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In Iran, the protests have quieted, but the protesters are simmering

Iranians who demonstrated against the election results are not moving on. They are biding their time, weighing their options -- and seeing their government in a dramatically different light.

June 28, 2009|Borzou Daragahi

TEHRAN — The young men and women enter Haft Tir Square tentatively. Their pace slows as they discreetly glance around. They spot the club-wielding uniformed security officials and plainclothes Basiji militiamen, scan the square for other would-be demonstrators.

A woman in a form-fitting mini-coat looks left, then right. There is safety in numbers, but there are few of her kind here for the scheduled gathering, so she quietly moves along, glancing at the shop windows. Maybe she'll circle back in a few minutes.

"The authorities have beaten people up, and killed some," says Hamad, a 26-year-old business student among those navigating the square, cautiously examining eyes and dress.

"Their legitimacy has been damaged," he says. "Now I wait. I do not know what will happen. But the atrocity and cheating will linger in the collective memory. And someday an eruption will occur."

The streets of Tehran are quiet once again. But the multitudes who protested the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad haven't gone home and put their rage in a closet.

They are carefully weighing their options, balancing personal lives, economic well- being and political aspirations -- and trying to determine whether they have any real leadership.

Perhaps the anger will reignite on July 9, the 10th anniversary of a student uprising that prompted a campaign to crush reformist aspirations. Or the match may be lighted the next time authorities roll out the Guidance Patrol, which stops women on the streets for allowing too much hair to peep out from under their head scarves.

The government has shown that it's willing to pay a high price in blood and international isolation to maintain its hold on the direction of the country.

But what price are protesters and other citizens willing to pay? Are they ready to go underground, let dark roots overwhelm their blond highlights and shed petite mini-coats to hide tracts and underground newspapers beneath all-covering black chadors?

Are they willing to light a candle? Hurl a rock? Forward an e-mail or defiantly climb to their rooftops and chant "God is great!" every night at 10? Or are they willing to put in the time and effort, and perhaps risk their lives, to organize a movement, just as the followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini did in the 1960s?

Those caught up in the "green wave" built on the presidential campaign of Mir-Hossein Mousavi are still trying to understand what has happened to their country in the short space of a month. According to conversations with dozens of analysts and ordinary people, most of whom did not want to be identified by their full names, their view of Iran and understanding of the rules that governed it for 30 years have changed dramatically.

The elation of a lively political season highlighted by a series of boisterous debates was crushed by election results grossly out of whack with Iranians' understanding of their nation's demographics and previous voting patterns.

"At the beginning, during the campaign it was promising," said Davoud Hermidas-Bavand, a Tehran political scientist. "Mr. Mousavi was not important, but the turnout for him was important. The results of the election were shocking, and the youths became disappointed."

Iran had anticipated a fair vote -- within a system constrained by rules set by the country's clerical leaders. True, all candidates were vetted by the Guardian Council for fealty to Iran's Islamic system. But each vote still counted.

The election and its aftermath ripped away a facade.

Ahmadinejad was quickly declared a landslide winner. Then, as daily protests grew, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei broke precedent by explicitly standing with one side of the political spectrum.

What's more, many Iranians felt they were being patronized. Khamenei depicted any vote cast as one for the system, and he seemed to say that it didn't matter who people wanted because his views were closest to Ahmadinejad's. He threatened those who resisted with a crackdown.

The day after Khamenei's speech, as Tehran burned, the slogans took a nasty turn.

"Rue the day when we're armed!" protesters chanted as they hurled rocks at the detested Basiji militiamen and tossed Molotov cocktails at offices of the morality police.

The crackdown that ensued was the worst since the 1980s, as was the Orwellian twist taken by state and pro-government news media: Neda Agha-Soltan, a young, aspiring tour guide fatally shot on a street, was transformed into a Basiji volunteer whose killing was arranged by a BBC correspondent.

The elite Revolutionary Guard, under the control of Khamenei, appeared to take control of the city, even trumping the Ministry of Intelligence and Security and other government agencies.

"The wound they have caused in the souls of people will remain," said Amir, a 26-year-old shopkeeper and engineering student. "Regarding the protests, I think they are over until further notice. When they will ignite again, I do not know. But it will happen."

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