Battle lines remain drawn as Iran marks the one-year anniversary on Saturday of a disputed presidential election that sparked weeks of bloody protests that Revolutionary Guard commanders say brought the Islamic regime to the “edge of a downfall.”
There may be clashes on June 12, if protesters defy warnings to stay at home. Or there may be tense calm: Denied permits, opposition leaders on Thursday called off demonstrations due to the “dark history of the past year” of violence, and to “preserve people’s lives and property.”
Either way, say many Iranians and analysts, Iran in the past year has irreparably changed, the legitimacy of the regime undermined by an election widely seen as fraudulent and by violence against fellow Iranians.
“Oppression is severe, but at the same time [the opposition] know the Islamic Republic is going toward its end, because they can see it running out of breath,” says Massoumeh Torfeh, an Iran specialist at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London.
“They are sitting there and waiting,” says Ms. Torfeh. “They realize they have had the most powerful and brutal regime attacking them. But at the same time … they are thinking. These are young, educated, futuristic, computer-savvy people [and] this is giving them time to think and to regroup.”
Vote was 'divine assessment'
One year ago, Iran’s supreme religious leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei immediately declared the reelection of arch-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a “divine assessment.”
Enraged at the officially declared 2-to-1 landslide victory against the more moderate candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister who surged in the polls in the week prior to the vote, the opposition Green Movement cried foul and took to the streets by the hundreds of thousands.
In weeks of clashes with security forces, scores were killed – some reports suggest hundreds – and more than 4,000 were arrested. Ayatollah Khamenei would rule that rejection of the election results was the “biggest crime,” and allegations of rape and killings in secret detention centers and televised show trials further soured the aftermath of the vote.
Last fall, the opposition infiltrated and turned “green” several key religious and national regime events, which peaked with the violent scenes in late December to mark the death of a 7th century martyr.
February protests fizzled
Another attempt at street protests in February, however, on the anniversary of the revolution itself, fizzled under the weight of blanket police and militia deployments.
“The Greens have learned that street protests cannot lead anywhere since the government would provoke violent confrontation, and there is a lack of street leaders to guide the protests,” says an Iranian journalist in Tehran who could not be named for security reasons.
Iran’s myriad security forces and ideological basiji militia are expected to saturate Tehran and other cities to prevent any further mass protests, the kind that last year went increasingly beyond calls for a new election, and turned against Iran’s highest authority, Khamenei, whose image was desecrated repeatedly by protesters calling “Death to the Leader!”
Iranians by Thursday were already watching groups of basijis on motorcycles driving along Tehran’s central Vali Asr Avenue.
“Nobody could have scarred the image of Khamenei more than he did to himself over the past year,” says a young Iranian professional who was arrested during the crackdown. He did time in Evin prison, and left Iran a few days ago for good.
“Even when the reformist supporters don’t come out, but you see a whole bunch of police out there, you see a lot of precautions – it still has an effect,” says the professional. “When people don’t come out, and their lack of [being there] is still provoking that same reaction ... I think that’s a huge message.”
Also sending a message were opposition leaders Mr. Mousavi and fellow presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi, who in a joint statement on Thursday called off their plans for a silent rally. The two men have been fighting increasing criticism from opposition activists who expect more direct leadership as well as the risk of irrelevance, due to their limited ability to speak to followers. Another problem for some regime opponents is their stated adherence to upholding the rule of the Supreme Leader and to making reforms inside that system.
They canceled the rally, the joint statement read, after receiving information of the “reorganization of hard-liners and their henchmen to attack defenseless masses.” The result was a request to “protesters to pursue their rights and seek their demands through less costly means.”
Mousavi and Mr. Karroubi sought to reassure the opposition: “The movement is alive and the real pride belongs to those who are still continuing their rightful protest despite all threats, dangers, insecurities, and knowing well the … consequences.”
“This is the worst year for Ayatollah Khamenei in the whole history of the Islamic Republic, because he faces serious challenges at home, and now he faces these UN sanctions,” says analyst Torfeh. “He’s been pretending the situation has gone back to normal, but he knows this normalcy is only because they have been pressuring people, and putting people behind bars, and killing them point blank.”
Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endownment in Washington, wrote in a recent analysis that, “For two decades, Khamenei deceptively cultivated an image of an impartial and magnanimous guide, but his defiant public support for Ahmadinejad exposed him as a petty, partisan autocrat. Among the unprecedented slogans of last summer’s street protests were thunderous chants of ‘Khamenei is a murderer, his leadership is void!’ ”
While senior Iranian officials and officers have downplayed the dangers anymore from the Green Movement – even declaring victory last February over the “leaders of the “sedition” – they can’t stop talking about these former luminaries of the revolution who they believe have strayed from its path.
And some observers argue that the word “victory” might be premature, regardless of what happens on the June 12 anniversary.
“It’s just building up. It’s not going away,” says the once-imprisoned professional, referring to the hidden popular strength of the opposition. For the regime, “it’s a Catch-22, a vicious circle for which they have no way out. If they do loosen up, they are going to be walked over, and [now] that’s without a doubt.”
He reckons that only his first interrogator in Evin prison – who would often repeat the simplest questions in that first nine-hour session – truly believed that he was engaged in trying to foment a “velvet revolution” to overthrow the government. It was a common charge.
“I was brought up in the revolution,” the professional says. “As a fact, I know that soldiers never win. Even if on one day they force people back, they haven’t actually won.
“They start losing when they’ve gone home the second night, and third night, and look at the bigger picture,” he adds. “They see their own family, their family sees them, and that’s when they start losing. That’s the erosion that will [matter] when the [next] fight breaks out.”