Iran: “There’s No Going Back!”

Alessandro Topa

Posted Jun 26, 2009      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Iran: “There’s No Going Back!”

by Alessandro Topa

Despite the threats and violent tactics used to defend the regime, the “green opposition movement” continues to protest against electoral fraud in Iran. Alessandro Topa reports from the Teheran demonstrations

“Don’t believe a word he says! The next demo is on Saturday,” shouts a young man who looks like a cross between a hippie and a dervish. “Time and place will be posted on Ghalam News!”

The crowds of people streaming past him mean the man with the green headband is heard by several hundred people a minute. The crowds come from “Toopkhaneh”, the “Cannon Square” at the heart of Teheran, which has been named after Imam Khomeini since the revolution and where Mir-Hossein Mousavi has just held his second public appearance since 12 June.

In 40-strong broad rows, the people are moving north to Ferdowsi Square, where they turn west to head for Revolution Square. About 50 metres downstream, a “misinformer” is trotting alongside the crowd, announcing a demonstration on Friday. “Don’t believe him! The next demo is on Saturday,” the hippie shouts back tirelessly.

Between misinformation and “Chinese whispers”

The reason why the crowd believes him and not the “misinformer” is something Twitter can’t take the place of: it is only experience that tells people whether to trust an information source – or gives people a clue that the man strolling along with a cell phone on his belt and a folded newspaper under his arm is a Basij, attentively registering everything that goes on:

He’s watching me, he’s watching the improvised altar at which passers-by are fixing lighted candles to a wall, the graffitied slogan “Marg bar diktator” (“death to the dictator!”), the participation of people from right across the population wanting to commemorate those who died last Monday, the water-sellers touting plastic bottles from the back of their van for the first time.

Cannon Square is still full to the brim. Small groups of soldiers are standing around here and there. Demonstrators call out friendly greetings to them, telling them not to get tired – “Khaste nabashi!” – and pushing fearlessly past them.

A girl makes a victory sign right in front of one soldier’s face, and he calls after her in jest, “Two toman is much too much for you!” He may be being sexist by deliberately interpreting her two fingers held aloft as the price for an indecent proposition. But the subtext is that he’s entering into her game, saying: “I don’t embody the state monopoly on violence, I’m a man who sees you not as a demonstrator but as a woman.”

On Thursday night the security forces in the entire urban area are replaced. Some say the new arrivals are elite units of the Revolutionary Guard, who are particularly loyal to Khamenei – which would certainly not bode well for the supreme jurist’s tensely awaited speech.

The spiritual, political and military leader of the Islamic Republic structures the topical part of his Friday sermon the following noon into three points, each aimed at a particular audience. In the first part, he addresses the people, whom he describes as having caused an “earthquake for our enemies” with a voter turnout of 85 percent.

Blood and chaos

In the second part, Khamenei addresses the four election candidates and the institutions involved in the voting. The core of his message is enough to unsettle all those watching the televised address in the hope of moderate words – from the only authority capable of protecting the country from a historic ordeal without blood being spilled. Khamenei openly threatens the protesting “extremists” with “blood and chaos”, for which he blames their ringleaders.

Mehdi Karrubi, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mohammad Khatami have not even turned up. But neither has Hashemi Rafsanjani, whom Khamenei expressly defends against accusations of corruption. It sounds like a final peace offering to the second most powerful man in the state. The political elites sit at Khamenei’s feet during his sermon, accompanying the eschatological passages towards the end with ritual sobbing.

In the third part, Khamenei turns to the rest of the world, denying it the moral legitimacy to talk about human rights and accusing it of instrumentalising Iran’s internal issues.

And this sets the direction for the media over the next few days, building up a myth of foreigners orchestrating the protests, while journalists are expelled or their links to the outside world and their editorial offices are reduced to telephone and fax lines from their hotels.

The protest goes on

Especially for young men and many courageous women, Friday evening is decision time over whether to join the protests at 4 o’clock the next day on Revolution Square. There will be another peaceful protest there, Ghalam News has announced, despite the Khamenei’s words spelled out by the interior ministry as a ban on demonstrations.

“If we don’t go,” says one Mousavi supporter, “the movement will collapse.” He sees it as a moral duty to attend. “There’s no going back, especially not after that speech,” is a view frequently voiced.

When the shouts of “Allah-o-Akbar” set in from the rooftops again at around 10 pm, you can spot the relief on their faces: the others are marching too, they haven’t been intimidated by Khamenei’s speech.

Saturday’s newspapers are sold out even faster than usual. He normally orders 70 copies of the reformist Etemad-e Melli, says a kiosk-owner near to the Tajrish bazaar, but now he’s having 270 delivered every day. One day later, the Ministry of Culture’s censors are ensconced in the offices of every newspaper.

At around 4 o’clock three men knock at the door and demand to see my passport. Their spokesman says he is from the “foreigner’s office” and claims not to have known my press visa expires tomorrow.

They presumably want to make sure no reports or pictures get out of the country, showing the rioting meanwhile taking place around Revolution Square. “See you at the airport tomorrow then,” is his farewell remark, served up with a malicious smile. The first rumours are soon going around that there is no getting through to the square because the security forces are so aggressive.

In the eye of the hurricane

It is only back in Germany that I find out for sure how the extent of the violence that flared up in Iran’s cities over the weekend exceeded the worst expectations. “They drove motorbikes into the crowd at full speed,” reports a German worker who had stumbled accidentally into the eye of Teheran’s hurricane, on the security forces’ tactics.

Visibly shaken, he had sat through the Iran Air flight without saying a word. In the toilets at Cologne/Bonn airport, he finally finds words to describe his ordeal:

“It was hell on earth. Black riders came screaming towards us from every direction on their motorbikes and clubbed everyone to the ground. I heard shots and saw motionless bodies. Then came the tear-gas. It was pure luck that I ended up on the bus that took us away from there.”

The newspapers confirm what the man experienced, and as I enter the western hemisphere an Iranian taxi-driver puts his finger on the situation while he unloads my cases: “Now you can watch everything in peace on Youtube. Khoda-hafez!”

© 2009