Iran protests: the view from Tehran

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I must admit even a seasoned observer like myself had started to wonder whether there was some truth to the allegations of widespread anger against the Islamic system in Iran following last June’s presidential elections. Troubled by these doubts, I landed at Imam Khomeini International Airport in the early hours of October 4 to be confronted by the same disorganized scenes one has become accustomed to in Iran. A friend had asked, half jokingly, if Iranians are such polite people (which they are), why one does not see any evidence of it on the roads. At the airport, people were jostling to get past one another as I had witnessed on earlier occasions. For the two beleaguered customs officers checking arriving passengers, there were five lines of trolleys, all trying to push their way ahead of others.

Instead of customs officials opening bags, they are screened through an X-ray machine. The same friendly chaos was evident there. Everyone tried to dump their bags on the X-ray belt ahead of others, often stalling the machine because bags got stuck inside. Try doing this in one of the “civilized” Western countries and see what happens. As a frequent flyer, I have encountered more than a fair share of arrogance and outright racism of customs and immigration officials in Canada; US customs and immigration officials are a breed apart. Uneducated, ignorant, but above all supremely arrogant, they lack even basic manners. Their behaviour is akin to gangsters in Hollywood movies.

In Tehran, I tried to seek out the opinion of a wide cross section of people to figure out what was really going on. Having read lurid tales of “massive protests” and how the security forces had beaten and roughed up people after the election, I was anxious to dig out the truth. While I had never believed such stories knowing all too well how the Western media distort reality, I thought it would be best to find out first hand. I spoke to supporters of President Ahmedinejad as well as his opponents; I sought Mir Hussain Mousavi’s supporters as well as those of Mehdi Karoubi. Not once did I hear from anyone that Ahmedinejad had not won the election, or rigged the vote; it was simply not possible to do so. Even his staunchest critics conceded that Ahmedinejad had won the elections handily.

So why the protests and who was behind them? In wide ranging discussion, Professor Muhammad Marandi, who was extensively interviewed on CNN, Al-Jazeera and the BBC immediately after the election, told me that there was a small group of protesters who were determined to disrupt things. They were not really supporters of Mousavi; they had their own agenda (For the record, Dr. Marandi voted neither for Ahmedinejad nor Mousavi). The first opposition rally after the election was not organized by Mousavi’s group. He was told by his advisors to take charge of it after he was challenged by a small but rowdy mob that wanted to go out into the streets regardless. This was also confirmed by Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, Mousavi’s wife, to one of her colleagues at Tehran University who communicated this to me during a luncheon meeting at the university.

Apart from the June presidential elections, there were two other occasions on which rallies were held in Tehran and each time, the Western media only talked about the “massive opposition rallies.” Interestingly, these reports were not datelined Tehran; they came from reporters based either in Dubai or Beirut. The New York Times went further; one of its reporters, the Iranian-born Nazila Fathi, is based in Toronto!

The first rally was on Quds Day that is customarily held on the last Friday of Ramadan. Millions of people attend this each year expressing solidarity with the Palestinian people as they condemn Zionist crimes. During last Ramadan, while Western media reports talked about “tens of thousands of opposition supporters defying the security forces”, participants at the rally told me that there could not have been more than 5,000 people at the opposition rally. And they insisted, they were being most charitable with figures.

Some of the protesters also exposed their true agenda. They chanted slogans asking US President Barack Obama, “Are you with us or against us.” This was revealing; the slogan was a play on Bush’s infamous demand in his speech immediately after the attacks of 9/11. Further, the protesters were seeking Obama’s help against the Islamic Republic; this is a death wish. The more than one million people marching in the main Quds Day rally easily dwarfed the few thousand opposition supporters. Yet, the Western media only reported the “massive opposition rally”. Typical of this was the CBC’s “As it Happens” radio program that is broadcast weekdays between 6:30 and 8 pm. Its hosts have sought out opponents of the Islamic Republic allowing them to spout their hateful messages.

Western media coverage took farcical form on December 8 when universities in Iran were shut down for the Student Day protest. This commemorates the 1953 killing of students by the Shah’s regime. Even before the day of the rally, Western media reports were proclaiming that tens of thousands of students would be marching in the streets condemning the “disputed presidential elections”. On the actual date, there were indeed tens of thousands of students but the majority were not protesting the election result. The biggest rallies were in support of President Ahmedinejad, the Islamic system and the Rahbar, Imam Seyyed Ali Khamenei. This group also carried pictures of the Rahbar and Imam Khomeini.

The opponents actually exposed their true face. They not only condemned President Ahmedinejad but they also tore pictures of the Rahbar and Imam Khomeini. Western reporters gleefully reported these. On December 11, Robert F. Worth of the New York Times in a story datelined Beirut, wrote, “During Monday’s [December 8] demonstrations, the civil tone of many earlier rallies was noticeably absent. There was no sign of the opposition leader Mir Hussein Moussavi, a moderate figure who supports change within the system, and few were wearing the signature bright green of his campaign. Instead, the protesters, most of them young people, took direct aim at Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, chanting, ‘Khamenei knows his time is up!’ They held up flags from which the ‘Allah’ symbol –” added after Iran’s 1979 revolution –” had been removed. Most shocking of all, some burned an image of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the revolution.”

There was widespread revulsion in Iran when protesters burned pictures of the Imam. He is a revered figure. Even opponents of President Ahmedinejad found this distasteful. The protesters had finally overplayed their hand and exposed themselves. It became clear that these people want to destroy the Islamic system of government; their grievance has nothing to do with the election result; that was just an excuse. There has been backsliding since, with some protesters claiming that they were not responsible for burning the Imam’s picture. Some Western commentators also said the Imam’s pictures were set on fire by agent provocateurs. One wonders how they figured this out when not one of them was present in Tehran.

With the hooligans finally exposed and isolated, perhaps it may be an appropriate time for the leadership in the Islamic Republic to get together with those who have genuine differences of opinion, including Mousavi and Karoubi, and their supporters, for a wide-ranging dialogue. It would help to sort out such differences through dialogue so that the enemies of the Islamic Revolution and their paid agents inside Iran are unable to exploit them.

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