The watching world well understands the young, pro-Western aspect of the ruthlessly countered post-election revolt in Iran. But what makes this outburst different, says The Jerusalem Post's Sabina Amidi, just returned from Teheran, is that many pro-Islamists have turned on the regime as well.
Way back in the days of the Shah, Sabina Amidi tells me down the phone in one of the few lighter moments of our conversation, it was easier for Iranians to get visas to Tel Aviv than to Mecca. So lots of Iranian Muslims came to visit the Jewish state.
"This friend of our family, a middle-aged woman, was telling me last week about how she'd come to Jerusalem in the mid-1970s, gone to the Western Wall, and seen all the Jews there praying to God and leaving messages between the stones," Amidi went on. "She felt left out. She also wanted to leave a message for God. So she told me she too went up to the Wall, and wrote a plea: that she would find a good husband. Six months later she met the love of her life, they've been deliriously happily married for more than 30 years, they have three children... and she - this very conservative Muslim lady - still talks excitedly about that trip to Israel, and about how God answered her prayers at the Western Wall."
And this lady too, Amidi continued, in serious mode now, this devout Muslim friend who lives in fealty to Islam and its laws, today shares the widespread sense of betrayal that so many Iranians feel with regard to the regime of the ayatollahs. She's not been out on the streets, risking her life to scream "Down with the dictator." But she's watched the brutally suppressed protests from her apartment window, and she hopes, sooner or later, that they'll have their effect.
THE AMERICAN-based Amidi is a courageous young reporter who flew to Teheran a few weeks ago to cover the presidential elections for The Jerusalem Post. She had anticipated a fascinating but thoroughly nonrevolutionary sequence of events - expecting that she would reconnect with friends and family there, report on an expertly manipulated exercise in mullah-style democracy, and leave the country much as she entered it: increasingly frustrated by the government's stifling of freedoms, but quietly seething rather than openly defiant.
Instead, by the time she got out of Teheran midway through last week, Iran was in turmoil, the regime had resorted to shooting its own people in the streets and branding its own former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi "a criminal" for daring to challenge it, and Amidi was understandably fearful that the fact of her writing for the Post was putting her own life in real danger.
In our lengthy conversation this week, she highlighted aspects of the Iranian reality with which many of us are far from cognizant, most notably regarding the unlikely combination of civilian forces that has fueled the opposition to the ayatollahs.
"I think people recognize that the anger and bitterness at the regime is acute among young Iranians. I'm talking about youngsters who've been watching Western TV for years, on the little satellite dishes everybody hides in their air-conditioning units, and want those freedoms. Youngsters who know that, under [former president Mohammad] Khatami, they could meet friends from the opposite sex out in public, but dare not under ["reelected" President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad. Well-educated youngsters, graduates, who can't find work."
What the outside world hasn't quite understood, Amidi goes on, is that this youth-led, pro-Western opposition to the regime has been joined by many religious conservative Iranians, "Iranians who supported the Islamic Revolution 30 years ago, Iranians who wanted the Shah out, Iranians who want to live according to Islamic law. Many of them have turned against the regime too because they feel it has betrayed Islam.
They're aware that the Revolutionary Guards, the military face of the regime, are becoming increasingly powerful - that Iran is tending toward military dictatorship. They've heard the rumors - everything in Iran is rumor - that in cases where women have been arrested and sentenced to death for political activism or some other crime, if it turns out that they're virgins, a Basiji [security operative] will rape them, because it is against Islam to execute a virgin."
These erstwhile regime loyalists are also angry because of their economic situation, Amidi says. "There's real poverty in Iran now. I was approached in a market by a woman who was begging for money for her children, but kept stressing that she wanted me to know that she was not a drug addict, that she had 'her dignity intact.' She didn't want to be begging, but she couldn't help it. When I gave her a little money, she knelt and kissed my hand; I had to stop myself from crying. People who used to get by, can't anymore. And orthodox Muslims or not, they don't understand why the regime is giving money to 'other countries' - to Hizbullah and Hamas - and ignoring its own people, who are all but starving in some cases."
"And then, of course, these past two weeks, they've seen peaceful protesters, their fellow civilians, being beaten and shot in the streets." They know that thousands of people, according to many reports, have been arrested, for the "crime" of having supported an honorable political candidate whom the regime had sanctioned. "They're seeing mourners who want to hold burial ceremonies for the victims being barred from the mosques - the rank and file forcibly separated from their God. That's unthinkable.
"And this all burst out now because they saw that the regime had lied - it lied about the election results. It announced that Ahmadinejad had won long before it was remotely possible that the votes could have been counted. That's un-Islamic. Islam prizes honor? Well the regime dishonored their votes.
"And that," Amidi stressed, "is why the marchers out on the streets, and the less courageous Iranians joining in at their windows and from their rooftops, haven't only been shouting 'Death to the Dictator.' They've also been shouting 'Allahu Akbar.' These are the slogans of the revolution from 30 years ago, now directed at those who were supposed to be the guardians of the revolution. This wasn't only a pro-Western outpouring of frustration and a desire for change. It's been carried, too, by some of those who fought to oust the Shah. It is a pro-Islamic protest, as well."
Amidi, like the more sensible commentators, is disinclined to predict how this upsurge in public anger will now be channeled. But she is adamant that although "the riots have been dying down" in the last few days, unsurprisingly, in light of the regime's demonstrable readiness to use murderous force to quash them, "they'll rise again," and the more force the regime uses to deter open opposition, the more widespread that opposition will gradually become.
"Ten years ago," Amidi notes, "there were student protests here, and they did not achieve change. Today's opposition is different, wider." Ten years ago, the Amidi family friend who prayed at the Western Wall was not siding with the protesters. She is now.
AMIDI NOTES that the limitations on personal freedom have become increasingly stringent in the Ahmadinejad era. She herself was stopped in the street a few years ago when out walking with her male cousin, and this prompted police inquiries until the family was able to prove that they were relatives and not flirtatious youths who ought to be married.
All schools are single sex. Universities have separate sex seating. More and more bus routes are single sex too. A top local actress whose sex-tape leaked out onto the Internet last year had to pretend that she was the temporary quasi-bride - sighe - of the man with whom she was clearly intimate, says Amidi, because otherwise she might have faced execution for her shameless public display.
"Broadly speaking, the would-be more Western people live these two conflicting lives. There's life outside, where the women have to wear the hijab, and where you can't talk openly about anything, because you fear that undercover policemen may be eavesdropping; a friend of mine was sent to jail for two weeks because he was reported for discussing politics with his friend at a Teheran restaurant. You only get some relief from that suffocation if you go to gatherings in basements in the remote areas of the cities, or far out of them into the middle of nowhere, where youngsters organize parties, and drink and dance.
"And then there's inside, at home, where people can really be themselves. Where they can watch satellite TV. Where they can play the 50 Cent CD or the Charlie's Angels DVD that they furtively bought from the youngsters who sell them in the long waiting lines at the gas stations. The home is the sanctuary - more so than a couple of years ago, when people's homes used to get raided, and 'Western' items were seized. That doesn't happen too much anymore."
What was striking in the run-up to the elections, however, was that, briefly, those disconnected worlds became one, she says. "In Teheran, everyone cut loose - outside. The people just didn't care. They were playing loud Persian pop music. Mousavi supporters were dancing in the streets. Men and women. That may sound banal to you, but it simply hadn't happened before."
Then came the shock of the results, and everything that we saw happening next. "You should know," says Amidi, "that CNN and the BBC are now blocked. The Internet is snail-paced. I reported all the communications clampdowns. The regime is pretty sophisticated. There are anti-Ahmadinejad clips - clips that mock him - on YouTube. Well. you can get YouTube in Iran, but you can't get those anti-Ahmadinejad clips. There's some impressive filtering going on." (Indeed, it has been reported this week that Iran, with German and other European assistance, has developed some of the world's leading technology for Internet control, censorship and monitoring.)
But sooner or later, Amidi says, the regime will have to restore greater communications capacity, to enable the country to start to function again. "And when communications improve, the opposition will reorganize."
HOW DID the regime get itself into this mess, how did it allow its iron grip to slip, how did it fail to effectively stage-manage elections for which it had already filtered the candidates, elections it had already rigged?
Amidi believes it underestimated Mousavi, a seemingly grey candidate who had been reliably hardline in the 1980s and had been out of the public eye for so long. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei emphatically did not want Khatami to run again - "the rumor is that Khamenei warned Khatami he wouldn't survive if he ran" - and alighted on Mousavi as a presumed nobody whose candidacy would allow a little healthy public venting.
"He did say he'd give society a bit more breathing space, that he'd give the young people a voice again. But the regime didn't take those promises too seriously, and I'm not even sure how seriously he meant them. But the people? The people got excited. Khamenei underestimated this. The campaign took off. It was clear Mousavi had attracted really wide support."
Still, Amidi points out, nobody was certain that Mousavi had won the elections. "They just knew that he'd become very popular, that the results might be close, that maybe there'd have to be a second round run-off between him and Ahmadinejad. But then the regime really rubbed Iranians' noses in it. I mean, the possibility that they could have counted all those votes - hand-written ballots, remember - in just a few hours... It was ridiculous," Amidi laughs in disbelief.
"This is Iran. Disorganized Iran, where polling stations ran out of ballots, and some closed early and others didn't open at all! Disorganized Iran, where you can't get from one side of town to the other!"
And that, reflects our correspondent, is one of the particularly wry ironies of Iran's current turmoil, its shaken regime, its galvanized opposition. For it is entirely possible that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who campaigned extremely effectively across Iran, handing out grants and initiating infrastructure projects, dominating state media coverage and basically using the clout of incumbency to secure another term, actually did win the contested June 12 presidential elections.
It's just that the regime didn't have the confidence, or the patience, to see through its exercise in controlled quasi-democracy. Which begs the question: Can it regain control of its betrayed people in the long-term, when even on election day, especially on election day, it couldn't control its repressive, dictatorial instincts?