Latest Iran Protests Show a Resilient Opposition

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A video posted on YouTube by the Students Committee in Iran allegedly showing opposition demonstrators outside Tehran University

A new round of campus protests in Iran on Monday served up a sharp reminder that there's plenty of life left in the opposition Green Movement. Six months after the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad set off an unprecedented wave of political turmoil in the Islamic Republic, the regime was clearly taking no chances: Thousands of police, Revolutionary Guards troops and religious vigilantes closed off universities and fired tear gas at student marchers in Tehran, as the government cut off cell phone and internet access and forbade reporters from covering opposition demonstrations timed to coincide with the official observance of National Students Day.

Students Day commemorates the death of three students in protests against the Tehran visit of Vice President Richard Nixon in 1953, following the U.S.-backed coup that overthrew a democratically elected government and restored the monarchy. And the protests reflect the now-familiar Green Movement tactic of using the Islamic Republic's established calendar of official protest days as opportunities to mobilize displays of opposition to the regime. On Monday, that included once-taboo slogans demanding the ouster of Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei and challenging the very principle of an Islamic state.

The latest street demonstrations are a reminder that the Green Movement is a diverse, even unlikely coalition that operates in three different layers. Its leading figures include pillars of the Revolution such as two former presidents and a prime minister, as well as longtime dissidents and opponents of the very idea of an Islamic republic.

The protest face of the movement is dominated by younger activists who are waging a wider civil disobedience campaign that includes dozens of less visible tactics, from commercial boycotts to wearing green en masse at televised sports events and graffitiing slogans on surfaces ranging from buses to banknotes.

On the eve of Monday's demonstrations, security forces arrested more than 20 members of the so-called Mourning Mothers, an informal group of women whose children were killed in the post-election turmoil. The Mothers had launched weekly demonstrations in Tehran's Laleh Park, according to human rights groups.

"The Green Movement belongs to the youth," says Mohsen Makhmalbaf, an exiled filmmaker who claims to speak for the opposition. "When the revolution took place, Iran's population was 30 million; now it's 70 million and most are young. They want freedom. They want to fall in love. They want the opposition. They want a normal life. " Anti-regime activities are often not coordinated; many initiatives emerge from small groups or individuals — "ordinary people who invite others to go to the streets, little people with charisma, like artists or writers who invite people to go to the streets," Makhmalbaf says.

The second layer of opposition comprises traditional politicians who've fallen out with the present leadership, among them three of the movement's key leaders: Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the former prime minister whose defeat in the presidential election by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June prompted cries of electoral fraud and widespread unrest; former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karroubi, who also ran in the June 12 election; and reformist former President Mohammad Khatami.

Of the three, Karroubi has proven the most daring in his willingness to challenge those in power, especially when he went public with accusations that political prisoners were being raped and torture. Mousavi also remains defiant, vowing over the weekend that Iranians would continue to challenge those who "confiscate" their vote. Yet none of these three luminaries has provided a plan of action for the opposition. "The reformist leaders have not yet measured up," says Shaul Bakhash, George Mason University Iran expert and author of The Reign of the Ayatollahs. "They haven't shown adequate dynamism, courage or the ability to think strategically."

The third layer of opposition consists of feisty clerics who challenge the actions of the current regime. An increasingly hostile public debate among mullahs who support and oppose the regime reflects deep divisions in the world's only modern theocracy. The debate includes questions about the role of a Supreme Leader granted the absolute powers (and implied infallibility) of a political pope, and even the very principle of theocratic rule. The fact that the clergy, deemed guardians of the Islamic Revolution, are engaging in this debate also provides cover and legitimacy for the wider public to challenge the regime.