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One Year Later, Iranian Reform Movement Recedes

Reform leaders in Iran abruptly called off a protest set for the one-year anniversary of what they consider stolen elections that brought Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a second term, indicative of the struggles of a reform movement which has been successfully repressed by the ruling Islamic leadership. Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi told their followers they could not obtain the proper permits from the government, and thus feared for the safety of the demonstrators. Their complete statement was published at an opposition website.

It’s possible that reformers will try to march anyway, but they have basically been bludgeoned into silence by the repressive leadership in the country. Not all reform movements end in triumph, especially when the opposition decapitates the leadership of that movement, leaving it rudderless and unclear of its goals.

Now, a year later, the masses that made up the movement have disappeared from the streets of Tehran. Dozens of protesters have been killed in clashes with determined government forces; hundreds have been arrested and put on trial. Faced with overwhelming force, without guidance or organization, the dissidents these days cannot agree on their goals, much less mount a significant challenge to the country’s leadership.

“Why risk our lives to make a change, when it is completely unclear what the outcome will be?” asked Ali, an office manager who declined to be further identified for fear of retribution. “First we made our voices heard on the street, but we did not have a Plan B when faced with the harsh reaction of the state.”

Although civil movements typically witness the emergence of leaders at some point, most potential frontmen in Iran were swiftly arrested. In addition, as time went on, many protesters held conflicting ideas of the movement’s aims. Some wanted only the departure of Ahmadinejad; others, often inspired by activists abroad, advocated nothing less than the downfall of Iran’s system of Shiite Muslim clerical rule.

“My wife and I don’t want another revolution, but others did,” Ali said. “Of course, such a divided movement will face problems.”

“Ultimately, it’s useless to be leaderless,” the office manager concluded. Only when a serious leader emerges and sets clear goals would he and his wife return to the streets, he said. Or only when some unforeseen incident occurs, he added, “because in Iran, surprising things can happen.”

What was seen from afar as the stirrings of a revolution now looks like the despairing grumblings of a nation under the thumb of a dictator. In fact, it could be said that the ruling government has grown stronger over the past year. They showed their dominance over their own population, and when the West tried to discipline them for actions in the nuclear sphere they met little protest internally to do what they wanted. This week they vowed to limit UN inspections of their nuclear facilities, after the UN passed a fairly weak round of new sanctions. They brokered a deal with Brazil and Turkey on swapping enriched fuel, essentially what was proposed to them by the West, making the sanctions look particularly punitive.

There was perhaps an opportunity for reformers to exploit the chaos in Iran, but repression typically has its advantages. Somehow, Andrew Sullivan changing his masthead to green didn’t work.

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David Dayen

David Dayen