If the past year in Iran were a Hollywood movie, the audience would be unsettled by now. The preening villain appears to have come out on top, and it's increasingly difficult to see how he'll get his comeuppance before the credits roll. But those Iranians seeking to free their country from the repressive rule of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his backers can't expect instant gratification; instead, they appear to be planning for an epic tale that plays out over years.
Exactly a year ago, Ahmadinejad, and the Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei who abandoned the electoral neutrality required of his office and openly backed the incumbent, were facing a street rebellion on the scale that brought down the Shah of Iran in 1979. One key conservative estimated that 3.5 million people had joined the wave of protests against Ahmadinejad's disputed reelection on June 12. The vicious repression that followed created the most serious political crisis in the history of the Islamic regime, its fissures running deep inside the corridors of political and clerical power. A regime founded on a balance between clerical rule and limited representative democracy was seen to give way to naked authoritarianism, with the Revolutionary Guard playing a central political role, and that alienated even many conservative clerical and political figures.
Still, despite the turmoil, and the raw courage of the young protesters willing to march against vicious odds and of opposition presidential candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi to continue defying the regime even when ordered by the Supreme Leader to back down the regime was never at risk of collapse. Ahmadinejad could still count on the support of millions of Iranians, and that meant any mass defection of the security forces was unlikely. The regime avoided the politically risky "Tiananmen option" of unleashing unrestrained military force to clear the streets, but it sicced its brutal street thugs onto the demonstrators, killing some and intimidating others, while thousands were detained by the security forces, many of them tortured and put on show trials.
Although the resilience of the demonstrators surprised many, over a matter of weeks the state managed to reclaim control over the streets. It had, arguably, suffered a body blow to its legitimacy both among the wider citizenry and within some of the institutional pillars of the Islamic Revolution, but there was no questioning its control.
The opposition Green Movement a loose coalition was forced to recognize that a power shift is not imminent, and to embark instead on a "long march." Since the celebrations of the traditional Iranian New Year earlier this year failed to produce the expected mass protest activity, opposition leaders have spoken in terms of shifting toward a strategy of harnessing the economic grievances of ordinary Iranians to propel the movement forward. The potential of strike action and other forms of economic pressure would give the opposition much-needed leverage the previous year has shown that getting even hundreds of thousands of young people into the street can't topple the regime, as long as it retains a support base. But focusing on the regime's failure to deliver economic relief to the long-suffering majority could eat into that base, and also potentially put economic muscle behind opposition activism. But it's a long, slow process that offers little immediate prospect of political change. While there may be some protest activity to mark the anniversary, nobody is predicting another wave of mass demonstrations now.
One clear recent sign of Ahmadinejad's renewed confidence was the fuel-swap agreement he brokered with Turkey and Brazil in an effort to resolve the nuclear standoff on Iran's terms. Although the deal was ignored by the U.S. and the other major players on the U.N. Security Council, which on Wednesday adopted further sanctions measures, the fact that it was offered at all signals a shift. An earlier version of the fuel-swap deal, offered by the U.S. last October, was initially embraced by Ahmadinejad but then dropped like a hot potato when he came under a firestorm of criticism from across the political spectrum. This time, the proposal to ship out significant quantities of Iran's uranium stockpile appeared to have the backing of many in Tehran's political class who had opposed it last year.