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Iran Analysis: Guess Who's Back? Back Again?

And so we awake to the day after the rallies of 25 Bahman, in which the opposition to the Iranian regime was again on the streets.  After 20 months of oppression and more than a year without a significant public rally, despite the house arrests of its key figures, and in the face of intimidation and beatings, the Green Wave proved that it could still surge.

(Or, as one of my EA colleagues with a taste for musical references put it, "Guess Who's Back? Back Again?")

Of course, there will be the numbers game. Estimates of the marchers yesterday ranged from the "several hundred" offered by a BBC correspondent in London to "hundreds of thousands", put out both by activists and by two Tehran-based reporters for The Financial Times.

There is no way at this point to be sure --- given the scattered natures of the gatherings, a fluid movement of people all day as they tried to get near Azadi Square --- but from the video we received, the reports of eyewitnesses for EA and for other outlets, and signals such as the response of security forces, we believe it is safe to say "tens of thousands" were out in Tehran. And, it should be remembered: this was not just a day for protest in the capital. We have confirmation of rallies in Shiraz, Isfahan, and Arak, and others reported gatherings in Rasht and Kermanshah.

Yet to play the numbers game misses the wider political contest. The fear of activists entering yesterday was that there would be no mobilisation at all, that --- despite the direct allusion to the possibilities of Tunisia and Egypt, which were attributed in part to the Green Wave rising in 2009 --- Iranian people had been imprisoned, intimidated, and beaten off the streets for good.

The test yesterday was just to show that this had not occurred. And that challenge was met. The best evaluation of the day came from one of my EA colleagues. He linked back to 27 December 2009 and the marches on the religious occasion of Ashura, the last time that the opposition showed a significant public presence. Pulling together EA's sources and that of other reliable media, he --- and he is not prone to exaggeration or rosy views of protest --- concluded: what we had seen on Monday was comparable, but it was bigger.

The reactions of the regime spoke almost as loudly as the enthusiasm of protesters returning from the marches. Having tried to ignore the opposition early in the day, by the evening State outlets were spinning tales of "mercenaries" killing passers-by or of a "small protest" being met by a large counter-demonstration of loyal Iranians.

That wild, even desperate propaganda was in effect an admission. The regime had been worried enough in the week before 25 Bahman that it had embarked on another wave of detentions, seizing dozens of activists and journalists. It had raised the barriers on Internet sites, possibly slowing the network down; yesterday its operatives took down a number of key opposition webpages, including Mehdi Karroubi's Saham News. It had tried again to blind mainstream media by shutting away or keeping out its reporters. It put Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi under an undeclared house arrest, shoving Mousavi's wife Zahra Rahnavard back into her residential prison when she tried to join the demonstrations.

(Paradoxically, that show of muscle in the days before 25 Bahman may have led to a bit of "leniency" by the regime yesterday. It did not put Revolutionary Guard units or Basij paramilitary enforces on the streets, relying instead on a "conventional" police effort --- albeit a massive police effort --- to shoo away any protesters who might dare emerge.)

But in the end the police could not put away the marches as a minor distraction. As each accumulating video testified, the Supreme Leader and the Ahmadinejad Government had failed.

In one classic moment, the regime's Monday showpiece, the visit of Turkish President Abdullah Gul, was not only eclipsed but turned against it. A conservative website, Aftab News --- whether from hacking, a dissident employee, or a sign of its dislike for the Iranian leadership --- posted a report that Gul would be joining the opposition march. The article quickly disappeared, with Aftab taken off-line, but the dissident point had been made, as the report raced around the Internet.

So 25 Bahman was a victory, the biggest for the opposition since those December 2009 demonstrations on the religious day of Ashura.

Still, it is only one day in the 20 months of post-election conflict. Today the regime will strike back with more declaration of foreign-supported sedition, more arrests, more references to the need to support the Supreme Leader. Opposition political parties, activists, students, and the person on the street will again be blanketed by warnings offset --- despite the contradiction --- by assurances that all is well.

This is not Tunisia. This is not Egypt. This is Iran, where Azadi Square did not become the new Tahrir Square yesterday.

This is not Tunisia. This is not Egypt. This is Iran, where the tension between the ruling elite and those who were not satisfied by it began long before the dramatic events of January and February 2011.

This is Iran where --- if you must draw the link with Tunis and Cairo --- the challenge to a regime's supposed legitimacy has not been swept away by propaganda, threats, and detentions.

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