tehran protests

Iranian protesters rally against the controversial presidential election results on the streets of Tehran, June 16, 2009.

The protests rocking Iran are of great significance for the politics and society of a Middle East regional superpower, yet one relies in vain on Western media coverage for a decent understanding of developments. Once again, the mainstream press seem incapable of analyzing crucial events in the Middle East without recourse to cliché, condescension, simplification, and decontextualization.

In terms of the election itself, this is not a case of goodies versus baddies. Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who has now become the principal political figurehead opposing the results of a highly suspect election, is not a random outsider, but a veteran of the Islamic revolution. As Prime Minister for most of the 1980s, he had low tolerance for dissent and was backed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khomeini.

What is unfolding is more like two distinct, yet connected, phenomena: a bitter conflict over future policy direction within the ruling elite, and an explosion of anger by many Iranians demanding political and human rights.

On Sunday, I spoke online with a journalist in Tehran. Because he fears for his life, he must remain anonymous, so I shall call him N. He told me that the “regime” is killing people “brutally,” and that he had himself witnessed people being beaten:

They are shooting people, just because we haven’t accepted the result of that shameful election. I attended some of these demonstrations. Last week they were calm, millions of people attended. But after the speech of the Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khomeini], they [security forces] became so wild. They tried very hard to prevent people from gathering, but people gathered. So they attacked people, and so far at least 20 were killed.

I asked N. about the meaning of these demonstrations:

People want freedom and justice. It is about more than Mousavi — it’s an excuse, to protest the whole system.

N. has found it difficult to work as a journalist in Tehran these days, telling me about how he was ordered to omit a story he had written about people being killed during protests. He is also pessimistic about the chances of real change in Iran.

A revolution needs weapons. This regime has many powerful security forces, which they spend so much money on. The only thing that can bring them to their knees is a strike — but there are no unions. [Author note: independent trade unions are banned in Iran.]

N. also had little time for the idea of outside intervention:

Other countries shouldn’t get involved. The West pretends that it is with the people, but it doesn’t really want democracy in Iran because they can’t plunder a democratic country. Iranian people must support themselves.

Comments like these show how the same Iranians who hate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and a ruling elite unafraid to use force to protect its privileges and interests, also have no illusions about the real intentions of Western leaders who cheer on marching Iranians while embracing Saudi and Egyptian dictators. This is a level of political sophistication beyond many commentators, who do the courageous Iranians taking to the streets no favors with their partisan, hypocritical analysis.

Tehran protest photos by Milad Avazbeigi. The images are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 License.
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