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Stories from North Tehran

by NOAH ARJOMAND

05 Dec 2009 23:305 Comments

Arrival, July 13

mousavi+graffiti.jpgI was worried as my plane descended into Imam Khomeini International Airport around 3:00 am. A month earlier, Iran had erupted in protests following the country's presidential election, in which firebrand incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, favorite of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the powerful military establishment, was declared victor over Mir Hossein Mousavi, his moderate opponent whose stunning campaign had surprised everyone with a last-minute surge in support. The outraged political opposition claimed massive electoral fraud, and now the TV news was full of pictures of burning buses and streets packed with enraged protesters. People were getting shot. Foreigners were being arrested. I read official pronouncements of clerical councils and watched shaky videos on YouTube, trying to understand what was happening, and where it would lead. I decided to go see for myself.

As our airplane landed and taxied towards the terminal, the two women across the aisle from me grudgingly donned their mandatory hijab. Later, in a long, slow line that snaked around the baggage-claim area, one of the women, the younger of the two, strode straight up to a tired-looking security guard.

"It's 4:00 am and I don't have time for this!" she protested. He tried to wave her off but she insisted and insisted, angrier and louder. He soon gave in.

"All passengers from the Vienna flight may exit this way," the guard announced, pulling aside a railing and giving us arbitrary permission to circumvent security. It must have been the end of a long night for him.

"Go, go," the man behind me urged at a frenzied whisper as we raced past the baggage check and out the exit, no questions asked.

I'll say this much for Tehrani girls: they're not timid.

Rooftops

The first thing that surprised me in Tehran was how normal everything seemed. Reading about the protests and repression from outside, you got the feeling the country was seething with violence and chaos at every moment. You forgot that people still went to work and shopped for groceries and argued with taxi drivers over nothing.

If anything, the streets were more tranquil than normal because there weren't any morality police around. The previous summer when I was in Tehran, there were dark green-uniformed Gasht-e Ershad (Guidance Patrol) officers--usually two men and two chadored women beside a green-striped paddy wagon--in every large city square, and others driving sedans around yelling at women on the sidewalk with bullhorns for wearing bad hijab. But now there were none at all to be seen.

It was only at night, from my uncle's apartment in the uptown neighborhood of Yousef Abad, when I heard chants of "Allah-o Akbar" (God is Great) and "Death to the Dictator," signaling that things were not back to normal.

Bushehr

I went to Bushehr, a small city on the Persian Gulf known for its port, nuclear power plant, and little else. It was so hot and dusty that I spent most of my weekend sitting on the floor playing FIFA Soccer on Xbox with my host, Ali, and his little cousin. They destroyed me.

Ali was a small-time importer-exporter with a thick Luri accent and the beginnings of a comb-over. Most people I talked to said that the live televised debate on June 3, nine days before the election, had really been the spark that had spurred them out of apathy. For Ali it took a little longer. He hadn't bothered to vote in the first round of the previous presidential election in 2005, and even with the sudden explosion of pro-Mousavi campaigning in the streets in the last week before the vote, wasn't planning on doing so this time either. It was only when he drove around and saw how excited people were on election day, and how long the lines were at the polling stations, that he decided it was worth it.

He drove around half the city in his air-conditioned Iranian-made Peugeot until he found a mosque polling station that wasn't too crowded, and voted at 7:30 pm. At 10:00 that night the polls closed and at 11:30 a friend called to tell him that the election results were in already: Ahmedinajad had won. Ali spent the next three days indoors watching satellite TV and sleeping very little, trying to piece together what was happening in Tehran. To make matters worse, the government cut out text message service across the country in the days after election, and with it his lifeline for unfiltered news and political jokes from friends in the capital.

The morning after the election, Ali's brother told me, members of the Sepah (Revolutionary Guards) called all their friends and relatives and told them, "Look, if you go out into the streets we're going to have to do our job and it will end violently." And then those friends and relatives called their friends and relatives warning them not to join demonstrations, or let their kids do so. And indeed protests were quickly crushed and, though, according to my hosts, people still gathered in small groups around the bazaar to mutter angrily, there had been little political activity in Bushehr or neighboring and equally dumpy Band-e Genoveh since the week after elections.

"The environment here is small; everyone knows everyone. You can't do political activities," Ali said. Any change would have to come from Tehran. He was just waiting and watching.

Friday Prayers

On 17 July, it was Rafsanjani's turn at Iran's most important pulpit, the Friday sermon at the mosque of Tehran University, in the heart of the city. Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had been in the inner circle of the country's clerical elite since the Islamic Revolution, reportedly amassing vast wealth for himself and his family in the process. He had served two terms as president and now headed the Assembly of Experts, an oversight body with constitutional power to impeach even the Supreme Leader. Rafsanjani was known, and by many despised, as the ultimate political insider and pragmatist, yet his moderation and ties to the Reformists had made him the great wild card and hope for those seeking peaceful change within the system. So far he'd been quiet about the election, about the opposition movement and crackdown by security forces. But today was his day and everybody was holding their breath to see whether he would speak out, and at any rate the Friday prayer would be an excuse for people to gather in public.

My plan had been to watch the sermon at home, but it soon became apparent that the Friday prayers -- ordinarily inescapable on TV -- weren't being broadcast on any channels. Except for those with money for contraband satellite dishes, all television and radio in Iran is run by the state.

So I walked down towards Tehran University campus, where the streets became impassibly packed with people, young and old, rich and poor, many of them wearing green ribbons and waving Mousavi banners. They stood or sat on newspapers or prayer mats as they listened to Rafsanjani's speech from crackling loudspeakers set like street lamps on poles along the sidewalk. Many of the women wore the full black chador, a mark of social conservatism, with a Reformist-green lining. There were a few uniformed policemen, some with plexiglass riot shields, but none on motorcycles or wearing the heavy black body armor I'd seen on the amateur videos circulating online.

I could barely make out Rafsanjani's words coming from the loudspeakers, but he was saying something about the importance of the will of the people in Islamic governance. "Dorud bar Hashemi," the crowd chanted, "Greetings to Hashemi." He'd finally stepped up, it seemed. Close to the campus gate I passed a tight knot of counter-protesters, waving Iranian flags and pictures of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, amid all the Mousavi supporters. The group was in a slogan-chanting match with the Greenies around them and anger was plain on many faces on both sides, but I didn't see any physical violence.

The trust of the people had been lost, Rafsanjani was saying. The Guardian Council, a conservative juridical body that had been quick to rubber-stamp the election results, had failed to address doubts. Political prisoners should be allowed to return to their homes, he went on to say.

There were occasionally chants of Allah-o Akbar and "Free the political prisoners!" but they were quickly hushed by people calling for silence, trying intently to hear Rafsanjani's words.

When his speech finally ended, people began to slowly make their way away from campus towards Valiasr Square, a central hub of the city. Very slowly. The crowd became impenetrable. The day was at its hottest now and the heat of thousands of people packed body-to-body was unbearable. To cool us off, a few Good Samaritans splashed water bottles onto our heads or wet scarves and then swung them overhead for a sprinkler effect.

It took 20 minutes to walk about a hundred meters to where the road finally opened up, and where it seemed a protest march was spontaneously forming. As they walked and waved signs, the crowd chanted "Mousavi! (clap clap clap) Mousavi! (clap clap clap)" and "Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein!" and "Where are you Khomeini? Mousavi loves you!" In opposition to Ahmadinejad et al, the protesters were seeking to legitimize the movement and stake their own claim as heirs to the Revolution -- Ayatollah Khomeini, founding father of the Islamic Revolution, along with Islam itself (i.e. the color green, the chants of Allah-o Akbar, and now the Holy Imam Hossein) were the most powerful sources of legitimacy around.

In the wake of Rafsanjani's speech, a voice on the loudspeaker was calling for chants against Iran's enemies. "Death to America!" the voice cried. "Death to Russia!" the crowd replied. "Death to Israel!" the voice cried. "Death to China!" the crowd replied. China and Russia were among the first countries to recognize Ahmadinejad's victory.

Counter-protesters, caught side-by-side with Greenies in the crush of bodies further up the road, had managed to separate themselves out and were lining the streets now holding up Iranian flags and pictures of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad and exchanging slogans with the marchers. It was peaceful, and in fact many of the protesters and counter-protesters, especially younger women, seemed to be having a lot of fun, grinning at and teasing one another while flashing competing symbols. Like the Greenies, the counter-protesters were quite diverse in terms of age and gender (though, unsurprisingly, the women were more conservatively covered and the men more heavily bearded in the counterrevolutionary group). They were actually a comforting sight: with the counter-protesters there, the police -- groups of whom stood along the side of the road but looked on without acting -- wouldn't be attacking everyone indiscriminately.

I took a shortcut and was soon out in front of the main crowd returning from the university campus. Valiasr Square, when I arrived, was a shock. It was here that the authorities had gathered: a mix of regular and riot police, dark green-uniformed bereted Gasht-e Ershad, and vigilantes in untucked button-down shirts armed with a variety of clubs and chains. One young man with a scraggly beard whom I passed was bending a length of thick metal cable into a U, as if testing its durability. There were hundreds of them, and parked on the opposite side of the square were ordinary buses with police on board and military trucks with grate-covered windows.

They ignored individual pedestrians like me who didn't appear to be part of the march, and seemed to be waiting for the main body of Greenies. Passersby with shopping bags hurried along, avoiding eye contact, as the march grew nearer. I quickly crossed to the far side of the square as the first of the Greenies entered. There was immediately a series of loud pops of teargas canisters being fired, screams, and then a stampede in my direction. I was about to start running myself when suddenly the panic lulled, as people looked back trying to see what was happening. A hysterical woman came running forward carrying a motionless girl of perhaps seven. The woman cried for help, disappeared from my view, and moments later raced past me on the back of a young man's motorcycle.

After the initial attack, the ranks of protesters thinned out considerably as people either retreated from the scene or were arrested and packed onto the waiting buses; but soon there were V's for Victory in the air and calls of "Let's return!" and the protesters coalesced once again into a solid mass before continuing to press forward down the right side of Karim Khan Street, a four-lane thoroughfare leading east from Valiasr. On the opposite side of the roads, cars honked frenziedly as the Greenies passed -- whether to express support or annoyance at the traffic jam the protest had caused, I couldn't say.

Then the motorcycles arrived. The Basijis seemed to move in squadrons of about twenty, two riders to a bike with the rear passenger usually wearing a green camouflage vest and holding a weapon or a walkie-talkie. A few were armed with teargas launchers, while most carried standard-issue plastic nightsticks, crude wooden clubs attached to the wrist with a loop of string, or custom designs of their own. One passed me with a long black truncheon, around which he'd coiled a thick chain into a corkscrew, and then wrapped over with black electrical tape.

They didn't charge straight into the crowd, but whizzed around its edges yelling at people, and later, taking swings at those separated from the mass of protesters. I stood with other bystanders who watched from the sidewalk without getting too close. More loud pops, and the crowd seemed to stall in an intersection. A motorcycle nearby slowed long enough for the grey-haired passenger in the back to fire a teargas canister into the center of the group.

Some protesters staggered out from the crowd, eyes streaming and red, towards where I was standing. Apparently smoke is a remedy for teargas, and some of the onlookers beside me now stepped forward to help. In a weirdly intimate gesture, smokers would inhale deeply on their cigarettes, then lean in close and purse their lips to gently blow smoke into the eyes of those afflicted with teargas. Someone had thought to set a little newspaper fire by the side of the road and protesters were leaning over it trying to keep their eyes open.

I left for home soon thereafter. As I turned north on Valiasr Street towards Yousef Abad, more motorcycle squads passed. Two squads -- one of camo-vested Basijis and the other of black body-armored riot police -- passed each other in opposite directions. They waved and grinned and honked camaraderie.

Persian Nights

Chants of Allah-o Akbar were always loudest the nights after big protests. In late June there had been reports of raids on houses where chanting was heard, with property destroyed and residents beaten in their homes, but I hadn't heard about any such occurrences since arriving in Iran.

An Iranian-American girl I knew named Kiana told me that in her upper-class neighborhood near Tajrish Square people brought their dinners up to the roof so they could picnic for hours while intermittently chanting. Kiana was getting to know her neighbors for the first time.

She told me that for a time everyone was scared because Basijis had been driving around at night marking the doors of all the buildings where they heard chanting. Then some guys from the neighborhood went around late at night and spray-painted identical marks on every door so the Basijis wouldn't know which to raid. And the chants continued.

Road trip

One weekend I went up to the Caspian Sea coast with my uncle and cousin. We made the mistake of going on a holiday -- the birthday of a Shiite Imam -- and the traffic was deadlocked most of the way. People took advantage of the slow drive (and I think the feeling of freedom of being outside the city with no plainclothes police about) by waving and chanting Reformist slogans. Cars of like-minded youths veered towards each other wildly so passengers could wave and scream happily in each other's faces. They flashed V's for Victory and waved anything green they had in hand: scraps of cloth, plastic bags, soda bottles. I saw one guy waving a can of insect repellent, pointing excitedly to the patch of green on the label. It was like the scene in front of a football stadium after a home team victory.

We also passed one or two car-full of unmistakable Ahmadinejad supporters wielding Iranian flags or wristbands bearing the national colors. They exchanged dirty looks with the jubilant Greenies who far outnumbered them.

When we finally arrived, my uncle called a local friend to ask what had just gone down. We hadn't seen the news this morning: had something happened with Mousavi?

Nope, his friend said. It was like this every day on the roads around here.

Shaya the Basiji

"Everybody's a Basiji. I'm a Basiji too." This came from Shaya, a 20-year-old female underground rap musician and friend of mine, as we sat on a bench in Mellat Park one Sunday evening in early August sharing a carton of fresh blackberries. In high school especially lots of kids like her joined the organization, mostly because you got to go on free tours of Iran and could receive government scholarships, welfare-type subsidies, etc. She still had her Basij Militia membership card in a drawer somewhere, which she promised to show me some time.

"You've got to understand, when we talk about Basijis, we mean just this small core group that's active in bothering and beating people, not all official members of the Basij," she said.

Shaya noticed with a smile that I was glancing around occasionally to check for Gasht-e Ershad officers asking couples for their marriage licenses. She confirmed my theory about the lack of Gasht on the streets and patrolling the parks.

"They're afraid," she said. "If they tried to arrest a girl or even just confront her, people would tear them apart."

"So what are you complaining about? You're benefiting from Ahmadinejad's reelection," I told her.

Ha ha, she said. Shaya was wearing cherry-red lipstick, baby blue nail polish, and a top that scandalously exposed her entire forearms. Over her hair, which she had dyed orange-blonde, she wore a small square of flannel whose edges she'd snipped into ragged edges. It was still rebellious, though. But I was disappointed that she'd abandoned her slightly masculine, no-makeup, bullet-bandolier necklace, her Anti-Establishment style of the previous summer.

It was getting late, and before saying goodbye we walked together to Vanak Square, where there had been a demonstration earlier that evening. When I'd passed by on my way up to the park, there seemed to be more police than protesters. The sidewalks had been lined with onlookers, but few seemed willing to join in.

The protesters were gone, but riot police and club-wielding Basijis lingered, some to make sure no demonstration flared back up, and others were just waiting for a taxi that would be willing to stop for them. Cars still honked in solidarity with the now-dispersed protesters as they approached the square, but quieted down as they passed the security forces.

Shaya's clothes would have been enough to get us both in trouble under normal circumstances; if the Basijis heard my American accent it would mean further trouble still. But she seemed to be right about their hesitance to hassle girls over bad hijab. Every single Basiji we passed turned to stare at Shaya, but they did nothing.

"Did you see how much I bothered them?" she asked me when we were a safe distance away. Her laugh was at once nervous and proud.

The next day, 3 August, Supreme Leader Khamenei officially endorsed Ahmadinejad as the next president, and two days later he was inaugurated. Up until that week, the furthest I'd heard the rooftop chanters go was "Death to the Dictator!" Now they were shouting "Death to Khamenei!" But after a few nights, the rooftop chanting, until then a regular 10:00-10:30 event, died down. By mid-August, the rooftops of my neighborhood were silent. I hadn't heard of anyone nearby being arrested, or of any official pronouncement by Mousavi or others for the chanting to cease; it seemed people were gradually either giving up or changing tactics.

A brush with the Law

Kian had been in Azadi Square the day protesters were shot, taking photos with his Sony R1 digital camera. CNN had published a couple of them. The sea of silent demonstrators were packed body-to-body across the expanse of the square. His memory of the events was a few violent idiots attacking and trying to burn down a Basij headquarters, provoking the authorities and giving the impression of a revolutionary threat, rather than a peaceful democratic reform movement.

A few days after Khamenei's 19 June declaration that further protests would mean bloodshed, Kian was walking in a neighborhood where a demonstration had recently passed through, talking on his cell phone with his cousin. The cousin told him that he ought to be careful using a cell phone near a protest: taking cell phone pictures could really get you in trouble. Kian looked around.

"Don't worry about it. Nothing's happening around here now," he said.

Suddenly two men appeared from nowhere with firm hands on Kian's shoulder, twisting one of his arms behind his back.

"Uh, do I know you?" Kian asked. One of them smiled pleasantly as they pushed him into a waiting sedan.

"You'll get to know us."

They pulled him inside the mosque he'd been walking past, which turned out to be a Basij staging area. He was the sole focus of dozens of gathered Basijis who hung around looking bored, no protests to quell at the moment.

Kian, a cross between a boy scout and a technology geek, enjoyed memorizing statistics about military hardware and Mossad capabilities. He went everywhere with a well-compartmentalized backpack full of gadgets to confront any information technology-related challenge. The contents of that backpack were dumped on a table; the Basijis looked on in awe. He was much better equipped than them. Somehow, they failed to notice the little CIA-logoed button pinned to one of the backpack straps.

Kian was scheduled to begin working for the Army soon to fulfill his mandatory military service, and he thought this was the trump card to secure his release. He took out his laptop to show them a document verifying that he was an Army employee, making sure to turn it on in Safe Mode so the icons of his anti-filter software didn't appear. With his captors looking over his shoulder, Kian searched the word "Army," but instead of his military service letter, the first thing that popped up was a photo of him standing grinning with a bunch of American soldiers holding up a Kuwaiti flag.

Uh, said Kian. He'd photoshopped his face onto that, it wasn't real. He'd never even been out of the country. He explained quickly how much he admired the American military for its technology and efficiency -- nothing to do with politics. They brought him to the women's bathroom of the mosque, took his thick-rimmed glasses, and blindfolded him. He confessed to sending a couple photos to CNN and they didn't seem to care.

Kian was given a makeshift cell in the mosque. His neighbors were teenagers who bragged respectively of beating up a Basiji and setting fire to a police car. Later, the improvised jail was cleared out of all the protesters but Kian was left behind. One guard asked another why Kian got the place to himself.

"Because he's with intelligence."

"Oh yeah. It was my proudest moment," Kian told me with more than a touch of retrospective vanity. "Intelligence."

Kian was interrogated for the first time that evening.

"How much money did they give you?" was their first question.

"How much money did who give me?"

"How much money did they give you?" they repeated.

"Well, my sister gave me 5,000 toman, my friend Mo lent me 500 for a taxi ride the other day..." He was a little bit less scared by now. After expressing disapproval at his sense of humor they asked again, this time specifically about how much the French had given him.

"I've never even met a French person," Kian said. This was just a couple days after Clotide Reiss, a young French researcher, was arrested at Tehran airport and accused of espionage; it seemed France-related conspiracy theories were on everyone's mind. Still, hearing the story, I couldn't help but think that all things considered, it would have made a lot more sense to accuse Kian of spying for the US.

That night no food was provided to the prisoners, so one of the guards split his dinner with Kian.

"Maazerat mikhaam ke mozahemet mishim," the guard told him. "I'm sorry that we're causing you so much trouble."

"No, it's me who should be sorry for causing you trouble," Kian replied.

I laughed when Kian recounted this with an almost pained look.

"No, really, I was sorry. There were all these people who had to stay up all night in that mosque just because of me. And it was all over nothing."

He was transferred to Army custody the next day, since he was now suspected of being an Army mole. Before transferring him, the Basij commander put a piece of paper in front of him and told him to sign it. It was folded over so only the space for his signature was visible.

"Sir, if you tell me to sign this without reading it I will. But please, allow me to look at what I'm signing."

There were maybe a dozen Basijis looking on curiously. The commander hesitated for a moment and then unfolded the paper for Kian to see. It was an inventory of items found on Kian when he was arrested. They hadn't even known how to describe half the hi-tech gear in Kian's backpack. "Plastic things" figured prominently on the list.

"Don't worry, you're our brother. Even after you're transferred we'll make sure nothing happens to you," one guard whispered in his ear as they manhandled him into a car for transportation to his new detention facility.

The Army interrogators told him that he shouldn't have said anything to the Basijis, just demanded to be transferred into Army custody immediately because he was working for them. They searched his cell phone history and found he'd received a call from France. Why had he been talking to someone in France in the vicinity of the riots? What had he been telling them?

That call -- a missed call at that -- was received five days earlier, and not when he'd been arrested. Kian's girlfriend, an American he'd met while she was studying Persian in Tehran, had called (he guessed) using an international phone card that redirected the signal through Europe.

"But you could have changed the date of the call," they told him.

"All right, then, check with the phone company. I can't change that," he said. (I don't know if Kian pointed out the absurdity of his elaborately editing the date instead of just erasing the call from his history.)

Okay, but accessing cell phone records would take a couple weeks, they told him.

Unrepentant, Kian, in his slightly nerdy adoration of all things espionage, shook his head in resignation as he got to this point in the story. He had been so disappointed to see how incompetent his country's military was.

"How long do you think you'll serve?" an interrogator asked Kian after another questioning session. "Five years? Ten years? You know what you did and you can estimate."

"I'll stay here as long as it's necessary to investigate me and my background and validate my documents, but I'm sure the moment you're finished with it, I'm free to go." Unexpectedly, they then handed Kian back his glasses and ID card and told him he could leave. Kian was far from home now with nobody to pick him up, so one guard gave him 4,000 toman from his own pocket for taxi fare.

The next day Kian reported for his first day of basic training with a special Sepah unit. The standard issue pants he was given were ugly and ill-fitting, so he decided to wear a pair of imitation grey camouflage US Army Combat Uniform trousers. The instructors laughed when they saw and nicknamed him "American soldier" for the rest of boot camp.

Street Warfare

"The minimum we got out of the street protests was that we got rid of the religious police." A friend of a friend in his mid-twenties, let's call him Aziz, was explaining to me why he still took to the streets at every opportunity. Aziz was another hyphenated Iranian American who'd split his childhood between the two countries. He had moved to Iran a year ago. We sat in his office sipping cappuccinos despite Ramadan and spoke English.

"The first time it was just like magical; I'll never forget," he told me. The day after the election he'd heard the news of Ahmadinejad's victory in the early morning. He was shocked, in disbelief. Then a friend called and told him there were some people gathered at Jaam-e Jam intersection on Valiasr Street. When Aziz arrived there was a crowd of twenty or thirty milling about, unsure what to do. Within a couple of hours there were thousands, clogging the street for half the length of the city. People sang the famous song of the revolutionary era "Yar-e Dabestani-e Man" (My School-Grade Friend) and chanted "Freedom! Freedom!" and "Don't be scared, don't be scared, we're with you."

"It was great to be the first," Aziz said, "it felt like you were the organizer." That day he and his friends set two buses on fire, smashed windows, and brawled with police face to face. Aziz had seen a couple Basij motorcycles doused in gasoline and burned in the street. He smiled sheepishly.

"You're not going to publish my name, right?"

Like Kian, Aziz had been in Azadi Square on 15 June, the first day protesters were shot. He showed me a shaky video he'd taken that day. It showed protesters, mostly young men (but not exclusively), throwing rocks at and cursing armed Basijis whose silhouettes were seen patrolling the rooftop of the Basij base, occasionally stooping to pick up and hurl back a stone. The camera panned briefly to show the blood-splattered hood of a car, where Aziz told me someone had been shot minutes earlier. There was the sound of muffled, faraway gunshots, and suddenly people were running away. A woman screamed something incomprehensible and then there were five loud, nearby gunshots. A young man fell, struggling to get up as others fled. After a moment, a half-dozen men ran forward and carried him off. The video cut out.

The day had started out very peacefully. Aziz had been in the US last year working for the Obama presidential campaign, and even those organizers weren't as disciplined as the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who marched on Azadi Square in absolute silence. It was only later, with the attack on the Basij base, that violence broke out. Then, it was like a war zone. Smokey fires were set up for those hit with teargas fired randomly into crowds. Aziz and the friends who always accompanied him to rallies noticed a plainclothes police officer in the crowd talking into a walkie-talkie and jumped him.

"It was weird," he said. "People stopped us; they didn't want us to beat him up too badly."

Aziz may have spent his summer battling police in the streets, but he wasn't a revolutionary, and neither were most Iranians, he said. The street was just a catalyst, a way to create pressure for change within the system. This was why outsiders like the Iranian expatriates on Voice of America talk shows couldn't connect with the homegrown reform movement: they saw regime change as the only way.

In fact, there were lots of tools that the Reformists could use within Iran's constitutional framework, Aziz said. Rafsanjani and the Assembly of Experts could pressure Supreme Leader Khamenei. Parliament could reject Ahmadinejad's upcoming nominations for cabinet. Khamenei himself could be convinced to exercise his enormous constitutional power to address Reformist grievances.

Aziz was still hopeful. And if nothing else, the police weren't harassing women in the streets for bad hijab or raiding private parties where alcohol was served.

"I think they like people partying more, drinking more, smoking more... it keeps them off the streets."

khamenei+billboard.jpgEpilogue

Rafsanjani and the Assembly of Experts did not -- at least openly -- pressure Khamenei with the threat of impeachment. Parliament confirmed Ahmadinejad's key cabinet nominees without a hitch. Kian never got his confiscated laptop back. The last week I was in Iran, the first of September, the Gasht reappeared on the streets.

September and October were months of uncertainty. The election was over: it was clear that Ahmadinejad was President and would stay that way. Some of those arrested over the summer were released; others were sentenced. Few cracks were seen in the conservative establishment even as controversy over electoral fraud and political prisoner abuse continued. Yet the Green Movement struggles on. Scattered protests continued to flare up on important days and at the universities. Rafsanjani, ever the enigma, oscillated, threatening one week to resign from the Assembly of Experts if leading Reformist Mehdi Karroubi was arrested, but making deferential gestures to Khamenei's calls for "national unity" the next.

I recently emailed a friend, a graduate student at Tehran University, asking about the climate at school these days.

His response:

"On the surface, the environment appears just like last year but on a deeper and esoteric level it's not like last year. A kind of uncertainty and lack of clarity about the future exists... Everyone is worried... about the purge of professors and students. The campus of Tehran University is very big; the housing administrators are in the process of scattering the students around various dormitories across the city and want to weaken resistance by reducing the density and volume of students. They also excluded some of the students who were shouting 'Allah-o Akbar' and 'Death to the Dictator' at night from the dormitories -- they didn't give them permission to enter student housing...

"I think that the size of the protests will erode over time... Of course this depends to a degree on events that happen in the future... If they arrest the leaders of the Green Movement, the resistance of the people will become more intense."

Caption of Supreme Leader billboard: "The election is the prestige of the nation of Iran and one of the indicators of the development of the country." Photos by Noah Arjomand.

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5 Comments

"I'll say this much for Tehrani girls: they're not timid."

That's been my general experience as well!

Pirouz / December 6, 2009 8:08 AM

Thank you, this was a great read!

Heidar / December 6, 2009 9:56 AM

Thanks for sharing these stories, Noah. They really bring to life parts of Iranian society we don't often get to see from afar.

Leila / December 6, 2009 5:49 PM

wonderful read...thank you for sharing such important history, its unforgettable.

Dale Thompson / December 25, 2009 6:00 AM

The British radio has called on people to write V for victory everywhere, and they are all over the place, even on shop fronts http://fa.by/8386c

Tyson F. Gautreaux / January 22, 2011 9:28 AM