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Iran: The Deadly Game

Opposition protesters at a rally in Tehran on the Shiite holiday of Ashura, December 27, 2009

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.

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