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This year on Ashura, Iran's opposition Green Movement stays below ground

Iran's opposition Green Movement protested in force during the Shiite holiday Ashura a year ago. This year, they're nowhere to be seen. Is the movement finished?

By Staff writer / December 16, 2010

A man covered in mud uses his mobile phone during the Ashura religious festival in Khorramabad, 305 miles southwest of Tehran, December 16. Mourners cover themselves in mud to commemorate the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, in the 7th century battle of Kerbala.

Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters

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Istanbul, Turkey

Iranians today marked the most powerful event on the Shiite religious calendar, Ashura, which has come to symbolize resistance against tyranny and oppression.

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Crowds of black-clad devotees pounded their chests, flailed themselves with chains, and watched tearful reenactments of the 7th century killing of Imam Hussein, who is immortalized by Shiites for choosing death instead of subjugation to a tyrant.

The legend of Hussein (which is typically transliterated as "Hossein" in Persian contexts) was used to mobilize Iranians in the 1979 Islamic Revolution against a pro-West dictator, just as it has been used by Iran’s embattled opposition Green Movement against Iran’s hard-line leadership since the controversial June 2009 presidential election.

Yet for the opposition, this day also marks one year since they last showed any significant presence on the streets – a final moment when the hope of millions of Iranians for democratic reform was plainly visible.

Now forced underground and facing severe restrictions, where is the Green Movement today?

“The opposition that exists now has turned into an ideology,” says one young Iranian professional, who last year witnessed security forces shooting and killing demonstrators, and asked not to be named. “It will be less expressive but more dangerous [for the regime]. It will breed in people’s homes; children will be fed with this resentment.”

In the last year the Green Movement has “had time to think about things,” says the young man from Tehran, contacted outside Iran. “This means if they were against the regime with their ‘heart’ because they had seen the election being stolen and people being killed, now they believe it with their ‘head.’”

Ashura hijacked

Ashura last year marked a watershed for the regime, which saw its annual commemoration of Imam Hussein’s “resistance” hijacked by an opposition certain that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been reelected by fraud.

For months in numerous demonstrations, millions of Iranians demanded: “Where is my vote?” Confident in their numbers and in standing up to tyranny on Ashura, protesters last December threw off their facemasks and openly beat police and pro-government militiamen, sending shockwaves throughout the regime.

Eight protesters were killed, among the scores – if not hundreds – who lost their lives in all the post-election unrest. Bouyed by their apparent success, many Green Movement activists predicted “victory,” perhaps even the end of the regime, in the next showdown, set for the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution on Feb. 11, 2010.

Those high expectations were reflected in the reporting of the US State Department’s “Iran watcher” in neighboring Baku, Azerbaijan, whose dozen Iranian contacts predicted “massive” protests, according to a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks.

One Tehran student told the US diplomat that the Ashura confrontation had revitalized the opposition and that “almost all” his friends would take to the streets again in February. Another source said Iran’s supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei is “not as powerful as you guys think,” and that “Iran simply cannot go on like this.”

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