Despite mass arrests and show trials of regime critics, some of which ended in death sentences, the flood of protests did not subside. When the regime rigorously banned all protests, the movement cleverly used government propaganda events and a martyr culture that has been cultivated for decades to demonstrate its refusal to capitulate. Funerals of activists turned into impressive protest meetings, while official events, like those to mark the 30th anniversary of the occupation of the US Embassy in Tehran in November or the "Day of the Student" in early December, became open showdowns with security forces.
But it wasn't until the wave of protests on Ashura that the regime lost control over the street, and not just in Tehran. In incidents reminiscent of the riots against the shah, protesters overpowered brutal security forces nationwide, tore off their uniforms and triumphantly held up police boots and helmets like trophies. The perpetrators of violence had become the victims -- and vice-versa.
Eyewitnesses report scenes of regime thugs trembling in fear and of outraged protesters shouting: "Beat them! Beat them!" But in many cases other protesters apparently intervened, shouting "Let them go! Don't beat them!"
There has also been substantial damage to property. Buildings went up in flames, police cars were set on fire and many of the motorcycles that the feared Basij militias had used to brutally disperse groups of protesters were destroyed. One of the questions most heatedly discussed on Iranian blogs since the middle of the week is: "Are we now just as bad as our opponents?"
Despite initial reports of insubordination among members of the Revolutionary Guard, the regime still has more clout than the protesters. The Pasdaran comprises 125,000 armed troops, and the special units that are particularly loyal to the regime are estimated to include between 5,000 and 10,000 men. The regime's militias count at least a million members. Roughly 90,000 members of the Basij are considered reliable and prepared to engage in street fighting. To enhance the operational capability of government forces, the militias have been placed under the command of the Pasdaran, of which Khamenei is the commander-in-chief.
President Ahmadinejad dismisses the unrest as a "disgusting spectacle." But the regime's nervousness is evident in how it is assigning blame for the protests, pointing its figure at the United States and the hated "Zionist entity," Israel.
Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki has also assigned some of the blame to terrorists, by which he apparently means a group known as the People's Mujahedeen Organization of Iran (PMOI). And indeed, the group's spokeswoman, Maryam Rajavi, has been calling for an overthrow of the regime from her exile in France for years. However, many Iranians have not forgotten that the left-leaning Islamist organization was once in league with former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who waged an eight-year war against their country.