Opposition in Iran attempts to regroup

Activists try to revive protest

Tens of thousands of government supporters rallied in Tehran on the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution earlier this month. The opposition’s plans for a show of strength fizzled, as thousands of forces were deployed. Tens of thousands of government supporters rallied in Tehran on the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution earlier this month. The opposition’s plans for a show of strength fizzled, as thousands of forces were deployed. (Atta Kenare/ AFP/ Getty Images)
By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post / February 23, 2010

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TEHRAN - The opposition supporters nervously smoked cigarettes in the kitchen as loud music blared from the empty living room. A student, a businessman, a writer, and an artist had planned a victory party but instead were mourning their defeat.

“It’s all over,’’ said the student, a young woman in a sleek black dress. “Our only option is to leave the country.’’

After their planned show of strength largely fizzled Feb. 11 in the face of heavy security for state-sponsored celebrations of the Islamic revolution’s 31st anniversary, activists in Iran’s political opposition have been left demoralized, wondering how to revive a movement many hoped would lead to a more open society, greater personal freedoms, and fairer elections.

Those attending the dissidents’ get-together contemplated the reasons for their defeat as they sought to answer the question “What now?’’ Some acknowledged they had been afraid to join antigovernment protests scheduled to coincide with the anniversary rallies. Others said they had tried to go but faced thousands of armed security forces who blocked streets.

All agreed that the opposition’s failure to make an impact during the state-backed demonstrations represented a huge blow for the grass-roots movement. Each spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

Opposition expectations for Feb. 11 had run high, with leaders calling for a “huge presence.’’ Antigovernment websites speculated that millions of people would turn out to denounce President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his influential supporters among Iran’s hard-line clerics and generals.

But by sentencing protesters to death, blocking Internet sites and foreign satellite transmissions, and deploying thousands of security forces, authorities stopped the opposition from commandeering the largest state-sponsored street gathering of the year. The government’s strategy might backfire, but for the time being, it has served to justify authorities’ dismissal of the opposition as a meaningless band of foreign-backed counterrevolutionary rioters.

This security formula will almost certainly be used in the future, thwarting the opposition’s signature tactic of turning official street celebrations into antigovernment rallies, analysts said.

“It was impossible to join up with other protesters,’’ the student at the party said as she tried to reconstruct what went wrong. “There were just too many security forces.’’

She took a puff from her 10th cigarette that evening. “We were all supposed to meet up at the main square where Ahmadinejad would speak. There, we would all bring out green ribbons, to show how many we were,’’ she said.

Instead, she found small pockets of protesters in side alleys who did not know where to go or what to do. “We ended up with a couple thousand people running from the security forces,’’ she said. “Our movement needs new tactics, but I have no idea what we should do.’’

On state television recently, officials lauded the “tens of millions’’ who attended the official rallies, praising them “for supporting the Islamic establishment.’’

One of Iran’s top opposition leaders called yesterday for a referendum on whether to strip the ruling system of the right to ban political candidates - a powerful tool used to blacklist liberal voices from key campaigns, the Associated Press reported.

It’s considered unlikely that Iran’s theocratic leaders will allow a public judgment on one of the pillars of the constitution. But the appeal by Mahdi Karroubi, a former presidential candidate, could signal new strategies by the opposition after their latest street protests were crushed by riot police and militiamen earlier this month.

Karroubi, whose son Ali was detained that day and allegedly beaten by hard-line vigilantes, said in a statement that “security forces turned Tehran into a military base.’’

Karroubi and another opposition presidential candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, have said the government imposed “a complete militarization’’ during the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution. They criticized the “dominance of an atmosphere of terror and fear in different parts of the country.’’

The two promised to inform the Iranian people about “the different means of peacefully reclaiming their rights,’’ but they did not elaborate, the opposition Sahamnews website reported.

“I hope they can come up with new strategies, but I have no idea what those should be,’’ said an influential blogger who is a member of an unofficial opposition think tank made up of Web activists. He suggested turning the first anniversary of the disputed June 12 presidential election into a day of protest.

“But I guess the government would just repeat what they do normally: declare each protest illegal and flood the streets with security forces,’’ the blogger said.

“In the end, the street is the only place where we can show how many people we are, but few people are ready to go to prison or get hurt,’’ he said.

During recent demonstrations, he recalled, his friends would call him from their homes and offices while he was running from the police. “If they are not ready to sacrifice anything, why should I be?’’ he asked. “My personal strategy out of this mess is to apply for a visa for Canada.’’