A letter from Tehran, 14 June 2009

Dear all

Iran is, yet again, in the world’s spotlight. I am sure that many of you have followed the news about this weekend’s elections. More importantly, some of you might ask themselves how we are. For this reason, I am sending you today our last Iran epistle (why the last, see at the end).

First of all, we are all safe and sound. Despite news about arrested demonstrators, burning tires, police cordons locking down the city centre of Tehran, etc etc., our lives have not been much disrupted. The main effects on us are marginal – my employer – the United Nations – has asked us to work from home today; the British School has decided to close down at 12.30 every day this week, on account of the news that demonstrations will flare up again in the afternoon; and communications via mobile network and Internet have been disrupted, not surprisingly – as I am saying on our Facebook site: no Youtube, no SMS, no Facebook (but there are ways around it), no BBC website anymore. The kids’ German and piano teachers cannot come to the house for their usual extracurricular classes.

Now, here the election news from what we are hearing (and strangely enough, a lot of information comes from the children at school and the teachers, rather than from the official news, which does not cover certain aspects, such as the protests – again, not unsurprisingly). The elections were held on Friday. These were the conclusions of three weeks of street party for millions of people; everyone told us that never before has there been so much freedom to assemble on the street, wave flags, sing and dance than these last weeks. Six-lane highways were blocked with thousands of honking cars, elderly couples could be seen walking through the traffic in a kind of trance, holding up posters of their candidates. Young people threw pamphlets into the air, lit aerosol cans with their lighters to throw for half a second big flames into the air, music was thumping hard from every second car, pedestrians were standing on the road sides, holding hands, or hanging off lamp-posts, chanting. All the characteristics of a street party turned political, basically. These days have probably augured badly for the future to come.

Friday was very quiet. Nearly no traffic, the shops operating as normal, no demonstrations or anything – campaign blackout. Saturday was when it started. Again, we only heard these news from official news sources – basically written by our journalist friends from BBC, Reuters, AFP, whom we normally meet at diplomatic functions but these last weeks had been conspicuously absent, because they were on the streets all night to follow the mood of the people. I woke up at 5.00 am on Saturday and checked my news service subscriptions to read the latest news. My first surprise was that the BBC website, which had never been filtered during our two years in Iran, was suddenly inaccessible. I could still get Reuters and AFP, though. Already at 5.00 am, the agencies reported that the incumbent had received 65 percent, with 80 percent turnout; this, although the main challenger had proclaimed an overwhelming victory already the night before, based on the figures he had received from his sources at the polling stations.

I won’t go into the politics now, but bottom-line is that all the demonstrations we have seen over the last weeks were in support of the main challenger of the current president. Everyone was also convinced – and this was part of the challenger’s campaign strategy – that a large turnout would favour the main opposition candidate. Hence, nothing could be more surprising than the results I saw in the news on Saturday morning – all the figures were exactly on their head! Exactly this feeling, and the underlying belief that those that bothered to vote – despite having been disappointed in their support of a previous moderate president – were cheated off their vote, is at the root of yesterday’s and last night’s unrest in Tehran.

We were at a party at friends last night. At midnight, the honking on the main square next to our host’s house was so loud that we thought a demonstration was taking place there. On the news, we heard that there had been violent clashes in Tehran. My host and I ventured out to the square to see what was happening. This square, albeit in the affluent north of the city, is very large and one of the main thoroughfares of Tehran. At any day and time, it is normally blocked by hundreds of cars trying to fight for their right to first get through. Not so yesterday night – traffic was light, and only a few hundred demonstrators stood at the sidewalks waving Iranian flags. Passing cars – many less than we expected – were driving past, honking and with their passengers showing the victory sign. This couldn’t be it, we thought. Just a handful of people in support of the incumbent, where thousands of demonstrators could have showed up to show the “arrogant”, “rich”, “Westernised” northern Tehranis that their choice of a moderate was a travesty, that there indeed had been a wave of conservatives supporting the incumbent’s politics. Not so – and today we learned why.

Rumours were circulating in the school, and the better informed pupils and parents were standing in the park in front of the school to talk about the events last night. It seemed that the main arteries into the north had been entirely cut off by riot police, who had been deployed in the middle of Friday night and were still controlling the situation in the city. So no protesters had actually made it to the north, of neither side. The demonstrations further down in the city resembled any usual 1 May protests in major European cities – burning tires, cars and buses turned over, trash bins on fire, baton-wielding police. There was no political purpose anymore, no direction – “there was no back-bone in them”, as a diplomat friend told me this morning. BBC reports (we’re still able to get the news updates per email) that up to 100 protesters were arrested. When driving to the school, I could see scorch marks on the road, and glass and bricks lying about everywhere.

The children were hugely excited about all these stories, and asked surprising questions:

Tristan: “Do you think there will be a revolution? Do you think the Americans will intervene?”
Madelene: “Daddy, why can I not have three parents?”

So far to that. My FB site is now full with messages sent by disappointed Iranian friends, living in Iran or abroad. I do not know a single person who has said they would vote for the incumbent – but then, I live in the wrong part of the city and know the wrong kind of people (i.e., not those that live off less than 2 USD a day and hope for a better future from people that speak in strong, populist messages).

As promised, I conclude with our own personal news: we are leaving the country in three weeks, for good. After two years here we are calling it a day, to move to a country that could probably not be more different: Denmark. I doubt that we will send many (as) exciting epistles from there, but we will try to keep up the habit – either Georgina or myself.

All the best to you,

from the Nitzsche Creatures

PS.: As I am sending this, I am informed that new, massive demonstrations have started in two main squares in central Tehran.