Iranian opposition grows beneath surface

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ISTANBUL | Iran’s opposition movement has yet to produce a charismatic leader but has a diverse and growing group of organizers, including numerous students and veterans of an abortive 1999 uprising, Iran specialists say.

The Green Movement’s titular heads remain Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the two presidential candidates who refused to accept the results of June election that gave incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a tainted “landslide” victory.

Government repression has limited their ability to move among the people. On Tuesday, Mr. Karroubi’s son said authorities were no longer providing protection for his father when he leaves home, in effect putting him under house arrest. On Sunday, a nephew of Mr. Mousavi was killed by security forces, according to opposition Web sites, to intimidate the candidate.

While the government focuses on these two men, however, a new generation of activists is working behind the scenes to sustain the movement’s momentum.

“There appear to be a core of student leaders, recent graduates and people who were students in 1999,” said Kenneth Katzman, an Iran specialist at the Congressional Research Service in Washington.

He said these leaders have “agreed on nonviolence and are trying to reach out to their parent’s generation” and to supporters outside Iran.

Mr. Katzman said the activists had organized into cells of about 10 for security reasons.

“They are very optimistic,” Mr. Katzman said. “They believe they are going to be rid of [the regime] in six months to a year. They feel that a lot of security people are starting to back off because they don’t know how this will come out and don’t want to be” on the losing side.

Amir Abbas Fakhravar, 35, a former student leader who spent several years in prison in Iran and now lives in the Washington area, said contacts are taking place on Facebook and Skype and that activists plan to create a “revolutionary council” of about 15 people inside and outside Iran to lead the “Iranian Green Revolution.” He said this leadership might emerge before Feb. 11, the 31st anniversary of the fall of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi - another official holiday when masses of Iranians are likely to go into the streets to continue their protests.

Nader Uskowi, another Washington-based Iran specialist and consultant to the U.S. government, said, “We are probably a few months off from the day we see a clear leader emerging.”

“The student organizations at major universities are still the most organized ones, but there are also other ‘natural’ organizations that appear nonpolitical but in fact are gathering places in which the news of planned actions and slogans are passed along, like associations of painters, calligraphers, etc.,” he said.

“Students and youths are still the engine of the movement, but it is rapidly spreading to parents actively supporting their children.”

Mr. Uskowi said the issue of leadership seems less urgent than the harder task of organizing a large organic movement. He said another strong incentive for leading personalities to keep a low profile is the regime’s readiness to arrest anyone identified as an organizer.

The Ministry of Intelligence has infiltrated agents into the Office to Consolidate Unity, a student body that led the last widespread student protests in 1999.

In July of that year, students at Tehran University gathered to protest the closure of a reform newspaper and were set upon by government-backed vigilantes known as Ansar e-Hezbollahi. They threw students from dormitory balconies, killing at least one and injuring and arresting scores. Outraged, young people took to the streets of Tehran for a week, smashed store windows, threw stones at police and burned pictures of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader. Then President Mohammad Khatami, who initially supported the students, backed down under pressure from Ayatollah Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards, and the movement fizzled.

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About the Author
Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin is assistant managing editor for World and National Security at The Washington Times and the author of a 2007 book on Iran, titled “Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation.” Before joining The Times in July 2008, she was senior diplomatic reporter for USA Today. She has accompanied three secretaries of state ...

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