Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters
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.

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?

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

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.”

But Iran’s security forces and myriad intelligence agencies pulled out the stops. And the much-hyped February protests fizzled.

“I think the [Green] movement is dead,” one dispirited activist in Tehran told the Monitor, as that day drew to a close. “The regime pushed too hard.”

Dark days

Indeed, the regime declared “victory” over the leaders of “sedition.” But at what cost? “We’re in a very dark period,” says Nader Hashemi, co-editor of a forthcoming book of essays by Iran specialists called “The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future.”

“What happened after Ashura last year…the regime in Iran upped the ante in terms of the cost it was willing to inflict on the population, and it started to engage in a policy of targeted assassinations…and then a series of executions,” says Mr. Hashemi, who teaches at the University of Denver. On top of that, the regime “arrested every leading prominent civil society, human rights, and pro-democracy activist…every single one across the spectrum was imprisoned,” recalls Hashemi.

Since then, there has not been another Green Movement street protest – though opposition leaders have produced many angry and defiant statements while under virtual house arrest in Tehran. “It’s a realization that the streets have now been won by the regime,” says Hashemi.

The previous opposition strategy of hijacking key official events has “been shut,” so the new strategy is to “engage in a process of reflection, social networking, and organization to raise critical consciousness, and to basically just try and keep the movement alive, waiting for another opportunity where they manifest their presence and push forward their pro-democracy agenda,” Hashemi says.

The government may have the tools of coercion and state media, he says, "but where the regime is very weak – and there is a lot of evidence to support this – the regime is ideologically weak, and it’s suffered a huge crisis of legitimacy.”

Mousavi talks ideology

Aware of that, Mr. Mousavi has focused his statements on fighting tyranny and oppression, not unlike Imam Hussein’s struggle 14 centuries ago.

“Hossein knew that the mortar between the stones of the palace of power was lies, and it was the call of truth-seeking that would erode it,” Mousavi wrote last weekend to mark the Ashura period.

“You remember what [authorities] did to protesting mourners during last year’s Ashura: They threw the protesters off the bridges, ran over their defenseless bodies with cars, and shot at their love-filled hearts,” wrote Mousavi. “Little did they know that suppressing the anger of informed and oppressed people is more dangerous as these voices seek justice.”

Despite widespread frustration, some read hope in signals from the regime, which long ago declared the opposition dead.

“If the sedition is over, then why do [they] keep talking about it?” asks Hashemi. The continued obsession is “evidence the regime knows their basis of support is considerably narrowed.”

Opposition wants action, not just words

But taking advantage of that has not proven easy for the opposition. And not all activists are convinced that Mousavi and his fellows can do so.

Mousavi “is a man of words – great words, too – but we are beyond that,” suggests the young Iranian man sympathetic to the Green Movement. “We don’t need convincing anymore. We need action plans.”

None have emerged yet, he says, and the effort could take years. “The one thing we know for sure is that people have not changed their mind about the regime,” he says.

Even ultra-conservative Iranians in his own family “fumble now when they talk about the [Islamic system], they can’t really solidly support it anymore.”

“We can’t create the ‘trigger’ of instability, [we’re] not powerful enough yet,” he adds. “We might be small now, but any small imbalance and we spread like wildfire.”

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