Like most other authoritarian Middle East leaders, the ayatollahs of Iran are looking nervously over their shoulders for fear the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt may infect their own disaffected population.
They have successfully suppressed the Green opposition which first challenged the Islamic regime in mid-2009 and, in the last two months, put down the street protests against rising prices and spreading unemployment.
They achieved this by having the security forces keep a close eye on organized activity and judicious government handouts to offset soaring prices. But they are not sure for how long they can keep the lid on all Iran's cities and villages where so many of the ingredients of the revolts that put Tunisia's Zine Ben Ali to flight and almost felled Egypt's Hosni Mubarak are present.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Tehran report that senior political and security officials have been in conference since last Tuesday, Jan. 25, the day the Egyptian troubles flared, to work on instantaneous measures for nipping similar waves of protest in the bud.
Hanging over their heads is the imminent approach of the 32nd anniversary of the Islamic Shiite Revolution on Feb. 12, for which the regime is traditionally eager to bring millions of celebrants out on the streets. This time, the authorities have received intelligence that opposition groups plan to take advantage of the event and turn it into a massive protest against the regime, primarily in Tehran. This will be hard to control when the regime itself encourages a large popular display of support for the revolution.
The regime can normally count on an army of informers to alert it in good time to avert emerging opposition activities. Following the latest tip-off, the Interior Ministry's emergency command center has posted legions of security personnel to patrol city high streets and keep people away from the main squares. Keeping the town centers deserted is not an option for Revolution Day in eight days – or even for much longer.
Iran depends on the massive presence of informants and thugs
The emergency center plans to deploy security officials in civilian dress at strategic points inside the town squares, ready to identify and arrest on the spot instigators of anti-regime slogans and cheerleaders calling on demonstrators to chant denunciations of the regime – before any real demonstration gets underway.
From the beginning of next week, about 100,000 Basij "volunteers" – the reserve force of the Revolutionary Guards – will be brought to Tehran from villages and outlying cities. Mostly illiterate religious fanatics, these toughs have received special guidance in methods for suppressing anti-government outbreaks. They were told that enemies of the regime were essentially enemies of the Koran, Muhammad and Allah. Still they were instructed not to shoot into crowds or kill anyone – only cause enough injuries to break up a demonstration.
Tuesday, Jan. 31, Internet and mobile telephone users ran into difficulties as the authorities, like the Mubarak regime before them began disrupting the communications tools serving potential protest organizers.
The noted jurist Ardeshir Amir-Arjmand, a law professor at Tehran University and adviser to the opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mussawi, said this week: "A dictatorship is a dictatorship, whether it's in Cairo or Tehran. He revealed something of the opposition's secret tactics for Revolution Day when he said: "If the authorities claim that their regime is not a dictatorship, they must allow free demonstrations on the anniversary of the revolution. They will then see for themselves how little support their regime commands." He advised Iran's rulers "to relinquish power before it is too late."
The conditions which infuriated Tunisians and Egyptians are present in Iran
Many of the conditions which stirred the Tunisian and Egyptian peoples into mass protest exist ostensibly in Iran too – economic hardship, for instance.
In recent months, the cancellation of subsidies caused the prices of goods and services to skyrocket. Fuel prices shot up tenfold, electricity was seven times higher and the price of bread quintupled.
To offset them, President Ahmed Ahmadinejad transferred a derisory 44,000 toman ($40) into every citizen's bank account each month. This covers a small fraction of the price increases and so people are poorer and hungrier than ever before.
The jobless rate is much higher than in Tunisia, Egypt or any other Arab country. It is officially admitted to be 12 percent, but estimated by experts as closer to 30 percent in Tehran and among young people and university graduates as high as 50 percent.
The prevalence of galloping corruption in every government department is an open secret to the people. The regime is also weakened by a growing rupture between Ahmadinejad and parliament. It is less than seven weeks until the end of the budget year, yet the president has not yet submitted the annual budget bill to the Majlis, an unprecedented delay and an expression of Ahmadinejad's contempt for the lawmakers.
They are more than ready for revenge for the many humiliations they have suffered at his hands. Tuesday, they mustered a majority to sack Transport Minister Hamid Behbahani, holding him responsible for several airliner crashes in which hundreds of people were killed.
Israeli spy scare covers extreme unease
The outcry against alleged Israeli spies in recent weeks is another symptom of the regime's extreme unease.
This week, Iranian intelligence minister Heydar Moslehi again broadcast the arrest of "dozens of spies on behalf of the Zionist regime."
Our sources say he was referring to contacts between Iranian citizens and the Born for Freedom foundation which is investigating the mystery of the Israeli navigator's disappearance in 1986 after being shot down by Hizballah over Lebanon and other missing persons believed to have vanished in Iran. The foundation is offering a $10 million award for reliable information leading to discovering what happened to them.
The Iranian citizens who contacted the foundation were accused of spying for Israel.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources expect the Iranian authorities in the end to crush any opposition attempts to take over Revolution Day rallies for demonstrations massive enough to imperil the Islamic regime. However, Tunisia and Egypt have taught everyone that no one can tell when the next upheaval will erupt in the streets and squares of Tehran.