BEIRUT, (AP) – Iran’s opposition protesters were reeling Friday a day after a ferocious security clampdown foiled their attempt to hold mass demonstrations, describing how government militiamen seemed to be everywhere on Tehran’s streets, swooping in to break up their gatherings.
Some in the movement are reassessing their strategy, considering moving away from street protests in the face of the crackdown. But they are struggling to find an alternative way to harness anger at Iran’s government.
“I don’t think we always have to pour into the streets to demand our rights,” said Mohammad Taqi Karroubi, son of a senior opposition leader, Mahdi Karroubi. Given the fierceness of the crackdown, “it’s natural that we don’t want people to pay a high price anymore.”
The opposition had called for mass protests to coincide with government-run celebrations Thursday for he 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution that created Iran’s clerical rule. But an array of riot police, undercover security agents and hard-line militiamen — some on motorcycles — had fanned out across Tehran in one of the largest deployments since Iran’s political turmoil began following June’s disputed presidential elections.
Protesters were unable to muster a significant presence. Mahdi Karroubi’s car was attacked by militiamen who smashed his windows. Another of his sons, Ali, was arrested, and was so severely beaten in custody that his family took him to a hospital after his release, Mohammad Taqi Karroubi said.
Several young opposition supporters who participated in Thursday’s scattered protests expressed dismay, speaking of a temporary defeat and saying the movement needed to strengthen and deepen its organization. Some criticized its loose leadership.
“If we had a strong charismatic leader we wouldn’t have marched in the streets dazed and confused yesterday,” one female university student told The Associated Press from Tehran. “I see the opposite side as the winner today. A temporary winner. …We don’t have a central command. We were like a broken chain, thrown all over.”
Another protester said, “We need a movement that will grow roots. Demonstrations are not going to take us anywhere. We need to make people aware, educate them culturally and socially.”
They and other protesters spoke to an AP reporter outside Iran on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation by authorities, who have jailed protesters and handed them heavy prison sentences for talking to foreign media.
The Green Movement, as the opposition calls itself, is made up of a number of pro-reform groups and parties, which overall seek political change in Iran and say that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the June 12 election by fraud. But they have differences over how deep reforms should go.
They have united behind Mir Hossein Mousavi, who they say is the rightful winner of the presidential vote. But while popular among reformists, Mousavi is often seen as a lackluster and low-key politician. Mousavi and other Green Movement leaders say they want changes within Iran’s Islamic system, though some in the movement oppose clerical rule completely.
Iran’s clerical leadership was declaring victory after the anniversary, which saw hundreds of thousands at the official ceremonies. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Thursday’s rally should be a wake-up call for the “domestic enemies and deceived groups who claim to represent the people.”
The crackdown has intensified since demonstrations in late December, which were the bloodiest in months, with at least eight people killed in clashes between protesters and police. Since then, two people have been executed, and death sentences have been announced against 10 other protesters.
Mohsen Sazegara, a founder of the Revolutionary Guards at the outset of the 1979 revolution who has since turned against the regime and fled abroad, said the opposition has to find alternative ways to confront the leadership.
“Street protests should not be the sole tactic. Others are needed that can paralyze the regime and make the government ungovernable,” said Sazegara who is based in the U.S.
But the question is how. Widespread strikes — including at the state electricity and oil companies, radio and television stations, the Bazaar and most of the country’s factories — were one tactic used in the 1979 revolution. But it’s not clear if the present opposition can rally enough support among Iran’s laborers.
Publicly, leaders and organizers of the opposition inside and outside Iran are trying to put on a brave face.
“It is natural that the Green Movement will be silent for two or three days in order to take a critical look at itself so it can launch a more serious course,” said Mohammad Javad Akberein, an editor at the opposition Rahesabz Web site in Paris.
Mohammad Taqi Karroubi said Thursday’s events showed that despite the intimidation — including the death sentences — “people, young and old bravely came into the streets. But the other side outnumbered them.”
The female university student said she headed to join Thursday’s protest carrying a poster of Khamenei, hoping to get through security by passing as a government supporter long enough to join other demonstrators.
She complained of a lack of coordination, pointing to how Karroubi supporters gathered in one location, Mousavi’s in another, making them easier to disperse.
And once they tried to start protests, security forces quickly descended on them.
“For every one of us, there were at least two security men: plainclothes, intelligence, Revolutionary Guards, anti-riot police, masked men and motorcyclists driving right among people, savagely revving their engines and shouting, ‘Haydar, Haydar,'” — a reference to the Shiite saint Ali — she said.
They were “spraying tear gas or firing paint-filled balls at people so they could be identified. They all had big smiles on their faces, huge smiles of victory,” she said.
She said she saw one young man, about 17 years old, being beaten by security agents, who “put his head on the curb of a gutter and threatened to knock it off. … Protesters managed to rescue him.”
“The lump in my throat is choking me. We had so much hope for this day which unfortunately was ruined,” she said.
Still, she said, she will participate in what could be the next attempt at protests, in March to coincide with Chahar Shanbeh Soori, a traditional fire festival ahead of Iranian New Year celebrations.
Another protester, a 19-year-old student, said many fear the crackdown will get even harsher. He predicted that political pressure will increase, executions will continue and the climate will become even more “militaristic.”
But, he said, he and his friends will “remain reformists until the end of our lives.”