Jay Leno, a late night comedian in America calls Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mahmoud Ahmanutjob, which just about says it all about the puppet president of Iran
LETTER FROM TEHRAN
The tragic farce of voting in Iran.
by Laura SecorMAY 7, 2012
Voters outside the Al Javad mosque, in Haft-e Tir Square, in Tehran. A government campaign presented voting as an act of defiance against the West. Photograph by Newsha Tavakolian.
- On February 29th, two days before parliamentary elections in Iran, I joined a few dozen foreign correspondents—along with official handlers—in the parking lot of the Laleh, a formerly five-star Tehran hotel with tatty rooms, an ornate lobby, and a surfeit of eyes. We had come to Iran to cover the election, but we were told upon arrival that there would be a compulsory program. Its first order of business was a bus trip to the Alborz Space Center, where we would learn about Iran’s new remote-controlled satellite.
Our bus, clearly in no hurry, rumbled westward along streets of low-slung storefronts until we’d left the capital; it traversed the neighboring city of Karaj, passing a string of industrial plants, and reached a clearing in the midst of sprawl. The space center was a modest glass-fronted building an hour and a half’s drive from any conceivable election activity in Tehran.
The regime had bused us all this way to show us a PowerPoint presentation. No one at the space center seemed to speak English, so one of our handlers stepped in to translate. He said jokingly, “I am not a member of Iran’s space program, so please don’t put that in your reports. I really don’t want to be the next Iranian scientist to be assassinated.” (Since 2010, four scientists connected to Iran’s nuclear program have been killed.)
Iran, we learned, had become the world’s tenth nation to launch satellites into space, despite international sanctions denying it foreign-made parts and expertise. Video of a rocket launch was set to a Middle Eastern techno beat. “We don’t wish to dominate the world by launching rockets,” the voice-over explained, in Farsi. “We just wish to serve mankind under the auspicious supervision of the Twelfth Imam, peace be upon him.” The satellite’s technical specifications flashed across the screen, in English. Several slides referred to the satellite’s temperature in space on various “days after lunch.”
An Italian reporter asked if the satellite had military uses. No, a staff scientist replied. It monitored weather patterns. If this little excursion was a show of force, it was not because Iran had launched a satellite but, rather, because the regime was no longer even trying to mask its coercive nature. We were here to waste our time, and the Iranians didn’t care who knew it.
The last time that most of the world peered inside Iran was in June, 2009, when, for two searing weeks, the Islamic Republic cracked open. In what came to be known as the Green Movement, a series of mass protests contested the official results of the Presidential election, which granted a second term to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has held the office since 2005. The Basij, a state-sponsored militia, crushed the demonstrations; photographs and furtive cell-phone footage captured young people in green fleeing down broken sidewalks, motorcycles at their heels. By the time of the Arab Spring, in early 2011, Ahmadinejad’s election-year rivals, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, had been placed under house arrest, their mid-level operatives imprisoned and forced to confess on television to international conspiracy, their movement dubbed fetneh—“the sedition.” As the regime silenced the country’s internal press and shunned Western reporters, the world lost sight of Iran’s domestic life and focussed instead on its nuclear program.
- Iran reopened its doors to the foreign press for the March 2nd elections, but the moment was an especially sensitive one. International tensions over Iran’s nuclear ambitions were at a peak, a European embargo of Iranian oil was set to take full hold in four months, and Israeli officials were threatening to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. “You are in a small box this time,” an Iranian journalist cautioned me. My visa was for only five days.
Yet Iran, vast and restive, had a way of revealing itself, even in bad times. The Green Movement had been forced underground, but it remained a preoccupation, even among hard-liners. One day, my handlers directed me to a campaign event: a debate among conservative parliamentary candidates at Tehran University, organized by the Basij. The room was filled, and my translator and I stood in the back.
A brave soul approached the microphone and inquired, in Farsi, “If we object to the policies of the nezam, what recourse do we have?” In Iran, the word nezam—“the system”—refers to the country’s unusual political structure, which combines a theocracy, ruled by a Supreme Leader and his executors, and a republic, with elected officials and public debates.
One of the panelists, Hamid Rasai, a white-turbaned cleric in an olive-green robe, replied, “Most people don’t think like you. Most people are from the Basij. You who complain are in the minority.”
The crowd roared with applause. Rasai represented the Steadfastness Front, an arch-conservative group of parliamentary candidates associated with a cleric, in Qom, who had once remarked that anyone offering a new interpretation of Islam should be punched in the mouth.
Rasai’s dismissive remark was the reverse of a claim that I had often heard from Iranian reformists: that only a fifth of the populace supported the Basij and that most Iranians were reformists or liberal-minded. Neither appraisal was verifiable in a country without reliable polling. But their concurrence conveyed a different kind of truth. Iranian society had become not just divided but adversarial, with entire communities denying one another’s existence.
A Basiji accosted my translator. Foreign correspondents were not welcome, she told us. “No one invited you.”
A questioner asked the panel about the Green Movement: “If the system knew what would happen after the Presidential election—that there was a plot—why didn’t they stop it from the beginning?”