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January 21, 2010

Iran protests: the view from Tehran

Zafar Bangash

Zafar Bangash NEWI must admit that even a seasoned observer of Iran like me has started to wonder if there might be some truth to allegations of widespread anger against the Islamic system following last June's presidential elections.

Troubled by these doubts, I landed at Imam Khomeini International Airport in the early hours of Oct. 4 to be confronted by the same disorganized scenes one has become accustomed to in Iran.

A friend asked me, half jokingly, that if Iranians are such polite people-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 have 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 my fair share of arrogance and outright racism from Canadian customs and immigration officials; U.S. customs and immigration officials are a breed apart. Uneducated, ignorant but 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 Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as well as those of his opponents, Mir Hussain Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi. Not once did I hear that Ahmadinejad had not won the election, or that the vote was rigged. It simply was not possible to do so. Even Ahmadinejad’s staunchest critics conceded that he won the elections handily.

So, why the protests and who was behind them?

In a wide-ranging discussion, Professor Muhammad Marandi, who was extensively interviewed on CNN, Al-Jazeera and the BBC immediately after the election, told me that a small group of protesters was determined to disrupt things.

They did not really support Mousavi; they had their own agenda (For the record, Dr. Marandi voted neither for Ahmadinejad nor for 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 then communicated it 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 “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 even further; one of its reporters, the Iranian-born Nazila Fathi, is based in Toronto!

The first rally was on Quds Day, which is customarily held on the last Friday of Ramadan. Millions of people attend each year to express solidarity with the Palestinian people by condemning 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, and that was being charitable.

Some of the protesters also exposed their true agenda. They chanted slogans asking U.S. 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 1 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, broadcast weekdays between 6:30 and 8 p.m. Its hosts have sought out opponents of the Islamic Republic to allow them to spout their hateful messages.

Western media coverage took farcical form on Dec. 8 when universities in Iran were shut down for the Student Day protest.

This event 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 was not protesting the election result.

The biggest rallies were in support of President Ahmadinejad, the Islamic system and the rahbar (leader) Imam Seyyed Ali Khamenei. This group also carried pictures of the rahbar and Imam Ruhollah Khomeini.

The opponents exposed their true face when they not only condemned President Ahmadinejad but also tore the pictures. Western reporters gleefully reported this.

On Dec. 11, Robert F. Worth of the New York Times in a story datelined Beirut, wrote: “During Monday’s [Dec. 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 Ahmadinejad found this distasteful.

The protesters had finally overplayed their hand. It became clear that they want to destroy the Islamic system of government; their grievance had nothing to do with the election result. That was just an excuse.

There has since been some backsliding as some protesters claimed they were not responsible for burning the Imam’s picture. Some Western commentators also said the Imam’s pictures were set on fire by agents 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 so that the enemies of the Islamic Revolution and their paid agents inside Iran are unable to exploit them.

Zafar Bangash is Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought and on the Editorial Board of Crescent International. He lives in Toronto.

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