Behind closed doors

Twenty months after the ‘stolen elections’ that saw the largest nationwide protests since the 1979 revolution, Iran’s leadership is still in place. Widespread protests on 14 February showed that the opposition remains resilient and creative: capable of using technology as a channel of defiance and of mobilizing large numbers of people in the public arena. 

Once again Iranian cyberspace has been abuzz for days with calls for protests on Tuesday (1 March in the Western calendar, 10 Esfand in Iran) in response to the news of the detention of opposition leaders, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. Only time will tell how protesters will fare in the battle against the drenching security that will meet them.

Nonetheless within Iran’s Byzantine system other major battles are taking place behind closed doors.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s nemesis Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani chairs Iran’s two major governing bodies, the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council. We are fast approaching a closed session of the Assembly of Experts on 8 to 9 March when Rafsanjani will be standing for re-election. This is a body that accused Ahmadinejad earlier this month of ‘undermining the system and instigating Iran’s enemies both within and outside the country’.

Rafsanjani in turn has been a target of attacks in an open campaign for his removal. This has included extensive condemnation from intimate allies of Ahmadinejad to their live televised gathering where they openly chanted for his death. Last week even saw the release of videophone footage – that went viral when released on YouTube – of Rafsanjani’s daughter being attacked while attending a family funeral. 

The film shows Faezeh Hashemi while a ‘plainclothes’ assailant threatens to ‘rip her apart’. He calls her a ‘whore’, a ‘bastard’ and a ‘child of a dog’. Meanwhile her nephew, who, when confronted, introduces himself as her ‘bodyguard’, is assaulted with the electric batons that are restricted to the security forces.

Such footage highlights the brutal struggle for the direction of Iran; be it on the streets or behind closed doors. Yet allies of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad such as Ayatollah Mesabah Yazdi (Ahmadinejad’s guru and patron) constitute a minority of the 86 conservative ayatollahs that make up the Assembly of Experts. Looking at the names involved reveals this election to be largely a contest between the right and extreme right. But a Rafsanjani loss seems highly unlikely.

The inner core of the security élite that in mid-2009 chose to side with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has in the end more to contend with than the protesters taking to the streets.


Iranian police have fired tear gas at opposition supporters during demonstrations in the capital Tehran, reports say.

In a surprise move today – on the day of the ballot – Hashemi Rafsanjani announced that he would be withdrawing from the race in favour of Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani.

This follows the very recent surprise resignation by his son Mohsen Hashemi who had headed the construction of the Tehrans Metro for some years.

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.’

This magic green bracelet

Photo by: Hamed Saber under a CC Licence

Following the contested presidential election result in June 2009, Iran saw the largest street protests in the 30 years of the Islamic republic. The hashtag ‘#iranelection’ dominated the micro-blogging site Twitter and even inspired a worldwide solidarity campaign, as the voice of a nation’s resistance was heard in real-time Youtube footage of protests and in a deluge of tweets and blogs. The Huffington Post hailed the micro-blogger persiankiwi – with over 35,000 followers – as ‘one of the most reliable and prolific Iranians on Twitter’. Most of his readers could understand his nonviolent fight for democratic rights, but perhaps many failed to notice that his posts were threaded with verses from the Qur’an.

This is a new generation that has largely responded to tyrannical violence with democratic nonviolence, yet which calls those killed on its protests Shahids (Islamic martyrs), much to the annoyance of religious and secular elders

Paradoxically, those fighting an Islamic state have chosen ‘Allah-o-Akbar’ or ‘god is great’ as their battle-cry. This is a new generation that has largely responded to tyrannical violence with democratic nonviolence, yet which calls those killed on its protests Shahids (Islamic martyrs), much to the annoyance of religious and secular elders.

This is a new generation’s retrieval through very modern cyber-methods of the moral legitimacy of the Iranian ‘cause’. Protesters have commonly chanted the names of Iran’s war heroes, adding they ‘They were the real basij’ – taunting the Basij militia that have brutally regained control of the streets for the regime. One of the ‘Great Shahids’ or the heroes of the Iran-Iraq war was Mohammad-Ali Jahanara who, at the age of 26, commanded ordinary townsfolk of Khorramshahr who fought the Iraqi invasion of their town inch-by-inch for 45 days before it fell to the enemy. A common tweet in the post-election period read: ‘Tell Jahanara the Baathists are in Tehran, they are firing on our girls’.

In fact many of those who have openly endorsed the green movement (the resistance movement that coalesced around defeated presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi) are the actual children of war heroes such as Jahanara, Zeinadin, Bakeri and the Hemat brothers, all of whom have countless roads, hospitals and schools named after them. This led cleric Mohammad Reyshahri to say last week that there is ‘no art in making a member of a Martyr’s family into an insurgent’.

Children of the revolution

Students have continued to take a stand, despite the deaths, the Stalinist show trials and mass arrests. The authorities have haphazardly swung between conciliation and vicious oppression. In December, in a seemingly conciliatory move, Mohammed Mohammedian – Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s emissary in the Office of University Affairs – told an academic gathering that ‘according to the polls available, 70 per cent of students voted for someone who does not head the nation’s administration [in other words not for President Ahmadinejad]. This in a way causes disappointment… but those who have voted for others have our respect’. Thirty years after the Revolution, the state is grappling with its own demographic ‘success’ and does not seem to know how to come to terms with one of the youngest and most educated populations in the region.

The Western media cliché of an opposition limited to the urban upper class belies the current realities. These future leaders of Iran commonly hail from the very heartland of Ahmadinejad’s purported support base

A simple glance at the background of Iran’s prominent student leaders tells you that, by and large, they are not the children of affluent citizens of north Tehran, but instead come from provincial working-class families or are the children of rural schoolteachers and clerks. The Western media cliché of an opposition limited to the urban upper class belies the current realities. These future leaders of Iran commonly hail from the very heartland of Ahmadinejad’s purported support base.

On 21 December, as hundreds of thousands attended the funeral for Ayatollah Hosein Ali Montazeri, the opposition demonstrated that it can make its presence felt in Iran’s Vatican, the holy city of Qom. Montazeri, once a powerful establishment figure, was sidelined for his criticism of the mass execution of thousands of young political prisoners in the 1980s. He even condemned Khomeini’s fatwa urging the assassination of author Salman Rushdie, saying: ‘People in the world are getting the idea that our business in Iran is just murdering people.’ In 2004 he protested that the Iranian people did not go through a revolution in order to ‘substitute absolutist rule by the crown with one under the turban’.

A really cool mullah

I followed the funeral via the blogs of young writers based in the town and others making there way there. What many of those who had come from Tehran reported is that, to their surprise, not only were the vast majority of the protesters either from Qom or the provinces, but they were also angrier and more daring or, as one put it, ‘had the balls to chant slogans, the sort we would never dare chant in Tehran’. A well-known blogger wrote about a group of villagers generously sharing their rustic lunch with protesters. While a ‘really cool mullah’ who had offered to host a ‘busload’ of mourners for the day told her: ‘Iran needs a Renaissance!!!!!!!!!!’ The 10 exclamation marks are not mine but the writer’s.

Elsewhere, what followed was an overwhelming outpouring of online grief, ranging from the self-described Marxist and labour activist who wrote of his ‘deep mourning’ for the Ayatollah as a democratic defender of human rights, to Iran’s Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, who described Montazeri as the ‘father’ who had inspired her to end her silence and ‘defend political prisoners’.

Masih Alinejad is a bold female journalist whom Ebadi defended after she became one of many casualties of Ahmadinejad’s onslaught against the press. Masih described in her blog how a nation without a free media had conducted a magnificent online state funeral: ‘I want to tell you of the mourning of a generation of “non-believers” for an Ayatollah’ and how respectfully the ‘lifeless honourable body of religious guide was carried on the shoulders of a cyber community’.

This generation’s true leader

I also have to tell you that vast and at times startling support exists both online and in the streets for Mir-Hossein Mousavi too. Many have described Iran’s protest movement as lacking ‘leadership’. I don’t know how loud the protesters have to shout ‘Yah Hossein, Mir-Hossein,’ as they seem to have done in each and every rally to date (and immediately posted it on Youtube), before the outside world will hear them.

An even more surreal development in this shifting landscape is that family members of the founder of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, are by and large reformists and backing the green movement

As one blogger puts it: ‘Our fanatics have a lot in common with our exiled commentators. They both call us “duped and naïve” and Mousavi a “temporary vehicle” or an “accidental leader” of an opposition. Yet no-one has ever been able to connect and unite us as Mousavi has. As a university lecturer for the last 20 years, Mousavi also grew up with the children of this revolution and he understands us like no-one else… This Iran’s, my generation’s truly elected prime minister, is Mir-Hossein.’

In the pro-Mousavi cry of ‘Yah Hossein’, protesters invoke Sayed Al-Shohada, the highest Shahid or Martyr, which to the vast majority of Iranians immediately conveys a stand against tyranny. This generation’s Islamic Martyrs include the philosophy student whose fatal shooting was captured by cameraphone and has been viewed millions of times online – ‘Shahid Neda’ Soltan, as she is often called. Or 26-year-old doctor Ramin Pour’andarjani, who died of poisoning after his refusal to sign falsified death certificates at the Kahrizak detention centre. Or 19-year-old Mohsen Ruholamini, a member of the conservative student basij who died in the very same detention centre after protesting against election fraud.

Khomeini’s grandchildren

Such Islamic deification of the young casualties of this pro-democracy movement is at times met with abhorrence by the regime and the secular opposition alike. For many observers, an even more surreal development in this shifting landscape is that family members of the founder of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, are by and large reformists and backing the green movement.

After clashes between police and demonstrators in Tehran on 26 December, for example, hundreds were arrested and at least eight people killed, including the nephew of the opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who was shot in the heart. The picture above shows Hassan and Yasser Khomeini (centre and right, respectively), grandsons of the former Ayatollah, offering their condolences to the family of the deceased. In past months they have routinely visited many of the families of prominent political prisoners. Hassan Khomeini is widely respected for having volunteered and fought on the front line during the war with Iraq, unlike most offspring of the clerical élite.

In December, pro-government Basij attacked and broke up a gathering at the Khomeini family mosque at Jamaran that was hosted by Hassan Khomeini. In the same month, Mohammad Taheri, who is married to Naimeh Eshraghi, another of Khomeini’s grandchildren, was arrested. The revolution can perhaps eat its children and get away with it. But eating the children of its founder may well prove a step too far. This election has pushed revolutionary Iran into uncharted waters exposing cracks in the leadership that are now open to the elements.

Confessions of a political hooligan

Lady Plum began keeping a blog around six years ago. Her many readers have followed her daily thoughts through her pregnancy and life as a young mum. She generally steers clear of politics. Yet after attending a protest rally with her child and her mother she wrote a post titled ‘Confessions of a Political Hooligan’ – a term commonly used by state media to describe opposition protestors:

‘There is a bitter sentence about our society that has always been difficult to reject. “We don't deserve democracy…” They had divided us by appearance. Devout, western, downtown [working-class] intellectual, pauper, and hooligan and... being together has shattered this. This magic green bracelet has worked wonders with our culture, our feelings, and our hearts. These gathering in my town, without censorship, exaggeration, trickery and lies… We stand as our true selves.

‘I am moving in silence with a child in my arms and hand in hand with a woman who is the meaning of my life and they call me a hooligan. The madman, who hollers dishonourable insults, throws stones and shows me a knife, is called the people. But I have learnt that in this game he has to come with me and then we shall be called the people. I can see in his eyes that he has lessened, become smaller, even though he shows no shame as he looks at me. He cannot help but feel ashamed in front of my child who holds up his fingers in victory in the face of his strange barbarity.’

Iran’s coming of age

For many Iranians this is not just a fleeting brawl about an election result. During Iran’s Constitutional Revolution of 1906, hopes of democracy were dashed and authoritarian rule was implemented with the help of foreign powers. A generation later, the democratically elected government of Mossadegh was finished off in a coup backed by Britain and the US. For many, the past haunts the present and sowed the seeds of Iran’s current dilemmas.

Throughout Iran’s recent history, each subsequent generation has endeavoured to bring about political change. In the last 150 years, Iran’s absolutist monarchs were either ousted by the people or forced to flee and die in exile – with the exception of Mozafaredin Shah, who gave in to pro-democracy activists and agreed to create a parliament and hold elections.

Today the establishment – in its handling of the election results, the brutal crackdown and mass arrests – has exposed its totalitarian ambitions. ‘They’, to use the word Iranians commonly direct at the powerful, are today revealed as the architects of their own misfortune. ‘They’ have made this a fight to the end.

Ultimately this story is not going away, because it’s not merely about an election result, but about the coming of age of a generation whose nonviolent fight for civil rights will prevail

This is not an uprising that can be crushed. Others have commonly argued that the Chinese did so after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and this will be quashed too. Here there is neither the unity in the ideological hierarchy nor a recourse to a growth economy that might pacify the masses. Ultimately this story is not going away, because it’s not merely about an election result, but about the coming of age of a generation whose nonviolent fight for civil rights will prevail.

As the blogger Opium writes: ‘This election – whatever it was, whatever it did – it made us big and it made you small.’

Nasrin Alavi is the author of We Are Iran (Portobello 2006), a book that showcased the explosion of blogging in Iran and and illuminated the complexities of life for young people under theocratic rule. She acted as consultant to the New Internationalist special issue on Iran in March 2007 and blogs regularly for us.

A new year message from on high

This message is sent to you with great hopes of triumph, peace and liberty for 2010. The image was taken a few days ago and is of a group young Iranian climbers on the summit of Alborz. The banner that they hold reads ‘in memory of Neda and Ramin and all the Shohada [martyrs] of the wars, streets and prisons’.  

This salutation from the highest summit in the Middle East glorifies a new generation’s Shohada or Islamic martyrs. They are not the vile suicide bombers that marred the last decade. Their martyrs are philosophy student ‘Shahid’ Neda Soltan, as she is often referred to (‘shahid’ meaning witness or martyr), and 26-year-old doctor Ramin Pour’andarjani, who died of poisoning after his refusal to sign falsified death certificates at the Kahrizak detention centre. Or the 19-year-old Mohsen Ruholamini, a member of the conservative student basij who died in the same centre after protesting against election fraud. 

They are Iran’s non-violent Shahids, who have died for liberty and justice and by their sheer numbers inevitably herald new beginnings for the region. 

A day of mourning

Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri passed away on Saturday. His opponents have in recent years referred to him in the Iranian media as the ‘Simpleton Sheik’, omitting to even use the prefix Ayatollah.

Crowds gathered outside his residence in Qom for his funeral on Monday, while campuses around Iran – notably Teheran and Esfahan – have seen mourning precessions.    

At Elm va Sanat Tehran University (of Science and Technology) the mourning procession for Grand Ayatollah Montazeri chanted that it wass a ‘Day of mourning for the green people of Iran’ and ‘Montazeri is alive and lasting Marja’. 

Montazeri, once a powerful establishment figure, was sidelined for his criticism of the mass execution of thousands of young political prisoners in the 1980s.  He even condemned Khomeini’s fatwa for the assassination of author Salman Rushdie, saying: ‘People in the world are getting the idea that our business in Iran is just murdering people.’ In 2004 Grand Ayatollah Montazeri stated that the Iranian people did not go through a revolution in order to ‘substitute absolutist rule by the crown with one under the turban’.

Iranians, who are predominately Shi’a Muslims, celebrate people’s deaths more so than their lives. You may come up with an excuse and decline a wedding invitation to a wedding of the son of an acquaintance… but it would be dishonourable to miss his funeral. Montazeri will be eulogized in death more so then he was ever in his lifetime and under the circumstances, his funeral will turn into rallying point. It was his house arrest and confinement that turned him into a martyr.  

Despite the general (and erroneous) belief in a unified Shi’a clergy, the dozen or so Grand Ayatollahs in the world have their own groups of followers and take very different positions, even at times issuing religious edicts or fatwas that contradict one another. Yet only a tiny section of these Grand Ayatollahs are affiliated with the state in Iran; many clerical leaders have been openly appalled by the Government’s acts of post-election violence, while a clear majority have noticeably failed to carry out the usual protocol of sending out official acknowledgments of the Government’s proclaimed election victory in June. 

For three decades Iran has been a laboratory of political and social experimentation. It has also experienced what no other Muslim state has experienced in the 20th century, namely the coexistence of revolutionary Islam alongside what could be called a more ‘secular’ dimension. Ironically the Islamic republic has put its secular political interests above the sanctified power of the Islamic clergy and is unique in Iran’s Islamic history for having kept under house arrest two Grand Ayatollahs: Montazeri and Shariatmadari. 

Iran protests: spreading amongst ‘working-class lads’

There were protest chants in support of Mir-Hossein Mousavi in the biggest football match of the year (National Football Championships) shown live on national Iranian television last Friday. 

In another of the many Youtube films from the match, the crowds can be heard chanting ‘It’ll be like this every day till Ahmadinejad leaves’, then ‘Yah Hossein-Mir Hossein’, then they go on to sing ‘Yereh Dabesatni’, a student protest anthem. This is as surreal as it would be to hear the crowds at the Superbowl singing The Internationale. The authorities arrested about 15 student leaders, unaware that in Tehran’s 100,000-seat stadium the crowd was singing the protest anthem.  

These protests chants at the football stadium on Friday are highly significant in that they indicate that this is not purely a middle-class uprising and that it is spreading amongst ‘working-class lads’. 

Iran’s ferment continues

Iran’s Kayhan daily has been arguing in recent days that Mir-Hossein Mousavi should be held ‘directly responsible’ for the deaths of ‘about 20 innocent citizens and hundreds of wounded’ during the protests that have followed the disputed ballot.   

The image of the young woman shot dead on 19 June during a clampdown on protests – 26-year-old Neda Soltan (see previous NI Iran blog) – continues to be both a rallying call and a symbol of the repressive force facing protesters. The authorities have not only banned her family from holding an Islamic funeral for their child, but openly laid the blame on anything from foreign terrorists to ‘CIA operatives’. 

A mocking Iranian online response to conspiracy theories spread by Iran’s media reads:  ‘Not only has the CIA killed Neda, they have also stopped anyone gathering from outside her house, it has also banned all the mosques in Tehran from offering her a funeral service. What this CIA can’t do...’ 

The report of a doctor at the scene of Neda’s death, however, throws a different light on her case. Dr Arash Hejazi describes in a BBC interview the protesters seizing an armed man on a motorcycle. ‘People shouted “we got him, we got him”. They disarmed him and took out his identity card, which showed he was a Basij member. People were furious and he was shouting, “I didn't want to kill her”. People didn't know what do to do with him so they let him go. But they took his identity card. There are people there who know who he is. Some people were also taking photos of him.’ 

It goes without saying that such news was not highlighted in Iran’s state media. The media have instead shown arrested protesters who are paraded on television characterized as mindless hooligans and junkies. No-one in the state media has tackled the issues that Mousavi has raised about the election.

The Guardian Council, supposedly investigating the claims of electoral fraud at the moment, has called this poll the ‘healthiest’ since the revolution in 1979. In a 27 June letter by Mousavi to the Guardian Council there are long list of questions that are to date being ignored. Such as why were 14.5 million official ‘additional ballot papers’ printed?  Or why do 170 polling centres show between ‘95 to 140 per cent turn-out’. The influential British Chatham House think-tank – after detailed analysis – has described Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election victory as resulting from an ‘unlikely scenario’ of voting patterns. 

It is only weeks since the Mayor of Tehran reported to the Iranian Parliament that an estimated three million Mousavi supporters had on 15 June protested against the results. Mass demonstrations seem to have been quelled for the moment by the crackdown, but the political ferment within society will inevitably continue.

For more background on Iran, go to New Internationalist 398.

‘You did not become champions today – you became eternal’

Ahmadinejad: ‘Iran is going to the 2010 World Cup, the evidence is readily available’ This was the jibe tweet at Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s contested re-election and what some may well see as his gall to call himself the elected President of Iran despite the ‘readily available’ evidence. 

Iran’s football team was in Seoul on Wednesday for a World Cup qualifier game against South Korea. The game ended in a 1-1 draw and Iran failed to qualify for the World Cup. In recent days Iran, gripped by a political crisis, has seen protests on a scale unprecedented since the 1979 revolution that created the Islamic Republic. For a couple of hours today the demonstrations seemed relatively smaller, leading some to even predict that the protests may well have lost their momentum. But then the World Cup qualifier transmitted live on Iranian television ended and the people started pouring on the streets. 

Iranians are passionate about football and take such significant competition losses with a typical Persian melancholy gloom that may be rare in many parts of the world. But today Iran’s football team was a cause of celebration for many. 

Seven of Iran’s national players wore green armbands – the campaign colour of Mir Hossein Mousavi – in solidarity with the massive crowds in Iran protesting against what they believe was a fraudulent election. According to journalists at the scene, the players were ordered by the head of Iran’s football federation to take the bands off. This was a brave move on the part of the players, as they will have to face the fury of the authorities on their return to Iran. I’ve translated a few samples of the sudden flood of support for the protesting players that appeared online during the game:

* You did not become champions today, you became eternal
* You did not abandon the students that are being beaten up for a week right now, you did not abandon the mourning families, you chose today to stand with the millions that are shouting against dictatorship
* They have conquered our hearts and proved they are champions
* We will never forget your bravery
* For the innocent ordinary people on the streets and alley ways… that are being so viciously assaulted and with no media to represent them… What do you think was more gratifying? Qualifying for the World Cup? Or having so many see their green protest?
* We won. We don’t want the World Cup, we want honour and dignity that you proved we had.

For more background on Iran see New Internationalist 398

Iran’s disputed landslide

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was announced the outright victor of Iran’s presidential election by Interior Minister Sadeq Mahsouli. Mahsouli, who was responsible for the polls that gave Ahmadinejad a landslide victory of almost 63 per cent.of the vote, has been an intimate professional ally of the President since their days together at university 30 years ago.   

The announcement of Ahmadinejad’s ‘triumph’ has been met with widespread claims of election fraud and has set off violent protests and clashes unprecedented since the Islamic revolution 30 years ago. Hundreds of political allies of Mir-Hossein Mousavi were rounded up overnight while he was rumoured to be under house arrest. Reformist opponents of the President have refused to accept the result. Mir-Hossein Mousavi (with 13.2 million, or 34 per cent, of the votes) described it as a ‘coup’, and said he would ‘not surrender to this dangerous charade. The result... will jeopardize the pillars of the Islamic Republic and will establish tyranny.’ Even conservative challenger Mohsen Rezai, who came third with 1.7 per cent of the votes, put in an ‘official complaint’ to the Guardian Council against anomalies in the race. 

Mehdi Karroubi, who was put last with 333,635 votes, or 0.85 per cent, claimed the results were ‘illegitimate and unacceptable’. Such low numbers of votes for a political heavyweight like Karroubi are highly unusual - especially as in the 2005 presidential election, Karroubi received more than five million votes (5,066,316) to Ahmadinejad’s almost six million (5,710,354).

A brief inspection of the official election results published by the Ministry of Interior also shows that figures are largely inconsistent with urban and rural voting patterns of the last 30 years and with the local variations, including ethnic loyalties, that normally emerge. In the 2005 presidential election, Mohsen Mehr’Alizadeh came last. But he was still the leading candidate in his home state of Azerbaijan, gaining over a million votes there. Yet this time round Ahmadinejad’s results throughout the country show a consistent margin of 63 per cent, even in the home towns of his opponents, including Mousavi’s heartland of Azerbaijan. It is as if a clean line has been hand drawn across the country.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s opponents have long accused him of manufacturing support by bussing in extras for his crowd scenes. At the outset of the campaign, in May, a young boy even tragically died in a bus crash carrying students on a 200 km journey from Fasa to one of the President’s rallies in Shiraz. The daily Etemad-e-Melli questioned the ‘closure of schools and offices… forcing students, clerks and soldiers to attend a welcome ceremony’ for the sake of appearances. 

This need for an outward show of power was further highlighted when the Tabnak posted an official memorandum by the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) commanding all male and female centres to bus in between 80 to 120 people to an Ahmadinejad campaign rally on 8 June. The memo stated that all expenses would be covered by the IRGC and that personnel were required to attend without uniforms. The tactic paid off in the sense that the rally was then reported (in Britain’s The Times, for example) as having been attended by 50,000 supporters of the President ‘consumed by revolutionary fervour’.

On Sunday, the President tried to conclude his 2009 presidential campaign as it had started, with tens of thousands of people attending a rally in central Tehran to celebrate his re-election. But elsewhere in the capital the protests at the extraordinary ‘results’ continue.

Stop press: Today (Monday) Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who over the weekend insisted that people should accept the election result, has announced that he is asking the Guardian Council to investigate the allegations of election fraud.

For more background on Iran see New Internationalist 398

'Just don't cheat...'

‘I feel as if I’m sitting on a powder keg. We are all excited. The days carry on as normal. But after five and six we pour on the streets, especially after the debates…’ writes z8un, one of Iran’s oldest bloggers. In a recent article I wrote about Iran’s blogosphere, I couldn’t help but put that the ‘prevailing political apathy’ did not ‘tally with the social makeup of Iran’s educated youthful population’. Yet in the run-up to the presidential elections, the widespread political indifference has been firmly swept away with passionate discussions. 

Z8un adds: ‘I've never seen people so happy, motivated and hopeful. If Mousavi [the leading opposition contender for the presidency] had been a candidate any other time in these 20 years he would never have been so popular. But he looks like a saviour coming, as he does, after Ahmadinejad.’  

This is the first year that televised election debates between the President and his challengers have been aired inside Iran. So the debates have seen Ahmadinejad in the unusual situation of having to face criticism from his opponents on air. In the calmest of the debates he was told by a fellow conservative challenger Mohsen Rezai, that an extension of his presidency will mean ‘grave and irreversible danger’ for Iran. Ahmadinejad has countered by accusing key establishment  figures such as Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri and accusing them of corruption. This may appear a totally reckless move by Ahmadinejad. But he has come to the race with support from another key conservative institution - the Revolutionary Guard Corps. The drawing up of clear battle lines by major factions in this campaign will undoubtedly bring about enduring changes to Iran’s political landscape. 

In contrast to Western press descriptions of Mousavi as someone with a ‘charisma gap’, the most common adjectives that one comes across online and amongst the writings of  Iran-based reformist journalists are ‘dignified’, ‘decent’ and ‘upright’. After all, he is the wartime Prime Minister who has even been called ‘The Living Martyr’ in a famous article written in summer of 2007 by Mohamed Ghochani,  Iran’s enfant terrible of journalism. 

In his live presidential televised debate, Mousavi behaved with the quiet confidence of a mature statesman when Ahmadinejad - in Kafkaesque interrogator guise - waved a file about his wife, questioning her academic credentials. Ahmadinejad while not naming names, threatened to reveal Zahra Rahnavard’s name, repeating ‘Shall I tell? Shall I tell?’ Mousavi just calmly told him to go ahead and he would have gained the support of many women voters who saw him defending his wife, proudly telling the nation that ‘she is a great thinker’ who had worked 10 long, hard years to gain her PhD. 

Mousavi has been met with huge crowds swathed in his green campaign colors as he has travelled through Iran. This has led to accusations that this is a prelude to a ‘colour’ or ‘velvet revolution’ like those that swept away governments in Georgia and Ukraine. There is undoubtedly a great deal of pent-up anger on the streets. During Ahmadinejad’s visits to Iran’s top Sharif University he was chased off by the students while they chanted Mousavi’s name. Amateur footage shows the students telling some of Ahmadinejad’s key advisors ‘Just don’t cheat, that’s enough’. 

The election is overseen by the Guardian Council and run by the Interior Ministry; both are presently controlled by staunch allies of the president. One of the main slogans on the streets of Iran these days by those who appose Ahmadinejad is: ‘If you cheat, it will be Armageddon’. 

Meanwhile, hardline daily Kayhan has written that ‘a colour revolution under the guise of an election campaign is under way’. Similar charges have been made in the latest issue of Sobeh Sadegh, the official organ of the Revolutionary Guards, with threats that ‘any such move would  be strangled as an embryo’.
Such accusations are not uncommon in Iran. But they raise serious concerns, coming as they do at a time of unprecedented clashes, and with military forces supporting Ahmadinejad. With Iran’s emboldened youth on the streets in anticipation of hopeful change, there are ominous challenges that will still be there after polling day. 

For more background on Iran see New Internationalist 398


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