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Iran’s Opposition Stays Afloat Despite Heavy Crackdowns

People take part in the funeral of Sanee Zhaleh, a student who was shot dead during an opposition rally in Tehran, February 16, 2011

Iranian leaders praised revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, calling them Islamic revolutions. But Iran’s opposition movement interpreted the protests as popular uprisings against tyranny. They’ve taken to the streets in numbers reminiscent of the post-election rallies of 2009. But the movement has quieted; some analysts have even called it dead. Is it?

Opposition protesters took to the streets in Tehran this week. The crowds were the largest since 2009, when thousands of Iranians demonstrated against what they deemed the rigged re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Police routed the protesters. And conservative lawmakers joined the push-back by calling for the execution of two prominent opposition leaders -- Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.

They organized the massive, anti-government rallies two years ago, and authorities accuse them of fueling this latest unrest.

Even some in the opposition movement do not fully back these two men because of their ties to the Islamic Republic. Mousavi is a former prime minister; Karroubi, a speaker of the parliament.

But Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says the regime will err in putting these men on trial. "If these two leaders were to disappear from the scene, the next generation of leaders would be much more hostile to the Islamic Republic," he said.

In Washington this week, President Barack Obama slammed the Iranian government for its crackdown, drawing a sharp contrast with the Egyptian military’s more restrained handling of Egypt’s upheaval. "What has been different is the Iranian government’s response which has been to shoot people, beat people and arrest people," he said.

Clawson says that after repeated efforts at diplomacy with Iran, Mr. Obama has given up. "There are no U.S.-Iran talks and therefore there is little reason for the Obama Administration to hold back in its comments about the protests," Clawson said.

The harsh government crackdowns have led to a less visible opposition movement in Iran. But analysts say anger toward the regime bubbles just beneath the surface. As one expert put it: the situation in Iran looks stable and will be stable until it’s not.