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Alive and Kicking

The Iranian opposition keeps up the fight.

4:30 PM, Dec 11, 2009 • By MASEH ZARIF
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The days leading up to the December 7 protests were filled with reports of regime officials paving the way for further crackdowns. Iran's chief of police, Brigadier General Esmail Ahmadi-Moqaddam, announced on November 12 that the police will establish a special unit targeting 'cyber crimes' including, according to state media, "defamation and mischief." Judicial authorities continue to pursue cases against individuals linked to Mousavi and the opposition, even as it releases some from detention. Tehran's prosecutor announced on November 13 that Mousavi's brother-in-law, Shapour Kazemi, would be tried before a Revolutionary Court on unspecified charges; Kazemi has since been handed a one-year jail sentence. Tehran's court officials also announced on November 17 that five post-election detainees were being sentenced to death for their affiliations with "counter-revolutionary groups" and more than 80 were receiving jail sentences of up to 15 years.

On November 21, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, former vice president under Khatami, received a six-year jail sentence after being found guilty of "plotting against the country's security" in the wake of the summer's elections. This conviction came nearly four months following the first of several show trials in which Abtahi "confessed" to his role in instigating the post-election riots and "falsely" putting forth charges of electoral fraud. Abtahi served as an advisor to Karroubi's campaign during the recent election.

Recent arrests also targeted prominent student activists ahead of Monday's anticipated protests. Iran's prosecutor general and former intelligence minister, Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, warned demonstrators on December 8: "Intelligence and security...forces have been ordered not to give any leeway to those who break the law, act against national security and disturb public order "From now on, we will show no mercy toward anyone who acts against national security. They will be confronted firmly."

The regime's responses to the protesters and nominal opposition leaders have revealed its sense of vulnerability but also its determination to crush the resistance and deny it any legitimate outlet for its grievances. The repressive measures doled out by the security apparatus--led by the IRGC--have for the regime been enough to contain dissenters without provoking a widespread backlash or facilitating a return to the more precarious environment seen during the immediate aftermath of the election. Whether the forces of repression, economic malaise, political fracturing and perceived illegitimacy of the regime can spur this segment to attract a following beyond the core of activists and students remains to be seen.

The key centers of power within the current Iranian structure understand that the stability of the regime depends upon the ability of its leaders and officials to magnify the perceived internal and external threats to its survival, thus justifying repressive measures to stifle dissent and opposition. It remains likely that increasing signs of a crackdown, witnessed most recently in the last month, represent a pattern for the regime's authorities. This trend continues to be heard through the rhetoric on a daily basis and seen in force on occasions like this past week.

It is still far too early to assess the likely outcome of these tensions, or even the real significance and depth of the protest movement itself. But the continuing demonstrations sparking regime violence have showed the determination of both sides and raise the specter of long-term continuing anti-regime activity on a scale not previously seen in the history of the Islamic Republic.

December 7 has passed, yet the tension within Iran continues, as violent clashes between student protesters and security forces spilled over into December 8. Iranians will commence the religious month of Moharram in less than ten days--a period expected to spur yet another episode of demonstrations against the regime. How the various sides position themselves for this next stage will provide important indicators for the continuing unrest. One thing is already clear: the tensions between and among the stakeholders will not be resolved neatly or expeditiously.

Maseh Zarif is a researcher on the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. An extended version of this article appears on the project website,