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Analysis: "It's over" in Iran

One year after the street protests that shook Iran, residents whisper that the regime has won.

A young boy stands behind a flag as he and his mother, supporters of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wait for his arrival at Tehran's Mehrabad International Airport, May 5, 2010. (Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters)

SHIRAZ, Iran — “It's over.”

With that short answer, a young woman I met while strolling through a park in ancient Shiraz summed up what has happened to the protest movement that shook Iran and electrified the world after last year's disputed presidential election.

For weeks after the election, and then for months, crowds of angry Iranians poured onto the streets of major cities protesting the quick announcement that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won re-election by a decisive margin. They were harshly repressed. Police officers and pro-government thugs beat demonstrators, killed some and arrested many more. Since the beginning of this year, there have been no large protests. I came to Iran eager to learn why.

The answer I found confirmed an age-old truth: Governments use repression against protesters for the simple reason that it usually works. It certainly seems to have worked here.

Almost no foreign journalists have been admitted to Iran in recent months, and correspondents who lived here have been expelled or forced to flee. I entered the country on a tourist visa, meaning that I was forbidden to meet government officials, opposition figures or activists of any sort.

Before my trip, I wrote to several of my Iranian friends asking for names of interesting people I could meet here. “All the interesting people I know are in jail,” one curtly replied. Another sent a longer answer.

“I am very reluctant to put you in touch with people,” he wrote. “I am not worried about you at all; it is people who visit you that may be put in jeopardy. I am not being paranoid, it is just that the place has become very unpredictable. I cannot figure out the logic of who they pick up and why.”

This left me to rely on chance encounters. In the course of a two-week, thousand-mile tour around Iran, I had dozens. Wherever I stopped, I asked people what had become of the Green Movement, the loose anti-government coalition that organized last year's protests. Everyone told me the same thing: it is either dead or hibernating.

“We don't like the government, but we cannot change it,” said a man enjoying a picnic with his family near the tomb of Cyrus the Great, who ruled Persia 25 centuries ago. “They punish us when we protest. People are afraid.”

Some Iranians clearly believe that in the wake of last year's dubious election and the upheaval that followed, their regime has lost its "obohat," an elusive attribute of just leadership that is variously translated as righteousness, virtue, nobility or right to rule. But it is far from clear that these dissidents comprise the majority, or that most Iranians wish for a new kind of government.

Several people told me that the material conditions of life here have palpably improved in recent years. President Ahmadinejad travels the country tirelessly, meeting with local people and asking what they need. On most visits he promises to provide it — a school, a dam, a new road. Then, a year or two later, he returns to assure himself that the work has been completed. This form of politicking is as effective here as it is in other countries.

“Thirty-five percent of Iranians like this government and Ahmadinejad,” a college student told me outside a Sufi shrine in the southeastern town of Mahan. “Twenty-five percent are against. The rest don't care.”