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."
When Mousavi asked supporters to join a major rally on June 15, Mehrdad was afraid he would be shot, but he went. Reluctantly approaching the main street from an alley, he said, he was overwhelmed by the crowds. "There were over 2 million people there; they reached as far as the eye could see," he said. " 'This is it,' I said to myself. 'If this continues, the outcome of the election will be altered.' "
Wearing a black shirt and green wristbands, he joined the crowds, raising his fingers in a gesture of peace. "We were not there to change the regime or even the leader; we just wanted to change the outcome of the election," he said. "Of course, the atmosphere became much more tense after that day."
For many protesters, the crackdown meant not knowing the fate of loved ones, as authorities rounded up hundreds of opposition members. Aida, a 22-year-old classical music student, was relieved Tuesday to hear that the name of her brother, who had been arrested while walking to the bus stop from work, had appeared on a list of prisoners.
Petite and elegant, Aida wears a green head scarf, a color that is almost reason enough to be beaten by security forces.
"I wear that color to show that we are still here, that the movement is not dead," she said firmly.
Like many others, she said she thought Mousavi could ignite the process of reforming Iran's political system, possibly taking gradual steps toward a broader democracy and greater civil freedoms. "We were realistic. No one promoted change overnight," she said.
Aida had campaigned for Mousavi in the streets, handing out green ribbons and trying to persuade people to vote for him. For a time, she forgot about her cello, her favorite instrument. "The unity among the people was amazing. I never experienced anything like this in my life," she said. "In the supermarket, people would smile when we spotted one another's green wristbands. Total strangers suddenly understood each other with the wink of an eye."
The first demonstrations that followed the disputed election gave her hope. But then protesters attacked a Basij base, and the Basij opened fire. "It was clear the outcome would not be changed," she said. "I became afraid to go out."
Maysam, a tall, slim 29-year-old whose father was killed in the war with Iraq and had achieved honor as a famous martyr, said he never expected to take to the streets to demonstrate against his own government. "My father died for the Islamic republic," he said. "But if he were alive today, he would fight these people."
When Mousavi asked his supporters to demonstrate on June 15, Maysam told his wife, his mother and his friends to stay home. "I was sure that there would be shooting. So I sat at home. But I couldn't control myself," he recalled. He ran outside, hopped on a motorbike and rode to Azadi Street, the locus of the demonstrations. "I needed to be there."
Despite the reported millions who joined Maysam in that protest, hopes of overturning the election were crushed Friday when Khamenei made clear in a sermon that he would not back down. "The competition is over," he said decisively.
The next day, at least 10 people were killed on the streets, state media reported, blaming "extremists" and "foreigners." Protesters say pro-government forces opened fire. The violence has deterred further large-scale demonstrations.
"I didn't go out anymore. I was sure that people would die," Mehrdad said. "I felt bad not to go, but it was clear that there would be shooting."
Maysam has also stayed home. "We can't stand up to the security forces," he said.
"You can feel the anger," Aida said. "Some are ready to die."
With a demonstration Wednesday dispersed by security forces and lines of communication cut by the government, Mousavi's movement is at a crossroads. Nobody is sure what the next step will be, or whether there will even be a next move. Many speculate that Mousavi is under house arrest, because he has not been heard from in days.
"There is a total media blackout," Maysam said. In recent days, he has been unable to open his e-mail, and text messaging has been disrupted since the election.
Mehrdad was surprised by the reaction of Iran's leaders to the protests. "We were there participating in one of the pillars of the political system, the election. Nobody shouted slogans against the leader. But now people say extreme things," he said. "If there is any upside to this dark period, it is the self-confidence and unity of normal people."
But it is a confidence tinged with deep sadness.
"There is lots of crying going on in Tehran," Aida said.
At night, Mousavi supporters go to their balconies and shout "Allahu akbar," or "God is great," in support of their candidate. But even as they shout, the protesters wonder whether it does any good.
"Our only hope is Mousavi," Maysam said. "But what can he do? Our future is dark. It hurts us to think of it. I'm in pain. I don't know where this will end."