Resilient protesters keep Iran off balance

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Ever bolder anti-government protests in Iran show no signs of dying down six months after a disputed election that has plunged the Islamic Republic into a crisis of legitimacy and paralyzed nuclear decision-making.

“Things are moving toward escalation, internally and externally. It seems the Iranian government is not able to manage these crises together,” said Mahjoob Zweiri, an Iran analyst at Jordan University’s Center for Strategic Studies.

Add to the mix popular grumbling over unemployment and inflation that could worsen if the government implements plans to lift fuel subsidies that are crippling state finances.

“We’ve been isolated due to the regime’s foreign policy,” complained a 38-year-old civil servant who gave her name only as Shahla. “The economy is shakier than ever. Corruption is so high. Nobody can solve these problems. We need changes.”

Opposition rallies no longer muster the huge crowds that flooded the streets in the days after the June 12 election, but frustration remains. “I voted for change. I am very disappointed because they stole my vote,” said Ladan, 19, a Tehran student.

A movement ignited by dismay at hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election in a vote his foes said was a fraud is turning more radical, perhaps more so than mainstream opposition leaders Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi would wish.

“We are now in a cycle of contestation, repression and more serious contestation,” said Mohammad-Reza Djalili, a professor at Geneva’s Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. “It is difficult to imagine a peaceful outcome.”

Protesters, who now seize occasions marked in the Islamic revolutionary calendar to raise their voices, this week defied the authorities in universities across Iran, using a day that officially marks the killing of three students under the shah.

Mobile phone footage posted on the Internet, although not verifiable, showed students burning posters of Ahmadinejad -- and even those of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the father of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.


“Death to the dictator,” they chanted. “Where has the oil money gone? In the pockets of the Basij (religious militia).”

Such taboo-breaking moments signal a crisis between Iran’s clerical leadership and society at large, with cracks appearing even within the ruling establishment since the election.

“One has the impression fewer and fewer important clergy are supporting the regime. It is already the end of what was the Islamic Republic to the extent that its own discourse referred to its popularity and being rooted in society,” Djalili said.

That does not mean the system will disappear any time soon, given the apparent stalemate between a government unable to quell protests and an opposition incapable of forcing change.

“The hope of the reform movement is to split the government deeply enough to bring people to their own side,” said Rasool Nafisi, an Iran analyst at Strayer University in Virginia.

“There are signs of defections,” he said, citing disaffected ex-President Hashemi Akbar Rafsanjani and other clerics. “But eventually the movement needs a split in the military-security regime, and I don’t see it happening right now.”


Nafisi said the “slow revolution” was only loosely directed, with many leading reformists in jail and curbs on the activities of losing presidential contenders Mousavi and Karroubi.

Repression has so far failed to instill crushing fear into the population. In the absence of coherent leadership, opposition objectives remain broad and relatively unfocused.

“Although people’s slogans are becoming more angry and directly addressed at Ayatollah Khamenei, the demands of opposition leaders essentially remain the addressing of a flawed election and withdrawal of the repressive noose of the state,” said Farideh Farhi, a researcher at the University of Hawaii.

Unrest among students, who played a major role in toppling the U.S.-backed shah in 1979, is far from limited to Tehran, judging by Monday’s protests in many provincial universities.

With student numbers swelling in Iran’s young population of 70 million, such signs of discontent are not easily dismissed.

“The authorities are worried because any demonstrations erode their legitimacy,” said London-based analyst Baqer Moin.

“But they have doubts about repression,” he said, noting that the “uncontrollable force” of the Basij had been mostly kept in check this week. “They’re learning to be more preventive than punitive. They hate the creation of ‘martyrs’.”

The latest protests coincide with deadlock in Iran’s talks with major powers on nuclear work which the West suspects aims to make bombs, not just generate electricity, as Tehran says.

A tentative accord in Geneva to ship most of Iran’s enriched uranium abroad for processing in Russia and France crumbled after conservatives in parliament -- and even some reformists -- attacked Ahmadinejad for selling Iran’s nuclear interests short.

Ultimately nuclear policy lies with the Supreme Leader.

“I think Ahmadinejad has been contained by Khamenei, who doesn’t want to negotiate with America or make any concessions on the nuclear issue,” Moin argued.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who has tried to resolve the nuclear dispute through international diplomacy has little to show for it. Iran, set an end-December deadline to clarify its response, has said instead it needs to boost the number of its enrichment sites to 20.

Farhi said it was not clear whether the Obama administration had any alternative strategy beyond trying to intensify sanctions on Iran, even though it knew these were “more likely to harm the demonstrators and people than the government.”

Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Charles Dick