Iran’s Crisis: The Opposition Weighs Its Options

    Irans Crisis: The Opposition Weighs Its Options

Iran’s political crisis would end pretty quickly if the opposition went
toe-to-toe with the security forces — and no matter how courageous and
determined the demonstrators, the likelihood of them toppling the regime on
the streets right now is pretty remote. Although at least 30 and perhaps
many more opposition supporters have been killed and hundreds have been
arrested, the regime has used only a fraction of its capacity for violent
suppression, and its security forces show no sign of wavering or
splintering. The authorities have warned that defiance of bans on
demonstration will no longer be tolerated, and reports out of Iran Tuesday
suggested that the regime may be moving to arrest opposition presidential
candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. The days following the election saw more than
a million people protesting in Tehran, but by Saturday that number had
reportedly been reduced to 3,000, and on Monday just 1,000 were said to have
made it to the demonstration. But the dwindling crowds on the streets
doesn’t mean the opposition is beaten.

The authorities are showing little sign of backing down. The Guardian
Council — the 12 clerics appointed to oversee elections in the Islamic
Republic — announced on Tuesday that despite evidence of irregularities,
there would be no annulment of the result as demanded by the opposition.
Later in the day, Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei did order the
Council to take a further five days of assessment, giving the regime time to
fashion a political response to the crisis.

But Khamenei himself, the security forces and the judiciary have warned
against further protests. While urging continued defiance and planning
further rallies for Wednesday and Thursday, Mousavi and other opposition
leaders have not yet given their followers clear marching orders. The
challenge, for the opposition, is to evolve a strategy to sustain a
political challenge over weeks, months, and even years in the face of a
violent crackdown on street demonstrations.

The regime appears to have adopted crowd-control measures at once smarter
and more brutal. Security forces and allied militia simply take control of
the streets before the demonstrators do, and prevent opposition protests
from achieving a critical mass by beating, tear-gassing and in some
instances shooting at those trying to congregate. Still, even the limited
violence unleashed thus far has created its own martyrs, such as 27-year-old
Neda Agha Soltan, whose shooting death has become a rallying point for
further outrage.

The violence of the authorities puts opposition leaders in a bind: They
need to maintain the momentum of their protest movement, but are aware that
they’re unlikely to win on the streets, and that confrontation could bring
massive bloodshed that could also kill off the prospects for near-term
change. While a small hard core of more committed, younger activists may be
willing to confront the security forces, the opposition movement will falter
unless it is able to develop tactics that can keep hundreds of thousands of
people involved, and also make skillful use of its considerable presence
within the various corridors of power.

Mousavi on Sunday reiterated his supporters’ right to peaceful protest,
but urged them to show restraint and declared,”I will never allow this
beautiful green wave to risk its life because of me.” Acknowledging limited
options available to him, he told them, “I believe your motivation and your
creativity can still win your legitimate rights through civil ways.”

There has been some suggestion that the opposition might call a general
strike — a form of passive resistance that does not involve directly
confronting the guns of Ahmadinejad’s loyalists. There were online attempts
to stage-manage the strike — for example, to go shopping but not to buy
anything. While some industrial sectors such as Tehran’s bus drivers have
been famously combative and willing to use the strike weapon in labor
disputes, it remains to be seen whether that tactic can be effectively used
as a general form of protest in an economy where so many depend on
employment associated with the state, and unemployment levels are high. And
general-strike calls, because of the economic risk to participants, would
necessarily have to be used sparingly.

Despite fantasies of insurrection in some of the more fevered Western
media assessments of the confrontation, the balance of forces appears to
militate against a knockout blow by either side. U.S.-based Iran scholar
Farideh Farhi, speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations, stressed that
Ahmadinejad and the Supreme leader may not have the majority of the people
behind them, “but they do have support. They also have the resources of the
state — both financial and military. So that makes them quite

At the same time, Farhi notes, the opposition coalition includes some
very powerful figures from within the regime, who together command the
support of a large section of the population. Thus, she warns, “To assume
that this will lead ultimately to a victory of one over the other is
unrealistic as well as dangerous because it may come at the cost of
tremendous violence.” More likely, she argues, is the pursuit of some sort
of compromise that allows the regime to back down to some extent, without
necessarily surrendering.

Such a compromise may be shaped by the battles inside the corridors of
power. The clergy, whose blessings are a key source of legitimacy for the
regime, is clearly divided over the government’s handling of the election
and its aftermath. Much has been made of the fact that the Assembly of
Experts, the 86-member clerical body that picks the Supreme Leader, also has
the right to remove him from office, and there has been speculation that
former President and Mousavi ally Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who chairs the Assembly, has been
lobbying clerics to rebuke Khamenei’s handling of the debacle.
Whatever the reality, there’s little doubt that many of Iran’s senior
clerics view Khamenei as having degraded the principle of a clerical
Supreme Leader acting as a guide and arbiter to the regime’s factional
battles. Khamenei has clearly become a partisan participant.

Rafsanjani has also called on the opposition to create a single political
bloc to challenge Ahmadinejad. That move could have significant consequences
in the majlis, Iran’s elected parliament. Its Speaker, Ali Larijani, is a
Khamenei loyalist who has long been antagonistic to Ahmadinejad, and he
appears to have hedged his bets in the present crisis. He has echoed
Khamenei’s initial celebration of the election results, blaming foreign
forces for some of the current turmoil; but he has also slammed
Ahmadinejad’s government for attacks on students, and has backed an
opposition call for an independent investigation of the election, on the
grounds that the Guardian Council is biased towards Ahmadinejad.

Parliament will not be decisive, but it could be significant in any
longer term strategy of an opposition movement that claims the mantle of the
Islamic Revolution. It must approve the president’s budget, and it has
the power to impeach him. It must also approve and can dismiss cabinet
ministers — as Ahmadinejad discovered in 2005, when the legislature
rejected his first three nominees for oil minister, and again late last year
when it fired his Interior Minister for faking a degree from Oxford

Currently, Ahmadinejad’s own coalition controls 117 of the 290 seats in
the majlis, while the reformists control 46 and pragmatic conservatives
aligned with Rafsanjani and Mousavi have 53. Five seats are reserved for
religious minorities, and 69 are in the hands of independents, among whom
the opposition will presumably be lobbying hard for support against the

Whatever happens in the streets in the coming days, the opposition to
Ahmadinejad, which has one foot deep inside the regime and the
other in civil society, may be girding for a long-term campaign against the president’s power grab. The end result is likely to be some form of compromise between what remain factions of the same regime — albeit factions with increasingly catastrophic differences. But the question that will be in play in the weeks and months ahead is which side will have to give up more.

See TIME’s covers from the 1979 Islamic revolution.