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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.

This young man made clear that he sympathized with the opposition, but when I asked what the opposition could now do, he smiled wistfully.

“We can't do anything,” he shrugged. “If we do something, the police come and put us in jail. It is very tight here.”

Young people seem especially eager for change. Tens of thousands graduate from colleges and universities each year, but few find good jobs. The government tightly restricts their behavior. As they grow older, their frustration may change the course of Iranian politics.

“There are so many limitations on us — on our dress, our relations with boyfriends, our chances to have fun together,” said a schoolgirl I met in Isfahan. “We want to take off our head scarves, but it's not possible. All we can do is live and stay quiet.”

Until last year's election, many Iranians hoped they would be able to reshape their country through the ballot box. Some have now lost that faith.

“I voted, but I don't believe my vote was counted,” a student at the University of Tehran told me. “Many who voted last time won't vote next time. I'm one of them.”

Despite the frustrations that shape life for many Iranians, however, no one I met expressed the slightest desire for foreign intervention.

“Intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan has brought nothing but death and suffering,” a retired schoolteacher told me in Shiraz. “We don't want that. Above all, we want to preserve peace in our country. We would rather live under a regime we don't like than one that is placed in power by foreigners.”

Iranians seem puzzled by the Obama administration's intense focus on their country's nuclear program, which officials in Washington describe as a grave threat to global security.

“What worries us is Pakistan,” one man told me. “We don't have anything like the Taliban or Al Qaeda in Iran. Crazy fanatics are not going to take power here, but in Pakistan it could happen any day. We can't understand why the Americans allowed Pakistan to become a nuclear power but are so upset about Iran.”

The other theme I heard time and again here is that political change takes time. Perhaps because they have such a long history — 10 times longer than the history of the United States — many Iranians seem ready to wait patiently for change rather than risk plunging their country into upheaval by demanding it immediately.

“Nobody can prevent us from having democracy in our country,” a merchant in the Shiraz bazaar told me. “It is our wish and our right. But it will take time. You cannot change a very strong government in a few months.”

A middle-aged man in Isfahan who sympathized with the post-election protests said he was glad they have ended. “They were not going to achieve anything, and continuing them would just mean more people hurt or killed or put in jail,” he reasoned. “What is the point of that?”

Last year's protests here were the biggest since the Islamic regime came to power 31 years ago. They weakened the regime's legitimacy and sharpened divisions within the clerical, political and military elites. But they had nothing like the near-unanimous support that gathered behind the protests of the late 1970s, which culminated in the overthrow of Mohammad Reza Shah. The Green Movement has had trouble focusing its goals, and has not managed either to produce a coherent leadership or to broaden its social base.

In Iran, as in other countries with long histories, many people believe that not all problems have quick solutions, and that some have no solution at all. “In our history we have had many periods that were sad, and other periods that were happy,” a woman at an internet cafe in Isfahan told me. “You cannot rush things. What is important is to live.”

While I was in the ancient city of Yazd, a senior cleric who sympathizes with the opposition, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, delivered a speech that concluded with what seemed to be an affirmation of this view. “God assists the patient,” he said.

What will happen here? I put that question to almost every Iranian I met. One of the best answers came from a middle-aged man in Kirman, an ancient caravan town that over the last 1,800 years has been ruled by Persians, Arabs, Turks, Mongols and a variety of tribal chiefs.

“No one can predict what will happen,” he told me. “But I do know one thing: everything has an end.”

Stephen Kinzer is the author of numerous books, including "Reset: Iran, Turkey and America's Future," "Overthrow" and "All the Shah's Men." An award-winning foreign correspondent, he now teaches international relations at Boston University.