Features | Politics | Central Asia

Tehran Ignites

In June, Austin Mackell was in Iran for The Diplomat to get a sense of modern life inside the Islamic Republic; to talk politics, religion, love, sex, drugs and rock’n’roll with the social networking-savvy, Western-influenced members of generation next who hadn’t even been born when the 1979 revolution took place, yet whose lives remain indelibly shaped by it. On the night of June 12, that story changed into something far darker. This is it.

By Austin Mackell for

Tehran sits on a remarkably consistent slope – the poorer south on flats that edge onto hot, dry plains, the richer north clinging to the foothills of the Alborz Mountains. For a visitor, this means navigating the city is quite straightforward. Uphill is almost always north.

Running through the city like a spine, downhill from north to south, is Valiasr Street, one of the longest boulevards in Asia. On either side of the road are watercourses a few feet deep and wide, rows of trees planted in the middle, through which the snowmelt of the mountains flows. In the northern suburbs – known as squares – the water is crystal clear and fast flowing, but by the time it reaches the Imam Khomeini square on the south side of central Tehran, it is no more than a muddy trickle.

The air changes, too. Blasts of cooking meat and flavoured tobacco smoked through hookahs are universal, but in the north these are tempered by the scent of cut grass and jasmine, whereas in the centre and south they mingle with the faint stench of human waste and something more pungent, as though someone nearby is burning painted wood or garbage, or both.

In the lead up to June’s presidential election, Valiasr was at the centre of the spontaneous street party-style political gatherings that many Tehranis compared with the celebrations that accompanied Iran’s successful qualification for the FIFA World Cup. In both cases the authorities avoided heavy-handed tactics, dispersing some of the gatherings where it was possible to do so without resorting to force and monitoring from the edges those they could not.

As the world witnessed, though, in the election’s immediate aftermath Valiasr became a battleground, with crowds of mostly young people, convinced that the elections were rigged, fighting running battles with police and members of the Basij militia.

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The riots came as a surprise to me. I had at one stage suspected that the revellers’ mood would turn nasty if the election didn’t go their way, but the night before the election changed my mind. I had spent the preceding few nights travelling up and down Valiasr, where the thronging supporters of reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi faced off against the heavily outnumbered followers of the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mostly these were good-natured confrontations; people on both sides would be smiling as they chanted slogans, cheered and whooped. I even saw one car load of guys, clearly there for the festival atmosphere and a little eye-candy rather any political convictions, carrying both Mousavi and Ahmadinejad posters with them. There were occasions, however, when things got out of hand and fights broke out, with young men from each side hurling rocks at each other.

On election eve, however, with a curfew in place, the streets were empty. I took a taxi up Valiasr to Tarjish square, one of the oldest parts of Tehran. This journey would have been impossible on previous nights, with every intersection, every turn clogged with revellers. Tonight, however, it took less than 15 minutes to cruise up the suddenly deserted street. It was eerie, like going to the bathroom in a crowded nightclub only to return and find the dancers gone, the music off and cleaners mopping the floors.

Don’t fool yourself, I thought. The regime is still in charge here.

The night of the election, June 12, was quiet, too. Walking through the Ferdowsi square, I saw the (probably Afghan) staff of Tehran’s garbage and street-cleaning services scraping the posters of the various candidates off the walls. Iran, it seemed, would be ready for business as usual tomorrow.

On television the next day, Ahmadenijad, to the stirring strains of orchestral music over footage of Iranians at the polls, was proclaimed the winner by such a large margin that there was no need for a secondary, run-off vote. I rang a local journalist to get his thoughts. His voice came down the line hard and sharp. ‘It’s obviously rigged,’ he said, adding that the results were simply unbelievable, that the numbers were way off.

I was unconvinced. My contact was, I knew, a Mousavi supporter who was appalled and embarrassed by what the pro-Mousavi camp saw as the attention-grabbing incumbent’s laughable statements, adventurist foreign policy and economic mismanagement. Perhaps he was just incapable of accepting the fact that his compatriots had rewarded this behaviour with a second term.

In any case, a win in the first round of voting meant I didn’t have to spend another week in Tehran. I could get away and see the Meidan of Esfahan, Persepolis and perhaps a few of Iran’s eight other UNESCO World Heritage sites, and talk to the ordinary people – particularly the young – about their lives and their hopes for the future.

To do that, I needed to extend my visa. I went through the bustling streets to the Laleh International Hotel, which was housing the offices of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance-approved Ivan Sahar ‘news services agency’. The visa extension was supposed to be a formality, but on arrival I was shown a notice from the ministry that read: This is to inform you that since the presidential election results have already come out and there is no second round, therefore there will be no extension of visa at all. Please convey this message to all the foreign press people.

Annoyed, I got talking to journalist Toshiharu Tanio and cameraman Masaichi Asai from Japan’s Nippon TV. Toshi asked me what I thought would happen. I said, thinking of the empty streets over the last two nights, that I didn’t expect anything much would. In fact, I thought the Mousavi supporters would go home and bitch about it on the Internet as they made their applications for visas to America, Europe and Australia.

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In short, I didn’t believe they had the courage.

Just then, my phone rang. On the other end, his voice largely drowned out by shouts, was a computing student I had stayed with. Eventually, I managed to make out one word: ‘Vanak’. It was enough. The Japanese crew and I piled into their hired minibus and headed to the Vanak square.

As we approached, the traffic thickened and slowed to a crawl. Something was happening up ahead. By the time we arrived, it seemed the khaki-clad riot police had managed to mostly clear the central square. Protesters still lined some of the streets that fed into it, and groups spilled out from the openings into the square itself. On cue, a line of police charged at one such surge, smacking wildly with their batons as soon as they were in range. The protesters scattered, some ran around the corner, onto Valiasr, others were reabsorbed by the main group. It reminded me unsettlingly of a cattle round-up.

As we prepared to get out of the van, Asai removed one tape from his camera and inserted a new one with military efficiency. I didn’t want to hold things up by fumbling in my bag to look for my spare memory card, but neither did I want to lose my photos if the police decided to look at my camera. I left it in the van and turned on my little digital voice recorder, then put it in my bag between the pages of a magazine.

A series of bangs rang out. They weren’t loud or deep enough to be gunshots, but the possibility of rubber bullets immediately occurred to me. The crowd surged, carrying us along in it and splitting us up. People were shouting and screaming as they ran. Someone, I can only assume for my benefit, shouted in English, ‘Run!’

So I did, frantically, for about half a block before turning into the landing of what I think was a bank. A small crowd had gathered there, bunching behind the faux marble pillars. The shutters were down. Next to me, a young man, probably the one who had shouted for me to run, said in English with a shaky smile on his face, ‘Revolution, like 1979.’ I had a mental image of the green handprints I had seen on walls, echoes of the handprints in blood that had been a symbol of support for the revolution then.

I looked back to where we had come from and saw more people running towards us, with the police following at a jog. In the space between them, I suddenly spotted the Nippon TV crew. Toshi was doing a piece to camera, as the police line approached him from behind. The Japanese made no more effort to avoid them than a rock at the beach makes to avoid an incoming wave. Toshi just kept on talking and staring down the barrel of the camera. They were swamped and disappeared from view.

It was then I saw where the bangs were coming from. Another kind of police had shown up. They rode on motorbikes – big powerful machines – and wore jungle camouflage topped with black body armour, just like that worn by dirt-bike riders, and full-face helmets. They swept in, two to a bike, one steering and one behind wielding either a long truncheon or chains wrapped in thick plastic with two metal prongs on the end. The bangs were coming from electric charges popping between the prongs.

Cops on motorbikes with tasers on chains, riding in like soldiers on horseback to put down a township rebellion. They rolled down the street, perhaps a dozen bikes, maybe more, striking out wildly, the crowd parting before them as people scrambled out of range. The sound of their engines became an intimidating roar as they approached, just like the sound of a chapter of bikies. I was told that these were the ‘Special Forces’.

Once they had passed I ventured out from the landing and spotted Iman, the Nippon crew’s translator, and made my way towards him through the crowd. He was visibly shaken, and told me he’d been struck once across the back. I suggested we clear out. He agreed, but seemed incapable of figuring out where to go. We sat for a minute on a bench as he smoked a cigarette and tried to come up with a plan for getting to the subway.  From there he could get home and I could get to my travel agent friend to book my ticket out. It was bad enough that I was out and about without my translator – a government requirement. I did not want to be caught in the country with an expired press visa.

Eventually we got up to leave, walking towards Valiasr Street in search of a taxi. Rounding the corner, we saw a policeman who had broken out of line to grab a protester who was struggling and screaming for help. It came in the form of a mob descending on the now isolated cop, who panicked and went to lash out at them with his baton, but only managed to fling it harmlessly away. For a while there was real fear on his face as the mob grabbed at him, trying to pull him away from the other police and into the crowd. It was his turn to scream for help and the police’s turn to come to the rescue. Both protester and cop made it out, apparently without major injury.

We got into a taxi and headed away, we thought, from the action. I noticed a green ribbon, a symbol of support for Mousavi, hanging from the driver’s mirror. The traffic soon came to a halt. People were again lining the streets. I recognised the spot. It had been clogged with partying Mousavi supporters a few nights earlier.

Up ahead I could see a plume of smoke rising above the backed-up cars. I asked Iman what he thought was burning. ‘It’s probably tear gas,’ he said, having just heard from a friend via mobile phone that the police were using it extensively elsewhere in the city. I was sure he was wrong and said so; it was too thick and dark.

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Iman’s phone rang again. It was Toshi. The crew had been roughed up, taken to the Ministry of the Interior for a bit then released, as would become the pattern for journalists seen reporting on the protests over the next few days. They had headed back to Vanak square and wanted Iman to join them there. He refused, shrieking, ‘I don’t think I wanna do this job anymore!’

I was distracted from my eavesdropping by the thrumming sound of motorbikes. The cops on motorbikes with tasers on chains were back, coming up the hill towards us. But something was different. They had their weapons held close to their sides and were riding in a straight line, fast, not swerving and striking out as they had been earlier. The crowds that lined the streets started booing, hooting and whooping. The Special Forces were fleeing.

We got out of the taxi and started walking. The traffic wasn’t moving anyhow and we wanted to see what was happening up ahead. We passed young men, their faces hidden behind green bandanas, who had somehow uprooted street signs and were using them and other debris to erect barricades across the street. One was pulling up the paving stones from the large tree-lined gutters on the side of the road, stockpiling them ready for battle. We headed towards whatever it was that was burning. The smoke thickened as we approached, choking us and stinging our eyes. When we got there we saw two burning motorbikes surrounded by a circle of people, many filming with their mobile phones. Someone dragged a plank of wood across and threw it on top. A block or so further on there was another, smaller fire – a few wooden planks topped by a police helmet. Another block, yet another burning bike.

I had been wrong. Mousavi’s supporters did have the courage. In fact, they had courage in spades.

They were not, however, all nice people.

We were standing by the side of the road when we heard the scream. We looked up the road to see a clearly terrified skinny young man in a white shirt and blue jeans being pursued by a middle-aged man clasping a thick, heavy-looking plank of wood. From the side, another, younger man joined the chase, armed with a grey cinderblock. The young man tripped and fell, his pursuers were upon him in a second and others quickly joined in, kicking and punching. Still more protesters then jumped in, pulling the attackers away and lifting the man from the ground, shielding him with their bodies. Incredibly, it seemed he was basically OK – there was no blood and no obvious injuries, although he did seem unable to walk without support.

I asked Iman why the man had been attacked. He told me the crowds said the victim was a member of the Basij, an organization that was part social movement and part militia, with links to the regime. Khomeini’s boy scouts, was how I thought of them. Over the next few days I would see more and more of their ugly side as they joined the police in their efforts to beat the protesters off the streets and into submission.

The incident highlighted something that has been missed by much of the reporting on the situation in Iran. The conflict is not just between the population – or segments of it – and the regime. There are also tensions between the urbanised, educated middle classes and the rural or newly urban poor.

In the days leading up to the election, I heard two stories of trendy young middle-class women – the kind who wore headscarves dotted with Chanel logos, often pushed so far back on their heads that looking at them from the front you couldn’t even be sure they were wearing one – being confronted by groups of young men, probably from the country or the southern suburbs. On one occasion, a girl told me, her veil had been ripped off.

Another girl recounted a more serious confrontation. She had been heading into a train station when she was stopped by a group of young male Ahmadinejad supporters, in town for one of the massive rallies. From what I could tell, they had been trying to inform her that the way she was heading was blocked, or offer some other kind of practical, helpful advice. Even by her own account, her response sounded snobbish. She had told them she knew how to use the subway system and that she didn’t need their help, thank you very much.

They formed a circle around her and one stepped forward, threatening her with a knife. She slapped him across the face. He backed down. After telling the story, she began heaping abuse on her tormentors, and their backwards, uneducated, village ways. She struggled to find the appropriate word for them in English.

‘Peasants?’ I offered.

‘Yes, exactly,’ she replied, a look of vindictive satisfaction crossing her face. ‘Peasants.’

These seemed to be manifestations of the tension originally described by Michael Axeworthy in his history of Iran, Empire of the Mind.

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‘The young men of south Tehran, newly arrived from traditional communities in the countryside, either with no job or only poorly-paid jobs, with little prospect of being able to afford to marry or support a family for some years, saw (if they took a bus or taxi uptown) pretty young middle-class women sashaying up and down the streets, flush with money, unaccompanied or with girlfriends, dressed in revealing western fashions, flaunting their freedom, money, beauty and (from a certain point of view) immorality.

On hoardings, garish depictions of half-dressed women advertised the latest films. Status, and the lack of it, is not just about money – it is also about sex and desire. Tehran was a place of aspiration, but in the late ’70s it became a place of resentment, frustrated desire and frustrated aspirations for many.’

This pent-up sexual anger, which Axeworthy credits as one of the motivating forces for the unemployed young men in Tehran who, along with students, merchants, unionists and leftists, would become the foot soldiers of the 1979 revolution against the brutal US-backed regime of the Shah has clearly not dissipated. It is, however, by no means the only source of tension.

The disparity of wealth in Iran, while not massive by world standards, is also a factor, as is the embarrassment of the more educated and worldly Iranians at being represented on the world stage by a man who flirts with holocaust denial, denies outright the existence of homosexuals in his country and has repeatedly invoked the Mehdi, an apocalyptic figure in Shia Islam, in public discussions.
There is also an overriding sense amongst the reformists and moderates – the globally oriented classes ­- that they are sick of being intimidated. The ones I spoke to were sure they could win the intellectual debate, but were fed up with waiting for their chance. The election had offered them a glimmer of hope, the announced results had dashed expectations, and they were keen for someone to take their anger out on – like the unfortunate Basij caught on his own on Valiasr.

I turned to Iman and said, ‘But there are some Basij who are with Mousavi’ (I had interviewed one at length a few days earlier). He was sure I was mistaken; being a foreigner I must have been confused about the constellation of alliances within the country.

‘No, the Basij are with Ahamdinejad,’ he corrected me. After I explained, more than once, that I had actually spoken to one, he told me that he was definitely an exception.

Soon after this, Iman managed to call a friend of his who lived nearby and told me he was heading to his house. I had had enough, too, and, fearful of what would happen when the police returned with reinforcements, was tempted to ask if I could come with him, but decided that braving the chaos until I got to the travel agent was the lesser of two dangers and set off on my own.

It was only then that the scale of the uprising became apparent. Angry crowds of varying sizes and incorporating people of all ages were everywhere. Skip bins were dragged into the centre of intersections and set ablaze, along with anything else people could find. By the time I reached a street where the traffic was still moving, the sky was masked by a brown haze. I took a taxi to the travel agent and booked my flight to Lebanon.

In my remaining three days, stories of police brutality against journalists became commonplace. (I would later get an email from Toshi revealing that during his brief arrest the police had ‘bit [him] really hard’. I thought he must be misspelling ‘beat’, but he assured me he meant bitten, with teeth.) I stuck to a policy of staying in the car.

Go anywhere in Tehran north of the Imam Khomeini square and you were liable to see the glass fronts of state-owned banks smashed in and, particularly at night, groups of police and Basij, often together, on foot or tooling around on motorbikes, and the groups of protesters they were looking for. The protesters, though they sometimes fought back, in most cases would disperse to regroup elsewhere to start another fire, a process made more difficult – but not impossible – by the regime’s shutting down of mobile phone SMS services.

I learnt that people were arriving from regional centres near Tehran to take part in the protests and reports were coming in of unrest breaking out in Esfahan and other major cities. The regime’s response was to escalate the violence. Reports emerged of the Basij storming university dormitories, killing two young women and three young men. Veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk later reported that they then carried the bodies away and buried them in unmarked graves.

On my way to the airport, we stopped to buy water at a shop in south Tehran. The polite and friendly storekeeper asked me in broken English where I was from and if I was a tourist. When I said I was a journalist, he told me to write that ‘Ahmadinejad is motherfucker. He is motherfucker!’

As I noted at the time in my final blog entry for The Diplomat, I finally finished reading Michael Axworthy’s Empire of the Mind on the plane. The book, a recent edition, covers Iranian history well into Ahmadinejad’s first term before closing with a thoughtful passage that reads:

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‘Since 1979 Iran has challenged the West, and Western conceptions of what civilisation should be. That might have been praiseworthy in itself, had it not been for the suffering and oppression, the dishonesty and disappointment that followed. Could Iran offer more than that? Iran could, and should.’

As I finished reading, a young Lebanese-Canadian boy called Ahmed who was sitting next to me asked, ‘Good book?’

‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘but it needs another chapter.’