By Parisa Hafezi
ANKARA (Reuters) - Hope for change is dwindling but not gone among supporters of Iran's main pro-reform opposition, although its leaders remain under house arrest and pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani looks incapable of achieving the freer society he promised.
Exiled activists insist the "Green Movement" is not a spent force; the struggle goes on in Iran, they say, albeit through the ballot box rather than the kind of mass protests that it staged in 2009, only to provoke a fierce state crackdown.
Within the country, the mood is more weary before elections this month to parliament and the Assembly of Experts, a body which holds nominal power over the country's most powerful authority, the supreme leader.
Mass disqualifications of reformist candidates are further undermining the chances of political and social change to match Iranians' expectations of a better economic life after Rouhani fulfilled his other election promise - to end international sanctions on the country under a nuclear deal with major powers.
In 2009, the disputed re-election of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad plunged Iran into its biggest internal crisis since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Months of mass protests were crushed by the state security apparatus, headed by the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its affiliated Basij militia volunteers.
Aref, 28, who was expelled from university for backing the Green Movement then, typifies a disillusionment with mass action among those Iranians who cling to hope for change.
"I took part in the 2009 protests. I was beaten by the IRGC and Basij forces several times," said Aref, asking that his full name be withheld. "It was not worth it. It was too costly. I just want to live a free life. I want my rights as a human being to be respected."
For all the hope when Rouhani was elected in 2013, the Green Movement is still leaderless. Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister, and Mehdi Karoubi, a cleric and ex-speaker of parliament who stood against Ahmadinejad, remain under house arrest where they have been for five years.
The two elderly men, who have never gone on trial, appear to be caught up in Iran's constant political feuding.
"The street protests, the arrests and the rift among top rulers shook the Islamic Republic to its foundations. The political infighting between hardliners and reformers has deepened since 2009," said a former official, who was detained for a year after the election for backing the opposition.
"With the election of Rouhani, many hoped for the end of Mousavi and Karoubi's house arrests. But it did not happen," said the former official.
The opposition says Iranians still yearn for reform of the establishment within the Islamic republic's framework, as demanded by Mousavi and Karoubi.
"The Green Movement is still alive and it manifests in the Iranian nation's demands for freedom of expression, justice and respecting human rights," Ardeshir Amir-Arjomand, the Paris-based spokesman for the opposition leaders, told Reuters.
"The Green Movement does not only mean holding street protests. People will continue to fight for their rights at the ballot box," he said. "The movement cannot be silenced."
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei backed Rouhani in ending the long standoff with the West over Iran's nuclear program. The deal that included lifting the sanctions crippling Iran's economy went into effect last month.
But liberalization is another matter. Khamenei and his hardline allies have warned of "the seditionist agenda" for the elections on Feb. 26 - "seditionist" being their shorthand for people who aligned with opposition forces after the 2009 vote.
"Hardliners are still worried about the revival of the reform movement and revival of the protests. That is why we witness mass-disqualification of moderate candidates," said a senior Iranian official, who asked not to be named.
A number of clerics, politicians and activists, including 300 university teachers, have criticized the disqualifications by the Guardian Council, a committee of hardliners who analysts say want to thwart any challenge to their grip in power.
The Council, made up of six clerics and six legal experts generally within Khamenei's orbit, has the authority to vet laws and election candidates. Khamenei, who swiftly endorsed the 2009 presidential result, has praised the Council's oversight in the elections as effective.
CUT OFF FROM OUTSIDE WORLD
Politicians and rights activists say Rouhani has failed to bring about greater freedom, focusing instead on improving the economy. This goes for the two detained leaders whose living conditions, while less severe than immediately after their arrest, have since improved little.
Mousavi and Karoubi, who are both in their seventies, suffer from various medical complications and have been taken to hospital several times for surgery and treatment.
Media coverage of the Green Movement was banned until 2014, when pictures of Mousavi in hospital appeared on some websites.
Mousavi and his wife Zahra Rahnavard, also an outspoken critic of the establishment, are virtual prisoners in their own house in southern Tehran. They have daily access to four state-run newspapers selected by the authorities, but no telephone, internet or satellite TV, said Amir-Arjomand.
For months, Mousavi and Rahnavard, a prominent artist, sculptor and academic, were cut off from the outside word.
"Now they are allowed to meet their two daughters once a week in a neighboring house in the presence of IRGC officers," he said. "Their house is in a dead-end street. It has metal fences all around it. No one can see inside."
Security guards no longer stay in the house but keep keys to all the inside doors, allowing the couple little privacy.
Mousavi and Rahnavard lead a simple life. "They spend their time praying, reading a limited number of books they have access to and also gardening," said Amir-Arjomand.
Karoubi lives on the second floor of his house while guards stay in the first. His wife was freed in 2014.
A VERY HEAVY PRICE
Several human rights organizations have called on the authorities to lift the "arbitrary" arrests but the politicians' fate rests in the hands of Khamenei, a relative of Mousavi.
"Government officials have publicly talked about their efforts regarding ending Mousavi and Karoubi's house arrest. But we don't know what exactly it means," said Amir-Arjomand. "Neither publicly nor privately have we received any details about the steps taken. And obviously they have failed."
Dozens of senior pro-reform politicians, journalists, activists and rights lawyers, detained after the 2009 vote, also remain in jail. The two main pro-reform parties were banned after the disputed vote, which the authorities declared "the healthiest election in the revolution's history".
The student movement that played a major role in the protests has been paralyzed, with its leaders also in exile or jail.
"The opposition has no leader to inspire people. Rouhani has failed to keep his promises over creating a freer society. People paid a very heavy price for the 2009 unrest," said political analyst Hamid Farahvashian.
(Writing by Parisa Hafezi)