The students at Tehran University were trapped between the men with clubs and thin air.
Late Sunday night and early Monday morning, some 300 police and members of the paramilitary Basij militia stormed the university’s dormitory, where students had protested against what millions of Iranians, along with most independent analysts, believe was a stolen election. Hardline incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the runaway winner, with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, describing his victory as a “divine assessment.”
But the outcome was announced before many of the votes could have been counted. And the declared results bore little resemblance to the reality on the ground, with Ahmadinejad supposedly winning in the regional and ethnic strongholds of his opponents. While one poll taken three weeks before the election suggested Ahmadinejad was leading, polls closer to the election date indicated that reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi had surged ahead.
Even had the votes been counted accurately, this would not have been a truly democratic process. All candidates must be approved by the country’s religious establishment, which does not allow liberals, leftists, and secularists to run. But the apparent vote rigging still drove Iranians into the streets in numbers that have not been seen since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Most marched in support of Mousavi, who promised more liberty without directly challenging Iran’s religious leadership. Mousavi officially received 34 per cent of the popular vote.
The regime responded by sending police and Basij on motorcycles to rush the crowds and beat them with clubs. Then they began shooting. The BBC obtained footage of a Basij member firing an AK-47 assault rifle into a crowd of protesters. Iranian state radio reported seven deaths and claimed that “thugs” had tried to storm a military post. Hospital authorities reported eight deaths.
And so, on Sunday night, when the police and Basij charged up the stairs of their Tehran University dormitory, the students inside had nowhere to escape but out their upper-floor windows. Some jumped. Others threw stones and shouted “Death to the dictator!” When the attackers reached the students, they beat them and threw others off their balconies. About 80 students were arrested. This information comes from a student who was at the university and who then spoke with Iranian-Canadian Sayeh Hassan, who in turn relayed the information to Maclean’s. It has been confirmed by news reports out of Iran, and by Iran’s parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, who condemned the assault. There are reports that police also raided a university dormitory in Isfahan. A post on YouTube shows the body of man who is said to have been a student shot during the attack. The video’s authenticity could not be confirmed.
It has become increasingly difficult to get accurate information about the unrest in Iran. As of Tuesday, foreign journalists were forbidden to leave their offices to report, film, or take photographs without permission. Phone networks, Internet, and satellite transmissions were also sporadically jammed or cut off.
But Maclean’s was able to reach several demonstrators, mostly young Iranians, with the help of Iranian journalist Arash Azizi, who recently moved to Canada and was able to contact the demonstrators by phone and Internet. “I had never seen such a thing in my life,” said Mastaneh, 23, who works in a beauty salon in Tehran, speaking about the demonstrations on Monday. “We could hear shooting, but people weren’t afraid. We kept shouting: ‘Don’t be afraid. We are all together here.’ A policeman wanted to attack the people, but they rushed him and then let him go.”
A 21-year-old woman who also marched on Monday described the protest as “spectacular” and “fabulous.” She said the crowd tried to stay silent but some still shouted slogans. “When it rained, people said God has cried. I am excited and will keep going. I think the next thing to do is to shed our hijabs. If all of us took our hijabs off, this regime would be closer to being overthrown.”
Siamak, a 27-year-old from Oromiyeh in the northwest of Iran, said the city was in turmoil and reported that one demonstrator was killed—a claim that was not possible to verify.
Some of the demonstrators said they support Mousavi and his platform of reform. Others want to overturn Iran’s entire theocracy. “My grievance is not only against Ahmadinejad but this bloody regime,” a 26-year-old journalist said. “The question is how to bring them down. I think if we vote for Mousavi, the space would be more open and we could continue our struggle in civil movements, such as those of women and students.”
There is little sense that popular anger in Iran is dissipating. Khamenei has asked the Guardian Council, which consists of 12 legal and religious jurists, to investigate the election results. But this has not satisfied opposition candidates or their supporters, who are demanding a new election. On Tuesday, despite a government ban, opposition supporters again rallied in Tehran to protest the election results. Supporters of Ahmadinejad, including those reportedly bused into Tehran, demonstrated elsewhere in the city.
“The Islamic Republic has reached a crossroads,” Mohamad Tavakoli, a professor of history and near and eastern civilizations at the University of Toronto, said in an interview with Maclean’s. “We are entering a period of really deep crisis. Either the political institutions of the Islamic Republic will mature and go beyond a simple role of Islamicizing the society and begin a new phase of democratization, or they will move into a dictatorial phase.”
Tavakoli is hopeful that Iran’s political institutions will democratize, that the Guardian Council will honestly review the election results and order a new vote if necessary, and that as a result Iran will emerge from this crisis more democratic and more legitimate. But Saeed Rahnema, a professor of political science at York University, doubts this will happen. He describes the Guardian Council’s inquiry as a thief investigating a theft. “They are the main culprits in the whole process of electoral fraud and the prevention of a democratic election,” he told Maclean’s.
But not all Iranian political elites and institutions are allied with Ahmadinejad. Mousavi has powerful allies in former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani chairs two powerful government bodies: the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Discernment Council. Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, can count on the Revolutionary Guards, the Basij, the security services, and many conservative clerics. Ahmadinejad’s forces might be stronger. But the fact that a popular uprising in Iran has supporters inside the political establishment is potentially destabilizing.
“If they can’t circle the wagons at the elite level, then they’ll never be able to get a hold of the streets,” Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Maclean’s. The ability of Iran’s ruling establishment to circle its wagons is in doubt. Mousavi himself is a political insider. He was prime minister during Iran’s war with Iraq, but he is now willing to join protesters in the streets and defy the orders of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
According to Payam Akhavan, a professor of international law at McGill University, however, the “seismic shift” that has occurred is not the power struggles within Iran’s political establishment, but the fact that the Iranian people have so forcefully demanded change. “However much there may be factional politics among Mousavi and Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani and others, underneath them the ground is crumbling,” he said in an interview with Maclean’s. “In a country like Iran, with its demographics, with its socio-economic level of development, you cannot simply rule through intimidation and terror. You need to have legitimacy.”
By apparently rigging an already flawed election, by shutting down freedom of expression by suppressing the media, by blocking email and cellphone communication, and by unleashing club-wielding goons against its own peacefully demonstrating citizens, the Islamic Republic has lost much of the limited legitimacy it once possessed. Millions of Iranians are unwilling to accept this.
“For years, I would say that I didn’t have hope in my people and that they would never move like they did in 1979,” said Mastaneh, the 23-year-old beauty salon worker in Tehran. “But I was proven wrong. We have finally learned to fight.”