Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
Just before midnight on a Friday evening a week before Iran’s much-disputed June 12 election, the initial tremors of the earthquake that has shaken the country to its core were palpable deep in south Tehran, a gritty, working-class section of the city with a reputation for being a stronghold of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Past shuttered shops and empty, debris-strewn sidewalks, a late-night stream of cars, trucks and motorcycles, engines revving, horns honking, roared along the wide boulevard. From open car windows emerged shouts and cheers, raised fists and hands brandishing posters of opposition contender Mir-Hossein Moussavi’s bearded, smiling visage. In the traffic ahead of us, a ramshackle open-air panel truck transported at least two dozen Ahmadinejad supporters clad in T-shirts, jeering at their opponents. As I traveled north from sprawling Imam Khomeini Square up to Ferdowsi Square and on the miles-long Vali Asr Street, the scene was similar. In a country not known for street politics, the tableau was stunning. My Iranian companion, an older man with years of experience in his country’s affairs, smiled and shook his head. “This is something new,” he said.
Indeed. Just over a year ago, when I visited Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan and Qom on the eve of the March 2008 parliamentary elections, I spoke to scores of Iranians who were glumly considering whether to drag themselves to the polls and vote for the least-bad candidate or, more likely, not bother to vote at all. In 2009 the contrast could not have been more stark. The city was electric. Into the wee hours tens of thousands campaigned in a citywide free-for-all. Every morning Tehran was abuzz with the latest election news. Men crowded around newsstands to read the headlines and to discuss the previous night’s candidate debate. Just inside the main gate to Tehran University, two days before the election, a middle-aged guard who had lost a leg in the war with Iraq in the 1980s marveled at the thousands of students marching past, flying green banners in support of Moussavi’s reformist movement. “Enghelab!” he said, nodding. “It’s a revolution!” It’s a word I’d hear over and over again, from students, office workers, taxi drivers and passersby–before, during and after the election.
Of course, it’s not a revolution–not yet, anyway. Although opposition crowds swelled from several tens of thousands at pre-election rallies to perhaps a million or more afterward, the regime controls a vast repressive apparatus. It includes the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC); the police; the paramilitary, mosque-based Basij; vigilante groups like Ansar-e Hezbollah; the army; and a much-dreaded intelligence service, VEVAK, which was responsible for the assassination of hundreds of dissidents and activists in the 1990s. It’s a fearsome machine prepared to enforce the dictums of Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the rahbar (Leader), who warned a week after the election that street protests would no longer be tolerated.