Protest Movement in Iran

Fighting the Arrogance of Power

In Iran the talk is no longer simply of election fraud. The issue has long since become the regime's ignorance of the population and its contempt for their intelligence, writes the Iranian cultural journalist Parandis Ahmadi*

Protests in Iran (photo: AP)
"Enough is enough!" It is above all women who have led the peaceful protests against the suspected election fraud and re-election of president Ahmadinejad

​​ Initially the Iranians had not seen the presidential elections as worth wasting their breath on, never mind protesting about them. The debates in the run-up to the elections centred around the fact that it was clear the winner had been chosen already. Many Iranians said that the people who endorsed this system had always been murderers or thieves anyway.

Such comments and curses were always uttered in the safety of people's own homes however. Everyone was waiting for someone to come along, who would spark a new revolution. But as the Persian poet Akhavan-e Thaleth wrote:

"If there is no hope any more that a saviour such Nader Shah will come, then it is better that a destroyer such as Alexander the Great should come…" (An ironic reference to the Iranian king and successful conqueror, Nader Schah, who extended Iran's boundaries, and to Alexander, who razed Persepolis to the ground and caused the Achaemenid Persian Empire to fall.)

"Let the people starve, then they will obey!"

Iranians felt they had lost their courage, pride, the desire for freedom and even for revenge. The Iranian government had done something which Agha Mohammad Khan, a despotic Iranian king and founder of the Qajaren Dynasty, had described as the only way to control the Iranian population: "Let the people starve, then they will always obey!"

Battle during the Iran-Iraq War (photo: AP)
During the First Gulf War, which lasted eight years in total, the Iranian civil population was mainly concerned with ensuring their personal economic survival

​​ What has happened in the thirty years of the Islamic Republic?

Straight after the revolution countless women and men were killed, their crimes unknown, and many political leaders and opposition supporters were executed or forced into exile. Scores of young people were killed in the Iran-Iraq War; the population had to fight for its economic survival, and were mainly concerned with protecting their own families in this critical phase.

In the 1980s the Basij militias and the vice squad were not excessively concerned if people were married or not, but they did check carefully whether people had consumed any alcohol and searched their cars. If they discovered alcohol, video players, films or forbidden music cassettes they exploited their power to the full: people were imprisoned and flogged in the cells.

The "greatest sin" was for young men and women to take a walk together on the street. There was a period in which any unmarried couples they picked up were actually forced to marry.

A whole population in black

At that time our people's colours were black, grey and brown. Right from infant school children were forbidden even from wearing colourful socks.

photo: AP
Iran's schoolchildren dressed as if in mourning: "At that time our people's colours were black, grey and brown," writes Parandis Ahmadi

​​ At the beginning of the 1990s, with the spread of computers and the internet, the colours in people's lives changed a little. In Iran you cannot easily see people as they really are: at home they are free and colourful, but on the streets they wear black and the colours of mourning.

The cheerful colours of the different stations and sounds of diverse music eventually caused a change in society. Although satellite television is still banned in Iran, and Iranians are constantly forced to endure controls, where their homes are invaded and their satellite receivers confiscated, they soon find a way to watch the programmes again.

Step by step the people's desire for change also became visible in the clothes women chose to wear. And people wanted finally to be able to listen to whatever music they liked, not just classical, traditional Iranian music. First the state TV and radio company caved in, then the ministries for culture and Islamic leadership ("Ershad").

The bleached-out colour of war

In the Khatami era rock and pop music was heard alongside classical and traditional music. Theatre and cinema took new paths, with more contemporary subjects. The colour of war slowly receded beneath the colours of life. At the same time political and legal demands smouldered like glowing embers beneath the ashes.

Mohammed Khatami during a speech given at the University of Tehran in 2004 (photo: AP)
A democratic beacon of hope turned disappointment to many reformist Iranians: during Khatami's period in office the chain murders of intellectuals and the suppression of the student protests of 1999 occurred

​​Because they saw a chance for reform within the existing political framework, people who were satisfied with the changes offered said "yes" to Khatami.

Freedom is a right which you have to take, and the people wanted to achieve this freedom, gently, step by step. Khatami's eight year period in office, which was more of a fight within the system than a fight for the wishes of the people, ended with imprisonments and attacks: the "chain murders" of countless opposition supporters and writers and the bloody suppression of the student protests on 9 July 1999, the "Eighteenth of Tir", in which many people were killed or incarcerated.

Black uniformed special police units were deployed to lock up anyone letting loud music be heard from their cars, along with any unmarried young people driving around the city. The presence of so much black spread fear and terror among the people.

Presidential elections with serious consequences

Then came the elections of 2005 when, thanks to low voter turnout, Mahmud Ahmadinejad was able to gain power. Till then few people even knew his name. Other presidential candidates spoke of fraud, but no significant protest took place.

Four years later and the people now knew how serious the consequences of the choice between bad and worse really can be. Many Iranians had been subjected to insults and incarceration from the vice squad, who clearly wanted to suppress the protests of the women's movement in its infancy. "We are the people who call the shots", was their message.

Together with the special units who, according to their own statements, were intended to drive the riffraff out of Tehran, this was the beginning of a military regime. The people were supposed to learn to conform and keep their mouths shut.

The slogan "Drug addiction is bad!" was plastered all over billboards and hoardings throughout the city. But where did all those illegal substances come from? Addiction and prostitution – and the health problems associated with them – increased rapidly over these four years.

"Down with Ahmadinejad!"

photo: AP
After Ahmadinejad's election in 2005 the reform process begun under Khatami came to an abrupt end. The political pressure from civilian society has increased steadily since then

​​Most people therefore decided to participate in the next elections and give one of the other three candidates their vote, none of them could be a worse president than Ahmadinejad. People in Iran were becoming visibly poorer each day, yet luxury vehicles could be seen on the streets of Tehran, cars which were more expensive on the Iranian market than anywhere else in the world. In short: the president was subject to enormous criticism by this point.

During the election campaign the people raised the courage to go out onto the streets and support their candidates. This had never occurred once in the previous thirty years. The announcement of the election results finally pushed people over the edge.

A group of young women and men took on the organisation of the protest marches. They asked people to stay calm and simply raise their hands as a sign of protest. With their mere presence millions of Iranians showed their opposition to the regime. Khamenei's pronouncements caused the people's anger and determination to keep growing, leading to violence and death.

Slogans aimed at the entire political system

Up until Khamenei's speech at Friday prayers the people had simply been demanding an investigation into election fraud. After this their slogans were aimed at the entire political system. Now there is no more talk of election fraud. The issue is now the regime's ignorance of the people and its apparent contempt for their intelligence. Religious reformers have been imprisoned, in order to show that even people from the system's own ranks cannot expect to be treated tolerantly.

During all these events, one issue has been forgotten. Over the last thirty years Iranians have never known their government to reveal its cards. Given the powers the constitution allows the president, if Mir Hussein Mussawi were to be elected there might still be no change.

The most that could be hoped for would be a repeat of the Khatami era. Who has actually benefited from all this unrest?

Parandis Ahmadi

© Qantara.de 2009

*The author's name changed by the editor for security reasons.

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