Home News Fissures over goals test strength of Iran's opposition
Fissures over goals test strength of Iran's opposition Print E-mail

By Thomas Erdbrink
Sunday, November 15, 2009

 

TEHRAN -- Five months after a disputed presidential election spawned the largest anti-government demonstrations here in three decades, Iran's opposition movement appears rudderless and divided, with protesters increasingly at odds with their leaders' insistence on preserving the country's system of religious government.

Many Tehran residents who oppose President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are taking a harder line against Iran's leaders and want to remove them from power, several protesters said. Others in the opposition movement favor gradual change and caution against pressing extreme demands.

Although there is no way to measure how widespread the sentiments on both sides are, Iranians involved in the movement say growing numbers of protesters are refusing to compromise with the ruling hierarchy, a system of Shiite religious and political rule ushered in by Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, which ended a 2,500-year-old monarchy.

Former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and Shiite cleric Mehdi Karroubi, two presidential candidates who accuse Ahmadinejad of securing a landslide reelection victory in June through large-scale fraud, now offer only symbolic leadership to the grass-roots opposition movement, protesters said. No one has stepped up to replace them, leaving the movement adrift in the face of a harsh government crackdown, with demonstrations organized by ad hoc means and with conflicting aims.

Mousavi, 67, and Karroubi, 72, charge that Ahmadinejad's reelection amounts to an electoral coup d'etat by the government, the Revolutionary Guard Corps and hard-line clerics, and they have called on demonstrators to save the Islamic republic from becoming a dictatorship.

But many protesters have gone beyond questioning the election outcome, more than a dozen opposition supporters said in interviews. Fearing retribution, all insisted on being identified only by their first names.

"I don't want to save the Islamic republic," said Reza, a 28-year-old engineer. "I want a total change, something close to a revolution." Other interviewees made similar comments, saying that extreme violence unleashed by the government against protesters has hardened their views about Iran's leaders.

"They will not change," said Mohammad, a computer specialist who was fired from his job for supporting the demonstrations. "We have no other option than removing them from power." He added, "But I really don't know how we should do that."

During the most recent street protests, on Nov. 4, demonstrators reflected the harder line when they shouted slogans mainly against Iran's top leaders, instead of their more usual calls in support of Mousavi. Video clips captured on cellphones and posted on the Internet showed people tearing down posters of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader for the past 20 years. As the heir of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic republic, Khamenei wields ultimate religious and political authority in Iran and is highly revered.

In the government's view, such protests confirm suspicions that the opposition wants to topple Iran's political system as part of what authorities call a foreign-backed plot. More than 100 politicians, dissidents and students have been accused, and some have been convicted of organizing such purported conspiracies.

Some protesters warn against fueling those suspicions, fearing that radical actions could backfire.

"We should take this step by step," said Ali, 29, an architect who recently married. "If we become extreme, we will alienate many of our supporters."

"We are united against the government, but we have different thoughts on how far we should go," said Mehdi, a blogger who attended the Nov. 4 demonstrations. "Tearing down pictures of the leader goes too far in this society; the Islamic system has many good points. . . . Our opponents hope that we act extreme so that they can label us as anti-revolution."

Others disagreed, saying all forms of peaceful protests must be allowed.

"We need to show that we are not afraid of anybody and continue to inform people of what is happening in this society," said Paria, 28, a linguist who has participated in all the opposition demonstrations.

The "green movement," as the opposition has become known since adopting Mousavi's campaign color, is a broad but loosely connected alliance that includes clerics, politicians, disgruntled middle-class families and young people. Some adherents are secular, others religious. Many are youths who feel tremendous pressure over losing their few personal freedoms to renewed government attempts to control their private lives.

They use the Internet, leaflets, graffiti and networks of family and friends to organize demonstrations, which security forces have not been able to prevent.

But the lack of leadership and clear goals, combined with the ambiguous position of the defeated candidates in the political system they now attack and the impossibility of resolving policy disputes through public debate, have made the opposition's next moves highly unpredictable.

"Our movement is like a body without a head," Paria said. "Real leaders need to emerge from it. Otherwise, we can go to hell or to heaven in the future."

Ali, the newlywed architect, said he also fears for Iran's future. During the Nov. 4 demonstrations, he and his wife became separated when a squad of "gladiators," as he called the riot police, started chasing them down the tree-lined Vali-e Asr Avenue, he said. Desperately looking for her amid the chaos of tear gas, baton-wielding security forces and running people, he eventually found her cornered by police, who let her go. But the ordeal led him to make a sad conclusion.

"That made me realize that I am hesitant to give my wife's or my own life for a movement with undefined aims," Ali said.

"Nobody knows what will happen," he said. "We all are the leaders of this movement, but we don't have a clue where we are taking it."

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/11/14/AR2009111402682_pf.html

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