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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.

Unlike the situation in 1999, however, the current movement has expanded far beyond university campuses to encompass disparate and overlapping groups, including human rights advocates, women, discontented clerics, unemployed and underemployed workers and directionless members of Iran's third post-revolutionary generation angry at the current order.

Clerical involvement, which had been relatively minor in the weeks and months after the June vote, has revived since the death Dec. 20 of Grand Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, a dissident once slated to be Iran's supreme leader. Government efforts to restrict mourning for the cleric brought thousands of angry, devout Shi'ites to the streets in the theological center of Qom and the cleric's hometown of Najafabad, which was put under martial law.

"Reformists organized the protests for Montazeri's death," said Roohollah Shahsavar, a youth activist in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad who escaped the country after consecutive arrests and now runs a newspaper called Nedaye Sabz (Green Voice) from his Paris exile. "The Green Revolution group is composed of reformist supporters of Khatami, Karroubi and Mousavi spread across Turkey, France and Belgium and also inside Iran," he said.

Plenty of exiles are vying for control of the movement. Among them are Mr. Fakhravar and Reza Pahlavi, the son of the late shah.

On Thursday, Mr. Pahlavi urged nations worldwide to withdraw their ambassadors from Tehran. In an interview with the Associated Press, he equated the climate of the unrest in Iran now with the "revolutionary atmosphere" that preceded his father's overthrow. The difference, he said, is that this time the people know what they want - a secular democracy.

"Everyone wants to lead this movement but the question is whether the people out on the streets risking their own lives will accept self-styled leaders coming from Washington, Paris or even recent exiles in countries neighboring Iran," said Delbar Tavakoli, a journalist who was forced to flee to Ankara after the recent elections. "Even Mousavi and Karroubi have become a toy in the hands of the people - they don't have the latitude to issue anything beyond standard announcements or instruct supporters in how to behave."

A Washington Times reporter's experience in Iran immediately after the June elections gives a sense of how the protests are being organized.

A student leader in a bedroom in one of Tehran University's dormitories issued curt instructions into his cell phone to students in the streets.

"Let them burn rubbish bins but not any more banks," he said.

The spartan room was decorated with a potted cactus, a television monitor and a window whose glass had been smashed when a Basij paramilitary had lobbed a stone through it during a raid the previous week.

"Mousavi supporters are nearing Tajrish now," a cell phone caller informed the student leader, illustrating how demonstrations were being organized at opposite sides of the city to stretch the capacity of police to respond.

The student leader was among hundreds of activists who have gone underground since the crisis began, hopping between the houses of sympathizers and emerging on demonstration days to organize resistance to the government.

Djavad Salehi-Esfahani, a professor of economics at Virginia Tech and an Iran specialist, said Mr. Mousavi, a former prime minister and revolutionary stalwart, still has the potential to lead the movement.

He "is doing well so far. I can't see him losing the leadership to others outside the country," Mr. Salehi-Esfahani said. "He has wide appeal and will probably have to fight elements inside the Green Movement who are pushing for overthrowing the Islamic republic rather than reforming it."

Mr. Katzman said, however, that many of the young people with whom he has had contact are not interested in the reformers. He said these young activists criticize foreign media for paying too much attention to Mr. Mousavi and Mr. Karroubi.

As violence escalates, the new leadership might be military, given the stake of the Revolutionary Guards in the status quo.

Whoever emerges, "the regime is definitely in trouble," Mr. Katzman said.

c Barbara Slavin reported from Washington.

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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