The return of the shah, sans jewels

Martyr-making and arrests in Iran only create more problems for Khamenei

An Iranian opposition supporter covers his face with a bloodstained hand during clashes with security forces in Tehran on 27 December 2009. Photograph: Getty Images

The wave of arrests that erupted in Iran yesterday marks the latest move by a government determined to silence growing opposition despite the spiralling political crisis in which it finds itself.

However, it seems that the arrests, along with the killing on Sunday of eight protesters, including a nephew of the Reform presidential candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, will instead make martyrs out of mere men. The developments are also catalysing a movement that increasingly sees the regime of the Islamic Republic's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in the light of the former, much-hated shah.

Ali Mousavi's death is especially significant, given that the violent crackdown on Sunday's protests in Tehran coincided with the Shia holiday of Ashura, a mourning event that remembers Iman Husayn, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad martyred in the year 680. Mousavi's body has since been seized, a move that analysts in Tehran have suggested is an attempt to prevent demonstrations from forming around his funeral.

Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a former member of Iran's parliament who is currently a visiting scholar at the University of Massachusetts, told the New York Times:

Ashura is a very symbolic day in our culture and it revives the notion that the innocent were killed by a villain.

Similarly, Juan Cole, president of the Global Americana Institute, remarked:

For the regime to create a member of the Mousavi family as martyr on Ashura was most unwise. Shiite Islam even more than traditional Catholicism thrives on the blood of martyrs.

The arrests have only served to further villianise the regime. At least seven leading opposition activists have been arrested, including the opposition politician Ebrahim Yazdi, a foreign minister after the revolution, and three aides to Mousavi, prompting bloggers to label yesterday the "Iranian Night of the Long Knives".

More critically, Ayatollah Khamenei's legitimacy, already damaged by his support for Prime Minister Ahmadinejad's re-election in June, has been hardest hit by the government's decision to repress. Although he still commands the loyalty of the Revolutionary Guard, new hatred for him has sprung up among Iranian elites and the opposition is now more unlikely than ever to back down.

Writing on his website, the Iranian film-maker Moshen Makhamalbaf was one of those who denounced Khamenei for Sunday's violence by comparing him to the the shah (translation taken from the New York Times):

I am so sorry that I fought against the shah when I was 17. He left the country when he realised that people no longer wanted him. But you are resisting until everyone else leaves the country.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.