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In Age Of Arab Revolution, Iran's Election Anniversary Set To Go Off With A Whimper


Supporters of Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Musavi burn a police motorcycle during a protest on Valiasr Street in Tehran on June 13, 2009.
Supporters of Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Musavi burn a police motorcycle during a protest on Valiasr Street in Tehran on June 13, 2009.
Two years ago, it threatened to trigger a wave of dissent that would reverberate around the Middle East and beyond.

Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, took to the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities to protest the reelection of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, a poll that opponents claimed was rigged.

Yet with much of the region in a state of revolutionary ferment, the second anniversary of Iran's bitterly disputed presidential election on June 12 appeared likely to pass as little more than a footnote.

Representatives of the Green Movement -- the umbrella opposition group nominally led by defeated presidential candidates Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karrubi -- called for the day to be marked by a "silent demonstration" in Tehran's Vali Asr Street.

While some protesters may indeed turn out, the appeal was unlikely to have popular resonance. Musavi and Karrubi have been under house arrest since February after calling for protests at that time. Worse still, some observers said, was the fact that the latest call for protests was being voiced by opposition voices abroad, such as Musavi's Paris-based spokesman Amir Ardeshir Arjomand.

[On the June 12 anniversary, a prominent inmate detained during the postelection crackdown, journalist and rights activist Reza Hoda Saber, died of a heart attack after a 10-day hunger strike over the recent death of another detainee, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported. Despite the heavy security presence in Tehran, Iranians gathered in front of the hospital where he was taken, according to a photograph posted by the Kaleme website.]

Iranians Aren't 'Dumb

Hushang Amirahmadi, president of the American-Iranian Council and a commentator sympathetic to Iran's Islamic regime, said Iranians were likely to ignore the appeal for a "silent demonstration."

"I don't think the Iranian people are so dumb that they are going to demonstrate for people who won't show their face," he said. "I think it's disappointing that, after 200 years of trying to get democracy in Iran, this is the best they can do."

But Mehrdad Khonsari, a senior analyst with the London-based Center for Arab and Iranian Studies, put a different gloss on the public mood.

Both Mehdi Karrubi (left) and Mir Hossein Musavi have been under house arrest since February.
"They have become savvy enough not to demonstrate or to show their frustrations at a time when the regime most expects them to," Khonsari said. "It is known to most Iranians that the regime has been making preparations well in advance of the June 12 anniversary and thereabouts. So the fact that huge demonstrations or public protests are not expected at around those dates does not mean that they will not occur at some other time."

Khonsari, a former Iranian diplomat under the last shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, even claimed that around 1,500 political activists had been rounded up in recent weeks in a security clampdown intended to snuff out the possibility of protests being organized.

Most are low-profile types who had been detained before and were being rounded up on a "just-in-case basis" for the duration of the anniversary period, he said. His claims could not be verified and were not corroborated by human rights groups -- although the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran said a similar number were arrested after the previous call for protests in February and March.

"There are lists of people who they come up with and they say, for example, these people were associated with the [former President Mohammad] Khatami movement, with Karrubi, Musavi, the various journalists, various newspapers," Khonsari said. "They know who the most senior people are; then they start delving into to seeing what are some of the names in the second and third tiers. And when there is something like the anniversary coming up, these people all are rounded up and then interrogated in prison.

"The bulk of them are released once those anniversary dates have passed, but they put the fear of God into them so that they do not get engaged in any similar activities at any future point."

Ambivalent Iranian Public

Certainly, the Islamic regime has perfected tactics over past two years to prevent people congregating in vast numbers on set-piece occasions like anniversaries and mourning days. Its sophisticated techniques have precluded the mass firing on demonstrators seen in countries such as Syria, Yemen, and Libya, which could cement widespread alienation from the Islamic system.

Compounding that is the innate caution and ambivalence of the Iranian public. Despite enduring discontent, particularly over economic issues, opposition to the Islamic system is not total.

Even staunch regime opponents like Khonsari acknowledge that it has at least 15 percent loyal support among the population -- and the capacity to mobilize a further 10 percent in times of crises.

An Iranian riot-police officer sprays tear gas at a supporter of defeated Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Musavi during riots in Tehran on June 13, 2009.

Among those opposed, there may be doubt about the ultimate goal of any protest. At the height of the postelection ferment two years ago, demonstrators took to the streets chanting the slogan, "Where is my vote?" while Musavi and Karrubi repeatedly pledged their loyalty to a system forged by the 1979 Islamic Revolution's founding father, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Some regime critics abroad say that has evolved into a broad, if tacit, demand for outright regime change, but such claims are highly contentious and impossible to prove.

Hadi Ghaemi, director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, said the current reluctance to voice dissent -- in contrast to Syria and Libya, where protest movements have repeatedly encountered deadly repression from government forces -- stemmed from the experience of the Islamic Revolution. That has made Iranians skeptical about the benefits of violent change, he said.

"Iranian society has a very different contemporary history and experience than, let's say, the Syrians, the Egyptians, or Libyans," Ghaemi added. "They already had a revolution that turned the system around overnight 30 years ago. And for the past 30 years, three generations have paid a very heavy price in casualties, in dead, in political executions, the Iran-Iraq war, [and] the internal repression. And I would say in that evolutionary sense, the Iranians are very determined to find a peaceful way to bring about a transition and are not willing to pay with blood for it."

Waiting For Their Chance

All the same, he said, the Green Movement -- even in its current emasculated state -- retains broad support and many people are waiting for a chance to demonstrate.

"Our belief is that there is still a very significant and large part of the society who sympathizes with the Green Movement and is looking for the opportune moment, meaning if there is any let-up in the repression to provide the opportunity to publicly demonstrate their support for the movement," Ghaemi said.

Mahmud Ahmadinejad gestures during a press conference in Tehran on June 14, 2009, following his disputed reelection as president. He refuted claims that the election had been rigged.

Some, such as Khonsari, said the time for a peaceful settlement had passed, insisting that Iranians would have to make "the ultimate sacrifice" to bring about change. Others, like Ghaemi, raised the possibility of the regime "imploding from within" -- pointing to the recent power struggle between Ahmadinejad and the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as evidence the system was being undermined by its own "contradictions."

But Amirahmadi, of the American-Iranian Council, said the whole idea of regime change was fanciful and that the Islamic republic would survive.

"This system is not too vulnerable to the kind of pressures and street actions that are brought upon them, trying to force them into either collapse or concession," he said. "That's why I have always thought this regime is more stable than outside forces really think and many outside really are wishful about this regime and [its] collapse. It's just not going to happen."

Musavi supporters with green tape over their mouths during an election protest in Tehran on June 18, 2009

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