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Iran Crackdown Secures Streets But Internal Splits Remain


The large numbers of demonstrators first seen on the streets of Tehran to protest the outcome of the presidential election have dwindled in the face of a massive security crackdown as the government maintains its hardline stance against the opposition. But, analysts say the protests have opened fissures in the ranks of Iran's ruling elite.

After Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the winner over reformist challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi in the June 12 elections, the government deployed massive security to put down any protests.

Small bands of determined demonstrators upset over alleged electoral fraud still take to the streets, but they are quickly suppressed. On its face, the protests appear to have lost steam.

Analyst Karim Sadjapour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says a combination of government intimidation and Tehran's sprawling geography has stymied protesters.

"I don't see that it's subsided," said Karim Sadjapour. "In fact, it's probably even increased. But because the regime has prevented people logistically from congregating in large areas en masse, we're seeing pockets of protest in the city of Tehran. And this is much easier for the Basij militia to handle."

Abbas Milani, Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, says the protests have just hit a temporary lull.

"I don't think that we've seen the end of this," said Abbas Milani. "I think the ebb and flow of demonstrations at this stage is as much a tactical move as a reflection of peoples' tiredness. So how the battle will play out, I think we need to wait for the next few days and the next few weeks."

But Reva Bhalla of the private intelligence firm Stratfor says opposition protests have also withered because they failed to draw sufficient numbers of people from outside the young, educated urban elite.

"What you didn't see was the addition of social groups," said Reva Bhalla. "Where are the bazaari merchants? Where are the labor unions? Where are the more religiously conservative classes - you know, huge segments of the society? And you have to also remember that Ahmadinejad does have very legitimate support amongst many of these social groups. And to say that this is representative of the entire Iranian nation and that this is a mass revolution taking root simply isn't accurate."

There have been reports that Mr. Mousavi called for a general strike. But no strike has yet materialized, and it is unclear whether Mr. Mousavi called for one. Analysts say that such a strike would show opposition strength among the merchant class and rattle the government. But they add that it might be a risky strategy, if it fails.

Meanwhile, Abbas Milani says Supreme Leader Khamenei has been politically wounded by taking a partisan role.

"I think that Khamenei's speech last Friday is the biggest error of his political career," he said. "It might well be the end of his political career. I think for all practical purposes, it is the end of his spiritual leadership role. He might stay in power, but you cannot be a spiritual leader and have your words and commands constantly challenged."

Karim Sadjapour says Khamenei is in no mood to compromise for fear that it would be perceived as weakness.

"That is Khamenei's long belief, that you never compromise when you're under siege, never compromise when you're being pressured because that's not going to allay the pressure," he said. "That's going to project weakness and invite even more pressure."

Analysts say that there is intense political infighting behind the scenes in Tehran, led in large part by President Ahmadinejad's chief rival, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Abbas Milani says that works to the opposition's advantage - if not today, then in the future.

"One of the most necessary preconditions for transition to democracy is a split within the bad guys," said Milani. "That split can be used by the good guys to make this transition possible. Never before has there been such a breach within the pillars of the establishment."

Some analysts, particularly in the West, have likened the current demonstrations to the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi.

Author and journalist Hooman Majd says many people outside of Iran have misread the protests, seeing them through a Western perspective.

"So we like to put that face on what is happening in Iran," said Hooman Majd. "People are standing up to the regime, they're standing up to Ahmadinejad and his rhetoric about Israel, or standing up about his rhetoric about the United States. I don't think that it's that yet. I'm not saying that in the future it cannot become that. But right now, it hasn't been that."

Other analysts say that even if there are fissures in Iran's leadership, there is no outward sign that the government is ready to crack.

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