Simmering opposition, and an unlikely rescue from assault

Reporter's Notebook: 'Post' reporter who covered last summer's election protests in Teheran returns to the Iranian capital.

iranian woman opposition 311 (photo credit: AP)
iranian woman opposition 311
(photo credit: AP)
It's as if I never left. As I stroll the streets of Teheran on my first day back here, images and recollections of the summer's unrest come rushing back to me.
Although every day, throughout the country, people come together in small gatherings to mourn the dead and hold minor demonstrations, the streets are relatively calm. The demonstrations I witnessed at the time of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's bitterly contested election "victory," and the more recent resurgence of protest around the Ashura holiday, have receded - for now.
But bitterness and anger are simmering just below the surface, and next month there will be a series of anniversary dates, in quick succession, that offer potential for further drama: February 4 - 40 days after Ashura; February 11 - the 31st anniversary of the Iranian Revolution; February 15 - commemorations of the demise of the prophet Muhammad and the martyrdom of grandson Hasan Ibn Ali.
And Ahmadinejad's plans to drastically cut subsidies on gasoline, electricity, milk, wheat and other basics - a proposal approved last week by the Guardians Council that aims to save $100 billion - can only fuel further widespread public dissatisfaction.
The Ashura street protests "proved something to the regime," a Teherani engineer told me. "We will not stop fighting. We have nothing to lose. All we can do is to continue going out to the streets," he said.
For now, he added, "people still gather together to remember the dead. But more major protests are to come. We tend to gather in larger numbers during religious and political holidays."
The ebb and flow of protest has taken on a certain rhythm, a student activist explained. Ahead of the holidays, bracing for protest, the regime brings busloads of security personnel from the villages into the cities, he said.
"When we come out to the streets, the security crackdowns occur. After things quiet down, they send the busloads out again," he said.
But the line between protectors of the regime and those who protest against it is blurrier than that.
"There is no unity among us [in the security forces], no trust and no respect," said a police
officer who is stationed in the holy city of Mashad. "We are united only in that we get paid to protect the government.
"As for the villagers who are recruited by the government [to bolster the security forces], they are not supporters of the government, nor do they care about the morals and dignity of our revolution. The government pays them money and they do what they are told."
Exemplifying the way opposition to the regime has cut across families, this officer went on to say that his own nephew has been involved in the street protests, and been beaten.
"I received a phone call from my nephew's friend who saw him being beaten by two 14-year old boys," he said. "When I got to the scene, two kids initially would not let him go. They were boasting that they got paid to bring in protesters to the authorities, and that the more people they bring in, the better pay they were going to get."
Among the regime's opponents - activists and those less prominent alike - it is stressed that they are not campaigning for defeated reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi but, rather, against the regime for its ostensible betrayal of Islam.
"The regime's violence against Islamic institutions is an affront, a betrayal of the very essence of our country," said a young soldier stationed in the capital.
"I don't believe in Mousavi because I have heard he is working for America, Israel and the British. My problem is that this country is losing its self-respect and its respect for correct Islamic values."
He added: "The son of [Ayatollah Vaez-Tabasi] the religious leader of the Imam Reza mosque in Mashad," a central site of pilgrimage, "has left Iran for America with his pregnant wife. Even Mr. Ahmadinejad's supporters like Tabasi don't trust our country enough to allow their kids to stay here."
Contemplating the looming price rises, the Teheran engineer said that food has already become extremely expensive. "Our bills have nearly doubled of late, and it is only going to get worse," he said.
While it is impossible to predict how the widespread bitterness, and the regime's often brutal response to protest will play out, it is hard to imagine that the ongoing use of force to stifle opposition will prove effective in the long term.
I was myself assaulted violently by a plainclothes security officer during this visit, falsely accused of spreading opposition propaganda. To my relief, a police officer intervened. If it was not for him, I don't know where I would be today.
"I can't just stand back and watch the violence," my rescuer said to me afterwards. "At times it is too much."