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In Iran vote, reformists struggle with few options

Monday - 6/10/2013, 3:34am  ET

In this Friday, June 7, 2013 photo, an Iranian man reads one of electoral leaflets, covering the street, after Friday prayers in Tehran, Iran. Despite four years of non-stop arrests and intimidation, Iran’s dissidents still find ways to show their resilience. Protest messages ricochet around social media and angry graffiti pops up. But it only takes a closer look at the lockdown atmosphere across Iran ahead of Friday’s presidential election to show how much the organized opposition has fallen since massive protests in 2009. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- Despite four years of non-stop pressure, arrests and intimidation, Iran's dissidents still find ways to show their resilience.

Protest messages still ricochet around social media despite Iran's cyber cops' attempts to control the Web. Angry graffiti pops up and then quickly painted over by authorities. Mourners at the funeral of a dissident cleric flashed V-for-victory gestures and chanted against the state.

But just a look at the sidewalks around Tehran's Mellat Park shows how far Iran's opposition has fallen as the country prepares for Friday's presidential election.

Four years ago, girls on rollerblades sped around the park delivering fliers for the reform camp's candidate-hero Mir Hossein Mousavi. Emerald-colored head scarves and wrist bands representing Mousavi's Green Movement were in such demand that bloggers would list shops with available fabric.

This time, there are just a few subdued election placards for candidates considered fully in sync with Iran's ruling clerics. Security forces and paramilitary volunteers are never far away.

Mousavi and other opposition leader, Mahdi Karroubi, are under house arrest and hundreds more activists, bloggers and journalists have faced detention as part of relentless crackdowns since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in 2009 brought accusations of vote rigging and something Iran has not seen since the 1979 Islamic Revolution: Huge crowds in the streets chanting against the leadership.

Iran's forces for reform are not so much crushed as now bottled up tightly. Now the election that marks the end of Ahmadinejad's eight-year era also brings another moment of political transition: Whether the loose affiliation of reformists, liberals and Western-leaning activists can somehow remain relevant in a time when the guardians of the Islamic establishment are consolidating their defenses.

"There is no shortage of people in Iran who would like to see a different way of being governed and a different world view from the leadership," said Theodore Karasik, a security and political affairs analyst at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. "Trouble for them is that they now fragmented and disorganized. This is exactly what Iranian authorities want to see."

The entire process has been derided by Western governments and rights groups as a farce after Iran's election overseers -- all loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- blacklisted former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from the ballot despite his lofty status as one of the architects of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

For Iran's rulers, the relatively moderate Rafsanjani represents an unsettling force who could breathe some life into the battered opposition.

Any momentum toward a backlash over Rafsanjani's barring quickly dissipated. He grumbled over the rebuff and Iranian reformist websites buzzed with complaints. But there have been no major street protests, suggesting -- once again -- there are only remote chances for a revival of the 2009 mass demonstrations. His backers have retreated to election boycott calls or drifted to other candidates who have no apparent intention to shake up the system.

The only significant public show of dissent before the election came in a coincidence of timing. Some mourners at the funeral procession of dissident Ayatollah Jalaluddin Taheri, who died last Sunday in the central city of Isfahan, used the march to revive the opposition chants from 2009 such as "death to the dictator," according to video clips posted on the Internet. But the outburst did not seem to inspire other rallies around the country.

"There is significant opposition in Iran to a lot of things, international relations, crackdowns on the Internet, but its dispersed over all classes of society and without a real focus," said Rasool Nafisi, an Iranian affairs analyst at Strayer University in Virginia. "There is opposition, but I doubt you can call it a movement."

Opposition voters now face the choice of whether to boycott the polls or turn to whatever they see as the least objectionable candidate. So far, the top figures of the reform movement, like former President Mohammad Khatami, have not given an indication to their supporters which avenue to take -- meaning a unified strategy may only emerge at the last minute, if at all.

A likely major indicator in the final vote will be how many eligible voters stayed away, in comparison to a reported 85 percent turnout in 2009. It worries officials enough that Khamenei used one of the country's most somber occasions -- the memorial ceremony marking the death of Islamic Revolution founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini -- to say that a low turnout will only help Iran's "enemies" such as the U.S. and Israel.

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