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Iran: The Tragedy & the Future

The least that could be said, in the sunny morn after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s emphatic reelection as president of Iran, was that festivities of the kind associated with a victory by two thirds of the vote were on hold, discarded in favor of a putsch-like lockdown. Baton-wielding riot police in thigh-length black leg guards swarmed from the shuttered Interior Ministry in the early hours of June 13. They went to work beating people. Voting had closed the previous night in Iran’s tenth presidential election of the revolutionary era. Within hours, the national news agency, IRNA, had announced a landslide first-round victory for Ahmadinejad. Tehran was changed, changed utterly, and there was no beauty to the terror born.

A festive city awash in revelers and agog at the apparent vibrancy of democratic debate in the thirty-year-old Islamic Republic had morphed overnight into a place of smoldering eyes, insidious fear, and rampaging state-licensed thugs. People looked dazed, as anyone would, so thrust into desolation from delight. All the preelectoral freedom and debates suddenly looked like cruel theater controlled by a perverse puppeteer. “It’s a coup, a coup d’état,” people whispered.

Outside the already upended campaign headquarters of Mir Hussein Moussavi—the opposition candidate whose campaign had blossomed late in great thickets of green banners and bandannas—whining phalanxes of police, two to a motorbike, swept up and down. To loiter was to be targeted. “Throw away your pen and notebook and come to our aid,” a sobbing woman shouted at me, before vanishing into the eddying crowd.

I was still using a notebook then. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, had not yet pronounced foreign correspondents “evil” agents, thus granting heavenly sanction to their manhandling, expulsion, or arrest, which duly followed. Like everyone that morning I was perplexed. The Iranian government proceeds with cautious calculation. The revolution’s survival has not been based on caprice. Had this government really invited hundreds of journalists to a freedom fest only to change its mind? I lingered when I could, ran when I had to, bumping into another railing young woman in tears. As we stood talking, a middle-aged man approached. “Don’t cry, be brave and be ready,” he told her.

I will call him Mohsen. He showed me his ID card from the Interior Ministry, where he said he’d worked for thirty years. He’d been locked out, he said, as had other employees, many of whom had been fired in recent weeks. We ducked into a café, where patriotic songs droned from a TV over images of soldiers and devout women in black chadors—had we just witnessed an election or the imposition of martial law?—and Mohsen talked about his brother, a martyr of the 1980–1988 Iran–Iraq war, and how he himself had not fought in that war, nor endured a sibling’s loss, to see “this injustice against the Revolution, conscience, and humanity.”

Iran’s dignity had been flouted, he said, the alleged election results emerging from the Interior Ministry plucked from the summer air. Why, I asked, had he admonished the young woman? “Because the best decisions are needed in the worst of conditions and crying is not the answer.” Mohsen told me he’d also admonished the police: “I asked them: if Ahmadinejad won, why is such oppression needed?”

His inquiry was reasonable in the face of unreasonable numbers. In great clumps of two to five million votes they emerged throughout the morning, without attribution to region. (A full geographic breakdown took ten days to emerge, presumably because reverse engineering takes time.) Throughout the unmonitored process Ahmadinejad’s share scarcely wavered, showing a near-perfect consistency across areas of vast social and ethnic diversity, and ending at 24,527,516 votes (62.63 percent), or almost 20 million more than the 5,711,696 he won in the first round in 2005.

This staggering gain was trumpeted after a campaign in which the incumbent’s record—of rising inflation, growing unemployment, squandered oil revenue, and, in Moussavi’s words, a “provocative and adventurous” foreign policy—had come under critical scrutiny from Iranians not insensitive to their pocketbooks or to proud Persia’s place in the world. Khamenei himself called the result “divine,” a miracle.

An insulting farce was the general verdict in Tehran, where, it is true, foreign correspondents were largely confined in ever more restrictive conditions (although my colleague Bill Keller went to Esfahan four days after the vote and found himself in the midst of a pitched battle between protesters and security forces). It is also true that Ahmadinejad allotted countless hours and handouts to winning over small-town folk, who may have been susceptible to what they heard in local mosques about his fast-forwarding of Iran’s nuclear program, transformed by the President into a patriotic symbol as potent as the nationalization of oil.

But it was in cities, not rural areas, that Ahmadinejad secured his triumph in 2005, a pattern for conservatives since 1997. That he built his landslide in the countryside is far-fetched. Even the twelve-member Guardian Council—empowered to oversee legislation and elections—which is stuffed with the President’s men, found irregularities in fifty towns and with more than three million votes, or over 7.5 percent of the total. This did not prevent the council, after cursory inquiry, from pronouncing the election “healthy” on June 30.

It looked sclerotic. The plunge in support for the reformist cleric Mehdi Karroubi, from more than five million votes in 2005 to just over 300,000, or 0.85 percent of the vote, was just one of many details as preposterous as Ahmadinejad’s surge. Too many printed ballots, some 14,000 movable ballot boxes, and a dearth of observers—Moussavi’s were pushed out of most precincts—prepared fertile ground for fraud. Is there a smoking gun? Not quite. Was this a free and fair election by the United Nations standards to which Iran itself subscribes? No, emphatically not.

I’d talked on the eve of the election to Kavous Sayed-Emami, a respected political scientist who had done some polling. He was sure of only one thing. “Given the 180-degree turnabout from a month ago, when the election was dead and I expected a 55 percent turnout against the 80 percent I expect now, it’s become impossible for Ahmadinejad to win 50 percent in the first round. And that means a second round.”

He proved conservative: 85 percent of the electorate voted. Another week of campaigning, however, would have meant more freewheeling debate and green waves redolent of the “color revolutions” in Ukraine and Georgia. A statement four days before the election from Yadollah Javani, the head of the Revolutionary Guard political office, should have drawn more attention: if Moussavi had a velvet revolution in mind, he would see it “quashed before it is born.”

The quashing, on that first topsy-turvy morning, was vicious. Anyone there knew something was rotten in the state of Iran. The fraud was in the air. That evening, on Vali Asr, the handsome, plane tree–lined avenue that cuts north to south across the city, I ran into a trembling Majr Mirpour, a raw welt across his back, wounds on his upper arm and thigh, and he told me how he’d been beaten “like a pig” as he bent to help a wounded woman. I was shocked and in truth, over the ensuing ten days, that shock never entirely abated as I saw the clubbing of women, usually by a Basij militiaman, who had been given a shield and a helmet and a stick and told to do his worst.

Weeks later I am still shaken. Iran lurched. The lurching was violent. Still, certain truths have emerged with some clarity from the enduring opacity of the country’s revolutionary power structure. The Islamic Republic, always beset by the clerical–liberal tension implied by its very name—one that has existed in Iran since its people first demanded a constitution in 1905—will never be the same.

Millions of Iranians have moved from reluctant acquiescence to a system over which they believed they had some limited, quadrennial influence into outright opposition to a regime they now view with undiluted contempt. The clerical and political establishment is more split—and more volatile—than at any time since the bloody postrevolutionary years, when scores were settled as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini outmaneuvered those who had fought for democracy rather than theocracy.

Khomeini’s successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has undermined the core concept of Velayat-e faqih, or the guardianship of the Islamic jurist. He has forsaken his role as divine arbiter—a man standing in for the occulted twelfth imam until his expected reappearance—in favor of a partisan role at the flank of Ahmadinejad. This carries none of his former aura—the French translate his title as le Guide —or former plausible deniability. No longer a representative of heaven, Khamenei is now implanted in the trenches.

There he finds himself alongside his second-born son, the cleric Mojtaba Khamenei, whose role in the violent repression appears to have been significant, not least in the control of the marauding militias. “Death to Khamenei” was the most extraordinary protest cry I heard, a measure of just how taboo-shattering recent events have been. At the same time, the Revolutionary Guards, led by Major General Mohammed Ali Jafari, have moved to center stage in what Jafari himself has called “a new phase of the revolution and political struggles,” where his elite force “took the initiative to quell a spiraling unrest.”

In short, a more fragile, contested, fissured, and militaristic Iran—its recent regional ascendancy undermined by falling oil prices, rising dissent, and more flexible and probing American leadership—has emerged. It begs many questions. Will solidarity outweigh friction among the mullahs? How will greater instability affect the country’s onrushing nuclear program? Can Moussavi organize effective political opposition? And might Ahmadinejad, now the most divisive political figure in the Islamic Republic’s short history, prove expendable in the name of compromises to shore up a shaken system? Given the political, religious, and social chasms now apparent, I would not rule out the President’s eventual defenestration. Nor, however, should anyone, least of all American policymakers, bank on it.

The Alborz Mountains soar above the north side of Tehran, their peaks arousing dreams of escape in people caught by the city’s endless bottlenecks. For young Iranians—and 65 percent of a population that has more than doubled since the revolution to 75 million is under thirty-five—the mountain trails are a physical escape but also a mental one: from self-censorship, from monochrome dress, and from the morality police ever alert for a female neck revealed or hair cascading from a headscarf.

Toward the end of a three-week visit earlier this year, in January and February, I hiked in the Alborz and found that frustration—about female dress codes, scarce jobs, and rising prices—was paramount in several conversations that depicted Iran as engaged in an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse: a clerical superstructure sitting atop a society that has in many ways become secular, with repressive laws straining to hold back women emancipated by the education the revolution brought. Today, 60 percent of university students are women. It took ayatollahs to tell traditional Shia families that they should educate their daughters.

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