Hope Fades but Anger Is Alive as Iran's Rulers Crack Down

After a hotly contested election pitting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against leading challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi, the government declared Ahmadinejad the winner on June 13. Mousavi's supporters took to the streets to protest the results, and were met with harsh security crackdowns.
By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 25, 2009

TEHRAN, June 24 -- Standing in Tehran's grand Vali-e Asr Street amid a sea of green, the opposition's signature color, Mehrdad was sure Iran was on the verge of a change for the better.

He pulled out his cellphone and started filming the crowd around him: the girls in green head scarves, the ladies in traditional chador with green bands around their wrists, the middle-aged couple holding hands as they marched. All were supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the man Mehrdad was certain would be the next president of Iran.

That was two weeks ago. Now everything has changed.

"I deleted those movies," said Mehrdad, a tall 31-year-old who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition that his last name not be used. "What if they find those on my cellphone? I could be arrested. Actually, I could be arrested even for wearing green."

Mehrdad is one among millions, part of a movement that has gone in a matter of days from the exultant hope of reforming Iran's government to the disappointment of facing down leaders who have labeled them terrorists and hooligans. For now, at least, the millions are largely silenced. Only small groups venture out to demonstrate, and when they do, they are suppressed violently.

But their anger remains.

In the weeks before the June 12 presidential election, they danced in the streets. After the disputed results were announced, they gathered by the hundreds of thousands in the largest spontaneous demonstrations since the Islamic revolution of 1979. They wanted the result annulled and the vote rerun. But their gatherings were crushed after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei deemed them illegal. At least 17 people have been killed, and there were reports Wednesday of more violent clashes.

Iranian leaders and state media have accused Western countries, unpopular opposition groups and foreign journalists of starting the riots that followed some of the demonstrations.

Mehrdad, a manager at an import company in Tehran, said he saw the election as an opportunity to move Iran toward a brighter future.

"We thought that with Mousavi as president, Iran would take a step toward democracy and freedom," he recalled. He had spent weeks coaxing people on the street, in supermarkets and at family gatherings to vote for the relatively unknown Mousavi, a former prime minister. "Here in Tehran, people felt we had a choice in this election. That empowered us."

With the official results -- a disputed landslide victory for incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- came the blow, felt most keenly among urban dwellers, that would send Mehrdad back to the streets, this time with a stone in his hand aimed at the Basij, Iran's volunteer paramilitary force. "You could see the amazement and disappointment on people's faces," he said. "Nobody believed the results."

After election day, Mehrdad stepped out of his gym, where he had gone to work off his anger, to find the streets full of people lighting fires and throwing stones at panicking security forces. "Our streets had turned into Palestine," he said. "I'm a peaceful person, but that night I threw stones, too. They had only used us to legitimatize their election of a president who turned out to have been selected. The anger still rages through my body."

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