Divisions test mettle of Iran’s opposition

Movement differs on scope of change

Police controlled the crowd during an antigovernment protest near state-sanctioned rallies held in Tehran on Nov. 4 to mark the 30th anniversary of the US Embassy takeover in Iran. Police controlled the crowd during an antigovernment protest near state-sanctioned rallies held in Tehran on Nov. 4 to mark the 30th anniversary of the US Embassy takeover in Iran. (via Associated Press)
By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post / November 16, 2009

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TEHRAN - Five months after a disputed presidential election spawned the largest antigovernment demonstrations in this country in three decades, Iran’s opposition movement appears rudderless and divided, with protesters increasingly at odds with their leaders’ insistence on preserving the country’s system of religious government.

Many Tehran residents who oppose President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are taking a harder line against Iran’s leaders and want to remove them from power, several protesters said. Others in the opposition movement favor gradual change and caution against pressing extreme demands.

Although there is no way to measure how widespread the sentiments on both sides are, Iranians involved in the movement say growing numbers of protesters are refusing to compromise with the ruling hierarchy, a system of Shi’ite religious and political rule ushered in by Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, which ended a 2,500-year-old monarchy.

Former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and Shi’ite cleric Mehdi Karroubi, two presidential candidates who accuse Ahmadinejad of securing a landslide reelection victory in June through large-scale fraud, now offer only symbolic leadership to the grass-roots opposition movement, protesters said. No one has stepped up to replace them, leaving the movement adrift in the face of a harsh government crackdown, with demonstrations organized by ad hoc means and with conflicting aims.

Mousavi, 67, and Karroubi, 72, allege that Ahmadinejad’s reelection amounts to an electoral coup d’etat by the government, the Revolutionary Guard Corps, and hard-line clerics, and they have called on demonstrators to save the Islamic republic from becoming a dictatorship.

But many protesters have gone beyond questioning the election outcome, more than a dozen opposition supporters said in interviews. Fearing retribution, all insisted on being identified only by their first names.

“I don’t want to save the Islamic republic,’’ said Reza, 28, an engineer. “I want a total change, something close to a revolution.’’

Other interviewees made similar comments, saying that extreme violence unleashed by the government against protesters has hardened their views about Iran’s leaders.

“They will not change,’’ said Mohammad, a computer specialist who was fired from his job for supporting the demonstrations. “We have no other option than removing them from power.’’

“But I really don’t know how we should do that,’’ he added.

During the most recent street protests, on Nov. 4, demonstrators reflected the harder line when they shouted slogans mainly against Iran’s top leaders, instead of their more usual calls in support of Mousavi.

Video clips captured on cellphones and posted on the Internet showed people tearing down posters of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader for the past 20 years. As the heir of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic republic, Khamenei wields ultimate religious and political authority in Iran and is highly revered.

In the government’s view, such protests confirm suspicions that the opposition wants to topple Iran’s political system as part of what authorities call a foreign-backed plot. More than 100 politicians, dissidents, and students have been accused, and some have been convicted of organizing such purported conspiracies.

Some protesters warn against fueling suspicions, fearing that radical actions could backfire.

“We should take this step by step,’’ said Ali, 29, an architect who recently married. “If we become extreme, we will alienate many of our supporters.’’

Others disagreed, saying all forms of peaceful protests must be allowed.

“We need to show that we are not afraid of anybody,’’ said Paria, 28, a linguist who has participated in all the opposition demonstrations, “and continue to inform people of what is happening in this society.’’