Iran's Green Wave
A few days before the vote, as Moussavi's "Green Wave" began to crest, there were already signs that things might get ugly. On June 9 a widely reported leak from the Interior Ministry said that Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah Yazdi had issued a fatwa permitting vote counters to manipulate the results in favor of the candidate who is truly a devotee of Islam. "To you, as administrators of the election, everything is permitted to this end," Mesbah Yazdi wrote. The ayatollah, who is Ahmadinejad's chief sponsor among the clerical elite in Qom, Iran's religious capital, is also godfather to a network of scholars and activists from the ideologically rigid Haqqani School, which he established. For that network--which includes many of Ahmadinejad's IRGC allies--the word of Mesbah Yazdi is law. The following day, June 10, Yadollah Javani, ideological czar of the IRGC, issued a warning that the regime was prepared to take strong action against the Green Wave movement, which had burst onto the scene to back Moussavi. "There are many indications that some extremist [i.e., reformist] groups have designed a 'color' revolution," said Javani. "Any attempt at a velvet revolution will be nipped in the bud." It was a chilling reminder of who had the guns.
It was clear by nightfall on election day, June 12, that something was wrong. Across Tehran, troop transports rumbled out of the IRGC's fortified bases. Before the polls had even closed, Tehran took on the air of an occupied city. Later that night, ominously, my cellphone went dead, like everyone else's. Not long past midnight, the Interior Ministry declared Ahmadinejad the victor, crediting him with nearly two-thirds of a record turnout, having accomplished the near-magical feat of counting tens of millions of paper ballots in a couple of hours. Later that day, as outrage over what was widely seen as a manipulated result rippled across the city, Khamenei confirmed Ahmadinejad's win. Hundreds of thousands poured into the streets in protest.
"Moussavi and Karroubi had earlier established a joint committee to protect the people's votes," Ibrahim Yazdi, who was foreign minister in the early days after the revolution and who now leads the suppressed Freedom Movement of Iran, told me. "Many young people volunteered to work on that committee. But the authorities didn't let it happen. Last night [election night] the security forces closed it down." Describing what the regime did as a "coup d'etat," he said, "The security forces occupied the offices of many newspapers, to make sure their reports on the election were favorable. They changed many headlines." Over the next days newspapers were closed, Internet sites blocked or disabled and opposition campaign offices attacked and shuttered. Hundreds of officials, journalists and dissidents--perhaps as many as 2,000--were arrested, including Yazdi.
Some analysts argue that Ahmadinejad may have won, citing his populist appeal, but that's farfetched. An analysis prepared by Chatham House in London argues persuasively that the vote was skewed, comparing it with the totals for 2005. It showed that, in at least ten provinces, in order to have amassed the totals given him, Ahmadinejad would have had to win all the voters who backed him in 2005, all the voters who last time voted for Rafsanjani, all the voters who last time sat out the election and didn't vote at all, and--varying by province--up to 44 percent of the voters who in 2005 backed the reformist slate. Other analyses piled up similar anomalies. One employee of the Interior Ministry told reporters that the ministry "didn't even look at the vote" but made up the numbers. Said Yazdi, "The counting of the votes took place in the personal office of the minister of the interior, with only two aides present."
Exactly one week after the election, Khamenei threw down the gauntlet, forbidding street protests and warning of "bloodshed." He added, "Nothing can be changed. It's finished, the presidential campaign." Dashing the hopes of reformers and oppositionists that Khamenei might toss Ahmadinejad overboard to calm the protests, the Leader has steadfastly held to his stance, denouncing peaceful demonstrators as "terrorists" backed by Zionists, "evil" Britain and the CIA. In so doing, Khamenei tethered himself to Ahmadinejad's presidency, abandoning the pretense that the Leader is above the fray of petty politics. It was as if he'd painted a target on his forehead. In the streets a daring and unprecedented insult to the country's Leader was heard for the first time in the Islamic Republic: "Death to Khamenei!"
Within ten days of the election, though, the street protests had withered under the unrelenting muscle of the IRGC and the Basij. The regime choked off virtually all opposition communications, arrested most of Moussavi's campaign staff, shuttered his newspaper and banned him from state-controlled radio and TV. Basij thugs invaded homes to beat people who, at night, climbed to the rooftops to shout their defiance. Round one, at least, seemed to have been won by Khamenei and Ahmadinejad.
As recently as May, Mir-Hossein Moussavi--an architect, artist and president of the Iranian Academy of the Arts, who speaks Farsi, English, Arabic and Turkish fluently--could not have imagined himself leading a throng of followers, some of them calling for the downfall of Khamenei. But in the election's aftermath Moussavi declared his willingness to be a "martyr," urged his supporters to take to the streets and issued a series of stirring manifestoes. "A reference point in history is being shaped these days and nights," Moussavi proclaimed. In direct defiance of Khamenei's proclamation that the election was over, he said, "I insist that nullifying the election, and recasting the votes, is a nonnegotiable right." And he denounced the bloody assaults on peaceful demonstrators.
He'd come a long way.