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In Iran, the opposition tried and failed to mount huge demonstrations to mark the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution a week ago. Iran's government did manage for the most part to prevent the opposition from getting into the streets. Iranians inside the country and out are now debating the opposition's future.

NPR's Mike Shuster reports.

MIKE SHUSTER: Simply put, no one knows what's next for the Iranian opposition. Their hope was that they could bring thousands into the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities to challenge the legitimacy of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government, as they had done periodically since last June's disputed presidential election. Instead, the government deployed thousands of police and street militia throughout Tehran, effectively stifling the opposition, says Ali Ansari, an Iran expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Professor ALI ANSARI (University of St. Andrews): To my mind, the government mastered its narrative. It ruthlessly went after anyone trying to do anything alternative. It got its message out: It very much controlled the airwaves, controlled the journalists. You get the impression that, certainly on a propaganda level, the government was back in charge.

SHUSTER: On one level, perhaps that shouldn't be surprising. Iran's government has had all along the capability to bring enormous pressure to bear on street protestors. It has the power of the security forces, and it can also disrupt the ability of the opposition to communicate by shutting down the Internet and cell phone communications. The only surprise is that it took this long for the government to formulate a well-organized response to street demonstrations. One key weakness of the opposition, say many analysts, is its amorphous nature. First and foremost, it lacks real leadership, says Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian-American scholar who was jailed by Iran three years ago. Esfandiari was speaking to the BBC.

Dr. HALEH ESFANDIARI (Iranian-American Scholar): On the 11th of February, there was no leadership. People were just called, the opposition was told come out. But usually, I mean, you need leadership.

SHUSTER: Iran's government has effectively isolated those nominally leading the opposition, such as Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, both candidates in last June's presidential election. And even this nominal leadership, notes Esfandiari, has been unable to coalesce around common political goals.

Dr. ESFANDIARI: I think the green movement reflects on the situation inside Iran. There is a diversity of view and approach to matters inside Iran. Among the green movement, there are those who want a secular state. There are those even among the leadership believe that may be a separation of state and mosque would be the ideal solution for Iran.

SHUSTER: At the same time, there are some in the green movement - as it's become known - who remain committed to Iran's constitution and the power of the mosque embodied by the office of the supreme leader. These differences have been exploited by Iran's government, says Ali Ansari, especially by Ahmadinejad, with his focus on the nuclear issue.

Prof. ANSARI: I think he's trying to make sure that the nuclear issue becomes the single-most important issue that everyone's discussing. It will help silence critics at home. It'll be a major international crisis. You're ratcheting up the confrontation and, you know, even the opposition at home will have to, in some ways, almost be forced to tow the line. I mean, I think this is basically - it's been a strategy for the last four years. He's just continuing it, really.

SHUSTER: Indeed, the Obama administration in the last month has concentrated on Iran's nuclear pursuits. On her recent swing through the Persian Gulf, Secretary of State Clinton used unusually blunt language to describe Iran, asserting that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon even as it slides, she says, toward military dictatorship.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): Iranian officials have refused every offer to meet on its nuclear program. So these actions understandably have caused us to wonder: What does Iran have to hide?

SHUSTER: The rhetoric coming from Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been even more blunt.

Prime Minister BENJAMIN NETANYAHU (Israel): I believe what is required right now is tough action from the international community. This means crippling sanctions, and these sanctions must be applied right now.

SHUSTER: But if it has been the goal of those in power in Tehran to focus international attention exclusively on the nuclear controversy, it may lead Iran's leaders to think they've now mastered the situation, says Ali Ansari.

Prof. ANSARI: This is very classically a case with the Ahmadinejad government, is it may make them overconfident yet again. And I have no doubt that the green movement, while bloodied, is certainly not out.

SHUSTER: Ahmadinejad certainly sounded cocky in a news conference he held in Tehran this week, where he said, in effect, if more sanctions are coming, bring them on. But despite the recent setback, the opposition has not been defeated, says Haleh Esfandiari. Now it's become a long-term grind.

Dr. ESFANDIARI: The opposition is there to stay. This is not an opposition which will disappear. It is going to stay there, and it is going to try and wear down the government.

SHUSTER: How it will do that, though, is not entirely clear at the moment.

Mike Shuster, NPR News, Dubai.

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