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Iran Opposition Struggles as Ahmadinejad Gets Boost

A supporter of Iranian Presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi shows a hand reading 'Moosavi' during a protest against the election results. Photographer: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images
A supporter of Iranian Presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi shows a hand reading 'Moosavi' during a protest against the election results. Photographer: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

June 9 (Bloomberg) -- A year after hundreds of thousands of Iranians poured onto the streets to protest President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election, the opposition has been almost silenced.

Supporters of Ahmadinejad’s main rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi, and fellow candidate Mehdi Karrubi have struggled to reignite resistance after a violent government crackdown following the vote last June 12. The opposition’s divisions and failure to lure lower-income Iranians also have worked against it. U.S. tensions with Iran are making the task even harder, said Iranian expert Trita Parsi.

The Green Movement that coalesced around the two politicians risks being further marginalized by United Nations economic sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program, Parsi said. The measures were approved today by the UN Security Council. Mousavi’s and Karrubi’s denunciation of the U.S.-sponsored moves puts them on the same side as Ahmadinejad, reflecting popular opinion in the country.

“Confrontation with the West helps the current regime sideline the opposition,” Parsi, an Iran scholar and president of the Washington-based National Iranian American Council, said in a May 25 telephone interview. “It’s difficult for them to keep up their protests.”

Oil Revenue

The fourth round of UN sanctions, coming as Iran’s revenue sags with the 16 percent decline in oil prices from this year’s peak, may slow the country’s economy and weaken Ahmadinejad’s power, said Kjetil Bjorvatn, professor of economics at the Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration in Bergen.

The opposition movement, which accused Ahmadinejad of election fraud, is seeking permission to hold anniversary rallies on June 12 in the knowledge that the last major demonstration in Tehran, in February, was put down violently. The government has accused the U.S. and its allies of instigating the protests.

The Interior Ministry today rejected a request by 10 opposition groups to hold a “silent” rally in Tehran June 12, saying they didn’t comply with rules governing the application, according to the government’s information website. The groups include two of the main parties that supported Mousavi in the election and have since been banned, his website said.

Post-Election Crackdown

In the past year, members of some parties have been jailed, their newspapers and websites shut, opposition rallies prohibited, phones monitored and Internet use disrupted, according to state-run media. The opposition says some followers were beaten and raped and that some died in custody. The government says 44 people died in the unrest, while Amnesty International says the number is at least double.

“What happened remains in people’s minds,” said 31-year-old Mohammad, a Tehran design-studio manager, who backed Mousavi and said he took part in opposition demonstrations in the capital last year. He asked that his last name not be used for safety reasons. “It may sink to a lower level, but can be triggered with another event.”

Mousavi and Karrubi haven’t been spared in the crackdown. Karrubi has been attacked, his car shot at and his son beaten while in temporary detention, according to opposition websites. Mousavi’s nephew was killed, the opposition says.

The Green Movement, named for Mousavi’s campaign color, won’t “be stopped by jailing and threatening nor by killing people,” he said on his website on May 29.

Opposition Split

Still, the opposition is split between those who want to get rid of the Shiite Muslim establishment and forces that press to make it more democratic, said Mohsen Kadivar, 51, a dissident who has been jailed in Iran and now lives in Durham, North Carolina.

The inability of Mousavi and Karrubi to galvanize support outside the urban middle class and among less educated voters has prevented them from expanding the movement, said Kadivar, a Shiite cleric close to the opposition who is a visiting instructor on Duke University’s religion faculty.

“The government has spent oil revenues among the lower classes of society without any limits and without oversight from the parliament,” he said in a telephone interview. “The opposition is competing with the injection of an unlimited amount of cash.”

Sanctions ‘Incorrect’

Emboldened at home, Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are digging in their heels over the sanctions aimed at halting the enrichment of uranium, which can fuel a nuclear reactor or form the core of a bomb. Iran, which said today’s sanctions vote was an “incorrect” move, maintains the work is for civilian needs, denying allegations by the U.S. and some allies that the nation may be trying to make weapons.

“The Green Movement does not back the weakening of the nation,” Mousavi said in a May 24 statement. “Although the current situation has arisen due to the incompetence and reckless foreign policies of this government, we cannot agree with these sanctions that would affect people’s lives.”

Karrubi told Italy’s Corriere Della Sera newspaper in an interview published on Feb. 26 that he is “absolutely” opposed to sanctions because “they increase the economic pressure that the people already suffer.”

In the nation of 73 million, the fourth-largest oil producer, more than 10 million people live in “absolute” poverty and another 30 million in “relative” poverty, Iran’s statistics agency said on May 28.

Uranium Swap

Iran said on May 17 that it would swap enriched uranium for fuel to run a medical-research reactor. A day later, the U.S. gained Russian and Chinese backing in the Security Council for the draft of the sanctions, which target Iran’s financial interests, arms imports and shipping.

Iran vowed to continue enriching uranium regardless of the proposed fuel swap, which Ahmadinejad described on May 26 as a “historic opportunity” and probably the last chance for President Barack Obama to change the “wrong and inhuman approach” of previous U.S. administrations. The U.S. today called the plan “unrealistic.”

At a time when crude prices have plunged to $72 a barrel since hitting a 19-month high of $87.15 a barrel on May 3, Iran is more vulnerable to sanctions, said Lexington, Massachusetts-based IHS Global Insight analyst Alyssa Rallis.

The government’s budget of $368 billion for the current fiscal year is based on oil at $60 per barrel. Oil revenue accounts for 80 percent of the budget, according to the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit.

Iranian oil output hasn’t returned to the 5.2 million-barrels-a-year mark reached in December 1978, weeks before the revolution that ousted the monarchy and led to the first U.S. unilateral sanctions against Iran. Iran produced 3.8 million barrels of oil a day in April, according to Bloomberg data.

“Lower oil revenues will reduce Ahmadinejad’s ability to buy support, and therefore his power,” said Norway’s Bjorvatn, in an e-mailed reply to questions on June 7. “That’s good news for the opposition.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Ladane Nasseri in Tehran at; Henry Meyer in Dubai at;

To contact the reporter on this story: Ali Sheikholeslami in London at

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