A Blog Written By Roozbeh Mirebrahimi
By LAURA SECOR , New Yorker Magazine ,
Issue of 2005-11-21
One afternoon in June, three days before Iran’s Presidential elections, thousands of young reformists gathered in Tehran University’s soccer stadium. Their candidate, Mustafa Moin, was sure to lose, but the crowd was jubilantly defiant. “Free the political prisoners!” people shouted, in a country where citizens are often afraid to speak openly on their private telephones. “Democracy and freedom are on the way!”
Saeed Hajjarian approached a podium that was covered in Persian carpets. The crowd broke into applause. Hajjarian had once been an Islamic revolutionary and a top intelligence-ministry official, but as Iran’s autocratic regime hardened he had grown more liberal, becoming a key architect of the reform movement, which rose to prominence in 1997. That year, Hajjarian had helped secure the election of Mohammad Khatami, whose two-term Presidency was now ending. In the late nineteen-nineties, a string of Iranian dissidents were mysteriously murdered, and a few journalists linked those murders to the intelligence ministry, which was still controlled by hardliners; Hajjarian’s adversaries, fearing the extent of his knowledge of the regime’s inner workings, presumed that he was the journalists’ informant. In March, 2000, Hajjarian was shot in the face outside Tehran’s city council. He survived a long coma but awoke paralyzed. He recently started to walk again.
As Hajjarian prepared to speak, a chant rose from the crowd: “Down with political assassination!” Hajjarian implored the crowd to remember Akbar Ganji—a dissident journalist who was in prison, on an extended hunger strike—and others “who can’t be here because they are in prison or in Heaven.” The crowd whistled in approval. In the distance, behind the city’s veil of smog, were the austere peaks of the Elburz Mountains, which loom over Tehran, a Middle Eastern Los Angeles of low-lying sprawl and traffic-choked boulevards.
I sat on the soccer field, behind a bale of folded carpets. Two boys of eleven or twelve, who wore headbands with campaign slogans in their gelled hair, flung themselves, belly first, onto the rugs, laughing. On either side of the podium were vertical banners with images of Moin—a gray-haired man with a narrow face and an expression of kindly intelligence. Moin had been the country’s minister of higher education in 1999, when, at Tehran University, Iranian security forces attacked students who were protesting the closure of a newspaper; several students were killed and dozens wounded. In protest, Moin offered his resignation. President Khatami, however, had been nearly silent—an act of submission that left many young Iranians cynical about the reform movement.
After Hajjarian finished speaking, a pop band took the stage. “The song I’m going to sing is against fascist dictatorship, assassination, and torture,” the singer announced. “It’s dedicated to Akbar Ganji and Saeed Hajjarian.” In the bleachers, a man in a blue short-sleeved shirt, with an Iranian flag tied around his head, swung his arms extravagantly above him, clapping to the music.
I left the rally as dusk fell. The streets surrounding the stadium were packed with police and members of the Revolutionary Guard Corps—the regime’s paramilitary force. The guards, in dark-green fatigues, were armed, and policemen stood near parked vehicles filled with riot gear.
An Iranian friend once told me, “We have freedom of expression. We just don’t have freedom after expression.”
The eight years of Mohammad Khatami’s Presidency created an illusion of openness in Iran. The country’s stringent social codes gradually relaxed. Young men and women could mix almost freely; women’s head scarves inched backward; chadors and loose black cloaks gave way to close-fitting, colorful manteaus. Dozens of newspapers opened, and activists demonstrated in the streets and on campuses to make demands of a President they thought was accountable to them.
Though Khatami had been elected in a landslide, he and reformist members of parliament were stymied by the overweening power of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who controls the country’s security forces and judiciary, and can effectively overrule the decisions of elected officials. The Guardian Council, an appointed twelve-member body close to Khamenei, vetoed a hundred and eleven of the two hundred and ninety-seven bills that Khatami endorsed as President. Meanwhile, from 1999 through 2004, the clerical establishment closed more than a hundred newspapers and magazines, and hundreds of student activists and journalists were imprisoned, often under terrible conditions. The rules of Iranian public discourse have remained fixed and unforgiving: you cannot criticize the Supreme Leader, the clergy, or the judiciary. The government frequently circulates a list of specific “red-lined,” or forbidden, subjects to the country’s media.
Iran’s reform movement, for all its courage, was the loyal opposition in a fascist state. It sought not to dismantle or secularize the Islamic Republic—which was established in 1979—but to improve it. Khatami and other politicians drew on the work of Iranian philosophers who made painstaking theological arguments for incorporating human rights and democratic freedoms into an Islamic framework. These thinkers also questioned the doctrine of Velayat-e Faqih, established by Ayatollah Khomeini after the Islamic revolution, which decreed that a Shiite cleric, a Supreme Leader, must oversee the country. Khatami and other reformist politicians accepted that the state rested on two unequal pillars: one clerical, the other republican. But they believed that by taking hold of the republican elements of the state the people could chip away at authoritarianism. They articulated their strategy as one of applying pressure from below and negotiating at the top. And there were some improvements. Khatami appointed moderates to run the ministries, which make decisions that reach deep into Iranians’ daily lives. As the reformist intellectual Saeed Laylaz told me when I visited Iran in October, 2004, “Ten years ago, if you were in opposition to the government, they killed you. Now they just make some legal trouble for you.”
Nevertheless, by that fall the reformist project was widely perceived to be foundering. The reformists had lost control of parliament, in part because clerics had disqualified forty-four per cent of the prospective candidates, most of them reformists. And many of Khatami’s young supporters felt betrayed, believing that their loyalty had merely burnished the image of a repressive regime. As Khatami prepared to leave office, Iran’s largest student groups announced a boycott of the June election—virtually guaranteeing that Moin, Khatami’s heir apparent, would lose.
Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a reformist cleric who served as Vice-President under Khatami, told me that he understood why Iran’s young people were frustrated with his movement. “We disagreed with closing the newspapers, but the government closed most of them,” he said. “We disagreed with arresting political dissidents, but they did it anyway. This is the truth about Iran. Given the situation of our society, I don’t think that our movement was slow. But the society expected more.”
The night that Iran’s first-round Presidential-election results were announced, I had dinner at the home of Roozbeh Mirebrahimi. He lived on the south side of Tehran, in a warren of residential alleys where modest storefronts cast wide rectangles of yellow light onto the narrow streets. A twenty-six-year-old with a trimmed goatee, Mirebrahimi is one of many defiant Iranian newspaper reporters who have started blogs to circumvent the state censors. Last fall, during a crackdown on Internet postings, he was imprisoned for two months. After the serial assassinations of the late nineteen-nineties, Khatami had purged a number of hard-line officials from the intelligence ministry, but these agents began working in secret with members of the Islamic judiciary, running a network of shadow prisons. Mirebrahimi was held in one of these prisons; its precise location remains a mystery to him, because he was driven there blindfolded.
Mirebrahimi and his wife, Solmaz Sharif, who is also a reporter, shared a cramped apartment. A glass-fronted corner cabinet displayed a collection of wineglasses and figurines; blue-and-white plates hung on a wall. An enormous wedding photograph in a gilt frame loomed over the two facing couches that crowded the living room. I studied the photograph for some time. Mirebrahimi, slight and black-haired, with a bright, shy gaze, wore a red flower in his lapel. Sharif gripped his shoulder. She is twenty-three, round-faced, with full lips and dark eyes. She, too, has taken to blogging. She calls her site Fararee—“a fugitive act.” When I asked her what she was fleeing, she said, “Everything.”
When I arrived, Mirebrahimi shared some news: Moin had lost. In the second round of the election, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had been Iran’s President between 1989 and 1997, would face Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the mayor of Tehran—a little-known politician with roots in the country’s volunteer Islamic militia, and an ardent supporter of the Supreme Leader. A week later, Ahmadinejad would be elected President—derailing the reform movement, bringing Iran’s decade of liberalization to an abrupt end, and leaving millions of young people unmoored.
“I felt hopeless today, for the Iranian people and for going on living here,” Mirebrahimi said listlessly. He sat in the corner of his couch, looking small and birdlike; he wore pale-colored clothing and house slippers. “There won’t be any space to breathe anymore.”
“Today, everyone was teasing me, asking, ‘Are you ready for your husband to go back to prison?’ ” Sharif said from the kitchen. She had a pleasant laugh, and the suppressed liveliness of a young person forced too early into adult troubles.
Mirebrahimi brooded. The reformists, he told me, had to change their tactics and establish more direct bonds with Iranians. “We know that political reform has failed,” he said. “After the election, we should sit and talk to our people. In a taxi or the supermarket, we should make people learn about their rights.”
Mirebrahimi and his wife were chronically short of paid work, because the government eventually shut down every reformist newspaper they worked for. Sharif complained that Western journalists who covered the newspaper closures rarely mentioned that each time this happened some seventy employees lost their jobs. She spent much of her time trying to extract paychecks from newspapers that no longer existed.
The newspaper that had most recently employed her had been closed earlier that week. On the day of our meeting, she had started a job at Hamshahri, the newspaper of the Tehran mayor’s office. Since Ahmadinejad had become mayor, Hamshahri had taken a conservative turn. I asked her about her first day, and she told me that she had refused her employer’s request that she wear a hooded hijab, which covers the head more fully than the customary scarf. Her boss had told her that she should write from home, which she had agreed to do.
Ahmadinejad had not been a major figure in Iranian politics, but he had run an effective populist campaign, focussing on the country’s poor economic situation and downplaying his religious agenda. His success had surprised journalists like Sharif. “Even at Hamshahri, the staff was upset,” she said. “They were saying, ‘Who knows Ahmadinejad? Since when did he become so popular?’ They wondered how people who voted for Khatami could vote for him.”
Mirebrahimi told me that although he hoped Moin would win, he hadn’t voted. Like many young Iranians, he felt queasy about participating in a system that he fundamentally opposed. But his position was oddly fatalistic, considering that he was in what Farsi speakers call “a dangling situation”—a dire state of uncertainty. Since he was released from custody, in December, Mirebrahimi had grown accustomed to nearly constant surveillance and threats. And an Ahmadinejad victory would very likely imperil his freedom.
Born in 1979, he did not come from an educated or activist family. His father was a taxi-driver and his mother was a seamstress in the Caspian city of Rasht, where the men’s cool passivity is so legendary that the city has become the butt of endless cuckoldry jokes. In 1997, he moved to Tehran to study political science; he soon became immersed in the city’s journalistic community, where he met Sharif. “I couldn’t understand how he could be so bright and gentle,” Sharif said. “I didn’t see it in other guys. I thought maybe he’s depressed, or he’s acting, or he’s in love with someone. When I met him up close, I got the answer to these questions, and I asked him to marry me.”
Their families were scandalized that Sharif had proposed, and by her refusal to accept the customary payment that a groom’s family offers his bride. (She eventually succumbed to family pressure.) They married in 2004. The ensuing year, scarred by Mirebrahimi’s imprisonment, had been a trial for her. High-spirited and mischievous, she found it hard to adjust to the anxiety of living under surveillance. She told me that the minute Iranian women were permitted to drive motorcycles she would get one. Now, because they were being watched, the couple did not even dare to throw parties on their birthdays.
Some young activists called openly for an end to the Islamic Republic, but Mirebrahimi feared that they were grandstanding, and endangering other young dissidents in the process. “I am more conservative than the new generation,” he wrote on his blog, which is in Farsi. “They are rule-breakers.” Mirebrahimi aligned himself with the reformists rather than with the young radicals, and he continued to defend Khatami, despite his own deepening reservations: he complained that too many reformists were willing to subordinate democracy and human rights to the strictures of Islam, and although he was a practicing Muslim, he privately believed that religion should not be a political force. In the end, however, he thought that incremental change from within the Islamic system was the only way to bring democracy to Iran.
His troubles with the regime began in the summer of 2003, when Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian journalist, was caught taking photographs outside Tehran’s notorious Evin prison; she was accused of espionage and beaten to death in state custody. The news stunned the Iranian public, but Mirebrahimi, who was twenty-four years old and the political editor of the newspaper Etemaad, found reason for optimism. Anecdotal evidence suggested that the hard-line Iranian judiciary—particularly the chief prosecutor of Tehran, Saeed Mortazavi—was implicated in Kazemi’s killing and a subsequent coverup. If the reformists prosecuted the case, they would show Iranians that they were willing to stand up for human rights.
Mortazavi, a stocky man with a jet-black beard, was a baleful figure to reformist journalists like Mirebrahimi. One Iranian intellectual has described him as “a psychopath, a hanging judge, detested even by the conservatives.” An overseer of the press before he was promoted to chief prosecutor, he had shut down dozens of newspapers and jailed so many journalists that he became known as “the butcher of the press.” Mortazavi was widely suspected of having initiated Kazemi’s detention and even of interrogating her himself. He allegedly coerced the information ministry into announcing that Kazemi had died of a stroke, medical evidence to the contrary.
The reformist-led parliament set up a committee to investigate the Kazemi case. On October 28, 2003, a member of the committee read its report at an open hearing, which was broadcast live on Tehran’s state-run radio. The parliamentarians left little doubt that Kazemi had been severely beaten by judiciary officials and died from blows to her head. They also quoted from testimony linking Mortazavi to intimidation, threats, and evidence-tampering in the investigation of the case.
Although Kazemi’s family requested a criminal probe, Mortazavi was never disciplined, and only one newspaper in Tehran printed the committee’s statement. The others, including Etemaad, didn’t so much as report the findings. Mirebrahimi learned that Mortazavi had called all of Tehran’s editors and threatened to close their newspapers if they covered the committee’s finding. Soon after, Mirebrahimi took a call from a reporter for Radio Farda, the American-sponsored Farsi equivalent of Radio Free Europe. The reporter asked him why Tehran’s newspapers had not reported on the commission’s findings. “I said that Mortazavi was responsible,” Mirebrahimi recalled. “And I remember that there was no one to back me up. No other editor came forward to say, ‘We know—Mortazavi called us, too.’ I was all alone.”
Within a week, Mirebrahimi was summoned to the ministry of intelligence and security, where he was told that Mortazavi had complained. He was reprimanded and released.
By the summer of 2004, Mirebrahimi had joined another newspaper, Jomhouriat, which was soon shut down by the regime. He turned his attention to his blog, called Shabnameh, which means “night letter.” (“Before the Internet, messages were disseminated through the city at night,” he explained.) On his blog, Mirebrahimi implored his readers not to forget the plights of political prisoners, and he provided updates on imperilled dissidents.
Iran has an estimated three million to seven million Internet users, the most in the Middle East. Some sixty-five thousand Iranians post blogs, many of them evading government filters by jumping from server to server. In 2004, however, the hard-liners began cracking down on Internet dissent, using both filtering technology and old-fashioned harassment. By October, twenty-one Iranians were imprisoned in connection with blogs. Most were technical administrators of Web sites, but seven were political writers. At eight in the morning on September 29th, Mirebrahimi and Sharif were awakened by the police. Mirebrahimi was handcuffed and blindfolded at his bedside, and taken away. As he later recalled, “Solmaz tried not to show that she was upset in front of me, so I could go with a strong heart.”
Mirebrahimi spent sixty days alone in a cell that was the length and width of his prone body. His interrogators repeatedly questioned him about the Radio Farda interview, and they said that his statements would be presented to Mortazavi. He was not permitted to write, and he was blindfolded three times a day, when he was taken to the bathroom and then ordered to perform his ablutions and prayers. He was unwilling to discuss the details of his treatment—“I aged thirty years in prison” was all he would say. But a Human Rights Watch researcher involved with his case told me that the bloggers were beaten, tortured, forced to strip, and sexually taunted.
By late December, foreign pressure was mounting on the Iranian government to release the bloggers, who had not been charged with any crime. Mirebrahimi was released on the night of December 26th. The following day, an emissary from Mortazavi’s office told him that he could secure the release of two others. To do so, he recalled, “I had to sign something promising that I wouldn’t write the blog anymore. These two bloggers were my friends. I was ready to do anything to get them out. So I signed a letter Mortazavi had written. Afterward, Mortazavi went to the others and said, ‘Mirebrahimi signed this, so you should do it, too.’ One by one, each blogger who signed it was released. It was a very hard time in my life.”
The statement that Mirebrahimi had signed was published in Etemaad. It read, in part:
I, Roozbeh Mirebrahimi, have been one of the accused in connection with the file of Internet sites. . . . During the past few years, I and others like me had fallen into the hands of those . . . who made use of people like me in order to implement their evil projects. . . . Unfortunately, whatever I wrote during that period . . . undermined the reputation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. . . . I strongly attacked various pillars of the system, especially the judiciary, by making various allegations against them, and I have portrayed them as being against human rights. . . . During the past few years, there existed . . . a frightful network, one end of which was inside the country and the other end outside its borders. . . . Due to my weakness, I also joined that network. . . . I was the source of reports and interviews with foreign and counter-revolutionary radio stations. . . . The involvement of some organizations and individuals from outside the country for supporting individuals such as me is shameful, because people like me have trampled upon the laws of this country. . . . The claim that I was in solitary confinement is not true. Throughout the period of my detention I experienced nothing but kindness and respect from those who were dealing with us. Here, I wish to express my gratitude for the kindness of those individuals and to pray to God Almighty for their success and well-being.
Mirebrahimi was a free man, but he was now an admitted spy. Worse, the prosecutor wouldn’t leave him alone. “During those first twenty days, the police called me fifteen times, for stupid reasons,” he told me. “If, on the other side of the world, someone wrote something about me, they called me in. My family and I were under constant pressure.” Mortazavi also relayed a threat to Mirebrahimi: it would be very easy for an accident to befall him on the street.
Mirebrahimi and other bloggers who had been threatened decided that the only way to clear their names and to combat the threat to their lives would be to publicize what had happened to them. “We decided to place our trust in President Khatami,” Mirebrahimi told me.
Officials in Khatami’s office instructed the bloggers to present their case to a special commission on human rights, which would then report to the President. When Mirebrahimi addressed the commission, he recalled, “The first thing I said was that when we leave this place, if any accident happens to us, just know that Mortazavi is responsible. After we told them everything that happened to us, the members of the commission were in tears. Even some clerics. Some parts of our story were so terrible that I asked my wife to leave the room.”
After Mirebrahimi testified, Mortazavi tried to hunt him down. “We couldn’t go home for a week,” he recalled. “We couldn’t go to our families’ homes. We were homeless in east Tehran. We stayed in friends’ houses for short periods of time.”
One official who had heard the bloggers’ testimony was Mohammad Ali Abtahi, who was then an adviser to President Khatami; he posted an account of the meeting on his own blog. (Abtahi’s Web site is one of the most popular in the Farsi language.) It was soon public knowledge that Mirebrahimi had been tortured and forced to sign a confession, and that the reformists in the administration had heard his story and lent it credence.
In the meantime, the commission made its report to Khatami, who approached Iran’s Chief Justice, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahrudi, a cleric who had provided religious training to Khamenei. Though his political views were conservative, Shahrudi had acquired a reputation for pragmatism and independence. A government source told Mirebrahimi about Khatami’s exchange with Shahrudi. Khatami reportedly informed the Chief Justice that the public believed that the bloggers were tortured in prison. Shahrudi replied that Mortazavi had assured him that the bloggers were lying. As Mirebrahimi told the story, “Khatami took a strong position against Mortazavi for the first time during his Presidency. He announced that his investigations showed that we were tortured in prison, and that is not good for the regime. He even said that some people who were handling this case—meaning Mortazavi—were guilty themselves.”
Shahrudi arranged to meet with the bloggers on January 10, 2005. “Our meeting lasted two hours,” Mirebrahimi told me. “He listened to what we said, and some of it upset him greatly. He was saying, ‘Allah akbar! Allah akbar!’ ” When the bloggers were finished, Mirebrahimi recalled, “Shahrudi said, ‘If anyone calls you and asks you to go somewhere, don’t go. Tell them that you just met with me, and I know everything.’ ”
After that meeting, Shahrudi, over Mortazavi’s objections, appointed a committee of three judges to review the bloggers’ files. The committee cleared seventeen but kept the files of four open. Among them was Mirebrahimi’s. “I’m still frightened,” Mirebrahimi told me. “It’s like there’s a sword hanging over my head.”
And yet, in Mirebrahimi’s eyes, the conservative Chief Justice, by his actions, had become a force for reform. Shahrudi issued a public letter in which he denounced the bloggers’ treatment in prison. “For the first time in twenty-six years of the Islamic Republic, they announced that the courts had done something wrong,” Mirebrahimi said. But he added that the Presidential elections were likely to render this advance nearly irrelevant. “If Ahmadinejad is President, the only reformist left in government will be Shahrudi,” he said.
The Artists’ House is a gallery and café in central Tehran, around the corner from the former American Embassy. It is a gathering place for young artists, intellectuals, and bohemians. Abdollah Momeni, the twenty-eight-year-old leader of Iran’s most prominent student-activist group, met me there one afternoon in June.
Momeni’s organization, Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat—the Office for the Consolidation of Unity—was founded in 1979. During the first decade of the Islamic Republic, the group functioned as an arm of the new regime, helping to purge the universities of people and ideas deemed contrary to Islam. In the nineteen-nineties, Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat aligned itself with the reform movement, but it broke away when Khatami failed to condemn the 1999 crackdown at Tehran University.
We sat at a table on the café’s terrace. Momeni told me that he had been imprisoned twice and summoned to court fifteen times. Like Mirebrahimi’s, his court files are still open. But, whereas Mirebrahimi seemed solitary and vulnerable, Momeni spoke confidently, in the first-person plural. He also appeared preoccupied, making phone calls or reading the newspaper from time to time as we spoke.
During the spring, Momeni had become the public face of the student-led election boycott. I asked him about his group’s decision. “We aren’t interested in seeing who will be President,” he said. “We are just interested in constructing democracy.” Reformist politicians such as Khatami were mere “window dressing for the regime.” They provided a veneer of legitimacy to a system that was, ultimately, impervious to reform.
In 2003, Momeni and six other activist leaders, with the support of Iranian exiles abroad, began promoting the idea of holding a public referendum on the continued existence of the Islamic Republic. The Islamic Republic had been established by popular referendum; a new vote would allow the people to revoke the system’s legitimacy in the same way they’d granted it. Thirty-five thousand people signed an online petition calling for such a referendum.
It was impossible to imagine that Khamenei’s regime, heavily armed and flush with oil money, would agree anytime soon to hold a plebiscite on its own survival, concede defeat, and disappear. But, next to the muddle and compromise of the reform movement, the referendum offered a refreshing clarity—a willingness to go straight to the heart of its supporters’ desires, and a rejection of the Islamic Republic’s democratic pretenses. Perhaps in time, some exiles have suggested, if activists could somehow mobilize a mass civil-disobedience movement against the government, a referendum could facilitate the end of the regime.
Momeni respected the work of reformist philosophers who sought to reconcile Islam with liberalism. But he told me that he was inspired, above all, by the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who has written about the importance of creating a “public sphere” for open debate. “No revolution will happen, not by force,” Momeni told me. “We know that a government that comes by force must use force in order to survive. We don’t want such a government here anymore.” Instead, like Mirebrahimi, he supported building strong human-rights groups and democracy organizations outside government.
Momeni believed that Iran’s activists could be bolstered by diplomatic pressure from the international community. But Western powers, he lamented, were excessively preoccupied with the country’s nuclear program. (Iranian authorities insist that the country is developing nuclear technology as an energy source, but outside experts fear that the country may produce weapons within the decade.) Momeni suggested that the European Union press Iran to improve its human-rights record rather than halt its nuclear production. In his view, American calls for democratic change in the Muslim world were useful for the Iranian democracy movement, but he had no illusions about their sincerity. “Foreign powers like the United States want democracy for the Middle East not because of the people but because they want to locate the terrorist bases,” he told me. “They want to install a government they’ll find predictable. They aren’t interested in the national dignity of Iran.”
I asked Momeni if he felt that he was being watched or followed. “One hundred per cent,” he replied. “These two guys next to us are here for me. Whenever I go home, most of the time I see someone behind me.”
I looked at the table to our right, where two older men with scruffy beards, mobile phones, and briefcases sat over tea, looking sorely out of place among the café’s cosmopolitan crowd. Later, my translator told me that the men had been sitting there for some time, but one had stared at her so fixedly that she could not signal us even with her eyes. Another bearded man paced the terrace behind us, and yet another, inside the building, peered over my shoulder from a window, cell phone in hand.
Momeni left first. When my driver pulled up, the bearded men surrounded the car and took down the license-plate number. There was not even the pretense of stealth.
From the moment that Khatami came to power, Ayatollah Khamenei and his clerical élite worried that the universities would become centers of dissent. They turned to the Basij, a hard-line militia of young fundamentalists who provided physical enforcement for the conservatives. The Basij was created in 1979; during the Iran-Iraq War, it dispatched volunteers to the front, and later the militia manned checkpoints along the streets of Tehran, searching cars for banned Western music or pictures of uncovered women. Parliamentary hardliners established a Basij unit in every Iranian university in the nineteen-nineties. After the 1999 clash with students, the Basij aggressively restored “order” throughout the universities in Tehran.
When I visited the Tehran University faculty of social sciences this summer, I met with some Basij leaders in a sweltering empty classroom equipped with a whirring but ineffectual air-conditioner. Sajad Saffar-Harandi, the head of the faculty’s Basij force, said that his team consisted of eighty to ninety registered Basijis and around a hundred others, who “help.” Twenty-two years old, he wore the beard, long-sleeved shirt, and pants characteristic of the militia. He looked like a teen-ager, and had a sharp, handsome face, a slight frame, and hard eyes, which the student who brought me to him sternly instructed me not to look into.
“The Basij is the heart and soul of the Islamic revolution in Iran, particularly the university Basijis,” Saffar-Harandi told me. “We are the keepers and protectors of the movement through generations.” He lamented that the Khatami administration had led Iran astray from the Islamic Republic’s founding values. An Ahmadinejad Presidency, he said, would put a stop to that. “The dress code is not a priority in this term,” he asserted. “The priority is to be sure we are governing completely based on the values of Islam.” A few weeks after I left Tehran, Ahmadinejad appointed Saffar-Harandi’s father, Mohammad Hossein Saffar-Harandi, at that time the editor-in-chief of the hard-line daily Kayhan, to the powerful position of minister of culture and Islamic guidance.
Saffar-Harandi left me to his underling, who was less polished and more fervent. Ali Belashabadi, the son of a carpet weaver who was disabled in the Iran-Iraq War, was studying social communications in the hope of becoming a journalist. An Ahmadinejad administration, he told me, would not stop young Iranians from evaluating the government, just as long as they did so in a “constructive” way. “It won’t be like Khatami’s Presidency, when freedom was so indefinable that lots of people had their own definitions of freedom and did things in the name of social and political freedom that aren’t desirable and are far from the values of the Islamic Republic,” he said. “Ahmadinejad’s term will be about moderate freedom.”
Under Khatami, he explained disapprovingly, some political activists, in the name of freedom, had questioned the role of the Supreme Leader. “I am so sad that these groups are trying to weaken the position of the Supreme Leadership, the thing we are most loyal to,” he said. “This is our identity as Muslims.”
Ahmadinejad would reverse that trend, he predicted, and he would eventually restore the dress code. “Even in the university, we see the young generation of women dressing in a way that is meant to attract attention,” Belashabadi said. “This is an academic atmosphere, and the men can’t pay attention. Even non-Muslims, if they were here, would be attracted to this kind of fashion.” Islam, he told me, disapproves of women who wear makeup, perfume, or alluring clothes for anyone but their husbands. “These are fundamental values,” he said. “We had a revolution for these values.”
I asked Belashabadi what he thought should be done about the satellite channels on which Iranians watch illicit fare such as music videos, Western movies, and political commentary from Iranian exiles abroad. “The majority of the population is young,” he said. “Young people by nature are horny. Because they are horny, they like to watch satellite channels where there are films or programs they can jerk off to.” The regime could filter the channels, he suggested, or it could try to educate the people to tune in to more wholesome programming. He concluded, “We have to do something about satellite television to keep society free from this horny jerk-off situation.”
My translator implored me, in a jaw-clenched monotone, “Please do not laugh right now. This is a very sensitive moment.”
The food court at Jaam-e Jam, an upscale shopping mall in north Tehran, looks like a shopping-mall food court anywhere, with its colorful plastic chairs attached to glass-topped tables. An array of counters sell fast food that is billed as Mexican or Italian but invariably tastes more or less Persian. Nevertheless, it is one of the more expensive places to eat in Tehran, and it is a gathering spot for fashionable Iranian girls, who come in their skimpiest hijabs. I saw young women wearing three-quarter-length sleeves, cropped pants, and high-heeled sandals. One young woman had a sequinned purse and a tight denim manteau that had jeans-style pockets on the backside.
A man who asked to be identified as Arash, a twenty-five-year-old from an upper-middle-class family, was trying to help me identify “Javads”—a common male name that has become derisive slang among Iranian youth for people who, as Arash put it, “think they’re very modern and very cool and great but are not.”
“Five years ago, the sure sign of a Javad was driving a Nissan Maxima,” he explained. “In non-Javad communities, that was a sign that your dad was a motherfucker who had become very rich after the revolution, but who was from a poor-culture family.” Today, with the relaxing of the dress codes, Iran’s nouveaux riches are harder to spot, but Arash offered some additional examples: “A girl who has some enormous makeup that’s unnecessary for the situation, high heels, but she’s a virgin and has no boyfriend and wants an arranged marriage. Or a person who looks very modern but can’t speak English, and who likes Farsi music from Los Angeles.”
For Arash, who has never been to the United States, being truly modern was all about being American. Born the year after the revolution, he speaks profane but excellent English, littered with slang he has gleaned from contraband hip-hop. The rappers 50 Cent and The Game surely never imagined that the line “the underdog’s on top,” from “Hate It or Love It,” a gleeful rap about their own success, would capture the frustration of the onetime Iranian élite under the rule of backward mullahs. But, to Arash, American hip-hop is rich with Iranian social criticism.
Arash told me that he hated living in Iran. “These mullahs fucked up this country. The country is sick right now. I can’t live in a sick situation. For that reason, I couldn’t vote yesterday. I’d give my life for America, but not for Iran. Because, if I work a lot there, I may achieve something. In Iran, when you want something, plan for it, work your ass off for it, you cannot make it and have no clear future.” If he had voted, I suggested, he at least might have helped prevent the country from falling entirely under the control of hard-liners. Arash offered an analogy. “If America one day became a dictatorship—if everything changed overnight and Hezbollah came to rule the country—are you going to enter politics and help Hezbollah?” he asked. “Or do you just not enter politics?”
Arash worked for an environmental group, but he could not advance far in his career without establishing connections in clerical circles. His Western style of dress also marked him as an outsider. He had a passion for Iran’s rugged landscape—he had done a lot of backpacking—and he loved its people, especially the nomads and villagers he had met during his travels. Still, he wanted to see the world, and in order to go almost anyplace other than Turkey he’d need a visa, which was hard for an Iranian to come by. Arash complained bitterly that foreign embassies would assume that he was a terrorist. He longed for contact with foreigners, but he quit a job as a tour guide when he discovered that he was required to spy on his clients. The rap music and Western movies he loved were available only on the black market. And Iranian sexual culture, he said, was suffocating.
The enforced sexual repression of the Islamic Republic had spawned a culture of extremes—virginity and arranged marriages on the one hand, sexual libertinism on the other. For young people from Iran’s middle and upper classes, promiscuous experimentation was the norm. Even though young Iranians live with their families until marriage, Arash said, “this generation has the Internet, films, satellite television, porno. You can’t force them to be fanatics.” Unfortunately, he added, young Iranian women, in their efforts to be modern, had succeeded only in becoming vulgar. “The girls here have no clue that you mustn’t talk about sex 24/7,” he said. The male role in this dynamic didn’t much appeal to Arash, either. “It’s a male-dominated society, and I hate it,” he said. Iranian men, he said, were expected to be both promiscuous and “psycho-jealous.” He went on, “There is no culture where you and your girlfriend can be together, live together. It’s the worst thing.”
Sex segregation in Iranian schools compounded the gender divide. Once, when Arash was a college student, he was arrested for walking down the street with a female classmate. The penalty was ninety-nine lashes, but Arash escaped it by paying the authorities a hundred and fifty dollars. “Everything we do is against the law,” he told me. “It can change in a minute, and that minute is not definable. Back then, there were hundreds of checkpoints on the streets. ‘Who is this girl with you? What are these CDs, books, pictures?’ We are all outlaws.”
The outlaw life, for many young Iranians, involves all-night parties and illegal drugs. In a country where alcohol is illegal and opium flows easily across the long Afghan border, recreational drug use has reached epidemic proportions. Iran has the highest rate of opiate addiction in the world. “Iran is like the United States in the sixties and seventies,” Arash told me. At parties I attended, some Iranians smoked opium as casually as Americans smoke marijuana. Although only fifteen per cent of the drugs that enter Iran are impounded by the police, this amount includes about eighty-five per cent of all the opiates seized globally.
In Arash’s world, drug abuse reflected the apathy, boredom, and impotence of a middle class that had become increasingly alienated in the twenty-six years since the revolution. “The Iranian situation has made us passive,” he said. “We are not active anymore. ‘Inshallah’—this is killing us. We do nothing and leave everything to God.”
In school, Arash recalled, students were forced to stand in rows and shout slogans: “Long live Khomeini!” and “Death to America!” Sometimes they would be directed to step on an American flag chalked onto the asphalt. “I was always feeling very bad,” Arash told me. “I’d be thinking, I like American culture! Why am I saying, Down with this?”
At first, America was a place where Arash imagined he could have a big farm and raise horses. As he grew older, black America would become his fantasy within a fantasy—a space where he could be both the free man he wanted to be and the underdog he considered himself to be. He confided that he’d exchanged e-mail messages with a black woman in Ohio, whom he hoped to marry so that he could get a green card. The night I met Arash, on the way to a party in the north of Tehran, we’d talked about “8 Mile,” the movie starring Eminem. As he explained the film, “It’s about growing up in a place you don’t like and working your ass off to get out of it.”
His dreams of flight had begun the first time he left Iran, just a few years earlier, for a short trip to Istanbul. Everything thrilled him. He went to clubs with live d.j.s. He saw American movies. He wore hip-hop clothes without fear of harassment. “Something lit up in my soul,” he said. “For a person always in prison, seeing the free world—for me, my life started the minute I left Iran.” Since his return, he has thought of nothing but going abroad again. As we left Jaam-e Jam, Arash rattled off a list of desired destinations: China, France, Italy. He then added, in a tossed-off manner that stopped me cold, “But none of these countries will ever give me a visa. So I’ll probably die here with my dreams.”
Two days before the runoff election between Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani, Arash and I attended an evening gathering of friends and family in north Tehran, near Vanak Square. At two in the morning, we heard shouting outside the host’s apartment, and we went out for a drive to look around. The Rafsanjani campaign had dispatched scores of young people, their faces painted, to shout from motorcycles and distribute bumper stickers and posters, which they scattered like confetti. Ahmadinejad supporters had come out, too, and transformed affluent north Tehran into a Basij rally. As we nosed through the crowded streets, earnest bearded young men slapped Ahmadinejad posters onto our car’s windshield and tossed CDs in through the open windows. They seemed to outnumber the Rafsanjani campaigners, whose slogans were becoming increasingly absurdist. “D.J. Ali Akbar!” one group of campaigners shouted, to Arash’s delight.
Revolutionary Guards directed traffic at chaotic intersections. A car ahead of us had affixed a poster to its rear window. According to Arash, it read, “Fellow Moin supporters: Because we do not want to allow the country to choke and end up in the hands of the Basij, now vote for Rafsanjani.”
Even Arash, despite his disavowal of politics, was thinking of voting for Rafsanjani. “Somehow I’ve gotta work with this country, if I don’t leave,” he said. But, in the end, he couldn’t bring himself to cast a ballot.
At three in the morning, we reached Ahmadinejad’s campaign headquarters on Fereshteh, an upscale street. The headquarters were still open, showing videos of the candidate’s biography on a large television screen and serving pineapple juice on metal tables in a stone courtyard. Arash picked up a campaign flyer and translated it for me. It listed the reasons that Ahmadinejad’s rivals might believe that the Tehran Mayor shouldn’t be President: that his clothing was less expensive than that of his security detail, for example, or that instead of rewarding loyal cronies for their services the Mayor arranged loans for young married couples. Compared with Rafsanjani—who had become notorious, during his earlier Presidency, for his wealth and corruption—Ahmadinejad appeared to be a humble outsider. He managed to appeal not only to militants and conservatives, or even just to the legions of frustrated poor; he also captured some of the protest vote, from people who saw Rafsanjani as the embodiment of the status quo. That morning, a waiter in the restaurant at my hotel had explained this to me without even the benefit of a common language. “Rafsanjani,” he said, and made a face, pantomiming rolls of fat at his waist and a turban on his head. “Ahmadinejad,” he said, smiling, and tugged on his own clothes, holding out a level hand equal to his own height.
At Ahmadinejad’s campaign headquarters, Arash and I met Mohammad Mahdi, a nineteen-year-old volunteer with enormous eyes, tousled hair, a worn yellow T-shirt, and a sweet smile. “I am speaking as a true Basiji who loves my country from the depths of my heart,” he informed us. He came from a working-class Tehrani family and studied industrial management at the university. He praised Ahmadinejad’s commitment to improving education and economic opportunities for young people. Mahdi was sure that his candidate posed no threat to the people’s freedom. In fact, he had voted for Khatami in 2001, and now reproached the outgoing President. “We really respected Khatami, but he couldn’t use the popular support he had. Khatami promised to improve political freedom, but he couldn’t do it.”
Soon, a campaign higher-up pulled Mahdi away, admonishing him not to talk to an American. Still, Mahdi managed to steal back to our table before we left. “When you meet Ahmadinejad, he’s so humble that you almost think you’re the boss and he’s the one who wants something from you,” he confided.
The morning after Ahmadinejad’s victory, I went to visit Arash at his parents’ apartment. When I arrived, he wasn’t dressed; his mother and aunt served me breakfast while he was in the shower. He emerged wearing a sleeveless basketball jersey and long, baggy shorts.
“Wassup, homey?” Arash said cheerfully when he saw me.
“You have a new President,” I said.
I had assumed that he knew. Confused, he sank down onto the couch. His aunt spoke up hoarsely. “Ahmadinejad” was all she said.
Arash, who normally talked himself to the point of exhaustion, said nothing. He sat with his head in his hands for nearly ten minutes. The bread that his mother had warmed cooled on the table. He kneaded his forehead, blinked, stared at the floor. Finally, he said, “Everything is finished.”
Later that day, I went to see a man who is perhaps Iran’s most famous and most endangered dissident, for whom the stakes of Ahmadinejad’s victory were unimaginably high. Hashem Aghajari, a historian at Tehran’s Tarbiat Modares University, is a popular hero in Iran, especially among students. A revolutionary religious intellectual, Aghajari had lost a leg fighting in the Iran-Iraq War. But in a 2002 speech in Hamadan, the city he’s from, Aghajari called for a reformation of Shiite Islam and proclaimed that Muslims were not “monkeys” who should “blindly follow” religious leaders. He was convicted of apostasy and sentenced to death by hanging.
Aghajari’s sentence provoked a national crisis. Demonstrating students clashed with hard-line militias in the streets. The case also attracted international attention; in 2003, Aghajari was widely believed to be a finalist for the Nobel Peace Prize. Capitulating to the pressure, Ayatollah Khamenei intervened; and there was a retrial. The historian’s sentence was eventually commuted to five years in prison, of which he served two before being released on bail, in July, 2004.
I went to see Aghajari in his office at the university, a pale brick compound with grassy courtyards and layers of security at the gate. He was gracious and soft-spoken, with thinning gray hair. Pulling on a pipe from time to time, he told me that, after the Cold War, American-style democracy had become globally ascendant. He hoped that the democracy which would one day emerge in Iran would be one based on Islamic ethics and spirituality. That would be Khatami’s Islam, not the Islam of hard-line clerics. As for the support of outsiders, he said, “We should defend all nations’ rights to control their own destiny, and to achieve democracy and freedom. But this defense is not military. It is moral and political.”
Unlike many of the other reformist intellectuals I’d met, Aghajari had supported the student boycott of the election and criticized the reformists for fielding Presidential candidates. He also supported the referendum on the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. “But we have to find a good route to get there,” he added. “Putting the referendum petition on the Internet was a little premature, in my opinion. But the situation is such that there is not much more time for us. I hear some reformists saying that within six hundred years there will be democracy. That’s like saying, during the age of computers, that to have our own computer we will have to start with the wheel.”
Ahmadinejad won the election with seventeen million votes; Rafsanjani received ten million. Some twenty million Iranians didn’t vote. “Those in power have many serious struggles ahead,” Aghajari predicted. “Thirty million Iranians didn’t vote for Ahmadinejad. The government can’t put them aside and not see them. These thirty million may keep quiet for the moment, but when the time is right they will defend their rights.”
Ahmadinejad acted with apparent confidence in the first months of his Presidency, banning foreign movies, purging the diplomatic corps of moderates, and adopting a belligerent tone on foreign-policy matters. In a speech to the United Nations, in September, he signalled that Iran would not abandon its quest for nuclear technology, and in October, at a Tehran conference called “A World Without Zionism,” he declared that Israel should be “wiped off the map.” Ahmadinejad has been comparatively quiet about Iraq, but Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, to which he remains particularly close, is suspected of supporting Shiite Islamists there. Without Khatami, there is no brake on Iran’s most confrontational impulses. The regime, as Aghajari explained to me in June, had “come together in one hand.”
Now that the hard-liners had complete control of the government, Aghajari said, they would be held responsible for meeting the people’s needs—it would no longer be possible to blame the reformists. Soon enough, Aghajari said, the seventeen million Iranians who had placed their hopes in Ahmadinejad would confront his inability to make the economic changes he promised, even while the walls closed in on Iran’s cultural and political life. Within a year, Aghajari believed, Ahmadinejad would face an angry and disappointed populace.
Indeed, the new President’s first months in office seemed to bear out Aghajari’s predictions. Ahmadinejad set aside more than a billion dollars for grants to newlyweds, but such gestures will not resolve the country’s economic problems. Foreign capital is fleeing to Dubai, and Tehran’s stock market has fallen by twenty per cent since May. Curiously, Ayatollah Khamenei issued an edict in October that gave sweeping new powers to Rafsanjani, who runs a government body known as the Expediency Council—a move widely seen as an effort to rein in Ahmadinejad. The new President, in other words, may be too hard-line for even the Supreme Leader.
In June, however, Aghajari insisted that he was not in despair over Ahmadinejad’s victory. “I’m optimistic,” he said. “The people of Iran should experience this period so that things go better in the future. If the people hadn’t experienced theocracy, they would still be waiting for it. But now that we have experienced theocracy, there is no future for it here.”
I had seen Aghajari a week earlier, when he remarked that, if the “fascists” controlled the entire government, he imagined that he would eventually suffer the same fate as the assassinated dissidents of the late nineteen-nineties. I asked him now whether he feared for his life.
He took his pipe from his mouth and smiled. “We have a saying in Farsi,” he replied. “ ‘There is no shade darker than black.’ The worst they can do is execute me. I have prepared myself for that. If I am worried, it is not for myself. It’s for the Iranian people, for young people, today’s generation and future generations. My freedom and my life, and those of one or two people like me, don’t matter. They may take me to prison. I’m ready for that. In this society, we have no freedom to speak or to write. This is a prison, too.”
A year ago, after I returned from a trip to Iran, I met in Washington with an official at the State Department, who was convinced that the Iranian regime was hardening even then. “The regime will be even more secure when it’s rid of Khatami,” the official told me. “He shook things up. At the time he was elected, they were frightened. If he had been more forceful, there could have been a civil war. He might have forced the issue. But he chose not to.” As a result, the official said, the reform movement that Washington had hoped would be Iran’s perestroika had turned out to be its Prague Spring—a flowering of freedom that quickly withered. Those who sought democratic change would now be forced underground, where they would turn inward or on one another in the years that it would take to devise a new, more potent strategy.
Roozbeh Mirebrahimi sometimes wondered why he had volunteered for the role of dissident. In August, he wrote an e-mail that said, “Why must a guy like me, in the throes of youth, work this hard for a minimum of rights? Just so others can speak freely, so that they don’t stammer with fear, and they can get their very first rights. Sometimes when I sit alone and think, I ask myself why and for whom it is that I’m making such a sacrifice.”
On his blog and in his e-mails to me, Mirebrahimi sometimes resembled a bereaved man sorting through the personal effects of a loved one who had unforgivably disappointed him. The reform movement as he had known it was dead. But whether it had served to advance or to thwart the ambitions of young Iranians like himself remained uncertain.
For Mirebrahimi, Khatami embodied the movement’s promise and its failure, and it was with pained ambivalence that he watched the President leave office, on July 30th. He wrote on his blog, “I only feel sorrow for Mr. Khatami, that everything he had in the palm of his hand in most regards will disappear into the sky.” Later, he questioned his own sorrow. Khatami held a ceremony honoring his return to private life. At the event, he was asked about the political prisoner Akbar Ganji. “The problem is more on Ganji’s side,” Khatami said, blaming Ganji’s extended incarceration on his refusal to stop speaking out against the regime.
Mirebrahimi wrote, “Truth be told, a while ago I wanted to get a letter to him somehow, which I wrote upon the end of his Presidency, and thank him and let him know how well I appreciate the lasting accomplishments he made during his term. I’d readied the letter a while back, but the position Khatami took about Ganji made me abandon the idea of sending it.” In the next election, Mirebrahimi wrote ruefully, the reformists would most likely not even be allowed to put up posters.
Not long after the elections, he informed me, his wife was purged from the staff of another newspaper, Towseh, on account of her husband’s activities. In fact, any publication that considered hiring Mirebrahimi or his wife was immediately subject to pressure and threats. “Nowadays, practically all it takes to close a newspaper is my entering into it,” he said. By this fall, the couple were in dire straits—a dangling situation—financially and professionally. “This is exactly what my enemies wanted for me,” he wrote. Mirebrahimi told me that he spent his days surfing the Internet and hoping for better times. “In Iran, we live in an environment that creates anxiety, and we endure these difficulties,” he wrote. “We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. I remember that you were at our home the night that Ahmadinejad won the first round of the elections. You asked me how I saw the future. I said, ‘For the future, reform, and for Iran, illumination. But for us, difficulty and danger.’ Then I said I would tolerate it. Yet today I see that it is more difficult and more dangerous than I’d imagined.”