New Momentum — but No Clear Goal — for Iran's Street Protests

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Iranian antigovernment protesters chant slogans as a public trash dumpster is set on fire in Tehran

Not a single fan showed up Aug. 7 for the opening match of Iran's avidly followed football season. After the government caught wind of plans by protesters to bring the street demonstrations into the 100,000-seat national stadium, authorities decided to have the two rival teams from Tehran and Isfahan play to an empty house rather than risk yet another embarrassing show of green and chants of "Death to the dictators."

In recent days, despite the regime's heavy-handed efforts to stifle the resistance, public demonstrations have become more decentralized and frequent as protesters become increasingly bold and defiant. This shift in mood — from despondency in late June after the Basij fired on protesters following the June 12 presidential election, to a renewed sense of optimism — signals that the vocal opposition movement will not be going away anytime soon. "It's the national duty of every single man and woman to go to the streets," said a university student protester in her mid-20s. "This is far from over."

According to interviews with a half-dozen protesters, their objective appears to have evolved beyond reclaiming the votes for Mir-Hossein Mousavi in the disputed election. The aim is now to attack the very legitimacy of the theocracy. The immediate triggers for street protests, however, vary and are often tied to significant dates; for instance, in the past week demonstrators marched to protest the inauguration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a second term, to object to the renewed mass trial of political dissidents and, on another occasion, simply to take advantage of a religious holiday when many devout Basij members would be in mosques.

The most dramatic protests came July 30, when thousands turned out to commemorate the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, the 26-year-old woman whose death was captured on video and seen around the world. Because the two centers of protest were at opposite ends of the sprawling capital, security forces were spread too thin and could not quell the crowds in many neighborhoods; protesters began chanting "Death to Khamenei," a phrase almost no one dared utter in previous protests.

Since then, the chants have become more acerbic and have even hinted at violence: "We're the children of war; fight and we'll fight back" or "I will kill he who killed my brother." Tactics have also escalated beyond the million-strong silent marches in the immediate aftermath of the election. Groups of around a dozen young protesters apiece have been seen leading chants and organizing crowds, in some instances setting trash bins on fire in the middle of streets to block the entry of motorcycle gangs. According to several protesters, many in the crowds have carried handbooks detailing how to fight against the security forces, including giving suggestions such as how to disable the ubiquitous red motorcycles of the Basij paramilitary. Forum boards have called for people to scatter ball bearings in the streets or place upside down frying pans on the sidewalks to look like IEDs to scare off the Basij.

The more spontaneous protests, with turnouts of perhaps a few hundred, are still a cat-and-mouse tussle with wary security forces, most of whom are no longer armed with guns. But the Basij have responded to the increasing fearlessness of the protesters — many no longer run away from tear gas, and according to one witness, some have kicked the canisters back at the riot police. Now the Basij go at the demonstrators with chains, whips, Tasers and metal pipes. One protester said she has seen them use paintball guns to tag protest leaders for later arrest. At a recent press conference, the prosecutor general of the ongoing mass trials said that on average 100 people — many assumed to be protesters — have been arrested per day since June 12.

The new tactics on both sides, however, threaten to alienate Iranians who do not want to see another bloody revolution in their lifetime. There is still shock at seeing blog postings revealing personal information about Basij members — in one instance the mobile number and address of a militiaman with the implicit suggestion that protesters exact revenge.

While the street action has regained momentum and taken on new strategies, its long-term goal remains nebulous. Is the aim to make the country ungovernable? That is not likely to be the goal of at least one segment of the opposition, members of the established bureaucracy. Threatened by Ahmadinejad's pruning of their ranks over the past four years, they would be happy to see him go; but they also want to preserve the bureaucratic system that is the source of their entitlements and power. Meanwhile, the increasingly brutal encounters between demonstrators and the Basij will only multiply the number of martyrs — and propel the cycle of protests and response.

An extended period of protests also increases the chances of dividing the opposition, between the radicalized crowds on the streets and the political élite who may be more willing to compromise. For the elders of the opposition (who continue to control important political fiefdoms in the regime), the demonstrations are a dramatic, but ultimately temporary, means of ratcheting up the pressure on their hard-line rivals. Indeed, both sides are chipping away at each other's coalitions and power bases, laying the groundwork for a compromise that will be acceptable to all — except, perhaps, to the radicalized, and still energized, youth on the streets of Tehran.