Iran: The Deadly Game

It did not occur to me that I might not see my home again on the night of June 30, 2009, when I sat in the back seat of our car, between my shaky mother-in-law and nervous father, to go to the airport. My son, five, and daughter, three and a half, sat on my lap, and I lowered my head behind them to hide myself. For three days, over a dozen disheveled agents holding walkie-talkies had been monitoring the apartment building where we lived. I had even received a phone call from a sympathetic hard-line source, who warned me that I had been identified and would be shot by snipers if I continued going into the streets to cover the unrest.

Protests had rocked the country since June 12, after the opposition accused President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of falsifying the results of the Iranian elections. We had packed few clothes, thinking that we would be gone for only a few weeks. Unlike many others who had nowhere to escape and were arrested, I could travel to Canada, my second home, where I was fortunate to have citizenship.

This was not the first time we had come under surveillance. Our apartment had been monitored many times, even twenty-four hours a day by men in neatly ironed shirts who exchanged shifts in pairs at precise hours. They made it clear that they were watching me by parking their car in our driveway and taking notes every time they saw me. I had worked for The New York Times since the mid-1990s and the agents came when a well-known scholar or correspondent visited me.

But I took the signs more seriously this time. There had been up to sixteen men outside our apartment building. Several of them stood next to their motorcycles. At least four cars, with three men inside each, were parked on the street facing our apartment. I had noticed them first three days earlier when I was leaving to see a friend. The driver in a white Peugeot across the street looked me straight in the eye and said, “There she is,” as I was driving out of the garage. I headed back home ten minutes later when I realized that there was a whole team following me. I called a well-known lawyer; my driver quickly fetched papers for me to sign, so that he could represent me in case they arrested me.

Strangely, the surveillance team left at midnight every night. I felt relieved only at 6 AM on July 1, when our Austrian Airline flight took off for Vienna. I learned from neighbors that they took up their posts outside our apartment for another two days after I left. My friend Maziar Bahari, a Newsweek reporter, who was arrested in June, told me after his release last October that one day his interrogator told him disappointedly that I had left the country. “She managed to escape before we could arrest her,” he told him. “She left you alone.”

I had returned to Iran in 2001 after completing a graduate program at the University of Toronto. It was before the reelection of reformist President Mohammad Khatami. Despite many setbacks to the reform movement and pressures by hard-line forces, many believed that Khatami’s election in 1997 had begun a new era in the Islamic Republic that would push the establishment in a more democratic direction. “These are hard times but I am sure that this country will be much more democratic ten years from now,” a diplomat friend said.

Like many other Iranians, I was filled with hope, and believed that I would witness an important transition period in the history of my country. I was finally given official credentials to work for The New York Times. It had been a long battle; the official who refused to let me work for several years had even told me that the Times needed to introduce “an older male candidate” instead of a young woman.

But I had grown up in Iran and was not intimidated by his misogynist attitude. As a woman, I had learned to fight for everything. That was a lesson the Islamic Republic taught me. When the 1979 revolution banned women and young girls over the age of nine from swimming in public pools, I learned to dive in the evening in my T-shirt and pants into the lovely blue pool in the apartment complex where I grew up. I learned to wrap my Bon Jovi and Madonna cassette tapes in aluminum foil to disguise them as sandwiches and hide them from the eyes of the morality teachers who searched our bags every morning, looking for Western and un-Islamic items. I was never caught.

In a country where the government tried to make women as invisible as possible, we learned to raise our voices so that we could be heard. After the revolution the authorities forced women to wear shapeless coats and to cover their hair, but even after they did so they were harassed in other ways. The regime segregated them in all public spaces and made them ride in the back of buses. Still, women defied the restrictions by inventing their own way of wearing those unattractive cloaks; many of them worked and studied hard and three decades later they had become a more powerful force.

So when I went back to Iran on vacation in the summer of 2000, I met the new director at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, known as Ershad, and complained that his predecessor—an official who claimed to be a reformist—had discriminated against me as a woman. Luckily, I got my first press card the next day.

Before long, I became the only reporter for an American newspaper who regularly lived in Iran. Having seen all the setbacks and disappointments, I was convinced before the 2009 presidential election that people were too disillusioned to vote for any candidate who would challenge Ahmadinejad. He had gone to extraordinary lengths to distribute the country’s oil revenue among his lower-class supporters. In the months leading to the elections, he increased the salaries of pensioners, police officers, and civil servants, traveling around the country and giving handouts to the poor in villages. He promised more money if he was reelected.

But suddenly and so unexpectedly, the country was wrapped in a passion for change in the closing weeks of the campaign. In Tehran, joyful noisy crowds filled the streets every night, blocking the traffic until the early hours of morning. It appeared that a new popular force, including many who had been intimidated and insulted by Ahmadinejad for the past four years, had emerged and was determined to use this narrow window of change. Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the other two candidates, who were relatively moderate, were not liberals. Both had been vetted and approved by the watchdog Guardian Council. But both had criticized Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy, the police state he had created inside the country, and the economic crisis his policies had produced. Neither of the two was considered an ideal candidate, but they were seen as more reasonable leaders than Ahmadinejad.

I saw the excitement before the election outside Tehran, in the city of Tabriz, the capital of the Turkish-speaking province of Eastern Azerbaijan, and even among people from lower classes. I had gone with Moussavi on a campaign trip and Tabriz was the first stop on a two-day tour of northwestern Iran, part of his effort to gain the votes of 15 million Turkish speakers around the country, nearly one third of eligible voters. He had already become the strongest challenger to Ahmadinejad and attracted an unusually large and exuberant crowd of supporters.

The crowd in Tabriz was extraordinary not only for its size—an estimated 30,000 at one stadium on the first day—but also because none of them were paid, given free food, bused in, or ordered by their workplaces to attend, a tactic often used by Ahmadinejad’s campaign. Many traveled in private cars, and despite new government restrictions, learned about the rally on Facebook, which Moussavi’s campaign had been using to spread word of his candidacy among the country’s predominantly young electorate.

Moussavi was born in Khameneh, a small town in the Azerbaijan area of Iran. He was a former prime minister whose moderate views won him support from other reformers in Iran, including former President Khatami. He was backed by a large bloc of politicians and religious leaders who favored more reforms or opposed Ahmadinejad. He had strong revolutionary credentials, and many believed that his achievements as prime minister during the eight years of war with Iraq could save the country from the economic malaise into which Ahmadinejad had plunged it. Many in the audience said that they supported Moussavi out of desperation.

Rassool Zarehee, twenty-two, a computer science student at Payam-e-Noor, a university in Tabriz, complained that at his school hard-line guards monitored the campus to ensure that people did not wear un-Islamic clothes—anything that could be called fashionable or Western. “Boys and girls are not allowed to speak,” he said. “They have even installed cameras in the classrooms to make sure they watch us all the time. Instead of investing the money into facilities for students, like a cafeteria, which we do not have, they use the money against us.” He said that he had worked at a small casting factory to pay his university fees but that he was laid off recently because the factory had not received any orders in months—a result of the faltering economy.

One evening in Tabriz, I watched with horror as a young reporter who had been with us during the trip limped into the Internet room where we were all filing stories. He had been snatched off the street by several militia forces and beaten up. They took his notebook and the videos he had taped of the campaign. His cheek was purple, his lip torn, and he had bruises all over his body. One of the influential allies of Moussavi who was on the trip found the assailants. They were linked to the Revolutionary Guards, a hard-line branch of the country’s military that was founded in 1979 to defend the Islamic Revolution.

No one knew that this was only the beginning of a major political crackdown. On June 12, I went from one polling station to another to watch the long lines of people, who were excited and hopeful. Most people said they were voting for Moussavi or Karroubi. Historically, a large turnout meant that reformist candidates had the upper hand.

All that hope and enthusiasm came to an abrupt end in the evening when the Interior Ministry announced that Ahmadinejad was the leading candidate. Moussavi held a press conference before midnight and said he was the winner but warned that the government was going to falsify the results in favor of Ahmadinejad. He vowed to fight to the end.

What happened over the next days and months has changed the political landscape of the country. Many believe that what happened on June 12 was more than a rigged election; that it was a coup d’ tat by the Revolutionary Guards, the force that had so far silently exercised its power behind the scenes. The coup gave the Guards the opportunity to go after their opponents, arrest them, and torture them. In addition to thousands of protesters who were jailed, the Guards arrested over one hundred leading activists and pro-reform politicians.

Since the 2000s the Guards had acquired increasing power under the guise of privatization and become the largest conglomerate in the country. They took control over industries such as car manufacturing, developing oil and gas fields as well as building roads and bridges around the country. They expanded their political influence by winning seats in parliament and ministerial positions in Ahmadinejad’s cabinet. Since 2007 the Guards have tightened their grip over the country by appointing their own commanders in all thirty-one provinces and merging with the volunteer Basij militia force.

I had felt the growing power of the Guards since the year before the election. One day in December 2008, two men came to our building and questioned my neighbors about me and my husband, Babak Pasha, a businessman who, unlike me, has no interest in politics. They said they were members of the intelligence section of the Revolutionary Guards and kept calling the manager of the building for more information. They finally telephoned Babak in April and said they were paying us a visit that afternoon. “We want to meet you and your wife,” they said. This sent a chilling message to Ershad, the ministry that deals with foreign reporters. Ershad sent two teams of the local police and security police to protect us.

But their fading power was made clear as they stood by and watched the men question us about what appeared at the time to be a trumped-up matter. The men showed us pictures of members of a group that had been arrested on charges of having a pornographic Web site, and asked us to identify them. The same pictures were already on the Internet, along with names and information. The two men were obviously on a mission to intimidate us and show that they could do what they wanted. None of the two police teams present even dared to check their identity cards. They only urged us to call the “police” if the Guards came back and to refuse to speak to them again. We realized how powerless they were.

Iranians are a proud people. They may not revolt over rising prices but they react in unexpected ways when their intelligence is insulted. That’s what happened after the election, when many felt that their vote was stolen. Hundreds of thousands of protesters marched on the streets in silence for a week demanding that the results be nullified. The government had clearly not expected such a reaction and thought it could easily quash dissent. Yet events took a turn for the worse when the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, put himself in the forefront of the confrontation a week later and gave the green light for a violent crackdown. He discredited himself and forced the opposition to move beyond their request to nullify the election results and demand meaningful changes, including Khamenei’s removal, to bring about a more democratic system.

Chaos broke out the day after Khamenei’s address. The authorities filled the streets with loyal members of the Basij and members of the Revolutionary Guards. The streets where people had marched quietly until the previous day became battlefields. The Basij and the Guards were there in the thousands, in full riot gear, beating people relentlessly.

I had covered many protests in Iran, but this was the bloodiest so far and dozens of people had already been killed. Several of my friends and almost all of my sources close to official circles were arrested. The scenes on the streets constantly reminded me of the Basijis I had previously known as I watched the bearded young men, two on every motorcycle, swinging their chains and batons in the air and against people.

I had met Mohsen Mahmoudi, age thirty-four, at one of the recent pro-Ahmadinejad demonstrations where several thousand bearded men and heavily clad women were bused in carrying banners with Khamenei’s posters to counter the protests. A short, chubby man with a bushy beard, he was both a cleric and a member of the Basij, who preached that the protests should end.

Mahmoudi had regularly attended the local mosque in the middle-class neighborhood of Falekeh-Sadeghieh, in western Tehran, since he was fourteen. The mosque was run by a moderate and reformist cleric who favored political and social openness. Mahmoudi decided to pursue his studies in a more conservative school funded by Khamenei in the religious city of Qom. Despite his positions within the hard-line establishment, as a member of the Basij, a regular front-row guest at the weekly Friday prayers in Tehran, and a cleric at Niavaran cultural center in a well-to-do neighborhood in Tehran, he had relatively tolerant views. He said he switched into regular clothes and drove in a friend’s Mercedes during the rallies in favor of Moussavi to hang out with women. He was turned off when a religious woman in the city of Qom, whose hand he had sought in marriage, told him that her wish was that her future husband become a martyr. It was part of his job as a cleric to preach about the glory of martyrdom, but he said that he had no intention of becoming one himself.

Yet, he said, he was truly devoted to Khamenei and supported Ahmadinejad only because he would carry out the wishes of Khamenei. His views reflected the combination of faith, ignorance, and self-interest that could be found among some other supporters of the regime. “The only person who can normalize ties with the United States, and the Supreme Leader would allow him to do it, is Ahmadinejad,” he said to me one afternoon in June on Vali-asr Street, as we watched the Basijis on their red motorcycles heading north to stop a protest. “My dream is to go to America,” said Mahmoudi. “It will come true only with Ahmadinejad as a president. Other candidates want to undermine the Supreme Leader and we cannot let them win.”

He could not understand the depth of people’s anger at the stolen election and the damage that the resulting confrontation would do to the country. It was a confrontation that has been long in the making. In 2002, I had watched from a building close to the dormitory of Tehran University, when hundreds of Basijis streamed out of a nearby mosque on their motorcycles to crush another pro-democracy protest. During one of the raids, a colleague and I were caught in a dark corner and surrounded by half a dozen Basijis. One of them pulled out a dagger. “Bitches! I will slit your throats,” he said. Fearing that he would hurt us, we desperately began apologizing. One of them began clubbing us fiercely, which we were thankful for, because his beating drove the dagger-holding one away. That night we ran back to that same apartment and watched from the window with horror as young men continued beating and stabbing people.

The authorities failed to grasp that such anger simmers beneath the surface and later reemerges stronger than before. The day after that incident my maid, whom I call Nasrin to protect her identity, told me proudly that her eighteen-year-old son Mehdi, a Basiji, had been at the same mosque near the dormitory. Distraught, I told her about the atrocities that I had seen, thinking that perhaps she was not aware of what her son was involved in. She tried to convince me that he was a devoutly religious young man who would not hurt anyone. She was not a believer in the system but she said she was happy that Mehdi had joined the Basij. Her other son was a rebel and “out of control.”

It was no secret that in poor neighborhoods many families who did not support the regime preferred their children to join the local mosque and to become members of the Basij rather than turn to drugs or be victims of neighborhood thugs. A grocer in a poor neighborhood explained to me proudly that he was happy that his sixteen-year-old son had joined the Basij. “The neighborhood thugs rape our girls and extort money from us by force,” he explained. “At least I know my son would not become one of them and end up as an addict or in jail. They will also stay away from our family, because he is armed as a Basiji.” The Basij has about ten million members, according to official figures. But only members who prove their “loyalty”—for example by disrupting protests—estimated to be around several million, are rewarded with benefits and jobs.

Mehdi introduced me to three of his friends for a story I was working on. All of them had government jobs. One of them was the headmaster of an elementary school at the age of nineteen. Mehdi got an administrative job at the University of Science and Technology and was admitted to study law. Competition to enter law school is intense and usually won by very studious applicants. I knew he was not one of those. When I asked him in 2006 why he was rewarded so generously, he said he had done someone a big favor. He never disclosed what that was but I fired his mother a year later when I learned from a senior official source—confirming my own suspicion—that she was informing about me in return for generous payments from the authorities.

I had tried not to think about the kind of information she had been giving about me. What enraged me about Nasrin was not her act of spying, but her audacity, the sense she conveyed that she held a dominating position in my life. At first I tried to explain her growing interest in my work, the people I met, and my colleagues’ private lives by telling myself she was simply curious. But gradually I began to find this illiterate woman knowledgeable about my work and the places I went, as though somebody was instructing her what to find out about me. On several evenings when we had visitors and had earlier asked her to go home, I found her hiding in the children’s bedroom.

I watched how her life improved dramatically, as she moved from a small apartment in the industrial suburb of Karadj to a new modern apartment in downtown Tehran. High inflation and unemployment made it impossible for underprivileged people, especially those with little education, to improve their lives the way she and her son did. The upward social mobility gave them a sense of empowerment and entitlement, making it even harder for them to quit what they were doing.

I felt sympathy for her sense of frustration at her inability to find a better life, but also a strong sense of betrayal by her and other supporters of the regime. I often saw them get excited at rallies over the free juice and biscuits that were distributed. They would walk away happily with large cartons, their reward for participating in the crowds that the government could boost as a sign of its popularity. However, their numbers have been dwindling; I watched in late December, six months after the uprising, pictures and footage of a pro-government rally in Tehran where the speaker, a senior cleric and representative of Khamenei, Ayatollah Ahmad Alam Olhoda, tried to breathe fire into the crowd. “The protesters are the followers of the path of the Satan and you are the followers of the path of God,” he told them.

The irony of how Alam Olhoda compared the opposition and pro-government supporters could not have been more revealing than in a video captured three days earlier, on December 27, during one of the largest and most violent protests and bloodiest crackdowns, which left at least eight protesters killed in Tehran. The occasion was the Shiite holiday of Ashura, the day a grandson of Prophet Muhammad, Imam Hussein, was killed in a battle by Yazid, the villain in Shiite culture, in 680 AD; it was important to avoid being compared to Yazid. No modern government in Iran is remembered for killing its dissidents on this day. The amateur video shows a man, referred to by protesters as a member of the Basij, shooting randomly toward protesters on Karim Khan Street, in a middle-class neighborhood in Tehran. Then one protester shouts, “Hamleh,” in Persian, meaning “attack”; the next scene shows dozens of men and women marching toward the armed man. It seemed that fear had evaporated as masses of people joined the opposition.

The protesters and the government are preparing for another standoff in February, during the anniversaries of the revolution. It was telling that the manifesto issued by five prominent exiles on January 3, in outlining the aims of the Green movement, called not for revolution or violence, but for limiting the power of Khamenei, new elections, and the protection of civil liberties.

I have no doubt that large changes are on the horizon. The question is how and when.

January 28, 2010