IRAN TODAY

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introduction by Jonathan Freedman

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Late last summer, longtime MQR contributor Chris Thornton sent us his “Letter from Tehran” detailing his experiences during the demonstrations that followed Iran’s stolen election, and along with it, photographs documenting all aspects of Iranian life. Both offered vivid accounts of a society whose vis­ible contradictions—just then exploding into violence—were being played out in public and private alike. We are happy to print his piece and a selection from the photographs he sent us. And to gloss the issues involved, we called upon Michigan professor Juan Cole, one of the leading scholars of the Mideast and the Islamic world and the author of an indispensable blog, to write a commentary on some of the most striking photographs. We’re grateful to be able to print his commen­tary at the end of our selection from Thornton’s ensemble of images.

Even as the issue was rolling off to press, violence flared again in Iran—this time following the death of the revered Ay­otollah Montazeri—a comrade of Ayatollah Khomeni who sub­sequently denounced the shape that the revolution took—and riots continued amid the solemn holiday of Ashura, which fol­lowed his death. The demonstrations have again subsided, al­beit through extraordinarily repressive measures. When you read these pieces and see these photos, the revolution may have broken out again, or it may have not; some of the people you see may be alive or they may be dead; Iran may look com­pletely different than it does now or it may be very much the same. But one thing is clear: the lives of its people, and of the society they have made and are making, will retain all the complexity to which we hope to have done justice here.

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LETTER FROM TEHRAN: BEYOND THE BRINK?

photoessay by Christopher Thornton

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For a look inside Iran today, take a peek at the graphics portfolio found inside this issue of MQR.
3.women.reading

Outside the Imam Mosque

6.mannequin

Bazaar Mannequin

2.Khomeini_Shrine

The Khomeini Shrine

The guard was circulating through the halls to announce that it was closing time, but it was only 4:45—fifteen minutes should have been left for stragglers to wander. But he was in­sistent, and as soon as I stepped outside I found out why. Nor­mally a busy intersection in a nondescript section of a largely nondescript city, the corner of Fatemi and Kargar avenues in front of the National Carpet Museum of Tehran was shrouded in tear gas. The shouting of protestors could be heard on the other side of the bushes that separated the museum from the street, and for an instant the club of a riot policeman ap­peared above the hedge before it vanished in a downward arc. My guide appeared, holding a plastic trash bag. He told me to hold it over my face, and we threaded through knots of protes­tors, their eyes red and faces running with tears. In the center of the crowd an old woman in a black chador was shouting in a frenzy. The other protestors looked on, startled.

“What’s she saying?” I asked.

“She’s cursing the government,” my guide replied.

“But what’s she saying?”

He fumbled for a translation. “ ‘Sons of bitches! Beating your own people!’”

This was in mid-­June, just a few days after the election that saw the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad restored with almost two-thirds of the vote—if anyone believed the official count. Already the riots had claimed victims at Tehran Uni­versity, where hundreds of demonstrators had been arrested, and there were reports of students being hurled out of seventh-­floor dormitory windows. Since then protestors have taken to the streets in large numbers on more than one occa­sion. November 4, normally a day for chants of “Death to America!” to celebrate the 1979 takeover of the US embassy, there was a parallel protest, with tens of thousands of Irani­ans chanting “Death to the dictator!” and stepping on posters of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini that had been torn off storefronts and the sides of buildings. On December 28, the Shiite holy day of Ashura, thousands of protesters rioted in the street, and Ali Habib Mousavi, nephew of defeated presi­dential candidate Nur Hossein Mousavi, was gunned down in what the government called a terrorist attack. But it was only after the June election that the fissures that had long existed in Iranian society were first exposed to international eyes.

Our driver picked us up at the curb on Fatemi Avenue, and we zigzagged back to the hotel through a series of blocked off streets. Tehranis not battling with riot police were heading home from work, hailing taxis, and descending the steps of metro stations, maintaining an appearance of calm even if the pace was brisker.

The route took us down Taleqani Avenue and past the US Den of Espionage, known before the 1979 revolution as the American embassy and now as offices of the Sepah militia, an­other hardline security force. In an irrational situation one can behave irrationally. I asked the driver to stop so that I could take pictures of the skull that long ago replaced the face on the painting of the Statue of Liberty and other graffiti scrawled on the brick wall that circled the compound.

“Not here!” my guide commanded. “We can’t stop—police are everywhere!”

I raised my camera to the car window and snapped what I could.

Minutes later we were back at the hotel, in the middle of a side street a short walk from Vali Asr Square. The narrow street was filled with protestors sporting green streamers, green wristbands, green T-­shirts, green bandannas—anything to reflect what had become the signature color of the reform movement. It could be seen all over Tehran, in graffiti spray-­painted on utility poles, on women’s headscarves, even on the surgical masks that protestors wore to ward off swine flu. Now, in front of the hotel, one man wore a green Boston Celtics T-­shirt.

Many of the hotel employees had gathered like spectators lining a parade route. As soon as I joined them a heavy­set man in a brown suit gestured for me to stand back under the cover of the parking area, out of range of snipers who might be planted on the surrounding rooftops. A few days later Neda Sultan would be gunned down by a sniper and die lying on the pavement for all the world to watch via cell­phone technology. The riots in Tehran had exposed the widespread discontent of the Iranian masses, and technology had turned it into a spec­tacle that would be projected, unedited, around the world

Suddenly at the far end of the street a cheer erupted. Resi­dents leaned out of upper-­floor windows to see what all the commotion was about, and then, without warning, the crowd began running away as a team of basij militiamen raced the length of the block on motorbikes, clubs raised. The movement on the street finally had purpose. The crowd headed toward Vali Asr Square, where several hundred riot police had massed. A column of Revolutionary Guard troops were march­ing down Vali Asr Street, while several dozen members of the basij militia swirled into the roundabout on motorbikes, mix­ing with the rush-­hour traffic in a macabre blending of the ominous and the everyday. Around the square people formed small groups to watch the militiamen gathered on the other side, waiting for … neither knew what.

Late in the afternoon two days before I had watched an­other demonstration on Enqelab Avenue. At that time the mood was somber, even funereal. Protestors marched in a silent stream the length of the street, slowly, in stony silence. Some carried candles. There were no riot police in sight, but grim-­faced basij commanders watched from the sidelines, shirt tails hanging from their trousers to conceal guns under­neath. The two events reflected the dominant emotions many Iranians told me they felt following the elections—sadness and anger. I heard it so often that it seemed to be ingrained in the social consciousness of a large number of Iranians.

“People are really pissed off,” my guide said after talking with the caretaker of an archeological site outside Hamedan we visited a week later. When I asked one woman sitting be­side the artificial lake and waterfall in Tehran’s Jamshidiyeh Park what she thought of the elections she just shook her head, but not in fear of speaking out—I was surprised by how candidly people would express their thoughts—for her the subject was simply too painful to talk about. The street demonstrations were laying bare not only the brutality of the government and the extent of its insistence on clinging to power, but a collective spirit that had been denied expression for thirty years.

Now a man in a crisp white shirt and slacks who looked like another office worker on his way home was standing beside me. “If they make a move get out of the way,” he said calmly. “They show no mercy.” He seemed used to the hazards of liv­ing in a police state.

Almost on cue, a team of basij rounded the corner, riot shields raised. Here it comes, I thought—all hell is going to break loose. I dashed up the street and down the lane that led back to the hotel. But nothing happened. The basij were only obeying orders of their commander to break up the thickets of onlookers, some of them straddling motorbikes, who had gath­ered along the sidewalks and squeezed between the parked cars. A bullish, pudgy man with razor­-sharp eyes set in a taut face shoved the young men on bikes, holding a portable radio as his only weapon. But with hundreds of militiamen backing him up, it was all he needed. The young men started their en­gines and took off up the street.

Vali Asr Street is the longest artery in Tehran and the only feature of the city, tangible or otherwise, that manages to cross all segments of its divided society. Beginning in reli­giously conservative south Tehran, it moves almost due north for thirty miles toward the Alborz Mountains, entering down­town near the famed Tehran bazaar, rising in a gentle incline as it ascends the slope of the city. Along the way it is wide and tree­-lined, with both sides of the street edged with a concrete channel that sends rainwater and snowmelt from the moun­tains southward. Downtown is a neutral zone, where the con­servative south meets the more liberal north. Beyond Vali Asr Square cinemas appear, showing only government-­approved Persian films, but DVD rental outlets take up retail space on the corner, advertising “banned” products through the posters of Brad Pitt, Nicole Kidman, and other Hollywood stars that hang in the windows.

I began walking toward north Tehran, and for a while an odd sense of normalcy returned. Pedestrians filled the side­walk and shopkeepers were sitting on stoops, absorbing the late afternoon sun.

“Where are you from??” one called out.

“What are you doing here?!” shouted another.

A few blocks later the traffic slowed and then stopped com­pletely. Horns began blowing, at first only a few, but others soon joined in. Then the drivers were leaning on their horns, as the traffic jam had turned into an impromptu protest. Near the intersection of Vali Asr and Beheshti streets a young woman pulled me aside. Her eyes were bloodshot and swollen.

“Be careful,” she said. “They’re spraying tear gas ahead.”

She paused, and in her voice was the certainty of uncer­tainty, of being sure only of what one does not know.

“They took my sister and parents away. They were shouting with their fists in the air when the police came. I don’t know where they are, I don’t know if they’re dead . . .”

She paused again.

“I don’t know what to say. I apologize for my country.”

I thanked her for the advice and assured her, mindlessly, that her parents and sister would eventually turn up. Around the intersection the sweet, acrid mist of tear gas was still hanging thick in the air. I crossed to the other side of the street and continued north, and by the time I reached Sae’e Park I felt like an actor in a drama who, right at the climax of the play, has suddenly wandered offstage and out of the the­ater entirely. Couples sat on benches in the dusk of the sum­mer evening, and vendors did a brisk business selling ice cream cones and cotton candy to children who darted along the walkways on rollerblades.

One striking feature of Tehran, and all Iranian cities, is the dearth of restaurants. Since the Islamic Revolution banned al­cohol and most forms of musical entertainment, social life has receded to private living rooms where the restraints that must be adhered to in public life can be flouted. An exception is Gandhi Street, frequented by the Western­-friendly, re­formist Iranians of north Tehran. Violent protests had erupted a few days before, a military helicopter now hovered ahead and the street seemed heavy with an eerie quiet. I found Bix, an upscale restaurant featuring California cuisine, on the sec­ond floor of the Gandhi Shopping Center, a small, open-­air mall with shops, restaurants, and cafés clustered around a central courtyard. Almost all the tables were empty, but in a little while a few patrons began streaming in—women in pressed jeans, colorful headscarves and form­fitting monteaux, the long jacket worn by most Iranian women to ac­commodate the mandatory Islamic dress code, men in Euro­pean­-cut shirts and polished shoes. An evening out was now an act of defiance, like the bushy haircuts on the teenage boys who strutted along the shopping streets wearing extra­-wide silver-­studded belts and other “un­-Islamic” Western fashion.

After dinner I sat in the Café de France skimming works of Western literature that filled the bookshelf: The Big Boys: Power and Position in American Business, by Ralph Nader, Dickens’s David Copperfield, Philip Roth’s The Anatomy Les­son. A look at the décor showed how futile the government’s efforts to control the appeal of American pop culture had be­come. A poster for Clint Eastwood’s For a Few Dollars More hung from the vaulted ceiling. A larger-­than­-life headshot of Al Pacino was fixed to the wall. I picked up a volume from the bookshelf and listened to the flamenco guitar playing on a CD behind the serving counter. Then the chanting started.

“Allahu Akbar! Death to the dictator! Allahu Akbar! Death to the dictator!” sounded from the nearby rooftops.

I walked out to the balcony overlooking the street, expect­ing at any moment the basij to arrive, rush up the steps, and throw more people off roofs, but the calm was broken only by one refrain echoing the other as they volleyed like tennis balls throughout the neighborhood. Discontent was still present and potent, only now invisible.

After the café closed I walked down Vali Asr Street, and Tehran looked like any city about to close its eyes against the dark of night. Metal gates had been pulled down over the storefronts, though the neon lights of the pizza shop on the corner of Beheshti Street still glowed. A young woman and her boyfriend held hands at the countertop seats in the window. A little farther along the evidence of turmoil returned. A cordon of basij stood in pairs about thirty feet apart, their helmets hanging from the handlebars of their motorbikes, riot shields propped against the trees. Farther along, in the small square at the intersection of Vali Asr and Jamal Od­Din, about fifty young men had gathered under the glow of a street lamp, many straddling motobikes. I knew these were not basij be­cause they had no helmets, no plastic shields. Their weapons were more primitive: one held a metal pipe and another a long stick of wood. One of them climbed on top of a road barrier and spoke while the others drew in closer. When his speech was finished they restarted their bikes and rode off into the night. And then the intersection was empty. Quiet returned, but minutes later three fire trucks raced toward Vali Asr Square, followed by a column of troop transporters packed with riot policemen. There was no way to know what was hap­pening away from the stillness of the street. Back at the hotel the Internet connection wasn’t working and every channel ex­cept the state­run Press TV was blocked.

The next day word spread that twenty people had been killed in the night of rioting and more than two hundred had been arrested. But nothing could be confirmed. It was impos­sible to know anything for sure, except that several bus shel­ters and basij motorbikes had been burned; the charred shells had not been cleared away. Even the English daily Tehran Times reported little on the riots, though Ahmedinejad chas­tised US president Barack Obama for criticizing the crack­down and said he should “change his attitude.”

In this case ignorance was, perhaps, fitting. When members of a society turn against each other they take a great leap into the unknown. Witnessing the chaos is like watching a wind­shield splinter after a pebble has hit it. One never knows where the cracks will spread, which areas will be left un­touched, or how extensive the damage will be.

When the post-election violence broke out in June, compar­isons were made to other revolutions—Ukraine in 2004, the Czech Republic in 1989, Tiananmen Square, even Iran’s stu­dent rebellions of 1979 that brought the Islamic regime into power. But lately few such comparisons are being made, which is a good thing, because they’re meaningless. Iran is not Ukraine, the Czech Republic, or China, and Iran 2009 is not even the Iran of 1979. There is, however, a parallel worth noting. Rarely does such a state of open rebellion recede com­pletely. The dynamic is more like that of an oscillating wave that rises and falls according to the ebb and flow of political currents. So the drama in Iran will continue to play itself out, while the rest of the world watches, a nervous and reluctant spectator.

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NOTES ON “IRAN TODAY”

commentary by Juan Cole

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NOTE: The images discussed in the commentary below come from the graphics portfolio associated with this article. View the complete gallery here »
Figure 6. Mannequin

6. Mannequin in the bazaar surrounding Esfahan Square, Esfahan (photo by Christopher Thornton)

Mannequin

The store window mannequin, draped in all­-enveloping black, sports designer wraparound sunglasses. The Italian jour­nalist Oriana Fallaci once called the chador covering for women a “stupid me­dieval rag.” Yet this shop is positioning it as the height of fashion, as the essence of cosmopolitanism. It is offered with “Lebanese­-style” accouterments, and some fabrics are Mitsubishi rayon, from Japan or made with Japanese technology. A second, smaller sign below the large display admits that the shop does have veils “in green or blue,” more daring hues than the basic black fa­vored by the pious.

The dress of women preoccupies Iran’s clerical authorities and their puritanical paramilitaries, who obsess about the dangers of bad-hijabi or inadequate veiling. Traditionalists in the Middle East (as in much of Asia, Africa, and the Mediter­ranean) see women’s sexuality as a force for social chaos and societal breakdown unless it is very carefully controlled and channeled. Covering women in public is one such safeguard. A man’s honor is wrapped up with his ability to protect his women folk from despoliation by strangers outside the bounds of marriage, and any moral looseness on the part of his close female relatives humiliates him before honorable families and makes life not worth the living. Even highly educated reli­gious Iranian males, such as Abo’l­Hassan Bani Sadr, revolu­tionary Iran’s first president, hold that women’s hair gives off rays that entrance hapless men, necessitating that it be cov­ered before strange males lest they lose control of themselves. Women’s hair and bodily figures are imagined by believers as rather like the irresistible keening of the Greek sirens, and just as Odysseus’s crew avoided their fatal bewitchment by stopping their ears with beeswax, so society can seal the Pan­dora’s box of feminine charms by covering up tresses and curves with floppy plain cloth.

The puritan instincts of the guardians of public morals in the Islamic Republic of Iran clash at every level with the so­cial reality of Iranian women. The Iran-­Iraq War of 1980–1988 annihilated a generation of young men in World War I–style trench warfare. The dispatch of hundreds of thou­sands of men to the front pulled women inexorably into the labor market, although only about a fourth work outside the home today. Moreover, Khomeini’s revolution was a populist one, and women demonstrators and campaigners played a key role in it. The old theocrat never dared broach revoking women’s right to vote (a modernizing measure granted by the pro-­Western and much­-despised Shah in the 1960s), and he supported the provision of services to what he called “the barefoot,” the country’s poor and marginal workers.

The revolutionary parliament, dominated by delegates from the countryside, engaged in an orgy of school­-building and sought to indoctrinate the youngest citizens of the nation into the regime’s ideology. Women were schooled in unprecedented numbers, and the literacy rate among them more than dou­bled, to today’s 73 percent. Never in history have so many Iranian women known how to read and write. Only a century ago, almost all were illiterate, and even under the Shah in 1978, about two­-thirds were. In today’s Iran, well over half of university graduates are women. The advent of the internet permitted girls and boys to set up illicit internet dating rings, and it is said that girls as young as thirteen are secretly ex­perimenting with sex. (The drawback of the veil for patriar­chal control is that it renders the wearer invisible and anony­mous once she steps outside the house. It is easy to attend private parties.) Occasionally Iranian newspapers blare breathless headlines on police success in breaking up an in­ternet dating service.

In 1997, women and youth joined forces to elect Mohammad Khatami president. A cleric and former minister of culture, Khatami supported the lifting of lifestyle restrictions. Gradu­ally, during his eight­-year presidency, girls started showing their bangs beneath their scarves, wearing multicolored head coverings, and donning modest but modern dress. A fiancée and her intended husband were less likely to be arrested by the morals police for walking together while single.

In 2005, the fundamentalist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected to succeed Khatami, after several years in which the hardliners had successfully beaten back many of the latter’s reforms. Ahmadinejad had lulled many women into thinking he would leave the Khatami status quo on women alone. But in 2007, he struck, and the morals police came back in force, decrying bad­-hijabi and attempting to regiment women’s ap­pearance again. Police raids were launched in shopping malls in the capital, and women pedestrians were hauled away in handcuffs for public immodesty. Showing a tuft of hair be­neath the headscarf was grounds for incarceration. The gov­ernment instructed taxi drivers not to pick up women who were improperly dressed. Even overly sexy store mannequins with big busts were attacked by the authorities, and some were subjected to a forcible breast reduction procedure involv­ing handsaws.

The mannequin photographed this summer in Iran is there­fore an icon of Ahmadinejad’s counter-­reformation, a commer­cial appeal to what has been called “Islamic chic” that would have regime approval. Ironically, many women dressed like the mannequin depicted here poured into the streets in June and July of this year to demand that Ahmadinejad step down.

Figure 7. Campaign posters

7. Campaign posters in Kashan (photo by Christopher Thornton)

Campaign posters

The presidential election of May–June 2009 in Iran could fairly be said to have gotten out of hand. Bantam­weight in­cumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faced heavyweight challengers who towered over him in integrity and intellect. Ah­madinejad styled himself the defender of the little man. When campaigning for mayor of Tehran once, he dressed up in a janitor’s uniform and swept the streets. He was the new broom, determined to sweep away the corrup­tion of the fat cats who had preyed upon the revolutionary masses with their shadowy companies and foundations. He was quirky, with a thing about Israel that distinguished him from his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami. Khatami had lived in Germany and studied Habermas and written about the open society and the dialogue of civilizations. He con­demned the Nazi holocaust and supported a two­-state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Ahmadinejad, although a bright engineer and mathemati­cian, is a bazaari, a man of the hothouse culture that thrives undisciplined in the nexus of the old city in Tehran, of mosque, shop, artisan’s workshop, and traditional money-­lending establishments. He doubts that there were fully six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. He wonders why anyway the Germans did not have to pay for whatever crime was com­mitted, by, say, relinquishing Bavaria to the survivors. He ob­jects to the Palestinians having to pay the price for Europe’s bigotry. Ahmadinejad boasts that Iran’s own twenty thousand Jews have a representative in Parliament and denies that he wishes harm on any individuals of any religion. But he sees Israel as a “Zionist regime,” a state driven by a pernicious ide­ology that is doomed to collapse, as the Soviet Union did, and as the Shah’s government did.

Inside Iran, it is not clear that many voters think much about distant Tel Aviv and Jericho. Ahmadinejad’s obsession with Israel pleases a thin sliver of hardliners. But they are in­creasingly powerful in Iranian governance. They are the Revo­lutionary Guard Corps and its special operations unit, the Jerusalem Brigade, along with hundreds of thousands of part­-time paramilitary militiamen, the dreaded basij. Some say that behind the scenes they are staging a slow­-motion putsch, grabbing power from the clerical theocrats.

Ahmadinejad grubbily appealed to the public by throwing money at them. Iran is an oil state, and the industry was na­tionalized by the revolution, so that the government receives the proceeds of its black gold and can dole them out at will. Ahmadinejad handed out fistfuls of riyals to his constituents, but the downside is that he thereby provoked an inflationary spiral. Inflation was running nearly 30 percent in the past year, a figure the president implausibly attempted to deny in the debates he held with rivals in the run­up to the elections. Those on a fixed income, including students, were badly hurt.

The fading, torn campaign posters attest to this populist, spendthrift theme. His poster was distributed by the Setad­i Mardomi, the (campaign) staff of the people. First elected in 2005, Ahmadinejad campaigned on a platform of making Iran strong, reviving the principles of the revolution (including pu­ritan moralism in public), and improving the lot of the little man.

He faced an unexpectedly strong opponent in Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister from the 1980s known as a hardliner who helped organize a more effective response to the Iraqi invaders. Mousavi was outraged at the way Ah­madinejad’s antics on the world stage had rendered Iran an international laughingstock. He was convinced that the presi­dent’s spendthrift policies were hollowing out the economy. He objected to the crackdown on even minor personal liberties conducted by Ahmadinejad’s goons. Mousavi’s wife, the Is­lamic feminist Zahra Rahnavard, had long worked to carve out a position of dignity for educated women within the revo­lutionary framework. The two of them came to be idolized by masses of Iranians, including women and youth. In the last weeks of the campaign, in late May and early June, Mousavi’s campaign experienced an unexpected surge of popularity, as enthusiastic supporters began wearing green, the color of the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, the sayyeds, which is Mousavi’s lineage. When the regime brazenly stole the elec­tion for Ahmadinejad, the idealistic campaigners for the Green movement came out into the streets en masse.

Figure 8. Protest

8. During a protest for women’s rights, some time before the June election (taken by an unknown photographer and circulated through the Iranian underground)

Protest

Wishing away is a bloody business sometimes. Tehran specializes in it. Both in 1978–79 and in the Green Summer of 2009, human tsunamis rushed into the avenues and boule­vards of Iran’s capital, chanting and gesticulating, and wishing their government away. It is the distinctive modern Iranian way of revolution. There is rela­tively little violence on the part of the protesters. Party cadres are not at the vanguard. People in their hundreds of thou­sands just go into the streets repeatedly, and after a while the government is not there anymore.

The state takes extreme measures to weather the storm of ill will from its obstreperous subjects; as the Middle Eastern proverb has it, “Mountains and governments lie heavy upon the earth.” On September 8, 1978, the soldiers of Shah Mo­hammad Reza Pahlavi, King of Kings and Light of the Aryans, shot down dozens of civilian protesters in Jaleh Square. The crowds had swelled to half a million or more, and the terrified regime fought like a cornered rodent. But shooting innocents only further tarnished the legitimacy of the state, and the rev­olution was accelerated, not stopped, by the blood of martyred activists.

Essential to the success of the revolutionaries thirty years ago was that the security forces split. Soldiers started dis­obeying orders to fire on their brothers and sisters. Protesters stuck roses in the gun barrels of the timid kids charged with safeguarding an alleged twenty­-five hundred years of Iranian monarchy. Entire branches of the armed services defected, in­cluding the air force.

In the summer of 2009, the people again came out, to march, to stand, to chant, and to wish away their government. The techniques of the revolution were deployed against the revolution. Students occupied buildings at Tehran University. Fully veiled women marched like columns of panthers, calling down imprecations on a government that claimed to be the shadow of God on earth. Middle­-class people from chi­-chi North Tehran risked their lives and livelihoods to meld with the hoi polloi in high dudgeon over a stolen election. Mah­moud Ahmadinejad had been declared the winner of a second presidential term by a whopping 63 percent, and his oppo­nents were awarded pitiful numbers of votes, supposedly routed even in the provinces where they were native sons. The votes were counted with indecent haste, the results an­nounced implausibly soon. Supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former hardline prime minister turned champion of individual liberties and common sense, were outraged and took their outrage to the city squares.

And then came the crackdown, far more effective than any­thing the Shah had mounted. The popular militiamen, the basij, were deployed in police armor on motorcycles, wielding batons, for all the world like Hell’s Angels gone over to the Man. Revolutionary Guards directed them. The hard men who had been making a gradual military coup and gaining power within a system theoretically run by clergymen on behalf of God were damned if they would allow some street rabble to bring to power a dangerous liberal married to an obnoxious, outspoken Islamic feminist. The machinery of crackdown is banal and everywhere the same. Heads were broken. Live am­munition was fired into crowds. The tragically beautiful and brilliant Neda Agha Sultan, a female student and an innocent bystander, was cut down by the hot lead cruelly discharged into the rally. Her death mask became the icon of martyrdom for the Green cause. The vast streams of humanity were cut off and drained from the boulevards, then hunted down. This time, the regime kept its unity. There were no errant flyboys going over to the other side, no soft­hearted basiji reluctant to injure a fellow Iranian. Protesters bled, noses broken, faces smashed, chests perforated. The big wish, for rule of law and justice, for azadi or liberty, was annihilated. For now.

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This is a featured article from the Winter 2010 issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review. For purchase information, or to learn more about the contents of this issue, click here.

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