Tehran: City of Whispers

By Roger Cohen, New York Times - June 20, 2009

TEHRAN — This has become the city of whispers. Many of the people I spoke to when I arrived last week are in prison. Stabbings and shootings punctuate the night. Fear rushes down alleys and dead ends. Still the whispering continues.

Roger Cohen

“Tomorrow, Vanak Square.” Or “Four o’clock, Imam Khomeini Square.” Or “Everyone wear black.”

An election result was announced a week ago that, in the words of the most senior opposition ayatollah, Hossein Ali Montazeri, “no wise person in their right mind can believe.”

Force rammed home the false, but still it did not stick. Switches were flicked to block texting and cell phones. Still the whispering continued.

From a four-year-old boy: “Ahmadi-byebye” — referring to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. From a young woman with a photograph of Mir Hussein Moussavi, the opposition leader whose occasional appearances send jolts of electricity: “Five o’clock, Vali Asr Square.”

The whispering is heard in the throng’s silence. It is the word-of-mouth switching mechanism of Iran’s uprising. I’ve never seen such discipline achieved with so little, millions summoned and coordinated with hardly a sound. “Silence will win against the bullets,” says one banner.

The odds must still be against that. But Ahmadinejad, in his customary bipolar (but tending manic) fashion, is making nice. “We like everyone,” he now says. I suppose he must mean those who are not in prison, hospital or a cemetery.

However, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, adopted a harsh tone in a Friday sermon, warning of chaos and bloodshed if protests continue, blaming “evil media” run by “Zionists” for unacceptable disturbances, dismissing rigging as impossible, and charging the United States with meddling. In effect, Khamenei drew a line in the sand.

Two Irans now confront each other across it. One of the achievements of the 1979 revolution has been that it brought education to many more Iranians. I spoke the other day to a doctor. She was wearing a surgical mask as she marched. She works at a state oil company clinic. She was 20 in 1979 and she marched then, too.

“People are far more educated and cultivated now,” she told me. “They know the stakes. This is deep. Moussavi will go to the end for our freedom.”

Iran has sought independence and some form of democracy for over a century. It now has the former but this election has clarified, for an overwhelmingly young population, the Islamic Republic’s utter denial of the latter.

The feeling in the crowd seems to be: today or never, all together and heave!

A man holds his mobile phone up to me: footage of a man with his head blown off last Monday. A man, 28, whispers: “The government will use more violence, but some of us have to make the sacrifice.”

Another whisper: “Where are you from?” When I say the United States, he says: “Please give our regards to freedom.”

Which brings me to President Barack Obama, who said in his inaugural speech: “Those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Seldom was a fist more clenched than in the ramming-through of this election result. Deceit and the attempted silencing of dissent are now Iran’s everyday currency. In this city of whispers one of the whispers now is: Where is Obama?

The president has been right to tread carefully, given poisonous American-Iranian history, but has erred on the side of caution. He sounds like a man rehearsing prepared lines rather than the leader of the free world. A stronger condemnation of the violence and repression is needed, despite Khamenei’s warnings. Obama should also rectify his erroneous equating, from the U.S. national security perspective, of Ahmadinejad and Moussavi.

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