On Monday I wrote about Iran’s Green Wave, in support of reformist MirHossein Mousavi. Today I am writing about the Red Tide. That’s thered-armband-wearing, virtual fascist movement in support of reelectingPresident Ahmadinejad.
Picture the scene: hours before a rally held at a huge, special indoorprayer auditorium in downtown Tehran, tens of thousands of Ahmadinejadsupporters began gathering for a pre-election rally. It’s hot, sweaty,and dusty, and a ear-splitting sound system is playing martial music asthug-like young men chant slogans. As the crowd gathers, variousspeakers whip up a frenzy of anger, xenophobia, and religious ecstasy.Appeals are made about the need to honor the suffering of various,long-dead holy men of Islam, and speakers denounce the president’sopponents.
Dark conspiracies are hinted at. “The buses and subways have been shutdown! They don’t want you here! It’s the work of Hashemi Rafsanjani!”Rafsanjani, a former president and wheeler-dealer, is supportingMousavi, and Rafsanjani’s son runs the Tehran metro system. In fact, noshutdown has happened. It’s a lie, but the crowd roars: “Death toHashemi!” You can see the hatred in their eyes.
In the VIP section is a mullah, 42, from Lahejan, who gives his name asGilani, refusing to indentify himself further. White-turbaned andslender, with the required beard, he is serene and supremely confidentin his gray robes and white shirt. He views the crowd proudly. Why doyou support Ahmadinejad? I ask. He doesn’t hesitate:
He is anti-superpower. He is against Zionism. His thinkingis divine thinking. He is going to continue the way of the martyrs. Hewants to establish a government for the entire world, a government to beestablished under the rule of the Hidden Imam.
As he says this, he looks smug and adopts the attitude of a man whoknows the truth. He has access to the inner secrets, he implies, lookingat me as if I can never understand. In the crowd many agree. Arough-looking man, probably a member of the Basij militia, defendsAhmadinejad’s absurd Holocaust-mongering. It’s hard to hear what peopleare saying, the din is so loud.
Soon, the chants are: “Death to Israel!” and of course, “Death toAmerica!” They get louder and louder. The crowd is getting angrier, andmore excited. The martial music grows in volume. Suddenly, the crowdrushes the stage, as the time for Ahmadinajad’s speech draws near. Atthe doors, thousands of people left outside and pushing through thedoors, trampling guards and old people, climbing through windows,scrambling up air conditional scaffolding to drop through ceiling-levelwindows.
It’s a near riot. Crushed in a sea of people, floating a wave of angrypeople, I push my way through the crowd to a window exit as hundreds ofpeople push in.
In the end — though I’ve left the frenetic rally — Ahmadinajed is ano-show. Despite perhaps 50,000 ecstatic followers, a lumpenproletariatcrowd of roughnecks and fanatics, he cancels his appearance, without anyexplanation. As the rally breaks up, thousands of Ahmadinejad backersflood Tehran. In vans and pick up trucks and aboard motorcycles, theyswarm the city, blocking traffic, chanting, shouting, carrying banners.The demonstration, city-wide, goes on past midnight, and the city –whose normal traffic is gridlocked — comes to a complete standstill.
What does it all mean? To me, there’s no question that Iran is at acrucial turning point.
The contrast between the Ahmadinjad rally and the Mousavi rally that Iattended on Saturday in Karaj could not be more complete. The level ofenthusiasm at the Mousavi rally was very, very high. But there were noangry chants. Instead of “Death to America!” the green-clad Mousavisupporters chant: “Death to potatoes!” ridiculing Ahmadinejad’s practiceof giving out sacks of potatoes to his poor supporters. The women at theMousavi rally are sheathed in scarves, but their stylish hair is visibleunderneath, they wear attractive makeup and pink lipstick, and belowtheir short outer garments are visible jeans and, in many cases, highheels. At the Ahmadinejad rally, the women — in the thousands — aresegregated from the men, and they are dressed head to toe inall-covering black.
Ahmadinejad’s base is one that worships him, worships authority, andbelieves in dark plots against Iran. It is profoundly religious andultra-nationalist, and it’s the ultra-nationalism that worries me mostof all. Combined with religious fanaticism, and they are fanatics,backed by the paramilitary Basij and the Revolutionary Guard. Many oftheir commanders are graduates and devotees of the same religious schoolin Qom as Ahmadinejad, led by reactionary Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi.
If Ahmadinejad loses, as seems likely, in Friday’s vote, where will thisforce go? What will happen to the whipped-up, ultra-nationalists andreligious right? Will they submit meekly — or will they revolt? It’s ascary thought.
Mousavi supporters are confident about the outcome. Even the clergy isturning against Ahmadinejad, and there are rumors that the Leader,Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is having second thoughts about the president,too. One well-connected mullah, Sheikh Ahmed Karimi, who is working inthe Mousavi camp, told me that the vast majority of Iran’s approximatelythirty or so grand ayatollahs supports Mousavi. One of them, GrandAyatollah Yousef Saneei, who’s been banned by the regime for hispolitical activities, still manages to send out coded SMS text messagesto countless followers urging them not to vote for Ahmadinejad becausehe is a “liar.” There are even more radical forces in the Mousavi camp,including some who challenge the authority of Khamenei himself.
In the provinces, especially in Azerbaijan (the Turkish north) and inKhuzestan (the Arab southwest), and in other minority, non-Persianregions of Iran, the vote is overwhelming for Mousavi, travelers fromthose areas tell me.
It’s true, of course, that the president has a limited, if importantrole, in Iran, and the power rests chiefly in the hands of the Leader.Many observers have said that, whoever wins, the Leader, the SupremeNational Security Council, and the other insiders are intent onexploring a dialogue with the United States. But sometimes, oncepowerful forces of fanaticism are riled up and unleashed, it’s hard tocall them back. It’s entirely possible that even the Leader is concernedabout the power that Ahmadinejad is trying to amass, in alliance withthe paramilitary forces.