Elections in Iran on Friday returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a second term as president. Supporters of challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a conservative reformer, have taken to the streets in protest. Violence has broken out, and people have been shot to death by police. Remarkably, the Islamic republic’s leading cleric, Ali Khamenei, has called for an investigation of the election results. So have other members of the Iranian ruling class.
Regardless of the outcome, the United States needs to stay out of this. Mousavi’s supporters and Iran experts are clear about this. Given the history of U.S. intervention in Iranian affairs since World War II, and the anti-Americanism that was a theme of the 1979 revolution, any effort by our government to promote the opposition is guaranteed to backfire and to help unify and expand Ahmadinejad’s support. This is why Mitt Romney’s remarks this weekend have been self-serving and irresponsible. Obama’s balancing act — expressing doubt about the election’s fairness without taking sides — is the right move for this moment in the chess game.
The Web and Twitter have offered ringside seats to the events in Tehran in particular, although protests seem to be occurring throughout the land. By far the most active tweeter has been Raymond Jahan @StopAhmadi. His summary of events in Tehran today (which I’ve embellished with other news):
- Large crowds throughout Iran — millions, according to protesters — took to the streets on Sunday and today. Presumably the largest crowd was at Tehran’s Azadi Square (surrounding the Freedom Tower), the site of historic demonstrations that brought down the Shah’s regime in 1979.
- People claimed to see snipers around Azadi Square, and some people were killed or injured by gunfire. Photos of bloodied corpses were sent out by cell phone or Internet, despite sluggish bandwidth. Britain’s Channel 4 captured a police shooter on video. In general, foreign journalists have been prevented from broadcasting, and some at least have been asked to leave the country.
- In Tehran and Rasht, authorities called individuals to intimidate them, saying their phones were bugged. Jahan seems to doubt that the government has done much bugging. Activists have been using pay-as-you-go calling cards to evade any surveillance.
- A rumor was circulating Sunday that some of the police who rode motorcycles into crowds of protesters were actually Hezbollah Arabs imported from Lebanon to take stern measures against Iranians. The rumor, which seems to be false, stoked antagonism between police and the crowd, and encouraged violence. Using motorcycles to break up dense crowds did nothing to help the situation. A video shot this weekend by an Italian journalist shows some protesters protecting a battered policeman from the crowd that had pulled him from his motorcycle and set it on fire. Fleets of motorcycle cops can be seen in much of the video footage from Tehran.
- The headquarters of the Basij paramilitary force was burned today after a protester was killed outside.
- The rallying cry of the protesters is Allah o akbar, the Persian form of the Islamic motto “God is most great.” Abbas Barzegar, an Iranian Ph.D. candidate at Emory University, has warned Western observers (in the Guardian) against forgetting that Iran remains a very religious country. But he seems to assume that Ahmadinejad’s supporters have a monopoly on piety, and this seems far from the truth.
- Ahmadinejad was dismissive of the massive protests, comparing them to the reactions of fans whose team lost a soccer match. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, whose authority is independent of the executive branch, issued a bland statement congratulating Iranians for their large turnout and commitment to democracy. Later, as I mentioned, he announced that the election must be investigated — an apparent victory for protesters.
- There has been uncertainty about scheduled mass rallies. Rumors circulated by Twitter and email that one rally set for today was actually a government trap. Protesters suspect that those rumors, plus a round of news that tomorrow’s rally had been canceled, originated with government agents.
- Video has shown police or security officers entering homes and beating people severely, in one case leaving a man motionless on the ground. Dormitories at the university in Tehran were invaded Sunday night.
- Iranians are suspicious of the ill-timed maintenance shutdown this evening by Twitter. Shutdowns are notoriously frequent on Twitter, but under these conditions, people in Tehran suspect the worst. Tweeters are objecting with the hashtags #TwitterStayUp and #NoMaintenance.
Resources for keeping up with the news:
- Live blogging at huffpost.com has been going on since Saturday.
- Informed Comment, Juan Cole’s authoritative Mideast blog, criticizes the plausibility of election returns and makes a case for fraud by the government. He deals with (and rejects) the theory that Western journalists spent too much time in affluent North Tehran, overlooking broad-based rural and working-class support for Ahmadinejad.
- Wikipedia article on the protests is a site for hammering out a neutral account of what’s happening. Also see the discussion page.