Iranian opposition facing a choice: Moderation or new, radical course

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 11, 2010

TEHRAN -- As Iran's opposition movement takes to the streets Thursday, it does so having made little concrete progress despite eight months of protests, and it must now choose between the relatively cautious path set by its leaders and the radical course advocated by some members.

Opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who lost to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the disputed election last June, say the demonstrations are about staying true to the ideals of the Islamic republic and fully implementing the nation's constitution. But many protesters, frustrated by the government's uncompromising stance and continuing crackdown, are calling for the complete downfall of the 31-year-old system of clerical rule.

This growing fracture within the movement will be put to the test Thursday. The anti-government demonstration, which will be held alongside pro-government rallies as millions of Iranians mark the anniversary of the Islamic revolution, could be the last opportunity for the opposition to stage a large protest for at least several months. Some within the movement say the chance to change Iran is slipping away.

"There could be 2 million people demonstrating against the government. What difference does it really make? The government has marginalized such events in the past. They ignore all demands," said one political analyst, who declined to be named for fear of being arrested. "After Thursday's protest, many people will draw the conclusion: What is the use of risking lives?"

On the eve of the demonstration, the Iranian government said it would permanently suspend Google's e-mail service in the country, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday. There was no immediate confirmation in Tehran or from Google. State Department officials also could not confirm the report, but one official said the move did not appear to be in response to U.S. efforts to sanction Iranian businesses. "This is solely about Iran's ongoing concern about demonstrations and the inability of the government to stop them," said one senior U.S. official.

Users of Google's Gmail have experienced periodic service disruptions in recent weeks. But Iranian officials have blamed those disruptions on severed cable lines, while also advocating for a national e-mail service.

Google spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said in a statement, "We can confirm a sharp drop in traffic and we have looked at our own networks and found that they are working properly."

Heading into Thursday's rally, some protesters said it is time for new tactics. "We know there should be no violence, but how many times can we allow ourselves to be beaten?" said Parisa, a protester who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used.

Mousavi and Karroubi have appealed in statements and in interviews for the protests to remain peaceful and for demonstrators not to shout slogans against Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "What binds this movement is the demand for free elections, free media and respect for civil rights," Karroubi said in a statement last week.

The opposition leaders say Iran's constitution guarantees civil rights that are being violated by the nation's rulers. If the movement goes beyond those demands, it will be "stabbing in the dark," Mousavi said in an interview on his own Web site last week in which he emphasized respect for the constitution.

Mousavi also demanded the release of all political prisoners. The courts responded by handing down death sentences against 10 protesters, after two men were hanged last month for their alleged involvement in street clashes. On Wednesday, several people were arrested, a top police commander said, adding to the hundreds who have been detained. Just in recent weeks, at least 12 journalists and dozens of activists have been taken into custody.

The opposition movement "is like a car driving down a steep mountain. There are no brakes and there is no control," said Abbas Abdi, an analyst and former newspaper editor. The protesters "say that Mousavi's and Karroubi's methods have failed. They have lost control over the steering wheel."

But Hamid Jalaeipour, a professor of sociology at the University of Tehran who supports the opposition, said that only a small group of protesters wants to bring down Iran's top leaders.

"The ideals of the Islamic revolution are very important for most of the opposition supporters," he said. "This is about a fight against tyranny, not about bringing down the entire system."

Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company