Supporters of Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Musavi burn a police motorcycle during a protest on Valiasr Street in Tehran in December 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 on June 12, with much of the region in a state of revolutionary ferment, the second anniversary of Iran's bitterly disputed presidential election is likely to pass off 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 -- have called for the day to be marked by a "silent demonstration" in Tehran's Valiasr Street.
While some protesters may indeed turn out, the appeal is 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 say, is the fact that the latest call for protests is being voiced by opposition voices abroad, such as Musavi's Paris-based spokesman Amir Ardeshir Arjmand.
Iranians Aren't 'Dumb'
Hushang Amirahmadi, president of the American-Iranian Council and a commentator sympathetic to Iran's Islamic regime, says Iranians are likely to ignore the appeal.
"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 says. "I think it's disappointing that, after 200 years of trying to get democracy in Iran, this is the best they can do."
Both Mehdi Karrubi (left) and Mir Hossein Musavi have been under house arrest since February
But Mehrdad Khonsari, a senior analyst with the London-based Center for Arab and Iranian Studies, puts a different gloss on the public mood.
"They have become savvy enough not to demonstrate or to show their frustrations at a time when the regime most expects them to," Khonsari says. "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 claims that around 1,500 political activists have 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 have been detained before and are being rounded up on a "just-in-case basis" for the duration of the anniversary period, he says. His claims cannot be verified and are not corroborated by human rights groups -- although the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran says 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 says. "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."
Musavi supporters protests in Tehran in June 2009
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.
Iranian riot-police fire tear gas at supporters of presidential candidate Mir Hossein Musavi during protests in Tehran in June 2009.
And 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, says the current reluctance to voice dissent -- in contrast to Syria and Libya, where protest movements have repeatedly encountered deadly repression from government forces -- stems from the experience of the Islamic Revolution. That has made Iranians skeptical about the benefits of violent change, he says.
"Iranian society has a very different contemporary history and experience than, let's say, the Syrians, the Egyptians, or Libyans," Ghaemi adds. "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."
Security forces are cornered by protesters while their motorcycles burn - Tehran, December 2009
Waiting For Their Chance
All the same, he says, 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 says.
Mahmud Ahmadinejad displays victory sign after voting in the June 2009 presidential elections. He refuted claims that the election had been rigged.
Some, such as Khonsari, say the time for a peaceful settlement has passed, insisting that Iranians will have to make "the ultimate sacrifice" to bring about change. Others, like Ghaemi, raise 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 is being undermined by its own "contradictions."
But Amirahmadi, of the American-Iranian Council, says the whole idea of regime change is fanciful and that the Islamic republic will 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 says. "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."
An opposition supporter stands near a police motorcycle set on fire during clashes
with security forces in Tehran on December 2009 (photo: TehranLive.org)
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