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Iran opposition calls off anniversary rally
TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran's opposition on Thursday cancelled a rally to mark the anniversary of last June's presidential election, due to fears for people's lives in any crackdown by a government under pressure at home and abroad.
A year after the re-election of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the reformist "green movement" had hoped to bring its supporters back onto the streets to show continued opposition to a government it says won through vote rigging.
But with less than two days to go, the two main opposition leaders, Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, said they had received no permission to stage what they had promised would be a peaceful commemoration of last year's events.
"A number of parties and reformist groups have given similar requests to the interior ministry ... and they have announced that they have no hope that they would get permission from this government," they said in a joint statement.
"Now that we are 48 hours from the time of the rally ... in order to preserve people's lives and property, the expected rally will not be held," said the statement, carried on Karoubi's website Sahamnews.
Last year's post-election turmoil in the world's fifth largest oil exporter exposed deep divisions in the Iranian political and clerical elite, with ruling hardliners scrambling to curb demands for a more democratic system.
The unrest, Iran's worst since its 1979 Islamic revolution, was quelled by the elite Revolutionary Guards amid violent crackdowns, mass detentions and even executions. Two people were hanged and scores of detainees remain in jail.
WORSE THAN SADDAM
Revealing how seriously the hardline establishment viewed the opposition movement, the leader of the Revolutionary Guards said last year's protests had posed a greater threat to the regime than the invasion by Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 1980 and the ensuing eight-year war.
"Although last year's sedition did not last more than around eight months, it was much more dangerous than the imposed war which Saddam began against us through the support of the international community," Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari was quoted as saying in Iranian media.
The government, which has denied all claims of vote rigging, called the protests "sedition" and blamed foreign powers opposed to the Islamic Republic for fomenting "riots".
In their statement, the opposition leaders said the reform movement had not been defeated and repeated their assertion that the Ahmadinejad government had no mandate.
"The movement is alive and the real pride belongs to those who are still continuing their rightful protest despite all threats, dangers, insecurities, and knowing well the ... consequences," it said.
However, with the risk of violent suppression or arrest, many Iranians are unwilling to risk public displays of dissent and doubts have grown over the effectiveness of the leadership of the reform movement.
"My friends who took part in previous rallies are in jail or are banned from pursuing their studies," said Reza Alesadegh, 24, a physics student in the central city of Shiraz. "I cannot endanger my future by taking part in any anti-government rally."
Political scientist Amir Tafreshi said Mousavi, a former prime minister who has often advocated a return to the values of the revolution, appeared to lack the political courage to confront the establishment from which he sprang.
"The vote and its aftermath showed that most of the levers of state power lie with the hardline clerical establishment. The system managed to silence the opposition," he said.
With the opposition movement cowed, Ahmadinejad faces increased pressure from abroad in the shape of a new round of U.N. sanctions agreed on Wednesday and tougher ones on the way from the United States and Europe.
And his plan to phase out subsidies for staples like fuel and food later this year might add more to ordinary Iranians' economic woes than sanctions, many analysts say.
"I don't care about freedom of expression when I cannot afford to buy school books for my children," said Mohammad Bagheri, a 46-year-old father of three, who lost his job six months ago after the textile factory where he worked shut down.
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