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Iranian Opposition Battered, But Still Alive

Iran's opposition "Green Movement" caught the world's attention a year ago, with thousands of people protesting the results of a presidential election many say lacked credibility. The Islamic Republic responded with force.

A young woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, was among those who died in the violence and her death reverberated around the world.

In June, 2009 Iranians went to the polls to vote on their next president. The incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was announced as the overwhelming winner. But many Iranians refused to believe it and took to the streets in protest.

Authorities responded with violence. And to much of the world, Iran's presidential election became represented by the image of the shooting death of a young woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, recorded on a shaky camera phone.

It is now a year later. The protests have largely ended. The question today is whether that "Green Movement" opposition in Iran still has strength.

Abbas Milani, an analyst at The Hoover Institution, said, "I certainly know of no time in Iranian history where the democratic discourse, and the social basis of democracy have been as strong."

Another analyst, Karim Sadjadpour at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the state's repression makes mobilization and action difficult. "They are operating under incredibly difficult circumstances right now. [They are] under virtual house arrest. All of their communication is being monitored. [Opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein] Mousavi's nephew was brutally murdered. [Opposition presidential candidate Mehdi] Karroubi's son was savagely beaten. And, I think, under those circumstances, it is going to be very difficult for them to organize a stratagem moving forward," he said.

While this past year has been a challenge for the opposition Green Movement, senior scholar Gary Sick of Columbia University says that in the aftermath of the election, the Iranian government also faces a huge challenge. He says it has lost its control of the streets. "In the old days, the old days being in [Ayatollah] Khomeini's day, and shortly after the [1979] revolution, the regime trusted the [people in] the street. They are the ones who put on demonstrations. They are the ones who got people out. They are the ones that had millions marching in the street. Today they [the government] don't dare," he said.

Analyst Ali Alfoneh at the conservative American Enterprise Institute says there has been another development over the past year - the opposition has split into two differing factions. "The leadership of the Green Movement - gentlemen such as former President Mr. Mohammed Khatami, former Chairman of the Parliament, Mr. Mehdi Karrubi, and former Prime Minister Mr. Mir Hossein Mousavi - still believe that the Islamic Republic can be reformed within the framework of the constitution. The rank-and-file members of the Green Movement, they have reached the unfortunate conclusion that now that the regime cannot be reformed in a peaceful way, we have to pursue other means. And, we have to revolutionize the system, and overthrow the system they cannot reform," he said.

Historically, analysts say, government efforts to suppress protest and reform have only fueled and spread the fires of change. That appears to be the situation in Iran as well, says Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But, he says, there should be caution regarding outside efforts to push that forward.

"There is the danger that the more this power structure, basically, tries to enforce broader controls, [and] becomes more abusive, more selective and more corrupt, it creates the opposition that will eventually destroy it. The danger, I think, lies in the fact that this [the Islamic Republic] is not fragile. It is not something the Green Movement can easily deal with. And, there is a serious problem when you use the term 'regime change' that you might encourage people to demonstrate, or to act in ways, where we [people outside Iran] can do absolutely nothing to protect or encourage them," he said.

Cordesman points out that Iran's constitution, if followed properly, provides a means of change and reform, if indeed parties are willing to work within its structure.

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    Jeffrey Young

    Jeffrey Young is a Senior Analyst in VOA’s Global English TV.  He has spent years covering global strategic issues, corruption, the Middle East, and Africa. During most of 2013, he was on special assignment in Baghdad and elsewhere with the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR).  Previous VOA activities include video journalism and the “Focus” news analysis unit. He also does journalist training overseas for VOA.