Even by the standards of this post-election conflict, the last 48 hours have been extraordinary for their rhetoric. At one point, there were no less than five regime officials (head of judiciary Sadegh Larijani, Minister of Intelligence Heydar Moslehi, Supreme Leader representative Mojtaba Zolnour, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, Tehran Governor Morteza Tamedon) throwing around threats of arrests. Yet the opposition was even more spirited and even more high-profile: both Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mehdi Karroubi met the threats with defiance and more than a little humour (both were quite concerned about Yazdi's health, physical and mental), MPs offered public support, Mir Hossein Mousavi's Alireza Beheshti challenged the regime's continuous "lies about imperialism", and Mousavi's wife, Zahra Rahnavard, held up the Green Movement as the representative of the ideals of Imam Khomeini.
And the outcome today, on the eve of the holy month of Moharram? A regime, nervous and possibly a bit frightened, which can neither swing its Sword of Damocles nor keep it steady.
Yesterday afternoon EA correspondent Mr Azadi began putting the pieces together. On Tuesday, Yazdi had put out his scathing ridicule of the "joke" of Karroubi and threatened Hashemi Rafsanjani's son, Mehdi Hashemi, with arrest if he stepped foot in Iran, Tamedon had talked both of security forces on alert for troublemakers on Friday and of Rafsanjani, and Zolnour apparently said all the opposition leaders should be rounded up. Then yesterday, it emerged that both Larijani and Moslehi were telling important groups of officials and clerics that the evidence was in place to hold trials; the Minister of Intelligence was now spinning a conspiracy tale in which representatives of Hashemi Rafsanjani had planned the post-election conflict in Britain with foreign agents.
The speeches were not necessarily co-ordinated. Indeed, because they probably weren't, they were far short of successful. Larijani's statement, which should have been the most significant given his official position, was a bit lost in crowded airspace, while Moslehi's speech --- at least to my outside eyes --- comes across as extreme. Is the regime really saying that Mehdi Hashemi and Rafsanjani's daughter, Faezeh Hashemi (who is in Iran), go on trial as part of the inner circle of the "velvet revolution"?
Instead of cowing the opposition into submission, the volley of regime shots were met by a furious counter-attack. Karroubi was careful, in a well-crafted response, to focus on Yazdi rather than swinging at officials such as Larijani and Moslehi, but Rafsanjani, durig the course of the day, took on not only Yazdi ("Get Help", "Get Cured") but the regime in general. Perhaps the former President was planning, after months of relative silence and uncertain manoeuvres, to surface but it appears that the attacks on him and his family helped make up his mind.
The irony is that, if the regime had kept its mouth shut or at least been more measured in its attacks, it could have left the opposition, rather than itself, in wobbling confusion. The Green movement seemed to be undecided, or even split, over tactics for the first day of Moharram. Should it join the Government-authorised marches, behind the message of "The Ideals of Khomeini are Our Ideals", or should it stand aside and let the regime have the field of demonstrations to itself for the first time in six months?
Supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi put out a letter, with a picture of Mousavi, favouring a public appearance but other activists balked: 1) some feared this would lead to violent clashes; 2) some did not want to associated with any march in honour of Khomeini, even if it had the symbols of resistance of Imam Hossein, whose death is marked by Moharram; 3) some argued that staying away would embarrass the regime when the outcome of a relatively small demonstration showed the lack of support for the Government. This morning, the argument is still unresolved.
Yet this debate in the opposition camp is secondary to the image of the regime's fist-shaking being met by a smack from Karroubi, who had been muted in recent weeks, Rafsanjani, and others. So why did it make such an inept move?
The more I look at events, the more I think that in part the answer is a fear of Rafsanjani. It was notable, for example, that Moslehi's attack did not name any other leader apart from the former President: Mousavi, Karroubi, and Mohammad Khatami were all absent from the speech. And it may be equally notable that Tehran Government Tamedon specifically referred to Rafsanjani's 6 December speech in Mashhad as an unacceptable challenge to the regime.
At the time of the speech, we published not only an extract from the speech but an analysis pointing to discussions between senior clerics and Rafsanjani as part of a renewed effort for a "National Unity Plan" or similar political compromise between the regime and the Green opposition. This prospect was challenged by others as an illusory hope but we still maintained this: what mattered was whether the regime thought the initiative was serious, causing it discomfort and prompting a response.
The last 48 hours mark that response: the Government is worried about Rafsanjani, possibly even more than the protests on the streets or the Mousavi-Karroubi-Khatami alliance. My hunch --- and it is only a hunch --- is that regime officials think Rafsanjani might have planned a high-profile appearance, if not tomorrow than at some point leading up to or on the special day of Ashura (27 December), to mark his defiance of the Ahmadinejad Government. For the first time since his Friday Prayer of mid-July, the trumpet (or alarm, in the ears of the regime) would be sounded: Hashemi's Back, Hashemi's Here.
If true, that's a pretty significant development in the ongoing battle. But I think the threats also come from a second fear, and this one may be more important.
The regime is worried about its own supporters. Uncertainty and fright comes from the prospect that the large numbers won't show up tomorrow. The Friday Prayer congregation at Tehran University will be full, but how many will then go on the streets? And, if they are on the streets, how loud will they be for Khamenei and Ahmadinejad rather than Imam Hossein?
For six months, from the day-after-election "they are all dust" victory speech of Ahmadinejad to the 19 June Friday Prayer speech of the Supreme Leader to this Sunday's reprise of Ayatollah Khamenei --- not to mention the actions beyond the speeches from detentions to security presence to the steady propaganda brumbeat --- the regime has relied on attack.
But a swinging sword does not necessarily find its target. And it does not necessarily bring legitimacy (irrespective of the words of Machiavelli). So tomorrow's test is not of how many come for the opposition but, arguably for the first time since 12 June, how many come out for the Supreme Leader, for the President, and for current regime and its actions.