Voices from Iran

Kamin Mohammadi
22 June 2009

If my experience is any guide, Iranians outside Iran are living some of the most intense days of their lives. Since the first, disputed results of the presidential election were announced soon after the polls closed on 12 June 2009 and the protests almost immediately started, my waking hours are absorbed- hour-by-hour, even minute-by-minute - in gathering computer-delivered news about what is happening in my homeland.

Kamin Mohammadi is a journalist who has written widely on Iran, as well as on travel and health issues. Her website is here Also by Kamin Mohammadi in openDemocracy:

"Lebanon:the view from Iran" (9 August 2006)

"Voicesfrom Tehran" (31 January 2007)

It is compulsive, and also complicated. The intense emotional engagement brings with it far more unease than satisfaction. The process of digesting the news from family and friends in Iran that clogs my inbox, of following multiple links to blogs,of watching sometimes horrific videos, leaves me at once outraged and energised yet also sickened and paralysed into inaction and silence. If there is a pattern to these feelings, it lies in an often wild pendulum-swing between a vague sense of hope and elation, and deep shame and depression.

The shame is hard: that even while people were being beaten and shot in Tehran on 20 June, police were waiting at the hospitals to arrest or take down the names of the injured - the foretaste of a midnight visit to their homes from the basij militias; that while the regime was killing its own people, it was the foreign embassies that opened their doors to the wounded to help us.

But the pride too is profound: in the fearlessness of my compatriots; in the humanity and solidarity that binds us, a reminder of the Persian poet Sa'adi's words - as true today as when they were written in the 13th-century - "The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence"; and in the defiant night-time chants of allahu akbar (God is great) that arise from the Tehran rooftops, at once an echo of the 1979 revolution, an eerie act of resistance, and a desperate call for mercy and strength.

In 1978-79, these cries were symbolic of opposition to the Shah's tyranny and the much-proclaimed gharbzadegi (westoxification) of Iranian society, and of the call for a returnto the core Shi'a Muslim values that a vast majority of Iranians held dear. Now, they are being raised against the architects of the Islamic Republic themselves, the very men who helped Ayatollah Khomeini shape the regime that he called "God's government". 

An epic struggle for the soul of this government is now being waged in the regime‘s upper echelons. The people of Iran - voters, citizens, students, protestors, women and men, exiles, those resident abroad - are looking on, seeking to make their voices heard.

Amid the storm

A friend who works for the provincial governor of one of Iran's remoter provinces tells me: "The people know that this is not about regime change. Most people want Iran to remain an Islamic Republic. But they feel that perhaps there is a way open to them now to improve things a little from within the system. At least to keep alive the republican elements of the system that [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad's years in power have been eroding."

Also on the disputed election in Iran and its bitter aftermath:

"Iran's election: people and power" (15-18 June 2009) - a symposium with Ramin Jahanbegloo, Anoush Ehteshami, Nazenin Ansari, Omid Memarian, GraceNasri, 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)

The leading opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Moussavi may be depicted in the west as an outsider to the regime but Iranians know that he is part of the religious establishment and hardly a radical. "We voted for him because he is the only one who spoke even a little to our concerns", says a 30-year-old, Bijan. "We thought that perhaps, being so well-established in the regime would give him the ability to really change things."

Bijan belongs to that burgeoning majority of Iranians (upwards of 70%) who were born since the revolution of 1979 or were then small children. These young people barely remember the events of thirty years ago, and they are not demanding a change to the system of Islamic rule. Above all else they are pragmatic, sharing little of the idealism of their parents who took part in the revolution; and this pragmatism makes them shy away from anything but a gradual loosening of the regime's tight grip on their civil liberties.

"People are angry and they have had enough", says Sara, a journalist in Tehran, "The last four years have been really difficult but we have all sat quietly like good children and waited for a legal opportunity to vote for change. Then with this cheating they have really insulted our intelligence. It was too obvious. People are really fed up. It sticks in our throats."

Sara herself was arrested and hit with batons during the post-election protests in Tehran. She tells me that Tehran is quiet now because there are police and militia everywhere. "It's like martial law. The plainclothes guys" - a reference to the basij -"are everywhere on their motorbikes, with batons in their hands. They are patrolling the streets, hiding themselves in each corner. They do what they like. The university is quiet today - I think they have postponed exams - but I don't think it means the protests are over. The flames are still alive under the ashes of Saturday..."

Bijan informs me that state television - the only kind available now that satellite channels have been scrambled - has been laying the groundwork for the regime's violence, which is consciously planned. "They broadcast nationalistic programmes and in between, they have phone-ins in which people support Ahmadinejad and say the protestors are vandals and destroying their livelihoods. These people asking for more force from the government, for the army to be called in to protect them. I don't know if they are real opinions or just planted by the regime, but in any case, they are preparing people for what might still come - massive bloodshed."

Another friend in Tehran says: "The demonstrations now are happening in complete silence, and on the pavements instead of the roads - to give the basij no reason to retaliate. Also to stop the regime being able to blame the unrest on ‘terrorists‘, which is what they have been doing."

Sara tells me that state television's portrayal of the terrible confrontations of 20 June - when live rounds were fired on protestors and teargas was used - highlights scenes in which protestors chased and beat members of the security forces. The narrative implies that they are terrorists from groups such as the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) supposedly backed by the west. "People are getting their news from each other, although most mobiles stop working in the late afternoons and evenings. Since the election we haven't been able to send text-messages. The internet is censored and getting online is very difficult. The connection speed is down, and skype was scrambled too. But we find our ways, we are used to working around the system."

Ahmad, a university student from Shiraz - where, as in Tehran and other cities,  there have been bloody attacks on campuses - is both elated and apprehensive by what has been happening. "There will be plenty more bloodshed before any further developments take place. The basij are not shooting, but they are hitting young people on the head with the end of their rifles, and they have been attacking dormitories."

In face of power

What of the titanic political struggle behind the scenes? Bijan says: "Everyone is looking at [former president, Hashemi] Rafsanjani to see what he will do. The rumour is that he is in Qom rallying support from the ayatollahs. The public's opinion of Moussavi has massively improved since the supreme leader's speech on Friday. People feel that now he will go down in history, and they are willing to forget his past. He has a clean slate now..."

I tell Bijan that Rafsanjani isbeing called a reformist in the west. We laugh at the absurdity of a situation in which one of the richest and (it is commonly believed) most corrupt conservatives in the land - the man whose unpopularity in 2005 was a key to Ahmadinejad's ascent to power - is now viewed as a figurehead of rebels.

This very Iranian irreverence towards power is itself a force of resistance. Sara says: "We are scared and depressed. You can see the depression on the faces of the people. But there are jokes doing the rounds too. That's how we have borne the last thirty years - by laughing at the mullahs. And God help us, whatever they do to us, we will keep laughing at them."


Among openDemocracy's many articles about Iran:

Ardashir Tehrani, "Iran's presidential coup"(26 June 2005)

Fred Halliday, "Iran's revolutionary spasm" (30 June 2005)

Trita Parsi, "The Iran-Israel cold war"(28 October 2005)

Nayereh Tohidi, "Iran:regionalism, ethnicity and democracy" (28 June 2006)

Hooshang Amirahmadi, "Iran and the international community: roots of perpetual crisis"(24 November 2006)

Kamin Mohammadi, "Voices from Tehran" (31 January 2007)

Fred Halliday, "The matter with Iran" (1 March 2007)

Anoush Ehteshami, "Iran and the United States: back from the brink" (16 March 2007)

Rasool Nafisi, "Iran's cultural prison" (17 May 2007)

Nasrin Alavi, "The Iran paradox" (11 October 2007)

Omid Memarian, "Iran: prepared for the worst" (30 October 2007)

Sanam Vakil, "Iran's political shadow war" (16 July 2008)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran: after the dawn"(2 February 2009)

Abbas Milani, "Iran's Islamic revolution: three paradoxes" (9 February 2009)

Homa Katouzian, "The Iranian revolution: beyond enigma" (13 February 2009)

Nikki R Keddie, "Iranian women and the Islamic Republic" (24 February 2009)

Fred Halliday, "Iran's revolution in global history" (2 March 2009)

Sanam Vakil & David Hayes, "Iran's election and Iran's system" (21 April 2009)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran: a blind leap of faith"(2 June 2009)

Fred Halliday, "Iran's evolution and Islam'sBerlusconi" (9 June 2009)

Omid Memarian, "Iran on the move" (11 June2009)

"Iran's election: people vs power" (15 June 2009) - an ongoing symposium with RaminJahanbegloo, Anoush Ehteshami, Nazenin Ansari, Omid Memarian, Grace Nasri,Rasool Nafisi, Nasrin Alavi, and Sanam Vakil

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