No Respite for Ahmadinejad

The numbers of opposition supporters at yesterday's rally in Iran were not as high as expected. In fact, those who were on the side of the government seemed to have greatly outnumbered those who were against.

However this does not mean that the campaign of opposition is over. Far from it. Although many Iranian government supporters and the media proclaimed yesterday as a success, in fact, the opposite is true. Yesterday showed how desperate and concerned the hardliners in Tehran have become about the supporters of the green movement.

An obvious sign of their concern was the extensive preparations to ensure that the opposition was unable to organize rallies. This is why important websites such as Google were blocked prior to the demonstrations. In some areas the internet was cut off altogether. This also made uploading of unofficial videos, taken by demonstrators almost impossible. The little video evidence which we did see was uploaded by satellite phones, which are few and far between in terms of their numbers. Even text messages were blocked.

This was in addition to the huge number of security forces on the streets, who were there from early hours of the day to prevent the opposition from gathering. And those who did manage to demonstrate were quickly dispersed.

This is in contrast to government support in the form of free transportation as well as unconfirmed reports about free food, and in some cases money being handed to those who were bussed in from different parts of Tehran and other parts of the country to show their support.

A regime which is feeling confident in its own popularity does not need to resort to such measures.

What yesterday's events do mean is that the opposition is likely to change tactics -- meaning that from now on, it's possible that more covert methods will be adopted. Although the chances of military attacks, such as assassinations of high-profile figures or members of the security forces are low, they cannot be dismissed altogether. But sabotage campaigns against government property such as broadcasting services and equipment are more likely. There could also be go-slow campaigns at government institutions and factories, as well as wildcat strikes.

Switching from overt to covert methods won't be without its own risks. For example, attacking government figures could actually turn prove useful for the government itself. After the first hit against a senior politician by the opposition, the regime itself may start using such tactics among its own figures as well as those of the opposition, which it can later blame on opposition forces. There are sufficient power struggles within the regime which would warrant this.

Apart from opposition among the public, the infighting among different factions in the government is likely to continue unabated. Since the start of the Iranian revolution in 1979, no Iranian politician has been as a divisive figure as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The infighting he has created has already caused great damage to the regime's cohesion and unity -- far more than the opposition has so far.

One trait that can be noted from the president's childhood is that he does not change -- meaning that due to his difficult and single-minded characteristics, he is likely to continue to alienate elements within his own administration and to cause divisions. This will continue to boost the legitimacy of the opposition. It will also continue to damage the foundations of the Islamic republic. It's bad enough that people are against the president on the streets. It's worse when officials inside Iran's Byzantine corridors of power are becoming more weary of him every day.

The recent opposition in the Iranian parliament against Ahmadinejad's plans to place the savings made from the subsidies reform bill under his government's supervision, rather than that of Parliament, is just one example. Although a final compromise was made where another government body will supervise the expenditure of the funds, the fact that Parliament lost its control over this important decision will strengthen its animosity towards the president.

Another example is the direct instructions from Khamenei to the Parliament to approve Ahmadinejad's nominations for his new cabinet. If it wasn't for the supreme leader's intervention, the president -- due to his unpopularity -- would have faced severe opposition with Parliament. We should not forget that this is a body which three years ago tried to reduce his term as president.

For now, it is difficult to judge whether members of the green movement form the majority of the population. However, they have a chance of reaching this goal in the future, as long as Ayatollah Khamenei continues to ignore the economic plight of the public, and Ahmadinejad continues to create divisions.

How long it will take before this happens could greatly depend on how quickly and brutally the government imposes the unpopular subsidies reform bill. More important than that is the question of Khamenei's succession. Until now, no single figure seems to have been prepared to take over once he passes away. In the current atmosphere of deep divisions, the failure to groom a unifying figure who carries sufficient consensus and authority to be able to captain the ship of the Islamic republic could be the biggest and most deadly mistake made by Iran's supreme leader.

This article originally appeared in The Guardian.