Iran's popular uprising, which began after the June 12 election, may be heading for a premature ending. In many ways, the Ahmadinejad government has succeeded in transforming what was a mass movement into dispersed pockets of unrest. Whatever is now left of this mass movement is now leaderless, unorganized -- and under the risk of being hijacked by groups outside Iran in pursuit of their own political agendas.
In 1999, students in Iran demonstrated against the closing of reformist newspapers. The unrest lasted a few days and was brutally suppressed. The demonstrators were almost exclusively students. No other segments of society joined their ranks in any meaningful numbers. With their limited appeal to other segments of society, the demonstrators failed to grow in numbers and attain their political objectives.
The demonstrations following the Iranian election on June 12 share few if any characteristics of the student uprising of 1999. What we have witnessed taking place in Iran is a mass movement attracting supporters from all walks of life, all demographics, all classes, and even all political backgrounds. Even supporters of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have expressed discomfort with the developments in Iran, arguing that they voted for Ahmadinejad because they thought he would be a better president, and not because he would be a better dictator.
Indeed, the post-election demonstrations have neither been an uprising of intellectuals and students nor die-hard anti-regime elements from northern Tehran. Instead, the masses that poured in the streets included large numbers of people who often have been loyal to the Iranian government and who in many ways have a stake in its survival. (We can call them Iran's political middle, or its swing voters.) This is precisely why this movement has constituted such a threat to the Iranian government -- not once since 1979 has such an alliance of Iranians come together.
Knowing very well that the opposition's ability to attract Iranians of all backgrounds constituted a major threat to the government, the Iranian authorities moved quickly to peel away layer after layer of people from the movement to reduce it to a much smaller and more manageable core of regime -- not Ahmadinejad -- opponents. The Ahmadinejad government's tactics were predictable: It combined a most brutal clampdown on protesters with propaganda alleging that the opposition movement was orchestrated by foreign elements and exiled opposition groups.