Guest Post: Dispatches from Tehran


mousavi iran.jpg
These dispatches were written over the last several days. They do not include references to the most recent events and violence. There are others on the way that deal with what has been happening since the announcement by Iran’s Ministry of Interior that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won the presidency outright.
They are written by an Iran-American university student who prefers for the time being to remain anonymous.

Dispatch from Tehran: Debate Night — 11 June 2009
Iranians have been treated to an experience without precedent in the 30 years of the Islamic Republic of Iran: six back-to-back live and unscripted debates between all four of the candidates for the presidency of the Islamic Republic.
Each candidate is slated to pair off once with each of his three opponents and while the rules state that the debates are to be between the two men present in the studio that particular night, the truth has been that one candidate of the four has been put up for collective judgement: Dr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Last Wednesday was the big night, the match up between the two giants of the election, Ahmadinejad and “Engineer” Mir Hossein Mousavi, the leading reformist candidate and close ally of former president Mohammad Khatami.
Only the second of the slated six debates, Tehran was buzzing.
For one night at least, even the Islamic Republic’s Founding Father could not compete. At a local high school ceremony honoring the 20th anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini’s passing, you could feel the tension rising as the program ran long. People wanted to get out and get home to catch the beginning of the action. I passed by kids on my way out, little guys too young to really know what was going on but old enough to get that this was a Big Deal.
They were half-screaming half-speaking to each other in that way that only kids know how, stumbling over the big words: “Oooh, oooh, are you going to see the mon, mono, monozere (debate)? It’s tonight you know!”
Ahmadinejad showed up in his usual get-up, “the people’s wear” consisting of gray jacket and white shirt, no tie of course. The current president has a twitchy nose tic and smiles a lot. It’s not the kind of smile that signals “I like you.” He tells you he that he does (“My dear friend Mr. Mousavi, I like you…”) but it’s really faint praise on the way to damnation (“…that’s why I feel sooo sorry for you, and I really didn’t want to say this, but you’ve come here with your facts all wrong.”).
If Ahmadinejad came off as a street fighter ready to cut you with both a knife and a smirk, the man sitting across the table from him cast a decidedly more tepid figure. One of the first things you notice about Mir Hossein Mousavi is the color white: He sports a white beard and hair, swooped to the side in a youthful style. He has exceptionally white hands. The only spot of color on his face or in his figure are in his eyebrows, two dark hyphens racing across his brow. The lack of color is even more exceptional given that all of Tehran is currently awash in green, the official color of Mousavi’s candidacy.
In the span of just a few weeks and acting almost completely at the grassroots level his campaign has mounted a Green Revolution. There isn’t a green headscarf, necktie, or bolt of cloth to be found in the city…
A former prime minister and first-generation revolutionary, Mousavi’s demeanour resembles a metal spring, wound and packed tight into its casing. There is little motion and drama in his character — this is a man not blessed with the gifts of charisma. At times awkward in his delivery, he has a propensity to pepper his sentences with the word “chiz,” the Farsi equivalent of “um” or even “thingamebob” (a YouTube clip lampooning this verbal habit is already up).
Nonetheless, Mousavi’s cool presentation worked well set against the out-of-control heat of his opponent. You get the sense that this guy knows what he’s talking about. Mousavi is, to put it bluntly, Obama without the charisma.
Which is not to say that he is a pushover. An ethnic Turk, Mousavi is apt to get hot quickly, the coil springing out of its casing in a fury, only to retract and cool back down again. This would happen later in the night, when Ahmadinejad made the unfortunate decision to go after Mousavi’s wife…
Anyone who has seen Ahmadinejad in interviews with American or European reporters can’t help but be impressed by his uncanny ability to turn a discussion inside-out. Interviewers frequently find themselves the interviewee (“Sir, you saw that Iran is on the correct path but we see that the world is arrayed against you…” “What world? What countries are you talking about? The entire world or an arrogant few?”).
Typically this boorish behavior is interpreted as some sort of ancient “Persian way,” a supposedly Iranian propensity for dissembling and verbal maneuvering developed over centuries of survival. In tonight’s context, against another Iranian well versed, one presumes, in the Persian forensics, there was little opportunity for Ahmadinejad to get away with his old tricks…
The candidates spoke in turns and had four turns of roughly 10 minutes each, loosely monitored by a non-descript and reticent timekeeper sitting between the two men. Ahmadinejad regularly ran over his time and by the end had none left for him to respond to Mousavi’s closing statement. This seemed to not matter to the sitting president and he began to haphazardly lob comments and accusations at Mousavi off camera and worse of all, off-microphone.
It came off like someone running in and out of the room to deliver bad news in a panic. Mousavi, with eyes closed and hand raised firmly blocked Ahmadinejad’s verbal outbursts like Darth Vader stopping Han Solo’s well-aimed shot in Cloud City: “Excuse me. Excuse me, you’ve had your chance to speak…” To its credit, the state-run network held the line and did not grant the president any sort of disposition. This did not prevent Ahmadinejad from lamely getting in a final zinger, Costanza-style, as they cut to closing credits…in effect substantiating Mousavi’s claim that this is a man who does not follow the rules or care for the law. That this latter point is getting seriously play — –rayat e ghanun, obeying the law — is an important development in the political discourse of Iran.
As I hinted earlier, the most dramatic part of the evening came when Ahmadinejad mysteriously held up a stack of papers with a black and white passport-size photo of a woman clearly visible on the front. Ominously, he asked Mousavi, “I can speak tonight about a woman, someone you know, someone who has been at your side often these past days.
I have information about her. Begam? Begam? Should I say? Should I say?” Mousavi, clearly unnerved by this bizarre and unexpected turn, told the president to go right ahead and on his next turn Ahmadinejad dived right into what may have been the turning point in the election. The file that the president had in his possession was that of Mousavi’s wife, a remarkable figure in her own right and the first wife to ever play a prominent role in an Iranian election (she is already being called the “Iranian Michelle”). Highly educated, with two advanced degrees to her name, viewers were now subjected to the sight of a sitting president telling them that her degrees were phony and obtained by cheating.
Ahmadinejad never mentioned her name or her relation to Mousavi but there was no mistaking about whom he was speaking about…
In my next post I’ll describe how this episode immediately became the source material for a million chants and jeers…
Ahmadinejad conjured up Reagan and his supporters at one point during the night. Like many of the 40th president’s supporters, he cast history and decades of inherited political leadership to the wind to claim that his administration and his administration only that “won” the three decades-old Iranian Cold War with the U.S.. Iran had stood strong against the Americans during his term and this is why we now hear Obama referring to Iran as the “Islamic Republic” and the U.S. no longer actively seeking regime change. Of course, this assertion simultaneously condemned and negated the policies of those leaders who had come before him, including Hashemi Rafsanjani and Khatami. He combined this jab with a sustained attack on the corruption of Rafsanjani, going so far as to single out his sons and daughter for their graft. Except amongst Ahmadinejad’s supporters, this latter line has had little play given that the wealth of Iran’s former president and speaker of parliament is old news. The willingness, even recklessness of Ahmadinejad to burn every bridge tying him to Iran’s insular leadership was breathtaking.
If Ahmadinejad wanted to assume the mantle of an Iranian Reagan, Mousavi was keen to cast him as a Nixon, more interested in “paravande sazi” or building files against political enemies than solving the problems of the country. He flatly told Ahmadinejad that he did not obey the law and stepped all over them whenever these worked against his personal interests. Mousavi went so far as accusing his opponent of heading down the path of dictatorship. This was incredible—on live television!—Mousavi said what many Iranians feel but had not until that point dared to say out loud: this man behaves like a despot. Mousavi conjured up “Tricky Dick,” calling Ahmadinejad a liar to his face, a motif that would be repeated by the other candidates during subsequent debates and by the growing numbers of demonstrators out on the streets. This man lies, one of the greatest sins that a Muslim can commit…
Anyone who has watched these debates between the four candidates and can claim with a straight face that “they’re all the same” — in effect asserting that there is no meaningful politics in Iran — is making a big mistake. It is a sentiment akin to what we heard a lot of during 2000, when conventional wisdom held that the only thing separating Al Gore from George Bush was bad lighting and earth tone jackets. Clearly this is not the case.
The fixation in the U.S. with the pre-screening of candidates for the presidency or parliament doesn’t help, as it distracts from the very real differences between the four men running for president of Iran.
Above all, it is quite evident that Iranians no longer accept the premise that they should protest by not participating in the electoral process.
To put it another way, not voting is now seen as the same as voting. For the wrong guy. Four years of runaway inflation, increased trade embargoes, an already devastated international reputation made worse, and nothing of substance to show for it is evidence enough that “change” is needed, one that supersedes the politics of the past (indeed, Mehdi Karrobi, the only cleric running, has adopted Obama’s “Change” as a campaign slogan — not to be outdone, Ahmadinejad has posters up with “Ma mitavanim” or “We Can”).
Increasingly, the old political categories are eroding. What does it mean when one of the supposedly conservative candidates, a man responsible for forming the Revolutionary Guard, recently articulated a well-reasoned case for Iran to move away from a centralized public authority to a federal system similar to the one found in the U.S.? When “principalists” start sounding like Thomas Jefferson you know that something is afoot at the Circle K…
For the higher-ups here in Iran, elections are seen as a means of ritual validation. To their way of thinking, everyone who turns up to vote, votes yes to the Revolution and the idea of the Islamic Republic. Who the candidates are and who ultimately wins matters less. What’s important is that the domestic and especially international audiences see that Iranians turned out.
Of course, the kids that I see day and night filling the streets, wearing green and chanting Mousavi’s name, are not obliged to feel the same way. Whether or not Iran’s youth, some 70% of the population, believe in the system remains unclear but it’s certain that this time around they’re willing to use whatever political resource at their disposal to make their lives just a little bit better, which in this case is their right to a single vote against Ahmadinejad and for Mousavi.
They’ll go to vote with the democracy they’ve been given and while it’s not perfect, in the absence of viable alternatives and faced with the impossibility of suffering through another four years of Ahmadinejad, they’ll take it. They sure as hell are having a great time while they’re at…
If Iranians do this, if they are successful in throwing out Ahmadinejad after four years, it will be an unprecedented event in the history of Iran. It will also put Iran one better than the U.S., which when given the chance over four years ago to end a disastrous presidency, failed to do so…
Final First Round Dispatch from Tehran: End Game — 12 June 2009
Tehran has turned into one big disco, or perhaps more accurately, a series of open-air roller rinks spread out across the city. For the past week folks have gathered by the thousands, even tens of thousands in public squares, circling around each other on foot, on motorcycle, in their cars. They show up around 4 or 5 in the afternoon and stay together well into the next day, at least 3 or 4 in the morning, laughing, cheering, breaking off to debate then returning back into the fray.
The historian Afshin Marashi writes that the late monarchical rulers of Europe in the 19th century redesigned urban landscapes around broad boulevards and expansive traffic circles in order to give state and society a way to gather together. Adapted to Iran’s young capital by the Qajar king Naser al-Din Shah, spectacles, ceremonies, celebrations, and parades were to constitute a new style of politics for royalist regimes as the emergence of mass society had put an end to the viability of the self-referential sovereign, holed up in his castle and courtly life. Public spaces made it possible for both ruler and the ruled to see and to be seen, a Studio 54 for king and minions alike.
What we are witnessing in Tehran these past several nights is a new elucidation of Baron Haussmann’s design. Society has come out to see society. A girl hangs off the edge of a car window Dukes of Hazzard style and throws her shoulders back for the crowd. Four boys park their cars facing each other in a circle, the highbeams producing an impromptu dance floor for them to show off their moves. Everyone watches everyone else and we wonder how all of this could be happening.
Who are all of these people? Where did they come from? The same citizens of the capital that I used to pass by and bump into every day. We have our eyes on each other, it feels, for the first time.
The late, great Polish journalist and chronicler Ryszard Kapuscinscki, in Tehran during the 1979 Revolution, described how Iranians during that time had become, seemingly overnight, instant comrades. A witness to the fall of the Shah, he observed that revolutions above all re-enchant their participants. Something similar is happening now, I think. It is difficult to describe the feeling of automatic friendship that comes so easily these past few days.
Folks pass each other, in their cars or on the sidewalk and flash victory signs. We are all old friends. But what will happen when it’s all over? What happens the next day?
It’s not just the squares that are being taken by the crowd. This has been a campaign full of symbolic reinterpretations, not least of which has been the color green.
The story goes that on a campaign stop in Mashad, Iran’s holiest site of pilgrimage, a young supporter urged Mir Hossein Mousavi to adopt green as the symbol of his campaign. Green, the virescent emblem of Islam and seyyeds, those that can claim lineal descent from the Holy Prophet.
Ahmadinejad supporters have tried to keep up with the symbolic politics. It is reported that at first they chose the color red to represent his candidacy. This was an ill-advised move, given that red is traditionally associated with Shams, the man held responsible for the martyrdom of Imam Hussein at the Battle of Karbala and archenemy of Shi’ite everywhere. The campaign soon switched to the flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Red white and green, with “Allah” in the center, Iran’s flag contains all of the tensions and contradictions that animate Iran: Islamic, Republic, religion and nation.
The rearticulations are new, but they work because the symbols are old and familiar. Everyone knows what the national flag is, or what green stands for. It’s just that no one ever thought to put them to such use. These repackagings have produced a good amount of protest and consternation, and not just by the opponents of the two major candidates.
“Who does he think he is, using our flag? It belongs to all of us.” A women hands me a piece of paper advising me that the color green is holy and not to be used for something as profane as politics. Mostly you hear individuals express concern that things will never be the same. Whoever wins, the flag will now carry the weight of Ahmadinejad’s presidential campaign, green will evoke the memory of “Musavi-chiha” flooding the streets and boulevards.
Ahmadi bye-bye! Ahmadi bye-bye!
(sang to the tune of la-lalala-la-la, la-lalala-la-la)
Doctor, boro doctor! Doctor, boro doctor!
(Dr. go see the doctor! Dr. go see the doctor!)
Ahmadinejad was given an extra 20 minutes last night by the debate commission to answer accusations made against him by his opponents in his absence. It was wryly noted by some that this was a good thing, as the jokes and chants were starting to get old. We needed some fresh material.
Tavarom e nan joon e Mahmoud famide, in kootooli na famide.
(The inflation that Mahmoud’s nana has understood, we wish that this “shrimp” could!)
Age taqalob nashe, Ahmadi panjom mishe!
(If they don’t cheat, Ahmadi will come in fifth! ) (there are only 4 candidates…)
It is clear a few days out that when the history of this period is written, the debates will have been the major development of this election. They raised the stock of some, like Mohsen Rezaei whose ideas on improving the economy and public policy have impressed many, and proven disastrous for others, above all for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Whatever he says gets turned into a soccer chant within hours (note: what would American politics be like if we had soccer like they do in the rest of the world?).
Begam? Begoo! Begam? Begoo! Faghat doorooq nagoo!
(Should I say? Say it! Should I say? Say it!…Just don’t lie!)
Doorooqoo! Doorooqoo! Doorooqoo!
(Liar! Liar! Liar!)
Goebbels famously said that if you’re going to lie to the people, only the Big Lie will do. Such a strategy hasn’t worked for Ahmadinejad. He showed up Ross Perot style at one of the debates, armed with charts and graphs that “proved” that Iranians were better off in terms of employment and inflation now than they were four years ago. Coupled with the gratuitous attack on Mousavi’s wife last week (Begam? Begam? Should I say? Should I say?), the sheer absurdity of his claims and their dissonance with what every Iranian knows from everyday life have absolutely done him in.
Marq bar dictator! Marq bar dictator!
(Down with the dictator! Down with the dictator!)
Age taqalob beshe, Iran ghiamat mishe!
(If they cheat, Iran will EXPLODE…!)
Gharar nabood intori bishe!
My friend, a veteran of the political battles of the late 1990s, yelled over the din of marchers: “It wasn’t supposed to happen this way!” The rallies, he insisted, were an accident. No one knew that it would come to this.
Iran is this way. Anything is possible because very little in politics or social life has been made systematic. We used to joke that if you leave Tehran for three months you’ll come back to a new city. A friend left for France for one week last week and when he returned the entire capital had turned green…
Friends who were active the last time a major political movement unfolded in Iran stress how different things are this time around. 2009 may be about unfinished business from 1997, but this campaign both in content and in form is not the same. For one, it’s not just the kids who are coming out to demonstrate. Khatami’s election in 1997 was driven almost entirely by university and high school students, organizing and mobilizing out in the streets and at the voting booth.
Now, families are showing up, grandfathers with their granddaughters, young nephews with their aunts, mothers and sons, fathers and daughters. They come out for the afternoon rallies and for the late show, entire households clapping, laughing, and cheering well into the night.
The impact of the media has also changed, its once prominent role now lost to the din and speed of events. Whereas during the 1997 campaign students would devour 10 or 15 newspapers a day to keep up with events, the sense now is that print media and even foreign broadcasts like Voice of America and BBC Persian are woefully behind the curve. As one local commentator noted, it’s all “site” (websites), text messages, and word of mouth.
In these circumstances, it’s an unfair matchup between old and new media. Ahmadinejad says something incredible on television, in response a Mousavi supporter in Tajrish, north Tehran, comes up with a joke, and within hours that same joke has been passed by text message across the length of Tehran.
These veterans of the battles of the late 90s point out that, above all, everyone is competing on the same terms. It is a sign of progress that debate and politics between the two main groups are taking place within a civil and non-violent framework. Twelve years ago it was nothing for supporters of the reform movement to be beaten up, even killed, out in the streets by state and parastate forces, the latter having been given free reign to intimidate and harass.
Today, the basijis and hezbollahis have become “up-to-date.” Though they are hapless and woefully a step behind their rivals in the business of politicking (the worst they are able to throw at Mousavi supporters is soosool, or sissy) it is significant that this crew has adopted the techniques of democracy. While the capacity for violence is still there, reports of beatings are exceedingly rare. Both Ahmadinejad and Mousavi partisans are at pains to keep their troops under control and despite the intensity, you see a lot of light-heartedness when Ahmadinejad and Mousavi supporters collide.
The truth is that this “green revolution” isn’t entirely because of people power. An honest assessment requires recognition of the role that the state is playing by not playing…Sometimes the decision to not act is what is important…I am reminded of how after the success of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine reports came out that security forces had been ordered to fire upon the crowds gathered in Kiev. The decision to stand down instead of obeying these orders played a critical role in opening the way for Yushchenko…
Still, there are signs that the leadership of the country is concerned that events are getting out of hand. During last week’s Friday prayers Ayatollah Khamanei practically commanded that the candidates and their supporters reel in the enthusiasm.
But it is an inescapable fact that the logic of Iran’s official politics has led us to this point. Nothing focuses the mind or mobilizes mass participation, it seems, than a failed presidency. The energy of the Obama and Mousavi campaigns bear witness to this. What’s happened is that this energy has taken the official mantra of presence and participation in the election and extended it, redefined it, to the campaign itself. In other words, state obsession with validation-through-turnout now makes it difficult for that same state to clamp down when young people show up on . The Enemy, after all, is watching…
For the Supreme Leader, the situation has become increasingly problematic. During last week’s Friday prayers Khamanei chided those who think that he has shown his hand as to who he will vote for. Still, he has effectively found himself in a pickle: If Ahmadinejad wins, then it will be said that it was because the Rahbar supported him.
If Ahmadinejad loses, which by the hour seems increasingly likely, then the office of the Leader will have been undermined because the vote will be seen as a vote against Ahmadinejad and Khamanei. Either way, Khamanei’s role as a neutral and objective dispenser of justice hovering above the fray of politics will have been undermined.
Ahmadinejad may yet turn out to be a useful idiot. Given his capacity for making enemies with the wrong people, it may be the case that the bigshots in Tehran are willing to sacrifice his administration on the alter of legitimacy. In other words, given the turnout and the attention of the foreign media, they may have no choice but to let the current president lose. Although analysts in the U.S. frequently conflate the two, in Iran government is not the state. The first is eminently dispensible…
The weather in Tehran has been unseasonably cool all week and this has no doubt contributed to the crowds. Mousavi’s campaign ends on the last day of official campaigning in Freedom Square, the traditional terminus of the annual march marking the anniversary of the 1979 Revolution. It’s where Iranians will gather the next time—if there is a next time—a great political moment happens. Whereas the yearly parades mounted by the state have become routine, today feels fresh, something new. Mousavi himself does not show…in any case he was never scheduled to come. It cannot be emphasized enough that the marches, rallies, and celebrations that you’re seeing and hearing about back home in the U.S. are almost all completely self-generated. The crowd is immense and they come non-stop, filling the square with green. It’s like a social buffet…I walk from one group to another, picking and choosing from the different songs and chants, filling my afternoon.
A friend asks me what will we do for fun when this is all over? What happens to all of this energy? What is there in Iran that one good disco couldn’t fix…?
— Anonymous (for now) Student in Tehran


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