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Opinion: Story not over in Iran

One year after Tehran erupted in protest, "nothing has changed, but everything has changed."

woman shows stones
A woman supporter of Iran's moderate presidential candidate Mirhossein Mousavi shows stones used for throwing during clashes with police in Tehran, June 13, 2009. (Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters)

TEHRAN, Iran — One year ago, after a disputed presidential election, Iranians exploded in the most intense and sustained protests their country had known since the Islamic Revolution of the 1970s. Calm has now returned to Iran. Nothing has changed — but everything has changed.

The religious regime remains in power and faces no imminent threat. Protests flare up from time to time — several are planned for this weekend — but no momentum gathers behind them. Thousands of protesters were arrested after last year's demonstrations. Eighty-one were released last week, but they are liable to be re-arrested if they resume political activity. The regime has succeeded in intimidating its opponents.

Yet a recent two-week trip through Iran, during which I spoke to dozens of ordinary people, suggested that last year's outburst of protest changed something deep. The regime has lost an important measure of legitimacy. Most Iranians are young; an astonishing 70 percent are under 30. Last year's trauma has disillusioned many of them. They pose a serious long-term threat to the Islamic Republic.

“Right now, people are afraid,” one young man told me. “But remember, we are the people who got rid of Alexander, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane.”

Last year's protests began after the June 12 presidential election. The result was surprisingly decisive — a landslide victory for the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — but what angered people more was that it was announced within hours after polls closed, before many ballots could have been counted. Then the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, endorsed the result and demanded that protests end. This was a fateful turning point.

Until that moment, many Iranians still saw the Supreme Leader as a figure above factions and open, if not to all, at least to a spectrum of respectful opinion. By siding so decisively in favor of Ahmadinejad, and scorning the protesters so sharply, Khamenei lost that aura of impartiality. He is now a clear partisan of one faction. This removes a key pillar of the regime's stability. No neutral figure remains who commands broad respect.

A breach has opened in Iranian society that is not likely to heal. When the Islamic Republic eventually falls or changes, historians will look back to 2009 as the moment when the tide began turning against it.

My trip, though, also showed me that despite last year's political turmoil and growing international pressure due to the escalating nuclear crisis, daily life in Iran is normal. There is no fear or tension in the air. Many Iranians with whom I discussed politics told me that change will come, but slowly. In a country with 25 centuries of history, this seems a natural attitude.

Iran's regime controls the instruments of power and coercion. Life is bearable for almost everyone, and pretty good for many. Under these circumstances, Iranians do not consider a possibly stolen election sufficient reason to rebel.

No people on earth understand the risk of violent revolution better than Iranians. In the 1970s they banded together to overthrow the Shah's dictatorship, certain that the next regime would be better. They wound up with one that is by most standards worse. This bitter experience was deeply traumatic. Because of it, many Iranians instinctively prefer to bear the ills they have than fly to others that they know not of.

Although the Green Movement, as last year's protesters called themselves, electrified the world, it may not have represented a majority of Iranians. In many parts of the country, people are pious and religious power is strong. The Green Movement has not managed to broaden its social base — a key difference from the anti-Shah protests of the 1970s, which found support at nearly every level of Iranian society.