New Internationalist

Iran in darkness and light

'My throat smells of hot lead, father / The Ba'athist hit you with two bullets / They... every day / Shoot me in the mouth.' 

These are the words of Fatemeh who like hundreds of thousands of Iranians lost a family member in the epic Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, launched by Saddam Hussein. These fallen occupy a special place in the Islamic Republic of Iran's political and moral iconography: almost every official speech on a national theme refers to the sacred blood of 'martyrs' who - like Fatemeh's father - are forever exalted. But this is not an innocent act, for it involves a posthumous conscription of their loyalty: to the revolution of 1979, to Islam, to the Islamic republic's leaders.
Many descendants of those who sacrificed their lives in the war have come to question the regime's claim on their loved ones, and by extension on them too; others among the Iranian generation that has grown to adulthood since the revolution have been shaken out of any residual bond with Iran's governing system. The ranks of the 'green' movement that gathered around the prominent reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Moussavi - before and after the stolen presidential election of 12 June 2009 - include many whose parents are esteemed for their bravery in the war.
Which side would the latter - among them Mohammad Jahanara, Mehdi Zeinadin, Mohammad-Ebrahim Hemmat, and the heroic brothers Mehdi and Hamid Bakeri - be on today? Among their children, endorsement of the green movement is widepread. Hamid's daughter Asieh Bakeri, in a speech to her fellow students at Tehran University, suggests: 'Perhaps if my father and uncle were alive today, I would have had to visit them in jail.'

The murals of such renowned figures still adorn every street-corner in Tehran. But after the mass protests and demonstrations, the wave of arrests and show-trials of the post-election months, the honoured fallen are less symbols of continuity with today's Iran than of what has been lost. The children of 'martyrs' are now trying to remember history differently in order to create a different future.

In place of fear 

They are not alone. Even after the brutal crushing of the protest wave that erupted in June 2009 and lasted for many months, dissent is everywhere and found in surprising places. A small example is a live television interview in May 2010 when the former defence minister, Admiral Ali Shamkhani - an Iranian Arab who lost two brothers in battle against the Ba'athists of Arab Iraq - was asked why he had stood against the reformist president Mohammad Khatami in the presidential election of 2001. The interviewer hoped to solicit criticism of Khatami. But Shamkhani's membership of a 'martyr' family, or his own shining war record, no longer offers any guarantees: to the interviewer's visible discomposure, he replied 'Khatami and I are both friends and competitors,' and - in a clear reference to the unaccountable clique empowered under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presidency - added that he had competed in the elections to show that 'the military must only enter (power) through the ballot-box'.  

Another case of reality breaking through is the live televised screening of a memorial ceremony on the 21st anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Khomeini. Hassan Khomeini, grandson of the Islamic republic's founder, was seen being jeered by the invitation-only crowd with shouts of 'death to Moussavi!' Again, the painful reality for regime-loyalists seeking to bludgeon their enemies with the mantle of the revolution is that most of Khomeini's offspring - such as Hassan himself - are reformists who back the green movement. 

The clerical hierarchy in Iran's holy city of Qom offers a potent symbol of discontent with the government. A clear majority notably failed to observe the usual protocol of posting an official acknowledgment of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's proclaimed electoral victory. Two grand ayatollahs, Bayat Zanjani and Saanei, have voiced their 'disgust' at the state's ruthless post-election violence.

From the inside

But dissent goes far deeper and wider than Iran's élite and its scions. A different kind of heckling - unreported inside Iran - was heard at the end of May 2010 in the southern city of Khorramshahr; locals greeted the appearance of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with angry chants of: 'we are unemployed!' The frequent (Western) media cliché of privileged urban discontent is misleading; most of Iran's prominent student leaders, for example, come from the kind of working-class or rural families that are often seen as Ahmadinejad's political heartland. They also now have their own 'martyred' fallen to honour; on 1 June 2010, hundreds of students at Tehran's Elm-va-Sanaat University met to commemorate their colleague Kianoush Asa, who was shot a year ago by the security forces. The campuses - the 'source of the threat' facing Iran, according to the establishment hardliner Morteza Nabavi - remain volatile.
The revolution of three decades ago has come full circle. It is being undermined from within by the very religious and social factors that brought it to power and sustained its existence. The inner core of the security élite that in mid-2009 chose to side with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has, in the end, more to fear than protesters who have been brutally, yet temporarily, silenced.  

The student leader Majid Tavakoli wrote a few days ago from Evin prison in celebration of the election of 2009 and the largest street-protests in the 30 years of the Islamic republic: 'Tyranny.... will eventually retreat under the pressure of the people's demands and desires.'

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