Iran's Opposition Searches for a New Strategy

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AFP / Getty

This video grab allegedly shows Iranian police arresting an Iranian opposition protester in Tehran on Feb. 11, Revolution Day in Iran

Even Iran's irrepressible Twitter-powered opposition could not mask its disappointment. Before the Feb. 11 celebration of the 31st anniversary of the Iranian revolution, some estimates predicted antigovernment turnout to be as high as 2 million. Very little of that materialized. Now Iran's emotionally deflated opposition is collectively scratching its head to explain not only what happened but also what it means for the future of the Green Movement, as the opposition calls itself.

A broad debate has opened on opposition websites questioning the tactics, the organization and the kind of support the movement needs or doesn't need from abroad. By outmaneuvering the opposition, says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, "the government has shown it is capable of learning, and the opposition has to do the same. Going out into the street can't be its only tactic."

What most in the opposition agree on is that the massive crackdown on Revolution Day was at least a tactical victory for the government. While the opposition had in the past been able to mount at least symbolic challenges to the regime on state-sanctioned holidays like Jerusalem Day and religious events such as Ashura, despite the superior power of state security forces, this time the government was much more successful at preempting activism. In the run-up to Feb. 11, the government arrested scores of would-be activists and organizers, scared off many more by promising swift retribution and executed two opposition supporters on charges of making war against God.

One of the opposition's vaunted strengths — a horizontal, decentralized organization that kept the movement alive despite widespread arrests — proved to have its limits. With different leaders calling for demonstrations at different locations, there was no one spot where a massive display of opposition force could hold its own against the government. The government jamming of mobile phones, texting and Internet services prevented flash-mob-style impromptu organizing from taking place.

On the day itself, the regime broke up the smallest of gatherings before larger ones could form. Paramilitary Basiji prevented opposition leaders like former presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi from attending the demonstrations; they attacked him and arrested and beat his son, according to Karroubi's family. "Their expectation of our capability was more realistic than our own," read a posting on the opposition's main website, "The people who prevented us from coming out have now had eight months of practice. Now we have to discuss other tactics and put all our minds together."

One tactic came in for particular criticism: the so-called Trojan Horse, in which opposition supporters would dress conservatively and blend in with government rallies until a prearranged time or sign would prompt them to reveal their Green Movement clothing and placards and chant antigovernment slogans. But that moment never came.

Still, obituaries for the Iranian opposition are premature. "This is a cat-and-mouse game that is going to continue," says Parsi. For all the postgame hand-wringing, many in the opposition say that whatever victory the government achieved on Feb. 11 was hollow. Indeed, in order to stage simple national and religious holiday celebrations, the government has had to mobilize hundreds of thousands of supporters, many from outside the capital, and deploy massive force, which belies its claims that the opposition is just a disaffected élitist minority. "By attacking the people on Ashura, the government lost its religious legitimacy," says Mohsen Sazegara, one of the founders of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. A former aide to Ayatullah Khomeini, Sazegara now posts videos on YouTube from his home in suburban Virginia giving advice to the Green Movement. Moreover, the costs of such military-style operations are unsustainable, both in their direct expenses and in chasing off foreign investment and support. "Time is on our side," says Sazegara. "We just have to survive. They have to run a country."

Tapping into the economic grievances of average Iranians may be the next phase of the Green Movement, which has so far been strongest among Iran's urban middle classes. As the regime struggles with a mountain of government debt, unemployment and social subsidies, opposition organizers are sensing an opportunity to expand their base socially and geographically beyond the main cities. On Monday, Feb. 15, the head of the Iranian electricity-workers union said that more than 900,000 of its members are about to lose their jobs and that the country could face an electricity crisis and blackouts because the government — the main customer for Iran's electricity plants — isn't paying its bills. Last week, Tehran's bus-drivers union announced it was allying itself with the Green Movement and called on Tehranis to go out and cause traffic jams at 6:00 every evening. The next confrontation between the regime and the Greens may take place not in the streets but in the pocketbooks.