IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Iran's crackdown quiets streets but not anger

Iran's crackdown cannot easily stamp out the anger and frustration left by claims that fraud handed the June 12 election to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Many predict it won't end here.
Image: A supporter of pro-reform leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, flashes victory signs during a gathering near Ghoba Mosque in Tehran, Iran
In this citizen photograph taken June 28, a supporter of pro-reform leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, flashes victory signs during a gathering in Tehran, Iran. AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Each evening, the protest cries still come from rooftops in Tehran. They began weeks ago as a display of defiance and unity. Now they echo something else: a chorus that bemoans the suffocating crackdown but also signals that the confrontations with Iran's Islamic regime may be far from over.

A month that began with the world watching the giddy all-night campaign parties for Mir Hossein Mousavi is closing with Iranian forces in full lockdown mode — blanketing the streets, censoring the Web, detaining Mousavi's backers and showing few hints of compromise after the worst internal unrest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

But — like the nightly shouts of opposition and prayer — the crackdown cannot easily stamp out the anger and frustration left by claims that fraud handed the June 12 election to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Many predict it won't end here. The groundswell of opposition was too great, experts say, and the Islamic regime is left too embattled to keep the lid on indefinitely.

"The regime hasn't won just because there are fewer people on the street," said Reza Aslan, an analyst on Iranian and regional affairs.

For the third time in a decade, serious unrest flared against Iran's establishment and was put down by force. This time, however, was nothing like the student-led skirmishes before. The ruling clerics have watched the fallout from the disputed elections mushroom into a size and scope they have never confronted.

A cross-section of protesters
What unsettles the regime is probably less about the violence and more about the broad cross-section of protesters: Middle-class shopkeepers and conservative chador-covered women marched alongside fist-pumping hipsters with Che Guevara T-shirts and fake iPhones. Ironically, the last time such a wide coalition of demonstrators joined forces in Iran was the Islamic Revolution.

And, perhaps even more startling, were the taboo-shattering denunciations of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose hard-line followers believe is only answerable to God.

It all suggests a sweeping reordering of what it means to challenge the system. The protest tent has expanded to cover people who normally wouldn't stand alongside the liberal ranks of activists and students. The goals, meanwhile, could become bolder to directly question the highest levels of the theocracy.

The huge rallies — drawing more than 1 million marchers through Tehran over a few epic days — also rattled the regime-promoted myth that dissent was mostly limited to campuses and the liberal enclaves in north Tehran. The same factors that made Mousavi the surprise hero of reformists also fed the backlash after disputed balloting: grumbling about Iran's sinking economy and angst over Ahmadinejad's bombastic style and Iran's increasing international isolation.

"I think a crisis was waiting to happen and it was triggered by the election, which we can assume was flawed," said Robert Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and head of Middle East affairs in the Carter administration. "I think a lot of people said, 'Enough is enough' — not because they wanted Mousavi but because they were fed up."

But the theocracy, too, has stressed it's in no mood for challenges. One of its top envoys, Ayatollah Ahmed Khatami, said during Friday prayers that protesters should receive harsh sentences, including execution for those linked to deaths. The official death toll is at least 17 protesters and eight security officials, but restrictions on street reporting block foreign media from independently checking the tally.

Khamenei tried to cool the rhetoric Sunday by calling on both sides "not to stoke the emotions of the young."

Emotional whiplash
Many are left reeling by emotional whiplash — from sky-high hopes for Mousavi's "green" movement to a deep gloom after protest marches were crushed. Mousavi, too, disappointed backers by saying he will now seek official permission for any further rallies. On Sunday, Mousavi again demanded that the election results be nullified.

It seems a futile gesture. The theocrats have endorsed the result and say Ahmadinejad will be sworn in for a second term as early as July 26.

A prominent Farsi blogger, Roozbeh Mirebrahimi, wrote shortly before the election that "the process of change has already begun in Iran."

Then an entry after security forces smothered the remaining street protests last week:

"These days are hard days."

Despite the stunning post-election outrage, it still buckled the same way as past flare-ups in Tehran University in 1999 and around various campuses in late 2002.

Security forces — including the powerful Revolutionary Guard and its network of civilian vigilantes — have hammered down hard in every case. Protesters, meanwhile, still have no serious counterweight on their side. The regular police or military have never shown an inclination to break ranks with the forces directly controlled by the ruling clerics.

‘No one to lead us’
There also is very little stomach among demonstrators to put themselves on the line without a clear leader and goal.

Mousavi has not stepped up in that role. Despite his momentary flash as the reformist icon, he always has been a man of the system since serving as prime minister for much of the 1980s. He said he has no interest in directly battling the Islamic status quo.

The question now looms: Does anyone? No one with any national credentials has offered to take the baton from Mousavi. Instead, the aftermath has tapered to internal political intrigue with most eyes on former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is both fabulously rich and deeply influential.

Rafsanjani heads a cleric-run group, the Assembly of Experts, that has the power to remove the supreme leader. Such an act is still considered improbable, but it could give him considerable leverage over Khamenei — who has the last word in all major policy decisions. Rafsanjani is considered a moderate who could see advantages in President Barack Obama's offer for groundbreaking dialogue.

But the protesters of the past month seem left out in the cold.

"We have no one to lead us," said a 30-year-old man from Isfahan who took part in the demonstrations. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisals.

"People are angry and afraid," he continued. "They are afraid of the future and angry because they failed to achieve change with their ballots."

The legitimacy of the Iran's election system has been reduced to a punch line on Twitter jokes and blogs for many Mousavi supporters.

"Anyone can make one mistake," says a message next to a calendar page of Ahmadinejad's election in 2005.

"But only fools repeat their mistake" — next to the date of the June 12 election.

Long and simmering opposition
The next moves are anyone's guess. Some experts who have studied civil unrest movements, however, foresee a long and simmering opposition that could splinter into various forms of dissent — such as seeking more political allies, appeals to Germany and other Western nations with financial stakes in Iran and nonviolent disobedience such as sit-ins and general strikes.

"In order to succeed, Mousavi's followers almost certainly need to take their protests and opposition activities outside Tehran into other Iranian cities where they can outflank security organizations," said Eric Rosenbach, executive director at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

A well-known Iranian poet, Simin Behbahani, offered verse that touched both the sense of smoldering resentment and the threats that it's not going to fade.

One of the lines say: "Stop this extravagance, this reckless throwing of my country to the wind."

It ends:

"You may wish to have me burned or decide to stone me.

"But in your hand, match or stone will lose their power to harm me."