SHIRAZ, Iran — “It’s over.”
With that short answer, a young woman I met while strolling through a park in ancient Shiraz summed up what has happened to the protest movement that shook Iran and electrified the world after last year’s disputed presidential election.
For weeks after the election, and then for months, crowds of angry Iranians poured onto the streets of major cities protesting the quick announcement that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won re-election by a decisive margin. They were harshly repressed. Police officers and pro-government thugs beat demonstrators, killed some and arrested many more. Since the beginning of this year, there have been no large protests. I came to Iran eager to learn why.
The answer I found confirmed an age-old truth: Governments use repression against protesters for the simple reason that it usually works. It certainly seems to have worked here.
Almost no foreign journalists have been admitted to Iran in recent months, and correspondents who lived here have been expelled or forced to flee. I entered the country on a tourist visa, meaning that I was forbidden to meet government officials, opposition figures or activists of any sort.
Before my trip, I wrote to several of my Iranian friends asking for names of interesting people I could meet here. “All the interesting people I know are in jail,” one curtly replied. Another sent a longer answer.
“I am very reluctant to put you in touch with people,” he wrote. “I am not worried about you at all; it is people who visit you that may be put in jeopardy. I am not being paranoid, it is just that the place has become very unpredictable. I cannot figure out the logic of who they pick up and why.”
This left me to rely on chance encounters. In the course of a two-week, thousand-mile tour around Iran, I had dozens. Wherever I stopped, I asked people what had become of the Green Movement, the loose anti-government coalition that organized last year’s protests. Everyone told me the same thing: it is either dead or hibernating.
“We don’t like the government, but we cannot change it,” said a man enjoying a picnic with his family near the tomb of Cyrus the Great, who ruled Persia 25 centuries ago. “They punish us when we protest. People are afraid.”
Some Iranians clearly believe that in the wake of last year’s dubious election and the upheaval that followed, their regime has lost its “obohat,” an elusive attribute of just leadership that is variously translated as righteousness, virtue, nobility or right to rule. But it is far from clear that these dissidents comprise the majority, or that most Iranians wish for a new kind of government.
Several people told me that the material conditions of life here have palpably improved in recent years. President Ahmadinejad travels the country tirelessly, meeting with local people and asking what they need. On most visits he promises to provide it — a school, a dam, a new road. Then, a year or two later, he returns to assure himself that the work has been completed. This form of politicking is as effective here as it is in other countries.
“Thirty-five percent of Iranians like this government and Ahmadinejad,” a college student told me outside a Sufi shrine in the southeastern town of Mahan. “Twenty-five percent are against. The rest don’t care.”
This young man made clear that he sympathized with the opposition, but when I asked what the opposition could now do, he smiled wistfully.
“We can’t do anything,” he shrugged. “If we do something, the police come and put us in jail. It is very tight here.”
Young people seem especially eager for change. Tens of thousands graduate from colleges and universities each year, but few find good jobs. The government tightly restricts their behavior. As they grow older, their frustration may change the course of Iranian politics.
“There are so many limitations on us — on our dress, our relations with boyfriends, our chances to have fun together,” said a schoolgirl I met in Isfahan. “We want to take off our head scarves, but it’s not possible. All we can do is live and stay quiet.”
Until last year’s election, many Iranians hoped they would be able to reshape their country through the ballot box. Some have now lost that faith.
“I voted, but I don’t believe my vote was counted,” a student at the University of Tehran told me. “Many who voted last time won’t vote next time. I’m one of them.”
Despite the frustrations that shape life for many Iranians, however, no one I met expressed the slightest desire for foreign intervention.
“Intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan has brought nothing but death and suffering,” a retired schoolteacher told me in Shiraz. “We don’t want that. Above all, we want to preserve peace in our country. We would rather live under a regime we don’t like than one that is placed in power by foreigners.”
Iranians seem puzzled by the Obama administration’s intense focus on their country’s nuclear program, which officials in Washington describe as a grave threat to global security.
“What worries us is Pakistan,” one man told me. “We don’t have anything like the Taliban or Al Qaeda in Iran. Crazy fanatics are not going to take power here, but in Pakistan it could happen any day. We can’t understand why the Americans allowed Pakistan to become a nuclear power but are so upset about Iran.”
The other theme I heard time and again here is that political change takes time. Perhaps because they have such a long history — 10 times longer than the history of the United States — many Iranians seem ready to wait patiently for change rather than risk plunging their country into upheaval by demanding it immediately.
“Nobody can prevent us from having democracy in our country,” a merchant in the Shiraz bazaar told me. “It is our wish and our right. But it will take time. You cannot change a very strong government in a few months.”
A middle-aged man in Isfahan who sympathized with the post-election protests said he was glad they have ended. “They were not going to achieve anything, and continuing them would just mean more people hurt or killed or put in jail,” he reasoned. “What is the point of that?”
Last year’s protests here were the biggest since the Islamic regime came to power 31 years ago. They weakened the regime’s legitimacy and sharpened divisions within the clerical, political and military elites. But they had nothing like the near-unanimous support that gathered behind the protests of the late 1970s, which culminated in the overthrow of Mohammad Reza Shah. The Green Movement has had trouble focusing its goals, and has not managed either to produce a coherent leadership or to broaden its social base.
In Iran, as in other countries with long histories, many people believe that not all problems have quick solutions, and that some have no solution at all. “In our history we have had many periods that were sad, and other periods that were happy,” a woman at an internet cafe in Isfahan told me. “You cannot rush things. What is important is to live.”
While I was in the ancient city of Yazd, a senior cleric who sympathizes with the opposition, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, delivered a speech that concluded with what seemed to be an affirmation of this view. “God assists the patient,” he said.
What will happen here? I put that question to almost every Iranian I met. One of the best answers came from a middle-aged man in Kirman, an ancient caravan town that over the last 1,800 years has been ruled by Persians, Arabs, Turks, Mongols and a variety of tribal chiefs.
“No one can predict what will happen,” he told me. “But I do know one thing: everything has an end.”
Stephen Kinzer is the author of numerous books, including “Reset: Iran, Turkey and America’s Future,” “Overthrow” and “All the Shah’s Men.” An award-winning foreign correspondent, he now teaches international relations at Boston University.