The bigger picture

Iranian expats describe the parallels they see between recent protests and 'key events' pre-1979.

iran protest 1 88 248 (photo credit: AP [file])
iran protest 1 88 248
(photo credit: AP [file])
At night, cries of dissent like "Allahu akbar!" and "Death to the dictator!" rise from the rooftops of Teheran. The protesters' calls are punctuated by shattering glass as Basiji on the streets below smash car windows in retribution. But the people persist, turning their voices to the sky, an Iranian-American in Teheran, who asked to be called Reza, tells The Jerusalem Post in a phone interview. "The scare tactics, like killing protesters, have worked," he says, "When there were thousands of people out, [the protesters] felt safe. But because the crowds have thinned, it's not like it was before." But in many ways, Iran is as it was before - for this now-simmering resistance was a long time coming. And many, like Reza, anticipate that there is still more to come. Although the protests were focused on the election results, he is certain the election was merely the spark in the powder keg, igniting years of frustration and disillusionment. "Last time I was here, in 2007, literally everyone - from taxi drivers to my family - was very angry and was openly cursing the president and the government, mostly because of the economic situation." Reza explains that though Iranians readily aired their discontent to one another, no one did so in public and never in the streets. He was shocked when the protests began, unexpectedly walking into one of the first rallies on a main street in Teheran. "There were a couple of hundred people completely blocking traffic and yelling 'Death to the dictator!'" he recalls. He joined in, but the protest was quickly dispersed by the Basiji. "People started running up the street, screaming. The Basiji were beating everyone, even random people on the sidewalk who were not involved in the protest. Old people, women, were being beaten ruthlessly." Reza wanted to hold his ground and throw bricks and rocks at the Basiji like some others. But his anger and excitement were tempered by fear. Instead of staying, "I ran home and told my family, 'There's a revolution on the streets!'" Before the protests were effectively smashed by the government, Reza says, the masses echoed his optimistic mood. "People absolutely felt that this was huge and unstoppable and would have an effect." While the people's desires stopped short of an actual revolution, they hoped that much-wanted change was on the horizon. "The Iranian people just want a responsible government that respects other countries and, most importantly, is respected by other countries. We want a healthy economy and we want to be part of the world." These sentiments are widely felt by Iranians and Iranian-Americans who, while maintaining close touch with family and friends in Iran, watched the events unfold from the US. ON A dripping hot Friday afternoon in the university town of Gainesville, Florida - a dot on north central Florida's map commonly referred to as "The Swamp" - a small but spirited group of protesters gathers on a busy street corner. A few elderly Iranian women arrive and an Iranian man with green eyes, red hair and the stubble of a blond beard smiles. He comments, "Look, grandmothers are showing up." He grips a sign that reads: "We wrote Mousavi, they read Ahmadinejad." He tells the Post that he drove hours to cast a ballot in the election. "I feel like I've been cheated. I either want my vote back or I want my country back," he says. He insists that the tumult is about the elections and not about the Islamic Republic itself. "You won't see any shah flags here," he says, referring to the symbol of the regime that was deposed in 1979. "This [protest] is about maintaining democracy." He admits, however, that the Iranian people are upset about more than the vote; Mousavi also represented hope for a freer, more open Iran. When asked what a changed Iran would mean for the Middle East, he took the opportunity to voice his opinion on the nuclear issue, emphasizing that his opinion was typical in Iran. "The government says we don't want the bomb and I believe them. But even if we do want it, I think we should have it. Why should Israel, India and Pakistan have nukes and not Iran?" He turns his attention back to the other protesters as they lift their voices to sing the Iranian national anthem. Next, the protesters chant "Ahmadinejad needs to be washed away!" in Farsi, jabbing the air with peace signs, their wrists wrapped in scraps of green cloth. KAVEH, A highly educated Iranian who hails from wealthy north Teheran and now calls New York City home, sees the recent events as part of a long view in regards to both history and the Middle East. The protests in Iran could have a trickle-down effect, reshaping the region. "The Arab countries are afraid that similar things will happen in the streets, in the UAE, in Saudi Arabia, in Egypt," Kaveh says. Further, if Mahmoud Ahmadinejad loses power, giving way to a centrist government that better reflects the sentiments of the Iranian people, the Palestinian movement could be destabilized. Kaveh explains that many Iranians harbor a deep resentment for Hizbullah fighters as they are often imported into Iran to help quash local dissent. "These militant groups in Lebanon and Palestine won't have as much support," Kaveh says. "A more moderate government will make it harder for extremists, including those in the Israeli government, to push for war." Could these protests mean peace for the region? "No one knows how it will end... but if there is no recount, this signals the end of the Islamic Republic in the next few years." Kaveh stops and corrects himself, "Well, it's not really a republic." Although Iran might not be a republic in the perfect sense of the word, people had some faith in the vote, particularly in this election. According to Kaveh, who is the only member of his family who lives overseas, "A lot of people didn't vote for a long time. But Mousavi seemed like a revolutionary, someone who would bring about reform and modernize things. Before the election, people were dancing in the streets... everyone thought things were going to change." But when the government announced the results, which seemed obviously rigged, the dancing feet took to marching. "Many people wanted to see this happen for a long time. It's not just about Mousavi," he comments. "It's anger. It's frustration. It's the expense of the government telling lies to people." Kaveh has kept in constant contact with his family and friends in Iran, who tell him that from day one, the situation on the ground was much worse than it seemed on the news. "On the first day [my friends] were describing it as 'a war within the city.'" These words resonate with what Reza witnessed and raced home to tell his family about - a revolution. "This is not a revolution," Kaveh says. "But here's the big picture - there were events that happened 10 years before 1979." For instance, the failed "White Revolution" reforms instituted by the shah in 1963 sparked an opposition and paved the way for Khomeini to take power over a decade later. The postelection tumult we've been watching recently will prove to be, he asserts, "one of those key events." It is important, according to Kaveh, to let the current events in Iran run their course. "This is Iran's problem and it must be solved by Iranians. Freedom can't be imported. It has to be organic," he says, "and it is finding its way in Iran." MANIJEH NASRABADI, an Iranian-American writer who serves as codirector of the Association of Iranian American Writers, offers a similar assessment. "The idea that the Iranian people are embracing American values or that this movement means they want to be more like the West isn't so. In the media there's been a spin that Mousavi is pro-West and Ahmadinejad is anti-West. But this is wrong." In fact, Mousavi was one of the founders of the revolution that toppled the British- and American-installed shah. It would be overly simplistic, however, to label both Mousavi and Ahmadinejad as anti-West. To the contrary, resuscitating a relationship with the West is important to both sides, a reflection of its importance to the Iranian people. "This is a battle, in part, over which faction of the ruling elite will get to cut a deal with the US, something both groups want to take credit for," Nasrabadi says. Though this political power struggle has fed the tumult, the unrest is also a natural outgrowth of Iranian history and culture. "The Iranian people have a long history of struggling for democracy," Nasrabadi says. "If you look at the classics of Persian literature, struggle and resistance to oppression are indigenous." She points out that Iranians memorize poems that are heavy with these themes, bringing these ideas into the fabric of the society. "I will never be mistaken for a native Iranian because I can't quote these poems; I can't weave lines of poetry into conversation casually like so many people there can," Nasrabadi says. Despite the fact that her American accent sets her apart, Nasrabadi, who is the daughter of an Iranian Zoroastrian father and an Ashkenazi Jewish mother, feels a deep connection to Iran - she has traveled to the country six times in the past five years, staying for an extended period to study Farsi. She reflects on her time in Iran, "There was a palpable sense of despair hanging in the air. [Iranians] felt their futures were being frittered away by inept, corrupt leaders. When I asked people, 'Why not protest?' they pointed to how students were crushed in the past." There was another refrain Nasrabadi heard when she spoke with Iranians. "Again and again, I heard the word suffocating. And now," she says, "people are taking long breaths of air in the streets." At the height of the protests, Nasrabadi's cousins told her from Teheran, people were chanting, "Don't be scared, don't be scared, we're all together" to encourage those who were too frightened to join in. Although the protests have waned, Nasrabadi believes the seeds of change have been sown. THE PROTESTS also highlighted the deep rifts in the Iranian system and society. Though these divisions have been present for a long time, the cracks took a while to come fully into the light. And Iranian women have, perhaps, played a key role in bringing them from the bottom up. "When I was there in 2005," Nasrabadi recalls, "I met with a group of young women's rights activists, all in their 20s. They had a clandestine feminist cultural center and library and these women went into the streets and risked arrest to get one million signatures on a petition for women's rights in parliament." A New York City based Iranian woman, who asked to be called Maryam, also attended a women's meeting on one of her most recent visits home - but it was Basij-led. "They were complaining that the prices are going up and that we have nothing to eat. The Basij responded that we had the revolution for thoughts, not stomachs." Maryam says that while this kind of "brainwashing" works in small towns and villages, urban Iranians grew increasingly discontented under Ahmadinejad. She points to the brain drain that has thinned Iran's middle and upper class as evidence. "The people gave up... people who I thought would never leave are going." But Mousavi stood for change, as former president Mohammad Khatami once did. Maryam, who was a part of Khatami's campaign, recalls that he ran while she was in college. The Iranian people, particularly the youth, were energized and optimistic by the potential they saw in this new leader. "Khatami was talking about dimensions of the revolution that had never been discussed," she says. "He represented hope." His eight-year presidency, however, was viewed as largely ineffective, according to Maryam. "After that, the people were confused." And along came the unknown, Ahmadinejad. Today, the Iranian people are "suffering from a collective depression," Maryam says. "We're not looking for a revolution. Revolutions are exhausting." She explains that many of the Iranian protesters in NYC grew up in the regime, as did she. She says that Iranians who left before and around 1979, on the other hand, have different sentiments and goals. "The older generation comes [to the protests] and they say things like, 'Down with the Islamic Republic!' But we fight with them. It's important to focus on [the election] for now." Like Nasrabadi, Maryam sees the current struggle as part of a longer history. "When a lot of people look at Iran, they are only thinking about the past 30 years. I look at it as another wave in a 100-year struggle," she says, referring to the constitutional revolution that occurred in Iran between 1905 and 1911. But the constitution has effectively created a Catch-22, says Nayereh Fallahi, a Farsi professor at the University of Utah. Fallahi, who was held as a prisoner for 11 months in Iran in 1979, explains that the constitution dictates who is eligible for the presidency, and one of the requirements is that the candidates support the country's religion. So when Ayatollah Ali Khameini says the election is legitimate and the candidates rail against his word as supreme leader, they have, in a roundabout way, violated the constitution. THOUGH FALLAHI is a Muslim, as are all the other interviewees with the exception of Nasrabadi, she says that Iran desperately needs a separation of religion and state. "The best-case scenario would be that [the election] was out of the hands of the mullahs." Regardless of the fallout from the protests, Fallahi believes that the message remains the same - the Iranian people, religious and secular, are "asking for a rule of law" based on elections and the constitution. This resonates with past events. The triumph of democracy over dictatorship is precisely what groups like the secular-minded National Front and its more religious counterpart, the Freedom Movement of Iran, called for in the late 1970s when they advocated an overthrow of the shah. That Ebrahim Yazdi, the Freedom Movement of Iran's current leader and an important figure of the reform movement, was arrested during the June protests speaks volumes about the current government and its fears. Fallahi says such arrests also point to an overarching issue that is sometimes forgotten. "All of these issues - the elections, the suppression of protests, political prisoners, and women's rights - are human rights issues," she says. Fallahi feels that it is not enough for the world to focus on Iran during times of crisis; the world and the UN need to remain ever-vigilant when it comes to human rights in Iran. "Death brings the world's attention, unfortunately," Reza says from Teheran. "The world has seen the true face of the government. Now that Ahmadinejad has been unmasked, people in Iran want the international community to not recognize him as president." Though feelings of gloom and defeat hang thick in the air, Iranians also feel that the protests made a lasting impact. "People think the internal wheels are turning," Reza comments. Widening rifts among Iran's religious establishment - as revealed by some clerics' criticism of both the elections and the government's handling of the protests - indicate that the people might be right. Whether these cracks will cause the Ahmadinejad regime to fall remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the Iranian people wait impatiently.