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In Iran, the protests have quieted, but the protesters are simmering

The young men and women enter Haft Tir Square tentatively. Their pace slows as they discreetly glance around. They spot the club-wielding uniformed security officials and plainclothes Basiji militiamen, scan the square for other would-be demonstrators.

A woman in a form-fitting mini-coat looks left, then right. There is safety in numbers, but there are few of her kind here for the scheduled gathering, so she quietly moves along, glancing at the shop windows. Maybe she’ll circle back in a few minutes.

“The authorities have beaten people up, and killed some,” says Hamad, a 26-year-old business student among those navigating the square, cautiously examining eyes and dress.

“Their legitimacy has been damaged,” he says. “Now I wait. I do not know what will happen. But the atrocity and cheating will linger in the collective memory. And someday an eruption will occur.”

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The streets of Tehran are quiet once again. But the multitudes who protested the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad haven’t gone home and put their rage in a closet.

They are carefully weighing their options, balancing personal lives, economic well- being and political aspirations -- and trying to determine whether they have any real leadership.

Perhaps the anger will reignite on July 9, the 10th anniversary of a student uprising that prompted a campaign to crush reformist aspirations. Or the match may be lighted the next time authorities roll out the Guidance Patrol, which stops women on the streets for allowing too much hair to peep out from under their head scarves.

The government has shown that it’s willing to pay a high price in blood and international isolation to maintain its hold on the direction of the country.

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But what price are protesters and other citizens willing to pay? Are they ready to go underground, let dark roots overwhelm their blond highlights and shed petite mini-coats to hide tracts and underground newspapers beneath all-covering black chadors?

Are they willing to light a candle? Hurl a rock? Forward an e-mail or defiantly climb to their rooftops and chant “God is great!” every night at 10? Or are they willing to put in the time and effort, and perhaps risk their lives, to organize a movement, just as the followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini did in the 1960s?

Those caught up in the “green wave” built on the presidential campaign of Mir-Hossein Mousavi are still trying to understand what has happened to their country in the short space of a month. According to conversations with dozens of analysts and ordinary people, most of whom did not want to be identified by their full names, their view of Iran and understanding of the rules that governed it for 30 years have changed dramatically.

The elation of a lively political season highlighted by a series of boisterous debates was crushed by election results grossly out of whack with Iranians’ understanding of their nation’s demographics and previous voting patterns.

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“At the beginning, during the campaign it was promising,” said Davoud Hermidas-Bavand, a Tehran political scientist. “Mr. Mousavi was not important, but the turnout for him was important. The results of the election were shocking, and the youths became disappointed.”

Iran had anticipated a fair vote -- within a system constrained by rules set by the country’s clerical leaders. True, all candidates were vetted by the Guardian Council for fealty to Iran’s Islamic system. But each vote still counted.

The election and its aftermath ripped away a facade.

Ahmadinejad was quickly declared a landslide winner. Then, as daily protests grew, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei broke precedent by explicitly standing with one side of the political spectrum.

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What’s more, many Iranians felt they were being patronized. Khamenei depicted any vote cast as one for the system, and he seemed to say that it didn’t matter who people wanted because his views were closest to Ahmadinejad’s. He threatened those who resisted with a crackdown.

The day after Khamenei’s speech, as Tehran burned, the slogans took a nasty turn.

“Rue the day when we’re armed!” protesters chanted as they hurled rocks at the detested Basiji militiamen and tossed Molotov cocktails at offices of the morality police.

The crackdown that ensued was the worst since the 1980s, as was the Orwellian twist taken by state and pro-government news media: Neda Agha-Soltan, a young, aspiring tour guide fatally shot on a street, was transformed into a Basiji volunteer whose killing was arranged by a BBC correspondent.

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The elite Revolutionary Guard, under the control of Khamenei, appeared to take control of the city, even trumping the Ministry of Intelligence and Security and other government agencies.

“The wound they have caused in the souls of people will remain,” said Amir, a 26-year-old shopkeeper and engineering student. “Regarding the protests, I think they are over until further notice. When they will ignite again, I do not know. But it will happen.”

The week after the election, as pressure grew on local and international journalists, unknown activists began publishing an underground newspaper called Khiaban, or The Street, with dispatches from the ongoing battles between militiamen and protesters, and a photograph of a balaclava-clad woman gathering rocks.

During the months preceding Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, a series of strikes crippled the country. During this month’s unrest, Mousavi at one point called for a national strike to press the government to nullify the election results. Although few explicitly followed his command, many quietly left their businesses shuttered.

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Whether because of the unrest or as a sign of defiance, commerce has slowed to a trickle. In the capital’s Grand Bazaar, newly spruced up with trees, pedestrian-only boulevards and horse carriage rides, business has collapsed in the months before Ramadan, when it’s usually at a peak.

“There were no customers yesterday, and there are maybe one, two or three customers a day,” said Nader, a 38-year-old jewelry vendor. “We now close at 4 p.m. . . . We used to stay open until 6:30 p.m. or 7 p.m.”

Jewelers were among those who went on strike last year to protest a value-added tax, which the government rescinded. Those three days almost crippled the entire bazaar.

Mehdi, a 26-year-old fabric wholesaler, supported Mousavi, but declined to heed his strike calls. The economy is in terrible shape, he said. “If we don’t work for one week, checks will bounce, people’s reputations will collapse.”

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How far Iranians are willing to go, they say, depends not just on the odds for success, but what that success would bring. Iranians are willing to pay for quality, but don’t want to spend for shoddy goods. The same is true in politics.

They say they will be willing to play hard-core street politics -- launching wildcat strikes, demonstrating in the street, organizing networks -- only if opposition leaders are smart and tough, or at least willing to take more chances.

Reformist candidate Mehdi Karroubi, who according to official results placed last in the election, has spoken out forcefully and dared to wade into crowds to cheer on protesters. Mousavi at one point reportedly said he’d be willing to die for his cause, though an aide later denied he made the remark.

In any case, his supporters say they’d rather have a leader.

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“We don’t want him to martyr himself,” said Hamid, 33, a cellphone shop employee. “We want a plan.

“Instead of issuing a statement on his website telling his supporters to continue the marches, why doesn’t he lead them?” added Hamid, who said he took part in the protests. “I think he does have the ability to lead, but he has to show some daring.”

Bavand, the political scientist, said the government needs to show some flexibility. “If there is no room for making up between two sides, it will be dangerous,” he said.

For the opposition, the greatest hope may be if authorities overplay their hand. The 70 or so academics reportedly arrested after listening to a fiery talk by Mousavi on Wednesday joined a multitude of young demonstrators in Evin Prison. Between beatings and interrogations they mingled and shared ideas, political philosophies and tools of the trade -- just as enemies of the shah did inside those same prison walls 30 years ago.

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Even for some on the margins of the political struggle, things have changed. After three decades of not voting, Abbas, a 48-year-old art teacher, impulsively rushed to the polling station June 12 and cast a vote for Mousavi -- even though he doesn’t trust the former prime minister.

He said he believes the election was stolen, but he appreciates the passion of the protesters and the courage Karroubi has shown. And he doesn’t regret voting.

“It was a chance for us to express our fury, where I can say that I hate my president.”

--

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daragahi@latimes.com

Daragahi was recently on assignment in Tehran. Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim contributed to this report.


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