Translate page with Google

Story Publication logo August 3, 2009

Iranians on Verge of Seizing New Era


Media file: 1619.jpg

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


Iran's Islamic revolution three decades ago reached a crucial turning point when a policeman failed to dislodge a man from simply standing at a crossroads in Tehran.

Surrounded by a tense crowd, the policeman could neither beat up the man nor reason with him, according to journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski's book, "Shah of Shahs." Instead, the humiliated officer slinked away. Within hours, news of the incident had spread through Tehran, giving a huge psychological boost to the opposition.

Only in hindsight will it be possible to determine whether such a turning point has occurred in the renewed struggle of the Iranian people for a more representative government.

With President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad beginning a second four-year term Monday, the regime is taking desperate steps to try to reimpose civil order after the disputed June 12 presidential election.

A cell phone text message circulating in Tehran describes "some of the things banned in the Islamic republic: shouting 'God is Great,' attending Friday prayers, reading the Fatiha [the opening chapter of the Koran] and putting on a wake for the dead."

The references are everyday practices in the life of a Muslim that the government has blocked supporters of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi from doing since June 12.

Members of a paramilitary group called the Basij have shot in the direction of citizens chanting "God is great," fired tear gas at Mousavi supporters attending Friday prayers and last week prevented Mr. Mousavi from reading the opening verse of the Koran over the grave of a protester -- this in an overwhelmingly Muslim country whose government says it promotes and protects Islam.

But Iranians are continuing to chant "God is great" from their rooftops at night -- as they did during the 1978-79 revolution -- and to venture into the streets by the thousands to face off against baton-wielding motorcycle-mounted enforcers.

On Thursday, some police at the giant Behesht-e Zahracemetery in southern Tehran reportedly helped protesters find the grave of Neda Agha-Soltan, whose June 20 shooting death turned her into the iconic martyr of the protest movement.

Despite weekend show trials of more than 100 reformists, journalists and civil society activists, Mr. Mousavi refuses to concede. He has received backing from two former presidents -- Mohammed Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

On Sunday, Mohsen Rezaie, a conservative presidential candidate and former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, demanded that those responsible for the deaths of at least 30 protesters -- including the son of one of his aides -- also be put on trial.

With foreign and many Iranian journalists banned from covering events on the ground, the world has come to depend on grainy footage shot on mobile-phone cameras for visual corroboration of wire service reports. Many of the short videos document the social solidarity seething through the streets and the lack of fear with which Iranians are increasingly confronting the regime.

The change in pitch was palpable Thursday. Protesters shouted slogans calling Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a "murderer" and denounced the Islamic republic as "failed." Calling themselves the "children of war" in a reference to growing up during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, the protesters dared the security forces to "fight so we can fight, too."

"We could tell from the footage we were getting that it was a different thing, the tone had changed and people were not backing down," said an employee of the BBC's Persian service who asked that his identity be withheld because of the Iranian government's sensitivities toward the British government and its broadcaster. "People were coming together."

The largest outpouring was on June 15 when, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqr Qalibaf said, 3 million Iranians from all walks of life came together in the most heterogeneous spontaneous demonstration in Tehran in 30 years. Whether chador-clad septuagenarians or gelled-haired youths, an extraordinary cross section of Iranian society paraded in central Tehran between the symbolic poles of Revolution and Freedom squares.

"Before, the demand was just a rerun of the election, but since last week people are running a step ahead and asking for more," said Masih Alinejad, a Tehran-based reformist journalist who writes for Etemad-e Melli newspaper. "As of today, it's the government that is shaking."

In an echo of the Islamic revolution, the heterogeneous opposition has managed not to fragment as it turns the rituals and language of the Islamic republic against it.

"Mousavi's campaign video showed him talking about Islam, Revolution, the Hidden Imam -- all topics well within the context of the Islamic republic," said Mr. Alinejad. "People used to respect the supreme leader, but you can no longer see this."

"For a lot of young men, going to the demonstrations is a way of establishing their manhood," said Ervand Abrahamian, the author of "Iran Between Two Revolutions." "The regime still hasn't resorted to the option of shooting people down. Should that happen, there'll be mass revulsion or people will be terrified into staying at home."

"There's going to be a lot of instability," said Mr. Abrahamian, who is also a professor of history at New York's Baruch College and lived through the 1978-79 revolution. "My worry is that since both sides have a social base it could eventually turn into a more civil-war-type situation if there are breaks in the military."

Meanwhile, the notion of one cleric wielding supreme power -- known as velayet-e faqih or the guardianship of the jurisprudent -- has been undermined more than at any other time since 1979.

"The concept in its current form is going to be brought under question," said an analyst in Tehran who requested anonymity to protect himself from government reprisal. "I still don't think anyone wants the system to collapse, but a consensus is gradually building among the opposition leaders as well as many in the streets where they understand that the preservation of the status quo and the existence of one person with so much constitutional and institutional powers is no longer in anyone's interest."

Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues