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Iran's green movement refuses to go quietly
Battered by a brutal crackdown in 2009, Iran's opposition "green movement" has resurfaced in the wake of popular revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, proving to be a resilient force – if not a conspicuous one.
Riding the wave of popular discontent in the Arab world, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Tehran this week. Large crowds chanting anti-government slogans had not been seen in Iran since the huge demonstrations that caught the world’s attention back in 2009.
The protests were a welcome sight for many people who thought the Iranian government’s brutal repression had succeeded in stamping out the "green movement", which rose up in June 2009 to contest the outcome of the country's presidential election.
“After a year and a half of small actions, it was time to show the world that the green movement is not dead,” said Yashar Mohtashami, a member of the Paris-based Independent Committee Against Repression of Iranian Citizens.
Officially, Monday’s demonstrations were called by two leaders of the opposition, Mirhossein Mussavi and Mehdi Karoubi, as a show of support for the insurgent people of Egypt and Tunisia. To no one’s surprise, the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denied their request to assemble.
The call was nonetheless relayed over the Web, particularly by students, and managed to rally thousands of Iranians in several cities across the country.
But activists say that Monday did not mark the return of the green movement. "In reality, the green movement has never been silent,” Mohtashami explained. “But the price that was paid in 2009 was so heavy, that [the movement] had to find other ways to express itself.”
A pebble in the regime’s boot
According to Mohtashami, less spectacular political actions have been adopted. As a result, the green movement has received little if any international recognition since the 2009 summer of protests.
The discreet battles have nonetheless been a relentless source of torment for the regime in Tehran. One popular form of resistance has been to write anti-government messages on Rial banknotes. So many bills were tainted with subversive messages that the national bank was forced to put significant amounts of new bills into circulation.
Cyber attacks and boycotts of official festivities have also been common in recent months.
According to Iran specialist Thierry Coville, a researcher at France’s Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), the green movement has maintained a lot of influence within the country.
As proof of that influence Coville points to the fact that authorities have avoided jailing the opposition figures Karoubi and Mousavi, imposing house arrests instead.
The fear is that arrests would reignite a massive backlash on the street.
Over the past year, the green movement – the backbone of which is made up of young urban students – has also sought to expand its influence among the rural and working classes.
"The main figures of the movement have tried to meet different representatives of Iranian society, such as religious leaders,” Coville says. “Whether they have succeeded in bringing them to their side is hard to say, but I am convinced that the movement’s influence has grown.”
According to the French researcher, the government’s bloody June 2009 crackdown ultimately backfired. The protests may have stopped, but the repression swelled the ranks of the opposition.
"I feel that dissatisfaction is huge, much bigger today than in 2009," Coville says. “If the regime continues to answer only by repression, I fear that the green movement’s actions will harden considerably.”