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Story Publication logo June 17, 2010

A Guest at the Ministry of the Hidden Imam


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After a hotly contested presidential election that resulted in street riots and a disputed claim to...


[Editor's Note: One year ago today, Iason Athanasiadis became the only foreign journalist to be detained during Iran's post-election unrest. He writes here, in the first installment of this exclusive account, about the weeks he spent inside and outside Evin Prison before and after the crackdown.]

"I don't know if you're alive or dead. Can you on earth be sought?"
— Anna Akhmatova, 1915

TEHRAN—June 12, 2009

Iran was at history's doorstep, and my entry visa was delayed.

The sharp antagonisms simmering beneath the surface of Iranian society for three decades had burst to the surface when the Islamic Republic decided to emulate the electrifying American campaign that Barrack Obama had just won and treat its citizens to live televised debates between the presidential candidates. For a secretive regime that always closes ranks to protect its own, Ahmadinejad's accusation of corruption against two-time former president Hashemi Rafsanjani live on television—an accusation every Iranian knows is true—breached an invisible psychological barrier. Crowds had surged onto the streets, dancing night after night, a weeklong street party.

Unprecedented demonstrations surged merrily past every limit and restriction on public meetings laid down by the Islamic Republic. Suddenly, anything seemed possible—and I was waiting for my visa.

I had lived in Iran from 2004 to 2007, and I was eager to be back in Tehran to witness their "Obama moment." The friends I made there were, for the most part, creative, open-minded, secular internationalists open to the West but, unlike many of their compatriots, not enchanted by it. Far from being elites, most were solidly middle class and did not speak a foreign language Because they did not hew to either extreme in the simplistic narrative promoted by the Western media about Iran—neither working class traditionalist fanatics or upper-class Westernized party animals—their voices struggled to emerge. As far as the world was concerned, they did not exist.

But they were a fascinating barometer of Iranian society. By the summer of 2009, this generation—which I had described as "the unruly children and grandchildren of the same revolutionaries who riotously brought the Islamic Revolution into being in 1978"—seemed poised to make its stand on the streets. The entire world was suddenly captivated by their resistance and verve. "Today, this generation makes Iran one of the youngest societies on earth," I wrote in 2007. "Far more than the prospect of nuclear energy, they constitute the most extraordinary transformational force invisibly working away within the country's fabric."

But until my visa was approved, I had to content myself by flying London to deliver a paper at a conference marking the Islamic Republic's thirtieth anniversary. Facing an audience of experts on Iran that included several gentlemen from the Iranian embassy, I lightheartedly began by describing myself as having exactly the kind of characteristics attributed by the Islamic Republic to Western spies—an Oxford education, fluent Persian and Arabic, three years of living in Iran without holding a fixed job, and a British passport. The audience tittered; the Iranians diplomats regarded me stonily.

The next day, I was informed that my visa had finally been approved. The Iranian ambassador in Athens kindly issued it for me in London and within twenty-four hours I was streaking across the Mediterranean. The night flight from London touched down in Doha's stifling summer darkness, and I transferred onto an Iran Airways flight for the hop over the Persian Gulf to Tehran. By the time I cleared customs and engaged an airport cab to take me into the city, the sun had risen. Everywhere on the streets were remnants of the previous nights' festivities—green ribbons, posters of the candidates, and trampled confetti. Pockets of diehard revelers remained at street corners, facing off with rival slogans.

I collected my press accreditation at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, then sought out a source whose tips had in the past been reliable. Mousavi's last-minute surge had turned the tables on Ahmadinejad. But my friend's prediction stretched credulity: not only would Ahmadinejad win, he said, but he would do it in the first round and by a landslide too.

I scoffed at the tip, thinking that my source—a deeply intellectual current affairs watcher and Marxist who despised the Islamic Republic—had finally gone over the brink of his despair into delusional nihilism.

But I then remembered a conversation I had following Ahmadinejad's election in 2005 with a close childhood friend of his. At a time when 2009 appeared an impossibly distant date, he had warned me that there are more than 12 million bassijis (a nationwide religious militia that in peacetime enforces public morality, supports Ahmadinejad, and tries to re-Islamize public life) and the Sepah (Revolutionary Guard) had a goal to eventually have 20 million with the intention of controlling a presidential election through the bassij votes.

"The Sepah people privately say that in the next elections we'll have 15 million bassij which is a threshold number that will allow them to elect the president decisively."

I had no access to definitive statistics on the size of the bassij but in the streets of Tehran it was an open secret that Ahmadinejad was encouraging their rebirth. It seemed that they were about to flex their muscles. What we did not know at the time was that Mousavi's supporters would indulge in some muscle-flexing of their own. And that confrontation would prompt the largest wave of arrests since the Revolution. Including my own...

Read the full post at Virginia Quarterly Review.

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