By Amir Taheri, Special to Gulf News
Since the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last summer, efforts have been made to bring together opponents of the Islamic Republic with a plan for action on specific issues.
It now seems that those efforts have met with some success, enabling the opposition to coordinate tactics against the Ahmadinejad administration.
"Everyone has the feeling that things are coming to a head [in Iran]," says a former cabinet minister under president Mohammad Khatami.
"People seem ready to forget [past] disputes and work together to save the nation from the most dangerous crisis in its recent history."
Efforts to harmonise oppositional action come after years of fruitless negotiations to form a united front capable of offering a credible alternative to the regime.
The reasons for the past failure might have been evident from the start.
A good part of the opposition consists of those individuals and groups that, having participated in the Khomeinist revolution of 1978-79, have broken with it over the years.
While not admitting that Iran is on the wrong trajectory, these former Khomeinists are not prepared to condemn the revolution as the source of the nation's misfortunes, including an eight-year war with Iraq and more than 150,000 executions, over the past 27 years.
Then, there are those groups that have waged armed struggle against the Islamic Republic in the name of ethnic rights, religious differences and ideological enmities.
Cause of cleavage
Another cause of cleavage is the fact that a good part of the opposition, ranging from monarchist to communists and passing by conservative republicans, has had its leadership in exile for years.
The exiles have held a series of meetings, most recently in Berlin and London, to harmonise their activities, without, however, agreeing on a common platform.
The arrival into exile in recent months of several former prominent figures of the Islamic regime, including four cabinet ministers, a former mayor of Tehran and some former commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has helped facilitate contact between internal and external dissidents.
However, the real impetus for greater harmony among opposition groups has come from the emergence of a new form of opposition based on economic and/or social grievances.
Within these new groups, university students, and industrial workers have the greatest potential for challenging the regime in a meaningful way. The emerging consensus within the opposition appears to be based on at least six points.
The first is that past differences should be set aside in favour of joint action.
The second is that anti-regime action should be organised around specific issues related to the interests of broad segments of society.
The third point is that any attempt at a speedy politicisation of economic, social, ethnic and cultural demands could be counter productive.
The fourth point is that most opposition groups have agreed to set their maximum demands with regard to the future form of government on hold.
The fifth point is that the issue of Iran's nuclear ambitions must not be allowed to divert international attention from growing unrest inside the country.
Opposition leaders believe that Ahmadinejad is deliberately seeking a limited military clash with the United States on the nuclear issue to defuse the internal tension and rally the people behind his increasingly unpopular administration.
While no one in the opposition is publicly asking the United States to withdraw the threat of military action, everyone agrees that any limited operation that would wound the regime but leave it alive and in place could give Khomeinist system a second life.
Finally, there is agreement that the initial phase of action against the Ahmadinejad administration must be led by independent personalities with no partisan affiliations.
The new consensus is already facing its first test over the campaign launched in favour of political prisoners.
The signal for the campaign was given last week by Akbar Ganji, a former Revolutionary Guard interrogator turned dissident, during his current tour of western democracies.
Ganji, who was recently released from political prison after a solo hunger strike in Tehran, has called for a massive hunger strike, inside and outside Iran, in sympathy with political prisoners in the Islamic Republic.
Ganji's call has already been echoed by a number of prominent figures inside Iran. These include Dr Mohammad Maleki, a former chancellor of Tehran University under the Khomeinist regime, Simin Behbahani, possibly the most popular Persian poet alive, and prominent Iranian-Kurdish writer Jalal Qavami.
Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian winner of the Nobel Prize for peace, is also expected to join, although she has consistently been reluctant to challenge the regime openly.
A number of prominent theologians in Qom and Mash'had have also been contacted and are expected to endorse the campaign.
No one knows quite now many political prisoners there are in the Islamic Republic. (Estimates by human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, vary between 3,000 and 85,000.
According to Iranian human rights groups, more than 2.5 million Iranians have been in and out of prison on political charges since 1979.)
"It is a measure of our national tragedy that almost anybody who is somebody has spent some time as political prisoner in the past quarter of a century," says Maleki.
Ahmadinejad is trying to cast himself in the role of a champion of Islam against the "infidel" by adopting a tough stance on the nuclear issue and preparing for a showdown with the G-8 next month.
The challenge to his administration, however, may well be coming from Iran's factories, offices, universities, and religious seminaries.