a death in tehran COMMENTS comments

Interview: Scott Peterson

Scott Peterson

A longtime Middle East correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, he was in Tehran for the June 2009 presidential election and ensuing protests. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Sept. 9, 2009.

Your hotel was close to the Interior Ministry. What do you see on [election] night?

... The first report that we heard that this [Mir Hossein] Mousavi headquarters had been attacked was before 9:00. There were still polling stations that were open, and what we heard was that the Basij militia [government paramilitary force] had attacked this particular headquarters; that they had gone in, they had forced people out. They had broken glass, and they really were traumatizing people who were inside the building. They lit it on fire. This was the first report that we got. Essentially, even before the elections closed, there was already a proactive move by these militia elements to shut things down. ...

The news came just before 9:00, and what we really saw was that almost immediately, there was video that appeared on the Internet that was showing the Basij as they were coming in to the building. It showed them roughing people up. It showed a lot of shouting and people screaming and trying to keep them out. ...

And so you drove up there, and you checked it out. ...

That's right. It wasn't long before we actually got to the location, and in fact, the Basij had already cleared out mostly. There were police vehicles that were there, and things looked like they had calmed down a bit.

But of course by then we were already hearing other reports of other activities that were going on in the streets. There had been some locations that had been on fire, other places where there was tension that was rising.

When we returned back -- and by this time it was probably around 10:00 or so in the evening, and still some of the polling stations were not yet closed. But we were shocked, surprised to see that right there, in the center of Tehran where the Ministry of Interior building is, already there were steps being taken by the police to seal off the building. They had cranes in place. They were laying down concrete barriers to physically separate the Ministry of Interior, which is of course where they were going to do all ... the tabulations for this election. They sealed it off with concrete. There were three layers of police cars that were also lined up in front of the Ministry of Interior -- another ring of steel, if you will. And then riot police had been marshaled behind that.

It sounds like a coup d'état almost.

It certainly looked like they were prepared for something well in advance. It did not look to me at all like they had just received a phone call saying there's a problem on the streets, please go out and deal with it. It appeared clearly well planned, well orchestrated already. ...

I've seen a lot of elections in Iran. This was the first time we'd ever seen those steps taken.

Outside the Mousavi headquarters, what was going on at the time?

... There were hundreds of people that were that were building up, if you will, outside the very local Mousavi headquarters that was close to my hotel. ... They were chanting slogans in favor of Mousavi. They were ... issuing congratulations for the president and saying that this president was going to be Mousavi. One man who I spoke to made it very clear that if the result was any different, if Mousavi was not the winner, if [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad had been declared the winner, that there was going to be a new judgment day in Iran.

And in fact, for those people, that judgment day I think came a little bit earlier, because there had been police that were just a few meters away, keeping some distance. But they were watchful of the event.

And it wasn't long before the chanting and singing broke up into an initial chaos, because the police ran toward the group of people who were chanting and who were singing and broke them up. They came in with batons. And this really was one of the first proactive actions by the security forces against people, and it happened on election night. And still this was really before hardly any of the results started to come in and also before some of those polling stations were closed. ...

What struck me very much about that first night was the power that the police used against the protesters. We had not seen one bit of violence really in the previous several weeks. There had been tens of thousands of people on the streets for their candidate and for rival candidates and for both candidates, in fact. It was an extraordinary buildup to the election, and Iranians on all sides of the political spectrum were surprised and also impressed with themselves at how they would kind of debate among themselves and literally have rival columns of people on the street. You would have Ahmadinejad people on one side and Mousavi people on the other, and yet they would have, normally, a very civil back-and-forth between themselves.

So it was a real surprise on that first night, the actual polling day, to see this violence. ... One young lady who I saw -- very, very small -- had been clubbed very strongly, beaten by one of these policemen. She was bent over, choking. She was crying. Tear gas had been thrown as well, so there was the first scent of tear gas.

For me, this really was the beginning of what clearly was going to be a much bigger, more traumatic period for Iran in the aftermath of this election. ...

So the first taste of things to come?

It certainly was a first taste of things to come, and the kind of thing, too, that I think both sides had not yet prepared themselves for. ... We hadn't seen street violence in Iran since 2003, not anything very serious. So both sides really were out of practice. ...

Had either of the two sides expected there would be any irregularities with the voting?

There had been, for many years in fact, concerns, certainly expressed among the reformists, that there was a plan that reformists would never again be allowed to win an election victory in Iran. Their reading of this -- and we had ample evidence, if you will, also from the conservative side in the way that they discussed and analyzed elections, and especially how they analyzed what they considered to be the treason of the years of the Mohammad Khatami presidency. The way they analyzed it was that ... the steps that Mohammad Khatami took towards the West, his policy of Dialogue of Civilizations, all of the things that were meant to loosen social restrictions and really reform ... the Islamic Revolution, they all felt that that was something that was treasonous, that it really was undermining the very essence of the revolution. And so they were determined -- and this is analysis coming from both conservatives and reformists over the years -- to be sure that conservatives would never again lose control or lose power in Iran. ...

So people were expecting that there would be irregularities with the election. What were some of the measures they were taking to protect themselves against this?

There was an extraordinary rumor that swept the text-messaging systems just a few days before the vote, and that was that Ahmadinejad people had imported 2 million pens with disappearing ink, and the point was that all of these people who would turn out to vote for Mousavi, in fact their votes would be nullified because within an hour or two that mark would disappear, and therefore it wouldn't matter. ...

It's amazing to see how just something like that, a rumor which is fed by text messages, meant that almost every single voter that I saw on voting day was carrying their own pen, something, again, that had never featured in a previous election in Iran. ...

Were there any other fears about the ways in which the election was being held?

... [The night of the election] the first reports, in fact, came from Fars News, which put up an initial story saying what the actual results were, and it was well ahead of its time. Obviously it had been prepared in advance, and it wasn't long before it disappeared, in fact, from the Internet, only to be posted many, many hours later. Somehow someone had pressed the wrong button, and one of the announcements got out of order.

And so we had this initial statement that Ahmadinejad was doing very, very well coming from Fars News Agency, which is of course the news agency which is linked specifically to the Revolutionary Guards and is therefore very, very close to President Ahmadinejad and the right-wing faction in Iran. ...

What we really began to notice also is that as results started to come in, the percentages in favor of Ahmadinejad and the percentages that showed a very low result for Mousavi and even less for the other candidates, it stayed precisely the same throughout the entire evening.

Now, in elections past in Iran, this was completely unheard of. You would have this province or that province putting in their results, and that would change the overall picture. ... People who have been very critical of these results say, wait a second, this really doesn't illustrate an election inside Iran. It's not possible.

So what did the opposition think would be their biggest protection in terms of avoiding vote rigging?

... The government was capable, and had in the past, manipulated results sometimes on the fringe. It didn't mean that there was a strategically different result, but it was enough to just change things the way that they wanted them.

I think that the reformists calculated that there might be some, again, marginal adjustments, but what they felt was that ... if there was a huge turnout that showed clear support for Mir Hossein Mousavi, then there was no way that that result could be overturned or rigged or changed or manipulated in any way.

... Do you feel the election was rigged?

I'm not sure that the word "rigged" is probably the best way to describe what happened in Iran, and the reason is because the word "rigged" implies that there was ballot-box stuffing, that there were little things around the edges that were conducted that changed the result. ...

And I think that what we've seen in Iran is something very, very different, something that the people who are trying to change the result really were not prepared for. ... They didn't expect that there was going to be such a large turnout, that it was going to favor Mousavi, and therefore would require not just rigging around the edges, but would require simply -- from the election analysts I've spoken to -- a pulling of the numbers out of thin air. They literally created this election result, it seems, out of nothing. ...

It was a huge turnout. We've seen a lot of elections in Iran. Very, very few have had as much excitement or had as many people showing up to cast their ballot as we saw on this day. ...

Why did people come out in such large numbers to vote?

... In Iran, you don't get an 85 percent turnout to re-elect an incumbent. You get an 85 percent turnout to kick out the president. ...

… Do you think the Basiji had been preparing this for a long time?

There has been no doubt that during the four years of President Ahmadinejad's term that the Revolutionary Guards and also the ideological Basiji brethren have taken much more control of not only Iranian society but also the economy, of the security decisions that are being made. ...

I think the regime has been preparing for this for several years, in fact, and I think that we saw the first sign of it back in September 2007, when the new Revolutionary Guard commander announced, to the surprise of many Iranians in fact, that their biggest threat now was no longer the great devil, the United States, it was no longer external threats, but the biggest threat to the regime really was coming from inside Iran.

And in the last two years we've seen really a huge number of military and other exercises that have focused very, very much with the Revolutionary Guards and also with the Basijis on containing internal unrest. So there have been activities in urban settings; there have been kind of putting down riots and demonstrations and things that clearly demonstrated that they were preparing for some kind of a serious internal conflagration. ...

And what part do the show trials play in all of this?

The show trials achieve two things for the regime. On the one hand, it demonstrates to reformists that they really have been crushed, that they have no chance of winning politically, that their ideology is bankrupt, and even if it isn't bankrupt it will never thrive in Iran, or certainly in the Islamic Republic.

On the other hand, it also tells other Iranians, ordinary Iranians, that there really is a real threat, that this velvet revolution exists, that it's part of the politics of the place, but that we, the Revolutionary Guards, the judiciary, the Basiji, we the preservers, the protectors of the revolution, you can trust us to find the threat and to destroy it. And I think that that's what those trials are trying to demonstrate.

And are there any grounds that there might by a revolution going on?

Of course. This idea of a velvet revolution has not come out of thin air. We have seen velvet revolutions or what would be considered to be soft revolutions over the past several years. I've reported on several in Serbia; I reported also on the Rose Revolution in Georgia. And there's no question that there was a very powerful ingredient in those revolutions that had come from the West. It was partly funding of non-governmental organizations [NGOs], civil society groups, things like this. These played key factors in the toppling of governments in those places. The same is true in the Ukraine.

And of course, as the pattern develops, and as more analysts write about that, and as more journalists write about that, the Revolutionary Guard and also elements inside the Iranian regime, they are also reading what is being produced about these things, and they realize that they themselves could be a target of precisely this.

When you add a further ingredient of the United States putting tens of millions of dollars into "pro-democracy money," to kind of democratize the regime or undermine it, then that all adds up to a very threatening picture for certain factions inside Iran. ...

What is it about the idea of a velvet revolution that's so upsetting?

I think what is so upsetting in Tehran about a velvet revolution is because it's so possible. This is something that has been a part of the Islamic Republic's character from the first day, more than 30 years ago, when the revolution was first established. ... [They] were constantly talking about the dangers of "West-toxication," is what they called it, bringing in these ideas from the West. They were alien to our Islamic culture, they were alien to our Persian heritage, and therefore they could only undermine. ...

And also ideas such as democracy?

Well, an idea like democracy also could be very, very threatening to people who feel that they need to preserve the Islamic Revolution.

Now, of course, many times Iranian leaders have said that they were trying to create an Islamic democracy, or they certainly made clear that their legitimacy for 30 years has rested on a very powerful vote of the people. And they've always asked for a huge turnout, a very large turnout in elections, because what a large turnout brings them is it allows them to say, you see, the people embrace the revolution; the people embrace our Islamic Republic. In fact, often the fact that you have a large turnout is even more important than who wins the actual election, because the regime is using every election as a referendum on the Islamic Revolution and on its ideals and everything else. ...

Has this relationship broken?

I think that in this election, for the first time we really have seen that social contract, that bond between the regime and the people has been broken. It wasn't inevitable, it wasn't always going to happen, but just the way that this election result was handled, the way that it was created, it so seems, and the way that the regime has reacted to people being on the street has really made people question the legitimacy of their vote. ...

It is almost as if they were terrified of a velvet revolution and took measures that ended up creating one.

... I don't think they were expecting ... that so many people would come out in the streets and vote in favor of Mousavi. And what it meant was that their reaction also was off-kilter, and it meant that they really had to show their hand in a way that they never had to in the past.

And this is where, I think, this idea of a velvet revolution, the very, very thing that they were afraid of, actually has in many respects taken place, because that social contract has been broken.

So now how difficult is it to report on Iran?

It's extremely difficult to report on Iran now, especially now, because of course people are much more reluctant to use their telephones to communicate. ...

You need to be very careful with the kind of reports that come out of Iran. ... Even during some of the demonstrations, there were reports and there was some news that was coming out at the time that sounded good, it sounded like it was coming from the streets, and yet I know in pursuing various reports with sources that in fact they are not always true.

There were extraordinary rumors that were filtered in about, for example, the Basiji using axes against people during some of these demonstrations. This popped up in several different places, and almost too many places and almost in too detailed a way to actually be real. Axes being used, considering the number of cameras that have been used, considering the number of details that have emerged? ...

Now, that's not to say that horrible things didn't happen, because of course horrible things did happen. They were recorded on film; they were seen. They were not concocted by foreign enemies, as the regime likes to say, and I have spoken to witnesses who saw people killed right in front of them. I've spoken to witnesses who spoke about holding razors in their hands on motorcycles, and when they'd go by somebody else on a rival motorcycle, they'd just slash them as they passed.

So horrible things really have happened, but really, it's difficult now to get the truth out of Iran. They've made it difficult, and they've also made it more susceptible to rumors and to untruths, and that's part of the problem that they've created.

What has the state media been saying about Neda's death?

The death of Neda [Agha Soltan], I think, was one that lends itself to propaganda, and certainly we saw this in the immediate aftermath. Of course, the idea of an icon of these demonstrations really flourished on the Internet and flourished in everybody's mind. It prompted demonstrations all around the world and prompted some very, very powerful, very powerful hatred toward the Islamic Republic. It was very strong.

But extraordinarily also, some of the reports that were coming out of Iran, obscure they may be, but one of them, for example, accused Jon Leyne, the BBC correspondent in Tehran at the time, of actually shooting her himself just to enhance his story. That was one of the most far-fetched ones that I heard.

But we heard all sorts of extraordinary things about this shooting. ... I heard senior hard-line officials who told me, of course you can always tell who the Basiji are because they never kill an innocent person. They would never harm an innocent bystander. They know the difference. ...

It's very difficult for you to believe that Neda could have been killed by a Basiji, but the doctor who was there said so. So did other witnesses who were there, who actually stopped the man and found that he had a Basiji identity card in his pocket. Now, how to erase history like that?

And in Neda's case, why were such efforts made to rewrite history on the part of the state media, of the regime?

I think this regime and the Islamic Republic generally has always relied, for 30 years, on a very powerful propaganda. They have been experts. [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini said there's nothing more important than propaganda. ...

I think that what we're seeing with Neda now is that the regime immediately understood the visceral reaction that came from having a picture of a beautiful young woman shot at point-blank range, the blood gushing very viscerally from her mouth and across her face. This is an image that simply is printed on the minds of everybody who's paying attention to Iran or not, and it's a horrible image. So of course, they immediately want to try and de-iconize it, if you will. They want to separate it from reality or cast a doubt on its truth or voracity. ...

I think also it probably surprised many, many people, too, hard-liners, conservatives inside Iran, who also were operating under the belief that really only thugs and thieves and those kind of people -- knife pullers, as they call them in Farsi -- were responsible for these street demonstrations, and that, you know, here's a beautiful woman who's been shot in cold blood. ...

And so the Islamic Republic doesn't deny the part of the story that says that Neda was apolitical, but it does deny the identity of her killer?

It's trying to change the identity of her killer -- precisely. But the regime, of course, does not speak with one voice. There are so many different voices, so some are trying to cast aspersions on why was she there anyway to begin with, and who was it who was actually responsible? ...

Part of the strategy like that, certainly for the Islamic Republic, would be to just cast so much doubt, to really just cloud the issue so much, ... [that] all of it would be meant to somehow undermine the power of the story of Neda's death.

And how powerful is the story?

That story is an incredibly powerful story, because in one moment, in one image, you are illustrating an extraordinary violence. ... In the aftermath of the election, I think it sums up a lot.

And of course it also fits a bigger narrative, true or not, about the Islamic Republic and the rest of the world. ... Iran's very powerful, revolutionary, defiant rhetoric has always yielded a very powerful negative response coming from the West, so of course, you know, it doesn't surprise people in the West. It fits their prejudices already about what the Islamic regime is. ...

Does anyone in Iran believe the regime's version of events, do you think?

... I think that there are a lot of people in Iran who believe whatever the regime tells them. ... They are the ones that live on state TV; this is where they get their news. They listen to state radio. They don't have satellite television, which, of course, is illegal, and therefore they would not have it. And so their world is limited to the vision that is given to them by the regime, and the regime's version of the death of Neda is that this was another unfortunate event that was actually concocted by those evil reformists, ... those evil rioters and thugs that were active on the streets, and had nothing to do with the Revolutionary Guards or the Basiji, but was entirely meant to undermine them, and you won't fall for it because you, the Iranian people, are much smarter than the people who conducted this. So I think that there are a lot of people who believe that version of events in Iran. ...

[Two months after the elections, how is the regime still cracking down on this movement?]

There is very little activity on the streets now, but what we've seen, this fight has ... moved into a much broader kind of a cultural realm, if you will. The regime has now stated, and the supreme leader himself has very recently said, that one of the biggest threats that he sees has come from universities, and come from students and particularly has come from humanities programs and other things which are kind of nonscientific and nonreligious at the universities.

So it looks like now we are expecting a much broader purge, another purge that's going to take place in the universities, and it sounds like what they're going to do is they're going to start ripping out some of these programs which have been very popular, but also, of course, in the minds of those who are ruling the regime, are very dangerous. ...

posted november 17, 2009

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