The past week of rioting in Tehran has left many strong images in my mind, but chief among them is the raw passion of thousands of angry Iranians the morning after the disputed presidential elections. Standing in public squares, or on the balconies and roofs overhanging them, they shouted the name of Mir Hossein Mousavi in a bristling staccato. Another image is of a burning pedestrian bridge arcing over a wilderness of highway and rocky wasteland. Hundreds of Mousavi supporters and riot police clashed on the bridge at midnight after the election result. Soaring luxury apartment blocks flanked the scene. There was the sound of men screaming, the crump of stone on plastic shields and the rumbling exhaust of several hundred gridlocked cars whose transfixed inhabitants watched the scene above them with horrified fascination. Or what about the black-clad crowd, marching up Tehran’s main boulevard in funereal silence under a canopy of green summer foliage? As the police helicopters whirred overhead, a sudden cheer rose up from the crowd to greet them.
But the image that keeps coming back to me is not one from last week, but from four years ago. In 2005, thousands of people shrugged off the theocracy’s restrictions and danced in the streets when Iran qualified for the World Cup. It was only the third time in the Islamic Republic’s 30-year history that crowds were allowed to gather in joy rather than mourning or protest. As I walked, amazed, through delirious crowds, a reveller waved his hand over the multitude and advised me to enjoy the sight. It wouldn’t last beyond dawn, he assured me.
True enough, despite a flurry of text messages advertising imaginary rallying points for another ‘freedom drive’, the next evening was business as usual in Tehran. Police cars stationed at intersections around the capital quickly banished any hopes of a repeat carnival. It was as if that heady night of football-fuelled insubordination had never captivated the Iranian imagination.
Driving through a near-deserted city of 17 million people on Tuesday with two friends (one man, one woman) reminded me of the extraordinary capacity of Iranians to embrace freedom one day, even as they fatalistically accept repression the next. After three days of rambunctious people-power on the streets and nightly face-offs with the police, the only visible movement in this ghost capital was the occasional car crawling along empty boulevards. Dozens of patrol cars cast revolving red and blue light across cement highway overpasses. Cars moved through some neighbourhoods but pedestrians were an all but extinct species. Shop-fronts were closed, stones and charred rubbish bins strewn on the ground, and smoke wisped into the city lamps’ orange glare.
Then, at an intersection, they appeared: Khamenei’s men, the foot-soldiers of the Islamic revolution. A pack of motorcycles streamed up, loaded with middle-aged bearded men wearing loose shirts, scuffed shoes and, on their fingers, rings studded with amber and turquoise stones. Nestled in the middle of this swarm were agricultural flat-top trucks crammed with dozens more. They held aloft red and blue banners with cursive Persian writing: religious slogans glorifying Shiite saints like Abulfazl, Abbas and Hossein. As the pack accelerated from the traffic lights into the darkness of the highway, a cry swelled from their multitude: ‘Mashallah, Hizbullah, Mashallah, Hizbullah’ (‘Bless the Party of God’).
My neck hairs prickled as two packed vans passed us. Motorcycles overtook us on every side, engulfing us in their midst. Frowning self-righteous men stood erect, staring at us. Why were we out at this time? Were we ‘unruly elements’? And what business did a woman have driving a car when two men were riding inside? The insurrection has abolished the Islamic Republic’s morality checkpoints, where Basijis (the volunteer-based Iranian paramilitary force) drag unrelated men and women from their cars and subject them to interrogation or arrest. Now, if they don’t like the look of you, Basijis take their metal rods directly to cars, windscreens and human flesh. Dropping my notebook and pen to the floor, I stared glaze-eyed through the window, willing them to ignore me. We slowed to let them draw away and they disappeared up the road, their chants floating back on the breeze.
What a contrast between these dour, angry men and the smiling, marching army of last week. The pro-Mousavi crowds don’t want the abolition of the Islamic Republic, merely its internal reform. But in demanding a right to be heard, they have exposed the puritan-pleasure paradox in the Iranian soul. These two irreconcilable urges — towards freedom and towards authority — have been at the heart of Iran’s troubles since long before the 1979 Iranian revolution. The political crisis of 2009 is just the most recent version of this age-old confrontation.
Iason Athanasiadis is reporting on Iran through a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington DC.