Irans brittle but brutal regime is being squeezed from within by the relentless protests of the opposition and from without by the threat of more sanctions unless it backs down over its controversial nuclear plans. Yet Irans rulers,rather than parrying,sidestepping or giving ground,seem determined to fight on both fronts at once. After months of rising tension they seem to be asking for a double showdown,sooner rather than later.
Since last summers disputed presidential election,the opposition Green movement,uniting followers of the thwarted candidates with other critics of the conservatives who now dominate the government,has taken advantage of Irans memorial-saturated Islamic revolutionary calendar. The latest anniversary,celebrating the 1979 overthrow of the Shah,on February 11th,was a chance for it to claim that it is the revolutions true inheritor.
As The Economist went to press,clashes between security forces and protesters erupted anew in Tehran,Irans capital,and in other cities. Early reports of the events were harder to verify,as the authorities severely curbed internet and mobile-phone messaging services,the Greens crucial tools,and appeared to block Gmail,Googles e-mail service. The handful of foreign reporters granted visas were carefully herded to points from which only loyalist rallies could be viewed.
Rattled by the scale and fury of the last big protests in December,President Mahmoud Ahmadinejads government pulled out the stops to prevent another big show of protest. Loyalists brought in by bus in their thousands to support the regime were duly shown on television chanting such time-honoured slogans as Death to America! YouTube and the unofficial news media showed wobbly films of protesters here and there but how many had turned out was hard to say.
In January the conservative-controlled judiciary handed down its first death sentences for political crimes since the unrest began in June. Two protesters were hanged. There was a new wave of arrests of opposition campaigners,especially journalists,at least 65 of whom are in jail. Among those held,according to a website,was a granddaughter of the revolutions founder,Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Unlike the December protest,which was not backed strongly by the oppositions main leaders,this one clearly had their backing. Mir Hosein Mousavi,widely thought to have bested Mr Ahmadinejad in the disputed poll if votes had been fairly counted,called for a big turnout. So did his fellow candidate,Mehdi Karroubi,a reformist cleric,along with a former president,Muhammad Khatami,whom many reformers still admire. The Greens want to keep up the momentum of protest to sustain their loose coalition,which includes outright secular liberals as well as Islamists who think the revolution has gone astray.
Still,it is unclear whether Mr Ahmadinejad and,more crucially,Irans supreme leader,Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,are bent on repression as their sole means of retaining power. In recent weeks milder conservatives,including another former president,Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani,have tried to defuse the crisis by urging restraint. Perhaps as a result,several high-ranking reformists have been freed from jail.
A similar hint of hesitation and even confusion has been evident in the nuclear sphere. At his rally on February 11th Mr Ahmadinejad boasted that a nuclear plant at Natanz had successfully enriched uranium from 3.5 per cent to 19.75 per cent for the first time. That is potent enough to fuel a research reactor in Teheran but also that much closer to the 90 per cent level needed for a bomb. By contrast,earlier presidential statements had suggested that Iran might agree to an American plan to export low-enriched uranium in exchange for imports of higher-enriched stocks for producing medical isotopes.
Ali Akbar Salehi,who heads Irans Atomic Energy Organisation,quickly made a qualification. He suggested that Irans move was a bargaining chip to secure better terms to enable Iran to accept last years American offer. Specifically,it would exchange uranium in batches rather than send the bulk of its low-enriched stocks abroad before getting back the rods that can be used solely for the isotopes,as America had proposed.
America,Britain and France,the UN Security Councils Western veto-wielding trio,instantly denounced Irans latest move and called for tighter sanctions to be imposed within weeks. Russia,sounding unusually unamused,may agree. Of the veto-wielders,only China,which remains loth to punish Iran,stayed mute. The ruling ayatollahs must be feeling nervous.