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Fresh Iranian protests inconclusive for opposition

Reformists failed to gain the new momentum and international visibility they sought by coopting Quds Day marches, an annual event to show solidarity with Palestinians.

By Jason RezaianContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / September 18, 2009

Iranian opposition supporters attend a protest in Tehran, Iran, Friday, Sept. 18, 2009. Thousands of opposition supporters held protests in competition with government-sponsored mass rallies to mark an annual anti-Israel commemoration, the Quds Day that reflects the Persian nation's sympathy with the Palestinians.

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Dubai, United Arab Emirates

A showdown between Iranian authorities and the opposition centered on Friday's annual Quds Day celebrations appears to have resulted in a draw, enabling the leadership to maintain the upper hand they have enjoyed of late.

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Traditionally, Quds Day – so-called after the Arabic name for Jerusalem – is a time to protest the oppression of Palestinians. But this year, the opposition had aimed to shift the focus to those who protested the June election en masse before strict security measures largely shut them down. Many pro-reformists were hoping a large turnout might reinvigorate the movement and bring it back to the world's attention.

Thousands turned out in the first major rally in two months, defying the Supreme Leader's ban on antigovernment demonstrations. But it was not a decisive victory for the opposition, which in many cases was blocked from joining the tens of thousands who turned out for official Quds demonstrations, according to an Associated Press report from Tehran.

Defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi and former president Mohammed Khatami, who joined the parallel opposition protests, were reportedly attacked.

While many opposition protesters reportedly wore their signature color of green, eyewitnesses say that in some areas it was hard to tell where demonstrators stood politically.

"It's hard to know who was who, as people seemed afraid to speak with fellow demonstrators," says a middle-aged investment analyst, contacted by phone in Tehran, who attended a demonstration near Tehran University. "I tried to initiate conversations with a few guys younger than me, but they didn't want to talk."

The lack of a decisive victory for the opposition may buoy the government in this round of post-election conflict, but Iranian authorities gave several clear indications leading up to Friday's celebrations that they are still concerned by the country's growing opposition movement.

First, they replaced the traditional Quds Day prayer leader. Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani – a founding father of the Islamic revolution who is now aligned with the opposition – was sidelined in favor of hard-liner Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, who most recently called for the arrest and possible execution of election protesters and organizers.

Further showing the government's vulnerability, the prayers were not televised live, which implied that the leadership feared a massive opposition turnout. And perhaps in an effort to inspire Tehran residents to leave town, rather than take part in the Quds day events, officials announced a rare three-day weekend to coincide with the end of Ramadan.

Why some protesters were deterred

The authorities' efforts to discourage protests has in recent weeks forced the opposition to become more creative in exhibiting their discontent. Some schemed to stamp Mousavi's visage on currency bills, while others planned an unsuccessful attempt to short-circuit electricity when government leaders were scheduled to speak on television.

The opposition has faced psychological and social barriers as well, especially among those who simply yearn for a return to a perceived normalcy. Furthermore, many have become jaded by how the state has coopted images of large crowds of protesters to claim support for their own system.

"I was planning to attend, but I decided I didn't want to be used as propaganda," says a law student, reached by phone in Tehran. "Whoever shows up, I know they [the leadership] will present the crowds as though they were supporting the Palestinians."

Opposition seeks to disrupt Ahmadinejad visit

One goal of many in the Iranian opposition, both domestically and abroad, is to disrupt President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's annual visit to the United Nations next week, as well as proposed talks in early October that would include both the United States and Iran.

Still, with his comments before Friday prayer, reiterating his denial of the Holocaust and condemnation of Israel and the US, Mr. Ahmadinejad seems intent on maintaing his defiance of engagement, at least for now.

Efforts to delegitimize the current government in the eyes of Western leaders have thus far appeared to fail. If talks move forward meaningfully with the US, it could mean even darker days ahead for the opposition.

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