Iranian opposition demoralized after failed protests at revolution's anniversary

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 20, 2010

TEHRAN -- The opposition supporters nervously smoked cigarettes in the kitchen as loud music blared from the empty living room. A student, a businessman, a writer and an artist had planned a victory party but instead were mourning their defeat.

"It's all over," said the student, a young woman in a sleek black dress. "Our only option is to leave the country."

After their planned show of strength largely fizzled Feb. 11 in the face of heavy security for state-sponsored celebrations of the Islamic revolution's 31st anniversary, activists in Iran's political opposition have been left demoralized, wondering how to revive a movement that many hoped would lead to a more open society, greater personal freedoms and fairer elections.

Those attending the dissidents' get-together contemplated the reasons for their defeat as they sought to answer the question, "What now?" Some admitted that they had been afraid to join anti-government protests scheduled to coincide with the anniversary rallies. Others said they had tried to go but faced thousands of armed security forces who blocked streets. All agreed that the opposition's failure to make an impact during the state-backed demonstrations represented a huge blow for the grass-roots movement. Each spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

Opposition expectations for Feb. 11 had run high, with leaders calling for a "huge presence." Anti-government Web sites speculated that millions of people would turn out to denounce President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his influential supporters among Iran's hard-line clerics and generals.

But by sentencing protesters to death, blocking Internet sites and foreign satellite transmissions and deploying thousands of security forces, authorities managed to stop the opposition from commandeering the largest state-sponsored street gathering of the year. The government's strategy might eventually backfire, but for the time being, it has served to justify authorities' dismissal of the opposition as a meaningless band of foreign-backed counterrevolutionary rioters.

This security formula will almost certainly be used in the future, analysts said, thwarting the opposition's signature tactic of turning official street celebrations into anti-government rallies. "It was impossible to join up with other protesters," the student at the party said as she tried to reconstruct what went wrong. "There were just too many security forces."

She took a puff from her 10th cigarette that evening. "We were all supposed to meet up at the main square where Ahmadinejad would speak. There, we would all bring out green ribbons, to show how many we were," she said.

Instead, she found small pockets of protesters in side alleys, not knowing where to go or what to do. "We ended up with a couple thousand people running from the security forces," she said. "Our movement needs new tactics, but I have no idea what we should do."

On state television this week, officials lauded the "tens of millions" who attended the official rallies, praising them "for supporting the Islamic establishment."

Meanwhile, former presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the opposition's main leaders, charged that the government imposed "a complete militarization" during the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution. They criticized the "dominance of an atmosphere of terror and fear in different parts of the country."

The two promised to inform the Iranian people about "the different means of peacefully reclaiming their rights," but they did not elaborate, the opposition Sahamnews Web site reported.

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