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Is Mousavi’s rebel stature being eroded in Iran?

There are ample signs that Mir Hossein Mousavi's rebel stature is being eroded by his hesitation to shift from campaigner to street agitator as his supporters challenge security forces.
Mideast Iran Mousavis Hold
Shoppers pass a defaced poster of presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi in Tadrish bazaar in northern Tehran. Mousavi is still nominally the guiding force of the fury over Iran's disputed election. Ben Curtis / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Mir Hossein Mousavi is still nominally the guiding force of the fury over Iran's disputed election. But there are ample signs his rebel stature is being eroded by his hesitation to shift from campaigner to street agitator as his supporters challenge security forces.

The questions over Mousavi's standing are part of a larger debate over the direction of the unprecedented assault on Iran's Islamic leadership.

The size of the demonstrations has fallen sharply since Mousavi led hundreds of thousands through Tehran last week over claims of vote rigging in the June 12 presidential election. The growing threats from security forces leave little doubt that authorities are prepared to strike back hard.

A gathering of about 200 people on Monday was quickly broken up by tear gas and shots fired into the air. On Tuesday, protesters retreated to much milder methods: honking car horns, chanting from rooftops and holding up posters denouncing the crackdown and alleged vote fraud.

The developments gave the clear impression of authorities gaining the upper hand, at least for the moment. Crushing the protesters' spirits and ability to regroup would likely mean even greater power for Iran's Revolutionary Guard — the Islamic regime's main military muscle and backer of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And it could put reformists under relentless pressure for years to come.

But it's still far too early to declare the opposition forces doomed. Protest organizers are appealing for another major rally, perhaps Thursday, in hopes of recapturing momentum and projecting their resolve. They also appear to be moving beyond Mousavi's specific call for a new election and widening their rage against the entire Islamic power structure.

What's still missing, however, are clear signals from Mousavi.

He left many followers bewildered with twin messages this week. He called on his backers to maintain the cries to annul the election results that showed a landslide victory for Ahmadinejad. But he also declared full respect for Iran's Islamic system and even described as "our brothers" the pro-regime militias who have beaten demonstrators and been blamed by protesters for gunning down marchers last week.

Other indications point to a drift away from Mousavi.

'Not really about Mousavi any more'
The ribbons and banners of his "green wave" election campaign have been much less conspicuous at recent marches and clashes. The chants were less about Mousavi's demand for a new election and more about general outrage toward the ruling establishment, including once unimaginable denunciations of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

It raises the prospect of Mousavi's movement fragmenting — with more militant branches breaking away from those adhering to Mousavi's call to fight within the system. Such a split could bring more confrontations, and leave the divided forces more vulnerable to crackdown and mass arrests.

"It's not really about Mousavi any more," said Ali Nader, an Iran specialist at the RAND Corp. "The population has expressed its unhappiness with the system. You could argue that Iran has reached the point where the population has said: 'Enough is enough.'"

Mousavi has had a split persona from the outset.

'Accidential hero'
He has always been an insider: He served as prime minister through most of the 1980s as the new Islamic state struggled for footing while fighting a horrific war against Iraq.

But shortly into the campaign, the 67-year-old Mousavi became the unlikely champion of Iran's young and liberal voters who were desperately looking for a rising star.

It was an odd match. Mousavi lacked the charisma and grand visions the pro-reform voters craved. Still, he was their best shot at winning.

"An accidental hero," said Rasool Nafisi, a professor of Iran studies at Strayer University in Virginia.

"He really doesn't have the credentials to be the leader for the reformists or for the opposition," he added. "Even up to the election, Iranian intellectuals and political leaders did not support him, except one or two like (former President Mohammad) Khatami."

The grumbling appears now to be spreading among those who voted for Mousavi and then took to the streets in the most serious internal unrest since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

"People have risked their lives for him and some have died," said a protester in Tehran contacted by phone by The Associated Press. She withheld her name for fear of reprisals from authorities.

"Is he our leader? I want to say yes. But I really don't know how to answer that now."

Shaking the system
Mousavi says he only wants to rattle the country's Islamic rulers, not take them down. In messages posted on his Web site in recent days, he groped for some common ground in a nation increasingly polarized.

He vowed to stand by the protesters "at all times," but set some boundaries — saying he would "never allow anybody's life to be endangered because of my actions."

Mousavi then called the feared Revolutionary Guard and their volunteer militia corps, the Basij, "our brothers" and "protectors of our revolution and regime."

Mousavi has appeared rarely in public, but he remains in contact with key advisers and others through phone calls, Internet messages and meetings, aides say. Iranian authorities have tried to block most pro-Mousavi Web sites and have blacked out mobile text messages, which were used to spread the word about rallies and other activities.

At a hastily called news conference late Monday, Mousavi repeated his calls for nonviolent demonstrations and predicted that Ahmadinejad will eventually be removed from office — even though the chances for a new election were effectively closed by the powerful Guardian Council, which is closely aligned to the supreme leader.

"I won't give up. There is no way back," Mousavi told reporters.

In Rome, a prominent Mousavi supporter, Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, said Mousavi is now "voiceless" because of the clampdown on the Internet and other communications networks.

"What he is saying is to carry on with the fight with the least possible number of victims," said Makhmalbaf. "But he asks people to be in the streets by day and on roofs by night chanting slogans."