Iran's Opposition Down but Not Out

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Ben Curtis / AP

Female Mir-Hossein Mousavi supporters in Tehran

Tehran's streets, in which hundreds of thousands of demonstrators thronged two weeks ago, have largely gone quiet. Small-scale demonstrations are still staged every couple of days, but the regime has effectively reasserted control through its willingness to use violence, and the threat of violence, against those protesting the disputed election result. But the absence of protesters from the streets doesn't signal an end to the political crisis that has roiled the regime since Mir-Hossein Mousavi and his supporters accused the backers of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of stealing the June 12 election.

The repression of protest actions has certainly been effective: club-wielding Basij paramilitaries fanned out across the country, beating and arresting protesters before they could muster new demonstrations. Striking the nerve center of the opposition movement, police detained hundreds of activists, key supporters and top aides of defeated presidential candidate Mousavi. Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei quickly and repeatedly backed the disputed election result and warned against further demonstrations. And on June 29, the hard-line Guardian Council reaffirmed Ahmadinejad's victory after a token recount.

Yet while the regime appears unyielding and in control of the streets, Iran's reform movement has achieved an incalculable political and moral victory that could propel further efforts for democratic change.

"This is a turning point," says Nader Hashemi, author of Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies. "The Islamic republic is facing a deep crisis of legitimacy at this moment. There is a very politicized and very discontented society that is pushing for greater change and accountability within Iran's political system."

The bald power grab by Ahmadinejad and his backers has, in fact, created an organizing principle for a revitalized reform movement, rallying against a government widely viewed as illegitimate even within the restricted democratic rules of the Islamic republic. Indeed, the actions of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei have imperiled two of the system's key sources of legitimacy — the principle of clerical guidance and the popular mandate achieved through democratic participation. In the 30 years since the Islamic revolution, the position of Supreme Leader has been kept largely above the regime's factional power struggles. And despite the clergy's tightly limiting the field of acceptable candidates, Iran's elections have seen wide popular participation. But the June 12 election fraud, in the eyes of millions of Iranians, has exposed Khamenei as a partisan factional player in what is widely viewed as a maneuver to consolidate the power of the ruling clique regardless of the verdict of the electorate.

The result has been a stunning breaking of taboos: Mousavi made an unprecedented challenge to Khamenei's authority by rejecting an election result deemed a "divine assessment" by the Supreme Leader, and he also defied Khamenei's orders to end protest action by insisting on his supporters' right to peacefully oppose electoral fraud. Even Ali Larijani, the speaker of parliament who is at once loyal to the Supreme Leader and hostile to Ahmadinejad, publicly questioned the objectivity of the Guardian Council, the clerical body that oversees elections. However it calls the result, the regime has been discredited by the June 12 election, which has sapped its legitimacy and left it vulnerable to future acts of political defiance.

The reform movement's resilience resides in the fact that it expresses a demand for change in Iran that runs long and deep. The remarkable June protests were merely the continuation of a popular movement that began to emerge 12 years ago with the surprise landslide presidential victory of moderate cleric Mohammed Khatami. In the 1997 presidential election, Khatami upset the conservative front runner thanks to a massive turnout by young people and women seeking greater political and personal freedom and harmony with the outside world. In the ensuing years, hard-liners beat back Khatami's reform agenda, while security forces crushed periodic student demonstrations. But the June protests proved that the demand for change by millions of Iranians is irrepressible.

And the reform coalition is even broader this time, including a broad array of mullahs, politicians and cultural figures who had been at the forefront of the 1979 Islamic revolution but who believe that the revolution's promise has been systematically undermined by the authoritarian elements at the core of the regime. In fact, Mousavi's "green wave" is less a revolution against the Islamic republic than a struggle by reformists within the system against an undemocratic faction intent on amassing power.

Khamenei and Ahmadinejad cannot easily dismiss as counter-revolutionaries or foreign stooges such key figures in the current opposition as Grand Ayatullah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a senior cleric who was once Khomeini's handpicked successor; Khatami, who received more than 20 million votes in the two presidential elections he contested; Abbas Abdi, one of the radical student leaders who seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran 30 years ago; and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, perhaps Iran's leading filmmaker and a former revolutionary. An even more ominous sign for Khamenei and Ahmadinejad is that they can't necessarily count on the support of such conservative stalwarts as Larijani and former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Mousavi continues to call for demonstrations, which, even if they're small — and work within the limits of the law by seeking permission to commemorate important days on the national calendar — could keep the spirit of protest alive. In a similar vein, opposition supporters are also trying to keep their movement alive through symbolic acts of defiance such as scribbling Mousavi's name on Iranian currency and shouting "Allahu akbar" ("God is great," popularized as a political slogan during the 1979 revolution) from the windows and rooftops. The opposition is also considering calling periodic general strikes. And parliamentary elections due to be held two years from now will be another chance for the reformist movement to press its agenda at the ballot box, and perhaps in the streets again.

"We don't know how all this is going to play out," explains Hashemi. "But the ruling élite has suffered a huge blow to their credibility. Looking at the high level of popular mobilization and discontent, it will be very difficult to forever crush the opposition and go back to the way things were. There is now an opposition leadership that is willing to stand up to authority in Iran, not be cowed and force a debate over the status quo." That suggests that the real question is how, not whether, the Green Revolution will continue.