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Iranians retreat on vote anniversary

The intense crackdown and threats by authorities intimidate opposition leadership, prompting cancellation of plans to hold rallies. The U.S. presses human rights issues.
Image: Iranian demonstrator
A demonstrator wears a mask in the party's color of green, due to fears of being identified, as hundreds of thousands of Iranians turn out to protest in Azadi square in Tehran on Friday.Ben Curtis / AP file
/ Source: news services

The evolution of Iran's year-old opposition movement has been a study in indecision. Should it risk bloodshed and take to the streets? Is the aim to topple the ruling clerics or push for gradual reforms?

Clues about the direction — caution over confrontation, Web posts over street rallies — took on sharper relief Friday on the eve of the first anniversary of the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The anniversary also saw U.S. efforts stepped up to hold the country accountable for human rights violations.

In Iran, word spread that the two main opposition leaders had called off protests for Saturday because of worries about violence. Then a student group turned to the Web to post a six-minute video revisiting the slaying of Neda Agha Soltan — whose death on a Tehran street last June became a global symbol of the postelection battles.

The two events appeared to reinforce the overall narrative of the past months: The intense crackdown and threats by authorities have intimidated the opposition leadership and — without the stomach for more street confrontations — their followers have few other outlets besides the Internet.

Dozens of Web posts and proclamations against Ahmadinejad and the ruling system are issued each day, but it amounts to words against muscle.

The Iranian leaders appear to be far more secure on the anniversary of the election than during the tense weeks after the vote. Last June, hundreds of thousands of protesters followed opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi through Tehran and chanted "Where's my vote?" after allegations of massive ballot fraud to sink his Green Movement.

It's possible that memories of last year will be powerful enough to bring significant protest crowds onto the street Saturday for the first time in months. But the backpedaling by Mousavi and fellow dissent leader Mahdi Karroubi is likely to be interpreted as another pre-emptive win for the Islamic state and its key protectors, led by the Revolutionary Guard and its network of paramilitary units known as the basij.

A top Iranian police chief, Ahmad Reza Radan, said Friday any protests on the anniversary would be "confronted severely," according to the semiofficial ISNA news agency.

Tehran governor, Morteza Tamadon, was quoted by the semiofficial Mehr news agency as calling the opposition a "sedition current" seeking to confront the ruling system.

"A year later, it's clear that the hard-liners have won decisively through massive repression, deploying basij armed with clubs on motorcycles to curb crowds, jailing thousands of protesters, and torturing and executing some of them," wrote Juan Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Center for South Asian Studies and a frequent analyst and commentator on Iranian affairs.

This was echoed in the joint statement Thursday by Mousavi and Karroubi. They recalled the "great and unforgettable" protest marches after the election, but said they were not willing to put people in harm's way.

"Once again, hard-liners and repressive forces are being organized to attack defenseless and innocent people," said the statement posted on Mousavi's website.

What the text doesn't say, however, is a critical truth about the opposition. It has yet to make any headway where it would count most: among the ranks of the ordinary military to challenge the Revolutionary Guard, or among senior leaders such as former President Hashemi Rafsanjani to present an alternative to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

U.S. presses rights issue
The United States said on Friday it was working to convince members of the U.N. Human Rights Council to voice solidarity with victims of post-election violence and repression in Iran.

U.S. ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe said she hoped the 47-member forum would adopt a strong statement on Iran next week which enjoyed broad support from countries in all regions.

"It is intended as a show of solidarity with the human rights defenders, rather than a condemnation of the government," Donahoe told Reuters.

The statement would add to pressure on Iran after extended sanctions agreed by the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday to punish it for its suspected nuclear weapons program.

The United States is lobbying hard for other countries to back the text, aiming for it to be presented on Tuesday, perhaps by Norway, U.N. sources said.

"We realized that we would be more likely to get a powerful statement out of this body if it was done with consensus across regions," Donahoe said.

She said the aim was also to highlight the plight of ordinary citizens in the year since the disputed presidential election, which led to the biggest street protests since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

"We are concerned that because of government violence and brutality, they are being intimidated from telling their stories," Donahoe said. "The truth is not coming out."

Moments of change
But that doesn't mean the past year has been without moments of deep change.

A year ago, it would have been unthinkable to chant slogans against Khamenei or challenge his authority. It's now common and has punched holes in the political firewall that once separated the theocracy from the people.

At the same time, Iran's rulers have retrenched and handed more control to the Revolutionary Guard. The result has been a far more aggressive hand at home and a less compromising attitude aboard — including a hard line over Iran's nuclear program that brought another wave of U.N. sanctions this week.

On Thursday, the leader of the Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, was quoted by Iranian media as saying that the postelection turmoil posed more of a threat to Iran's rulers than the 1980-88 war with Iraq.

During Friday prayers in Tehran, ultraconservative cleric Ahmad Khatami again insisted that last year's election was free of any fraud and turned the tables on the opposition — accusing them of trying to undermine the country's "religious democracy" by challenging the outcome.

Although the Islamic rulers apparently have gained the upper hand on the streets, other potential troubles are ahead.

Iran's economy suffers from a losing equation: too much money is spent on subsidies for food and fuel and not enough is coming in from exports of oil and other goods. It's compounded by double-digit inflation, 25 percent unemployment and the economic isolation from U.N. sanctions. Ahmadinejad is under pressure to follow through with subsidy cuts.

In April, a speech by Ahmadinejad in southern Iran was interrupted by people shouting: "We are unemployed!"

Later, the government posted a defense of the nation's economic policies on websites.

It's part of the media-age clash that has defined much of the postelection fallout.

Each side has bombarded the other with words and images on outlets ranging from Iran's English-language Press TV to the host of pro-reform news sites that have sprouted since the election. Iranian authorities have routinely cut off mobile phone and Internet access on days of expected protests. In response, opposition groups have turned to proxy sites and other ways to bypass the controls.

Mahmood Enayat, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute in Britain, believes Iranian authorities will strengthen their grip on the Web and force the opposition to adopt methods that don't require Internet access — noting that leaflets and cassette tapes were widely used in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

"These days the digital equivalents of them will be CDs, DVDs, memory sticks, e-mail, Bluetooth on mobile phones, peer-to-peer file sharing, etc.," he wrote in a Web post this week. "The Green Movement only has the Internet but it has to change its approach."