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A year after election, Iran’s divisions have hardened

TEHRAN, Iran – One year after Iran’s disputed presidential election, the familiar rhythms of life have returned here. Through a widespread, sustained and at times brutal crackdown, the government has succeeded in suppressing a protest movement that shook the nation for months after the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which the opposition said was fraudulent.

But the veneer of calm masks what many here call the "fire under the ashes," a low-grade burn of cynicism and distrust. The major demonstrations and protests are gone, but the hard feelings remain, coursing through the routine of daily life: A young woman who worked for years as a volunteer in a children’s hospital said that she now saw her volunteerism as a "tool of resistance" because it highlighted a failure of the government to provide adequate care.

The son of a prominent official told a friend he would no longer accept money from his father because the father worked for the government, which the son considered corrupt.

A medical school professor recently picked up a green marker to write notes on a white board for his students, and then with a smile chose another color, saying he might otherwise be arrested for using green, the color of the political opposition.

"Maybe on the surface it seems like everything is over, but everyone is keeping the fire under the ashes alive so that when they get the chance they can bring it out into the open again," said a 30-year-old language instructor, who like most people interviewed in Iran for this article requested anonymity for fear of reprisal by the state.

Iran has changed since the political crisis of June 12, 2009.

In scores of interviews conducted over the past several months with Iranians from all strata of society, inside and outside the country, a clear picture emerged of a more politically aware public, with widened divisions between the middle class and the poor and – for the first time in the Islamic republic’s three-decade history – a determined core of dissenters opposed to the republic itself.

The political grievances have merged with more pragmatic concerns, like high unemployment and double-digit inflation, adding to the discontent.

"I was on the bus the other day and there was a man, you would not believe the kind of information he had," said a 59-year-old who works for the government. "He started to talk about the foreign currency reserves of different countries and began to criticize the government."

Ahmadinejad and his patron, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, are stronger today than they were a year ago, political experts say, although their base of support has narrowed.

They are relying heavily on force and intimidation, arrests, prison terms, censorship, even execution, to maintain authority. They have closed newspapers, banned political parties and effectively silenced all but the most like-minded people. Thousands of their opponents have fled the country, fearing imprisonment.

As a formal political organization, the reform movement is dead.

The leaders of the so-called Green Movement – the former presidential candidates Mir Hussein Moussavi, a former prime minister, and Mehdi Karroubi, a former speaker of Parliament – have not dropped their demands for more political freedom. But they have dropped their policy of direct confrontation with the government, saying it is not worth the price in blood and heavy prison terms, and canceled demonstrations planned for Saturday after failing to receive a permit.

The security services made clear in the days leading to the anniversary that anyone taking to the streets would be dealt with harshly. On Friday, people in Tehran reported receiving a threatening text message on their cell phones.

"Dear citizen, you have been tricked by the foreign media and you are working on their behalf," the message read. "If you do this again, you will be dealt with according to Islamic law."

A day earlier, the police staged a major show of force, with black-clad militia members riding around on motorcycles and uniformed officers lining the streets and setting up roadblocks.

The crisis accelerated and institutionalized a transfer of power that began with the first election of Ahmadinejad in 2005. The shift was from the old revolutionaries to a generation that came of age during the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq, hard-liners who deeply resented the relatively liberal reforms promoted by former President Mohammad Khatami.

The vanguard of the new political elite is now the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which oversees Iran’s nuclear and missile programs and has extended its control over the economy and the machinery of state. It has improved its ability to control the street, to monitor electronic communications and keep tabs on university campuses, and its alumni head the government’s security organs.

Its leaders have promised to deal harshly with the opposition, and since February – when they suppressed protests scheduled for the 31st anniversary of the Islamic republic – their warnings have been heeded.

"The people are more aware than before, but they stay quiet on fear of death," said an 80-year-old woman as she sat in her kitchen frying onions for a rice dish. "They have killed so many of the young and the well intentioned. Even the shah did not kill like this. They rule the people at the tip of a spear, but the people don’t want them anymore."

The fear is spread from the top down – and the bottom up.

In recent weeks, the leadership has waged a widespread public morals crackdown that, in the scope and tactics, exceed what has occurred in the past. It was seen here as an effort to sow fear in advance of the June 12 anniversary of the presidential election.

The authorities have begun filming women they deem insufficiently covered to use as evidence in court. The police have begun issuing fines that some people say exceed $1,000 for beauty treatments deemed inappropriate, like heavily tanned skin. Provocatively dressed women are stationed on street corners, and men who stop to flirt are arrested.

"The opinion of the people with respect to their government was bad, and now they are making it worse," said a 25-year-old hairdresser.

The pressure is not solely directed at those flaunting conservative values. There seems to be a strategy to make sure everyone knows who is in charge.

A 24-year-old medical student recounted how he and a friend were stopped by the Basij, searched and threatened with assault and arrest.

"We went to the university and confronted one of the most serious student Basijis," the student recalled. "I told him it’s no surprise that they would arrest me with my long hair, but why should they arrest him? Someone who prays, fasts, carries a Quran in his bag. He couldn’t answer me."

A cab driver recalled how he had recently been stopped by the morality police when he stepped out to buy a sandwich because he was wearing a T-shirt they said was too tight.

"They threatened to impound my car," he said, still stunned by the encounter. "Why do they want to give me trouble?"

From the early days after the Islamic Revolution, Iran has been a nation conflicted as its two competing arms of government battled for power. On one side was the elected institutions. On the other the appointed religious institutions. Post-election Iran still suffers from that conflict, but less so. The great divide today pits those with power, money and prestige against those who are defined by disappointment and marginalization but who say that they have preserved hope for change.

While many people are disappointed, others say the year of pain and sacrifice is paying off.

"People have absolutely gained something, a certain degree of individual independence," said a 20-year-old medical student. "They began to decide for themselves that they would go out to protest, to follow the news. This is something that has happened for everybody. In different areas of their lives they are losing patience and are not likely to say anymore that they will put up with things."


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