TEHRAN - Iran's reformist opposition has watched with admiration as revolutions have toppled three Arab leaders, but despite divisions in the ruling elite it looks incapable for now of taking its protest movement back out onto the streets.
Mass protests against the 2009 re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad marked the worst unrest since the Islamic Revolution three decades earlier, but were quelled with lethal force by the state's security apparatus, headed by the elite Revolutionary Guards.
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While Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei swiftly endorsed the election result, splits emerged in the ruling establishment as some, including lawmakers, criticized the government for mishandling the protests and using force to silence the 'Green' opposition.
Attempts to revive street protests have fizzled. The opposition, which
says its fight for a freer Iran will continue, is following the Arab
uprisings with a mixture of envy and regret for its own failure,
analysts and moderate former officials say.
"The opposition is leaderless and lacks any strategy. The opposition
leaders are under house arrest. Dozens of prominent reformists are
jailed. Their supporters have no choice but to wait and see," said a
close ally of opposition leader Mirhossein Mousavi, who asked not to be
Mousavi, a former prime minister, and Mehdi Karoubi, a cleric and a
former parliament speaker who also stood against Ahmadinejad, have been
placed under house arrest since February and denied any contact with the
The authorities, who deny the election was rigged, have jailed many
senior pro-reform politicians, closed a dozen reformist publications and
banned at least two moderate parties since the vote.
The government is permitting less and less political dissent by banning
media coverage of the opposition, according to journalists working for
local newspapers. The opposition continues to communicate over the
Internet despite a web-filtering system designed by the authorities to
curb its online activity.
The main question is whether the lack of anti-government protests shows
the pro-democracy movement is a spent force, or whether it can remain
alive despite the fierce state crackdown.
"The core supporters of the regime are ready to sacrifice their lives
for the regime. They consider killing or dying for the regime as their
religious duty," said a pro-reform politician, who was sentenced to two
years jail after the 2009 vote on charges of "acting against national
"Confronting the establishment has been made very costly to intimidate the opposition supporters."
Unlike the Arab countries, Iran's opposition leaders are limited in
their ambitions: they remain committed to the Islamic Revolution and the
principles of its leader, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, but
they want to reform the establishment within that framework.
"The Green opposition is not questioning the foundation of the system as
happened in the Arab world," said Dubai-based political analyst Hamid
Sedghi. "It makes it difficult for the authorities to uproot the
opposition, but also it prevents any regime change."
The chances of witnessing the kind of uprising that swept veteran
Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan rulers from power seem remote in Iran in
the near term, since the leadership and opposition are united in
defending the establishment, analysts say.
"It's a Catch-22," said political analyst Hamid Farahvashi. "The
opposition leaders are also among the founders of this system, who want
an evolution, not toppling the establishment."
Iran's hardline rulers have put a positive spin on the Arab Spring,
saying it will spell the end of U.S.-backed governments in the region.
Khamenei has called it the "Islamic Awakening" and said it was inspired
by Iran's 1979 revolution, which replaced the U.S-backed Shah with a
But the cleric-led elite is concerned about any spillover effect of
popular uprisings against dictatorial leaders in the Arab world.
Analysts say two factors may help sustain the opposition despite its
current weakness: the weakness of the economy, and a widening political
rift among the hardline elite.
Ahmadinejad's honeymoon with clerics and the Revolutionary Guards has
ended because of his bucking of Khamenei's authority, analysts say.
Khamenei clipped the president's wings by reinstating his sacked
intelligence minister in April.
Chants of "death to opponents of the Supreme Leader" have been heard at parliament and Friday prayers.
"The leader is a clever politician ...Considering the Arab Spring and
Iran's international isolation, he plans to form a new group of
politicians," said a relative of Khamenei, who asked not to be named.
"This group will emerge before the 2012 parliamentary elections ... They
will carry out Khamenei-style reforms in the country to preserve the
With mounting international pressure over Iran's disputed nuclear
programme, rising prices, long queues of jobless and investors keeping a
tight hold on their purses, analysts say the establishment ultimately
needs to give limited freedoms.
"The high oil price is helping the establishment," said economist Reza
Hazegh. "But the government, dependent on petrodollars to run the
country, may face domestic tension in the long term if the price of oil
The rulers have allowed ordinary people to enjoy themselves. Luxury
shops are loaded with Western designer brands. Coffee shops and
restaurants are crowded with young people.
"Whatever keeps young people off the streets is tolerated by the system
... It is a reward for staying clear of politics that could endanger the
system," said political analyst Mansour Marvi.
But some young people who lack hope for the future have chosen to leave
the country and Iranian media say the country has the highest "brain
drain" in the Middle East.
"Unlike young Arabs, many young Iranians are leaving the country instead
of confronting the establishment," said a senior western diplomat in
Tehran. "They believe resistance is too costly."