Iran's ocean of dissent

The Iranian state’s crackdown on protest after the flawed presidential election has led people to seek new channels for their anger and their hope for change. A vivid portrait of an Iran still in movement, from R Tousi.

(This article was first published on 28 October 2009)
R Tousi
2 November 2009

"The Russians are microwaving our brains." The comment of my corner-shopkeeper in Tehran reflects a widely-held view about the state's use of powerful jamming signals to block foreign media. The blocking of key communication links has played a big part in the violent crackdown that followed Iran's R Tousi is the pseudonym of an Iranian writer    election of 12 June 2009. The possible health risks of these newly installed devices have even been raised inside Iran's majlis (parliament); Zohreh Elahian, a member of the national-security and foreign-policy committee, responded to reporters' questions about a possible increase in miscarriages by promising that the figures would be examined. 

The fact that the state's jamming devices are made in Russia adds a nationalist tinge to popular suspicions, and explains my shopkeeper's pithy remark. Our 70-something neighbour goes further: she believes that the "Russian waves" will soon kill her off, and blames them too for the demise of the capital's sparrows (whose suffocation is rather the work of Tehran's smog over the years).

It's hard to say when and how such the "Russian" twist to this story began. Yet suddenly it feels as if the conspiracy tales that are such a familiar part of Iranian life end with the Russians - not, this time, the base Americans or wily British - as the main culprits.

Also in openDemocracy on the disputed election of 12 June 2009 and its violent aftermath:

"Iran's election: people and power" (15-18 June 2009) - a symposium with Ramin Jahanbegloo, Anoush Ehteshami, Nazenin Ansari, Omid Memarian, Grace Nasri, Rasool Nafisi, Nasrin Alavi, Sanam Vakil, and Farhang Jahanpour

Farhang Jahanpour, "Iran's stolen election, and what comes next" (18 June 2009)

Hossein Bastani, "Iran's coming storm" (22 June 2009)

Kamin Mohammadi, "Voices from Iran" (23 June 2009)

Hazem Saghieh, "Iran: dialectic of revolution" (23 June 2009)

Reza Molavi & Jennifer Thompson, "Iran's quantum of solace: step back, look long" (25 June 2009)

Ali Reza Eshraghi, "Iran's crisis and Ali Khamenei" (29 June 2009)

Mahmood Delkhasteh, "The archaeology of Iran's regime" (2 July 2009)

Asef Bayat, "Iran: a green wave for life and liberty" (7 July 2009)

Fred Halliday, "Iran's tide of history: counter-revolution and after" (17 July 2009)

Rasool Nafisi, "Iran: revolution beyond caricature" (7 August 2009)

Hossein Bastani, "Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: a political shadow" (17 August 2009)

Aziz Motazedi, "Iran: revolution for the hereafter" (25 August 2009)

Nazenin Ansari, "Iran's unfinished crisis" (16 September 2009)

Ali Reza Eshraghi, "Iran and America: Obama and the ‘velvet coup'" (22 October The target

Iran has over the centuries had at best an uneasy relationship with its great neighbour to the north. The role of imperial Russia (helped by always-nefarious Britain) in crushing the hopes of democracy raised by the tumultuous constitutional revolution of 1906-09 is burned into national memory. The order of the Russian commander Vladimir Liakhov to shell the majlis did more than kill a number of prominent MPs and writers; it created wounds that Iranians feel can still be scratched a century later.

In the west, the equivalent struggles and their leading figures tend to be consigned to history books. But for Iranians, they represent unfinished business. For example, the generals Sattar Khan and Bagher Khan, who in 1906 heroically resisted the bloody Tsarist occupation of northwest Iran are depicted today in protest-posters wearing green - the campaign colours of Mir-Hossein Moussavi, whom many Iranians believe was the true winner of the presidential election.

There are palm-sized versions of such portraits, sometimes left discreetly by other passengers in taxis or buses and even posted through doors. Iranians on an unfinished political journey find Sattar Khan and Bagher Khan's defence of Iran's parliamentary movement an inspiration, and find many contemporary echoes in the suffering of those times (famine as well as brutal repression). The infamous hanging of the imam of Tabriz in the centre of the northwest city on the very day of ashura (December 1911) - described at the time by an English writer as akin to "hanging the archbishop of Canterbury on Good Friday" - is another potent symbol that reverberates to this day. 

The legacy of 1906 was that widespread anti-Russian sentiments made Iran inhospitable to Russian strategic advances for decades. In the context of an Iranian state not yet strong enough to chart a fully independent course, this helped enable the United States to make the country a pivot of its anti-communist bloc during the cold war. But the US's orchestration of the 1953 coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossadeq sowed the seeds of what became enduring anti-Americanism in Iran, and across the middle east.

But it is Russia that has emerged as a prime foreign target of current opposition criticism. The other reformist presidential candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, called the election an "absolute coup d'etat" and has written pointedly of the role of Iran's "northern neighbour" in the regime's crackdown. Russia's role in training Iran's riot-police has also provoked street-protestors into chanting "death to Russia".

The same slogan was heard on 23 October during Karroubi's surprise visit to Tehran's annual press fair, where he was acclaimed by an overwhelmingly supportive crowd. The Siasat Rooz daily newspaper's report of the incident also reveals the way that national resentments find an outlet where they can. It seems that a Russian consular employee called Mikhail Gustov deserted the national stand, leaving it unmanned for the day, and as he fled was told by a "bystander" that such a response is to be expected "when the Russian government receives enough money for several reactors and is yet to deliver a single one". The reference to the prolonged construction of the Bushehr light- water nuclear reactor, due for completion by the Russians in 2001, echoes the view of many Iranians that the project is part of a protection-racket binding a weak and isolated national leadership to an unreliable foreign partner.

The honour

The 71-year-old former politician Mohammad Tavassoli compares the anti-Russian feelings with those prevalent among the Iranian people and political activists before the 1979 revolution, who "saw the cooperation of western governments and America with the Shah and the regime, and regarded the rulers of such countries as culpable".

Tavassoli became politically active when he was a student at Tehran University in the 1950s in reaction to the injustice of the CIA-backed coup. He was a founding member of the Nehzat-e Azadi e-Iran (Iran Freedom Movement) whose icon is Mohammad Mossadeq. He became mayor of Tehran in the provisional government set up after the revolution, but (along with several other of its members) resigned his post twenty-four hours after the American embassy and its hostages were seized on 4 November 1979. He was one of the oldest of those arrested in the post-election wave, and spent several weeks in prison.

The honour of being the oldest belongs to Mohammad Maleki, the 76-year-old former chancellor of Tehran University (appointed after the revolution, a victim of the first wave of purges, and a prominent and politically independent campaigner against injustice). He was detained on 22 August 2009, after (according to his wife) telling the five intelligence-ministry officials who came to his home: "I thank you for taking me. I was thinking that in my present bad condition I may die in bed with a troubled conscience. But if I die under your hands, I will die proud in the face of all the struggles of today's young people".

Maleki is amongst many activists still in prison. The show trials of (so far) over 100 opposition supporters - and attendant publicity in state media - have tried to portray them as part of a western-backed plot intended to bring about a "velvet revolution" in Iran. But this has only introduced some of them (such as Maleki) to a new generation. In taxis, universities and the bazaars, what you hear is largely reverence for once marginalised activists who are now seen by many Iranians as national heroes.

The symbol

Mostafa Tajzadeh, another prominent detainee, was a member of Iran's government during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). An especially low period in that administration's history was the violent assault on Tehran University's dormitory on 9 July 1999, following the nationwide student protests. When news of the attacks broke, Tajzadeh went to the dormitory and by all accounts bore the brunt of the students' anger; his reformist government was blamed for failing to deliver on its promises and even to defend the safety of the students who had helped it come to power. Tajzadeh, unwelcome as he was, refused to leave and remained with the students; many believe his presence averted a further attack.

In September 2000, the basiji officer Mohammad Reza Naghdi delivered a speech in which he recalled with pride his role in crushing the student dissent. He proclaimed that he would hunt down all that insult the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and that in doing so he was "implementing God's orders". Naghdi's name is connected to many subsequent violent onslaughts on civil liberties, an achievement marked by his appointment in October 2009 as the basij militia's overall commander.

Mostafa Tajzadeh, in entering the hearts of many Iranians (including the unlikeliest of people), has received another kind of honour. I have heard heartfelt tales from emotional young people about Tajzadeh's heroics in captivity. Whether these are fact or fiction (or something in between), his moral example seems to have the capacity to inspire in many of their generation a growing conviction in their ability to bring about change in the future.

The signal

Fatemeh, a mother whose three daughters are at university, is witness to this mood. She tells me: "I am terrified when I look at my girls...I went on the last rally with my youngest, simply to keep an eye on her. At one stage a basij on a motorbike cut through the crowd. I was horrified and just held her hand and started to run...I couldn't stop my tears, but what I saw on my child's face was pure exhilaration...they are all like that".

The rally Fatemeh refers to is the "Qods [Jerusalem] day" event on 18 September 2009, an annual official display of solidarity with the Palestinians. This year it gave opposition supporters a space to enter and voice their protest over the election and later repression while avoiding the most brutal treatment. After this tactic proved successful, the green-movement activists are planning to use the annual "students' day" (celebrating the 4 November occupation of the United States embassy in 1979) as a cover to launch further protests.

The state's commemoration of the militant radicalism of thirty years ago sharply contrasts with the contemptuous and violent face it shows to today's students. Ayatollah Khamenei's reference to "un-Islamic" faculties renews suspicion that further purges are likely, even though three decades of successive campaigns of cultural purification at Iran's universities have failed to produce the ideal offspring.

Moreover, some of the most prominent student leaders of 1979 are themselves now in prison. Several have long moved beyond the intransigence that fires this regime and called for Iran's foreign policy to be constructive - including an end to the "death to America" litany. Their successors are preparing to hijack students' day, in part by wielding anti-Russia posters and chanting "death to Russia". A transference of enemies may look from the outside to be small progress; but in light of what Iran and Iranians have been through, it is a brave signal of a boiling and unbroken sea of dissent.

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