Iranian Dissident: ‘Please Help Us Make Our Democracy’
Wednesday, December 30, 2009 at 4:54 pm
Since the June 12 presidential election in Tehran unleashed a long-simmering explosion of popular discontent, the collection of organic protests known as the Green Movement has upended Iranian politics. Western governments, however, have expressed only minimal solidarity with the Green Movement, opting to focus on resolving longstanding concerns about Iran’s opaque nuclear program.
The Obama administration is no exception. But as the Iranian regime has rebuffed President Obama’s diplomatic outreach for the past year, the administration is starting to push for international sanctions targeting the regime’s most hardline elements, such as the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, a highly ideological faction of the military. And Obama has grown increasingly comfortable denouncing the regime’s human rights abuses and signaling support for the Greens. “What’s taking place within Iran is not about the United States or any other country — it’s about the Iranian people and their aspirations for justice and a better life for themselves,” Obama said on Monday, “and the decision of Iran’s leaders to govern through fear and tyranny will not succeed in making those aspirations go away.”
But it has become difficult to hear from the Iranian dissidents directly. After the Green Movement used both traditional media and social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook to document its unrest in June, the regime cracked down, evicting foreign journalists and severely restricting popular websites and internet access. Its mass arrests, with documented torture occurring in its prisons, have attempted to break the will of the Greens. Much of what the world has seen and heard from the Green Movement since the summer has been second-hand, coming from occasional journalistic reports inside the country and Iranians living abroad. Still, mass protests erupted this weekend during the religious holiday of Ashura, leading to a severe crackdown by the security services in which at least eight people were killed — including the nephew of prominent Green politician Mir-Hossein Mousavi, whose alleged loss to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June’s fraud-filled election provided the spark for the movement.
Despite the restrictions, an Iranian dissident in Tehran who participated in these protests reached out to The Washington Independent — at significant personal risk — through a trusted third party after the Ashura crackdown began. Using a few technological processes to evade the regime’s communications restrictions, it was ultimately possible to interview this dissident, who will be referred to as Mr. A to protect his identity. Mr. A also provided two rather graphic videos of the December 27 Ashura protests in Tehran. In the interview, Mr. A, an engineering student, discusses the Green Movement’s revolutionary aspirations; its disappointment with President Obama and its lingering hope in the international community; its plans for the future; and what it wishes to see from the outside world.
Given the limited flow of information leaving Iran, TWI decided to present this interview as a lightly edited Q-&-A.
Spencer Ackerman: Tell me what you’ve been seeing on the ground in Tehran for the last several days since Ashura. What does the outside world need to know about what’s happening?
Mr. A: To us, it all started a few days before the election. A few months ago, people found hope and the Green Movement started. We were allowed to be on street, to talk about our ideals. Nobody stopped us. And then on the election day, mobile phones were cut off. No [text messaging]. And then Ahmadinejad was announced to have won the election. We were shocked. We went to the streets again. Three million people went into the streets on a silent demonstration.
[Then, months later] people were prepared for [the religious holidays of] Tasuaa and Ashura on Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday, militia attacked Khomeini’s house [a reference to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic] where Mr. Khatami [the former president and Green supporter] was talking. They wanted to show that they are prepared for the next day. Even that night, the streets around Khomeini’s house were full of people.
But the real thing started on Ashura. I was in College Crossing [a landmark in Tehran]. The Greens were supposed to start from Imam Hossein Square and go to Azadi Square on that day. College Crossing is a place in between. Like always, the Basij [a pro-regime militia] and the police used tear gas on us.
Ackerman: How many people were out in the streets for Ashura?
Mr. A: I am an engineer, and I can’t say anything without proof, so honestly, I don’t know. But we were a lot, we outnumbered them. That’s why they couldn’t beat us like always. They were using guns. Not a lot, but I heard gunshots. A block away [from me], a few people were killed by gunshots. You can see the video in which a police car is driving over people.
Mr. A: The police have large vans to [detain] people. We stopped one of them. There were five police with guns, plus several [other officers]. They did not dare to start firing, but they held still [instead]. We managed to break the van’s windows and free the people inside. Like I said, we outnumbered them. I saw some police forces who declined to [issuing orders to] their officers to do anything against people.
Ackerman: Was that planned? Or did you and several other dissidents just decide to do it when you saw the van?
Mr. A: Nothing was planned. There was a route for buses, and they used this route to transport [detained protesters]. We set fire to large trash cans and put them on the route so they couldnt easily pass the route.
Ackerman: Right now there is a report saying that the Iranian police are vowing “no mercy” to protesters. But you saw police chiefs tell their men not to harm you?
Mr. A: Police chiefs ordered their men, but their men refused. Not always, though.
Ackerman: Would you say you’re starting to see members of the police express sympathy with the Greens? Or is that going too far?
Mr. A: Exactly. People surrounded some of them, at least 20 [people], and [the police] were asking for mercy. “Don’t kill us,” they were shouting.
Ackerman: Were you afraid the Greens were going to harm the police?
Mr. A: Some people wanted to throw stones at them. Stones were the only thing we had. But some other people prevented them from doing that. They put themselves between police and angry people so the angry people didn’t throw stones at police. We also managed to capture several Basiji [militiamen]. Some were hurt. But some were released and given water to drink.
Ackerman: What was it like, to interact with the Basij? How did they respond to you when you captured them but didnt abuse them? Did you try to talk with them, reason with them?
Mr. A: They are brainwashed. Personally, they are not bad people at all. But when they feel that you cross their red lines, they become something else. Like an animal. They think we are moshrek [polythiests] or kafar [athiests]. In Islam, you can kill kafar.
Ackerman: Do they acknowledge any of your points? Or is it useless to reason with them?
Mr. A: Absolutely useless.
Ackerman: Do they at least acknowledge that you’re not beating them up? How do they react when you show them your humanity?
Mr. A: Some of them didn’t say anything. Personally, I thought they were thinking on another attack! But some of them were impressed. You know, in Iran, Khamanei thinks of himself as God. So do most Basijis. So when you insult Khamanei, you give them enough motivation to beat you.
Ackerman: What will it take to get the police to support the Greens?
Mr. A: That’s our hope for [the] next phase [of demonstrations].
Ackerman: Tell me about the next phase. What should we expect?
Mr. A: We know that the police chiefs are mostly corrupted. [The next phase] depends heavily on the fact that if they decide to arrest Mr. Mousavi or Karroubi or Khatami, there will be very severe connsequences. People will come to the streets again. (I heard today from Netherlands’ radio that Khamanei’s jet was prepared to move him to Russia.) So it is a risk that they haven’t taken yet.
Ackerman: What do you hear from the typical person in Tehran who isn’t part of the Green movement? What are they saying about all of this, about Ahmadinejad, about what they want for the future?
Mr. A: Currently, we have two types of people. One who supports Ahmadinejad. [They are] mostly hardliners and also government officials. [And then there are] ordinary people who are against him. They might not participate in demonstrations, but they are supportive (at least in words) when you talk to them. And now, it is not about Ahmadinejad [any longer]. It is about Khamanei himself and the regime. That’s what gives poeple motivation to support the Green movement.
Ackerman: What do you think it will take to get the average regime supporter — the government workers, etc — to back the Greens?
Mr. A: It is a matter of time. Day by day, people join this movement. When they see their relatives were beaten or even killed, they get to know that this regime is [at] its end.
Something interesting here is that we don’t have a leader.
Ackerman: So we in the outside world shouldn’t say Kerroubi or Mousavi or Khatami are Green “leaders”?
Mr. A: No. Mr. Mousavi in his statements, always says that [the] people are the real leaders of the Green movement. He never said to come to streets on Ashura or Qods or any other days, although he is smart enough to just point that there are many days that people can come to the streets like Ashura, etc.
Ackerman: My last few questions are about the outside world. What do you want from the U.S.? What are you looking to see? Some are saying that the U.S. & its allies could place sanctions on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps; others are afraid that even those sanctions would hurt the Iranian people. What do you think?
Mr. A: It is a hard question. We are amazed by Obama’s actions. He talks of democracy, yet he sends a letter to Khamanei and wants to talk to this government.
Ackerman: So you’re disappointed by Obama’s actions?
Mr. A: Up to now, yes. But we hope that like 1978, when the democrats took power [in Iran after the fall of the Shah], the revolution succeeded. This time, it [will] happen again by persuading Russia and China not to support this regime. They still feel they will control the situation, but when Russia and China turns agains them, they’re going to think of backing off a little
Ackerman: What do you think about sanctions? My sources in the Obama administration say that they’re not having any luck talking to Iran and so now are trying to get the international community, including the United Nations, to support sanctions, particularly sanctions targeting the IRGC?
Mr. A: It is a very good move, provided that the people [aren't] affected very much by these sanctions. It’s already hard for us to send and receive packages lately, for instance. Another thing is that there have been so many arrests. Civil rights are the last thing [the regime] cares about. So besides sanctions, we need international pressures to prevent numerous arrests everyday.
Ackerman: Last question. What’s the most important message you want the outside world to know about the Green movement? Or about Iran and the regime?
Mr. A: Please help us make our democracy.
Ackerman: What do we need to do?
Mr. A: Spread the word, so your governments don’t negotiate any deal with this regime.
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