TEHRAN, Iran – Large-scale protests spread across central Iranian cities Wednesday, offering the starkest evidence yet that the opposition movement that emerged from the disputed June presidential election has expanded beyond its base of mostly young, educated Tehran residents to at least some segments of the country’s pious heartland.
Demonstrations on Wednesday took place in cities including the provincial capital of Esfahan, Iran’s cultural center, and nearby Najafabad, the birthplace and hometown of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, whose death on Saturday triggered the latest round of confrontations between the opposition movement and the government.
The central region is considered by some as the conservative power base of the hard-liners long in power. Iranian authorities are clearly alarmed by the spread of the protests. Mojataba Zolnur, a midranking cleric serving as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s representative to the elite and powerful Revolutionary Guard, acknowledged widespread unrest around the country.
“There were many (acts of) sedition after the Islamic revolution,” he said, according to the Web site of the right wing newspaper Resala on Wednesday. “But none of them spread the seeds of doubt and hesitation among various social layers as much as the recent one.”
A reformist Web site, Rahesabz, reported that Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security issued a statement banning governors from issuing permits for further memorial services for Montazeri across the country.
There were also reports Wednesday of protests breaking out on university campuses in Tehran and the eastern city of Mashhad, Iran’s second largest, and a violent clash broke out in the southern city of Sirjan over the execution of two men accused of criminal activity. The mass protests that erupted in Tehran immediately following Iran’s disputed elections last June and were crushed by authorities included Iranians of all walks of life.
As protests surrounding dissident cleric Montazeri’s death broke out in the shrine city of Qom, as well as Esfahan and Najafabad this week, Tehran has remained relatively quiet. But authorities are bracing for widely anticipated demonstrations surrounding Ashura, the major religious commemoration this weekend marking the 7th century martyrdom of the revered Imam Hussein.
“The demise of Ayatollah Montazeri agitated the traditional and middle-aged walks of life,” said Hamid-Reza Jalaipour, an opposition supporter and Tehran social scientist. “Despite all the restrictions, his death triggered a wider social movement in which traditional-minded and religious people get more involved in the protests.”
The latest confrontations came on the religiously significant third day following Montazeri’s death.