A battle lost, but the fight goes on

Iranians have taken to the streets in their thousands in violent protest. The regime's new counter measures, however, have forced opponents to rethink their strategies.

Anti-government protesters have up until now scored several notable successes in demonstrations against the regime.
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Iran's two main opposition leaders are planning an emergency meeting this week to revise strategy after the regime proved it has learnt how to prevent anti-government protesters from gatecrashing key dates in the country's calendar. "We want to maintain our peaceful demands in accordance with the constitution. But we don't want the people to pay the high price," Mehdi Karrubi, the opposition's most outspoken leader, told the British Sunday Telegraph newspaper.

His remark was an acknowledgement that opposition supporters, no matter how resolved and resilient, cannot be expected to keep taking to the streets, risking broken bones, arrest and possible death sentences, without seeing concrete political results. Some analysts predict that the opposition may now move away from large street marches in favour of strikes and boycotts. Mr Karrubi said he would meet, probably this week, with Mir Hossein Mousavi, the man millions of Iranians believe was the real winner of last June's disputed presidential elections, to discuss the way forward.

The opposition suffered a demoralising setback last Thursday when its much-touted plans to hijack state-sponsored rallies marking the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution were snuffed out with relative ease and apparently little bloodshed by the regime, which has a firm grip on the levers of power. Opposition leaders had raised high expectations, predicting a record protest turnout that could tilt the stalemated balance of power with the regime in their favour.

Anti-government protesters had until then scored several notable successes by taking to the streets in huge numbers on other emotive anniversaries - a key tactic since June's disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But it was a tactic that telegraphed the opposition's plans to the authorities and pro-democracy demonstrators have paid a high price. Thousands have been arrested since June, scores killed, two executed and others given long jail terms after summary mass trials.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, boasted that last week's events were a "wake-up call to domestic enemies and deceived groups who claim to represent the people". Some western analysts joined in with claims that the opposition, which is a broad tent that lacks charismatic leaders, had suffered a crippling, even potentially fatal, blow. But most Iran experts insist that predictions of the green movement's demise are woefully premature.

"The opposition may have suffered a tactical defeat, but this fight is far from over," said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council. "The government has prevented one major protest from taking place, but there is no sign that the will of the opposition has been broken. "All the opposition has to do is to survive - the real question is for how long the government can set aside so many resources to prevent people from expressing their dissent."

Others also argued that the regime's victory on Thursday was Pyrrhic and achieved solely by negative means. The government managed to fill a Tehran square with hundreds of thousands of its flag-waving supporters and matched this ostensible show of popular support with one of its biggest security operations in years. Information is now emerging, however, that "the government-organised rally was pretty mediocre given the organisation that went into it", said Ali Ansari, a professor of Iranian history at St Andrew's University in Scotland.

"Had they [the opposition] called for a boycott rather than a huge outpouring of demonstrators, we wouldn't be discussing the demise of the green movement, an idea which is hugely premature and misunderstands fundamentally what is going on," Mr Ansari, one of the leading Iran experts in Britain, said. Taking pre-emptive action, the authorities also rounded up scores of student and other activists who would have organised the protests at a grass-roots level. Mobile phone, internet and text messaging services were disrupted to prevent demonstrators mobilising and co-ordinating.

"For any regime, especially one that claims to be a popular republic based on Islam, pointing TV cameras at the right-looking crowd while beating the 'wrong crowd' with all its might, especially on the anniversary of its formation, is not a victory," wrote a guest analyst, under a pseudonym, on Enduring America, a blog on US foreign policy with expert Iran coverage. Mr Karrubi said there were no upcoming rallies planned, but he told yesterday's Telegraph that the opposition would seek permission, in accordance with the constitution, to hold a "peaceful demonstration, in order to show the people's support for our movement".

The opposition is confident that if its supporters are allowed to assemble freely, they can mount a far bigger show of popular support than the turnout orchestrated by the regime on Thursday. Implicitly threatening a campaign of nationwide civil disobedience, Mr Karrubi added: "If they don't let us have that, we will have to try different methods to talk and educate the people about the peace movement and extend it to the whole country."

Insisting the opposition's leadership would not "back away from people's rights", Mr Karrubi reiterated the "green movement's" relatively modest demands: the unconditional release of political prisoners, fair elections and a free press. How the regime responds to its most serious challenge in decades depends largely on the supreme leader. Chants of "death to the dictator" may have chastened him in recent weeks - or he may prove hubristic and uncompromising after Thursday's perceived victory by the regime, analysts said.

Ayatollah Khamenei has refused to make concessions under pressure, but may be willing to compromise if he believes he now has the upper hand, they added. Opposition leaders have sent Ayatollah Khamenei conciliatory signals in recent weeks, insisting that they are not contesting his position, although they continue to view Mr Ahmadinejad's government as illegitimate. The president is being challenged not only by the opposition but by influential pragmatic conservatives, some of them close to the supreme leader. They are critical of Mr Ahmadinejad's handling of the post-election crisis and stridently opposed his management of the country's troubled economy.

Mr Ahmadinejad had less than 24 hours to savour his supposed victory last Thursday when a prominent conservative parliamentarian, Ali Mottahari, proclaimed: "We cannot claim the crisis is totally over until both sides make up for their mistakes." The deputy, a close ally of the parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, who is a bitter conservative critic of the president, went on to echo Mr Karrubi. "The government should respect social freedoms and stop its press bans," Mr Mottahari said. "It should also take action to secure the release of political prisoners and create a climate of friendship and affection."

Among other strategies, Mr Karrubi and Mr Mousavi this week can be expected to explore the possibility of making common cause with such pragmatic hardliners. mtheodoulou@thenational.ae