Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Iranian Opposition Plays the Long Game

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The Times

The Iranian opposition is brave and inspiring. Its members repeatedly risk their limbs, lives and liberty by taking to the streets in defiance of the regime and its ruthless security forces. They do so despite six months of arrests, beatings, torture and show trials that have resulted in death penalties and years of incarceration. But are they achieving anything? The demonstrations are smaller than they were. The grip of the security forces has never looked seriously threatened. Western governments, preoccupied with the nuclear issue, appear to have accepted President Ahmadinejad’s re-election and written off the "green" movement. Opposition activists are not discouraged, however. They insist they are playing a long game the goal of which is gradually to win over the provinces, the small towns, members of the basij volunteer militia; to eat away at whatever support the regime still has until eventually it topples. They scribble anti-government slogans on banknotes, daub graffiti on walls, disseminate information on e-mail trees to counter the propadanga of the state-controlled media. Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mr Ahmadinejad’s election rival, has likened the regime’s attempts at censorship to stopping a flood with barbed wire.

They take heart from the extraordinary measures the regime takes to suppress their demonstrations, such as broadcasting football matches in black and white so viewers cannot see the crowds are wearing green. They argue that while the demonstrations may be smaller they are more widespread, and that if people could demonstrate without fear millions would turn out. Meanwhile the Iranian economy continues to deteriorate, fuelling public discontent and sharply curtailing the regime’s ability to buy support. Perversely, Mr Ahmadinejad wants to save $100 billion by cutting subsidies for petrol, food and other essential commodities. Mohsen Sazegara, a former revolutionary and close aide to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who is now a fierce critic of the regime, believes its survival depends almost entirely on the Revolutionary Guard. “We’re in no hurry,” he says. “We’re playing chess with the Revolutionary Guard, which has only one move – suppression, threats, torture and arrests. The nation has many moves.”