The Writing on the Wall
01 Jul 2009 12:20
Dispatch from Tehran | 1 July 2009
[TEHRAN BUREAU] For visible signs of the post-election unrest which has gripped the city of Tehran, one has to read between the lines. Walls have been the battle scenes of graffiti and counter-graffiti. In many locations, black spray paint has not quite been enough to obscure the outline contours of the name "Mir Hossein Mousavi" written in green.
More effective has been the thick white paint employed on either side of the Sadr Highway which has reduced the extensive writing on the wall to puffy clouds floating on concrete gray skies. Persistent street artists have already scribbled "honk your horns!" on the fresh white canvases, hoping to revive the rebellious cacophony of evenings past.
Running parallel with the eradication of physical signs of the pre-election debate has been the battle being waged for contrasting visions of Iran's post-election reality.
One student friend recently told me of a telephone call she had made to one of her classmates. She asked whether the June 14 attack on the Tehran University dormitories would affect the next day's exam schedule. Five students had reportedly been killed when Basij militants raided both the girls' and boys' dorms during the night.
"Nothing has happened that will affect the schedule," the fellow student had replied nonchalantly. "Why should there be any disruption?"
That the student was a supporter of President Ahmadinejad was reason enough for her to hold a radically different interprataiton of the events of the previous night.
According to the official line, over 80% of Iran's voting population took part in the June 12 elections, a turnout which was due to the people's confidence in the Islamic Republic and their strong sense of national togetherness. The differences of opinion which accounted for the roughly one-third votes cast for the opposition (according to official figures) are rationalised as differences of "taste."
Contrary to this interpretation, the exceptional turnout was largely stimulated by an opposition campaign which successfully shook the political apathy of millions of "silent voters."
That movement of mass participation carried over into Tehran's streets in the days after the election results were announced. Marching with remarkable order and civility, the protesters, silently demanding that their votes be accounted for, numbered in the millions.
These numbers were insignificant however to Iran's national broadcaster, the IRIB. In its post-election news coverage, state television has focused solely on vilifying "disruptive elements" which "aim to incite violence" against what would otherwise be Iran's strong sense of national unity.
"These protesters who go out into the streets and set fire to buses, is that right or not?" asked one popular TV celebrity, rhetorically.
State media has also devoted significant airtime to tying the protests to external enemies. Such accusations are grounded in a saddening assumption; that it is easier to convince a population raised on paranoia and government-vetted news to believe that they are under attack from the outside than it is to allow open debate on important social and political changes occurring on the inside.
State news broadcasts have paraded young protesters confessing to have acted under the influence of the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a shady terrorist organization which has been in exile from Iran since the early 1980s. No matter that the organisation has no popular support in Iran and would find it hard to raise one hundred protesters for a public demonstration let alone one million.
One program reportedly cast doubt on the Tehran University dormitory attack. A student was featured who bore the same name as one of the five students killed. On screen he testified to being annoyed and hurt that his name was being used by agitators to sow lies and discontent.
This week, state-run English language news channel Press TV broadcast a report on the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, a death which was captured on amateur video and made available on YouTube. The report featured two unidentified individuals, said to be witnesses, who denied that any security personnel or Basij militia were present at the scene of the 26 year-old's death. According to the report, Neda was shot with a type of firearm not issued to Iran's security forces.
For the domestic audience the interpretations go much further. One right-wing newspaper has even claimed that the BBC's Tehran correspondent paid "a thug" to kill Neda for the purposes of producing anti-Iran propoganda.
Though Press TV has correspondents working freely in Britain, the United States and Europe, similar rights have been removed from foreign media personnel working in Iran. Journalists have been barred from covering the recent protests which, as a consequence, has fed the interest in video footage from uncomfirmable sources. Iran's attempts to restrict information have actually helped to turn Neda into the potent symbol of the country's repressive nature which she has now become.
Iranians have seen much in a few short weeks. The street parties and open debate which characterised the build-up to polling day. The highest ever voter turnout in any election in the history of the Islamic Republic. The largest protest marches that the country has seen since the 1979 revolution and, subsequently, the worst street violence.
Visible evidence of these momentous events has already largely been erased from the public eye. The very observant may just spot the last remnants of posters and green stickers glued down too hard to be removed completely.
Even with the best efforts of the state media apparatus, the marks which the election fallout have left on Iran's political consciousness may be even more difficult to remove.
Photo: "Cracks" by LGOIT.com
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau