Another update from Tehran, 17 June 2009

Dear all,

I am standing at the window, looking over the skyline of Tehran, which we can see very well from our northern vantage point, high above the centre of town. It is a clear night and the flickering lights give the view something New Yorkish, what with all the tall buildings in the city. But it is not a quiet night. As every night at 10pm, the neighbours have started their daily ritual of shouting “Allahu Akbar” from their rooftops and balconies, and even our grim next-door neighbours, always clad in black chadors (lit.: “tent”) on account of their status as a martyr’s family, have apparently joined in. Which just goes to show that not only the progressive Westernized Iranians seem to have voted for an opposition candidate.

The shouts have now become louder, more boisterous and more prolonged (30 minutes today) every day, and colleagues tell me that in many parts of the city, radical messages unheard of before have been added to the “God is Great”; even going as far as insulting the Supreme Leader, basically putting into question the central tenet of the Islamic Republic.

Every afternoon, Tehran, Isfahan, Mashhad, Shiraz, and other Iranian cities slide into various degrees of turmoil. What starts as a normal day, with people going about their normal business, very quickly turns into a giant uproar on central squares and junctions. How giant is hard to tell, because increasingly, all means of communication are being restricted or simply cut off. The Internet is now so slow that even the circumnavigational software used to get around the filters cannot connect to the social networks anymore. Mobile phone networks are cut off regularly at 15.00 at the latest. In some parts of Tehran, also landlines are being silenced. Odd exceptions exist – I was able to make three perfectly normal and straight-forward phone calls to Germany, while I cannot get through to any UK number. This is especially sad for Tristan, as it was his birthday yesterday and we could not get hold of his grand-parents or uncles.

Our routine of daily staff meetings continues. It is a good way for our Iranian colleagues to speak of their experiences in a larger gathering. Every day, there is less emotion in the room, although I am not sure that colleagues are refraining from going to the demonstrations, as required by the UN. If they do, they keep quiet about it. Many are strangely well informed, though.

I heard some interesting rumours from them. For instance, that on Saturday afternoon, after first preliminary results pointed towards the victory of the main opposition candidate, Basiji paramilitaries entered the Ministry of Interior, where the votes were being counted. And how they ordered everyone out except the counting staff, closing the doors behind them. How there suddenly was a majority of votes for the incumbent president, when the doors were opened again later.

Or how two of the main government dailies, “Kayhan” and “Iran”, had already started to print their front pages for Saturday with the headline news of the incumbent’s election victory… on Friday afternoon, before the polling stations had even closed.

All rumours, obviously. What is confirmed now, however, is that there were seven people killed in the demonstrations on Tuesday. A diplomat friend of mine, who was at the square where the protests were held, was fairly close to the barracks from which the shots were fired. He was shocked to see how what appeared to be a very disciplined and peaceful protest quickly turned violent. He is from a country in Central Europe that had its own experiences with protests and demonstrations, under the then Communist regime, but it was still nerve-wrecking, he said.

Some news from today. It was expected that protests would start soon after the end of the international football game between Iran and South Korea, at 5pm. After having finally found a Twitter hosting site, I read that there were again hundreds of thousands of demonstrators out in the street today, this time on “Haft-e Tir” square, a huge space of intersecting multi-lane highways, covered this afternoon by a “sea of green” (Twitter user). It appears that the protest was peaceful, and Fisk reported that since yesterday, peace and silence was the main feature of these huge protest marches. The sheer number of people seems to even intimidate the riot police and paramilitaries, who rather concentrate on the many other flash-points in the city where fewer protesters congregate and can be beaten up more easily. This latter information is confirmed by many eye-witnesses from among our colleagues, not to speak of coverage on youtube and flickr.

There were also again reports of Basij forces following protesters after having beaten them up, even of them entering hospitals to look for victims of the violence to beat them up yet again. In one account, they very meticulously hid their batons and gun in the entrance lobby before looking for their next victims, to appear like normal hospital visitors.

Another colleague reported indiscriminate, random phone calls being made by the authorities to families, telling them that they had been recorded as participants in previous protests, and that they would be detained if they went again to another demonstration. Others apparently were threatened to loose their jobs if they were seen joining the protests, or participating in the strike that was called for by the main opposition candidate for today. Still, the many merchants Great Bazar in the centre of town appear to have followed the strike call.

So far, there is no sign the protests will peter out anytime soon. Rather, they seem to gain strength. Another big rally is called for Thursday, and apparently there is supposed to be also a huge demonstration in front of the UN building, to call for international support. But everyone is waiting for Friday. The Supreme Leader will lead the Friday prayers, which are to be held at Tehran University. What he says there is expected to determine how the coming days and weeks will look like – either giving in to some of the demands or more protests, I would expect.

The authorities have come some way. State media is now reporting on the protests. The Guardian Council – a group of religious leaders that have the power to revoke laws already passed by Parliament and intervene on all issues legal and political – has been called upon to look into the vote counting issue. A partial recount has been offered. The Supreme Leader met the three opposition leaders.

But this all won’t be enough. What the opposition wants is a total rerun of the election. Some people have mentioned that the authorities had printed more than 55 million ballots – but 14 million were never used, and are unaccounted for. There seems to be a fear that such irregularities, if confirmed, would also mar any recount, hence the call for a complete rerun.

This is all getting very technical. Sorry for this – after all, both Georgina and myself spent five years organising and monitoring elections in the Balkans, so this is a bit of a habit of ours, to look into the details of election “engineering”.

But I want to end on a personal note. A colleague of mine, who generally has never shown any deeper interest into politics but has now turned out to be a centre of information on the day-to-day events on the street (I wonder from where she gets all the hot news), told me proudly that a female German politician from the Green Party has joined the protests of Iranian expats living in Berlin the other day. She showed up in a green jacket, staying in tune with the theme of the protests. My colleague could not help herself laughing at what she perceived as a supporter coming to the wrong demo.

And finally, to wrap up on family news: Tristan is now the proud owner of a baseball set, two new pairs of football pants (thanks Grandad!), and a large Lego Darth Vader Star Wars battle ship (first weekend visit in Denmark will have to be to Legoland!) He was a bit sad that we could not have a big party for his ninth birthday, but he had a special football afternoon at the Italian Residence and a Special Star Wars movie night, so it was OK.

More to come.

Al the best to you,

from the Nitzsche Creatures

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