdom - in short, bloodshed. Today, it remains the widespread view among Iranians that it was the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s that completed the country's process of nation-building.
It was during that war that tens of thousands of youthful Basijis, barely into their teens, marched off to the front, kitted out in uniforms and chanting: "We are ready to give our lives, we are ready to go and fight at Karbala against our foe." This does not necessarily mean Iran's rulers are preparing to send the country into war against its neighbours. It may mean, however, that as the government's legitimacy rests increasingly on its control of military force, there are even more dangerous times - even a "hurricane of ... anger" ahead for the regime's opponents.