New York Times: They are known mockingly as the “Joojeh Basiji” — the “chicken Basiji.” These are the militia scarcely old enough to manage more than a feeble beard.
The New York Times
By ROGER COHEN
Published: June 23, 2009
TEHRAN — They are known mockingly as the “Joojeh Basiji” — the “chicken Basiji.” These are the militia scarcely old enough to manage more than a feeble beard. Teenagers, brainwashed from early childhood, they have been ferried into the capital in large numbers, given a club and a shield and a helmet and told to go to work.
I saw them throughout downtown Tehran on Sunday, seated in the back of grey pick-ups. I saw them, sporting sleeveless camouflage vests, in clusters on corners, leaning on trees, even lolling shoeless on the grass in the central island of Revolution Square.
They were far from alone in a city in military lockdown. Elite riot police with thigh-length black leg guards, helmeted Revolutionary Guards in green uniforms and rifle-touting snipers composed a panoply of menace. The message to protesters was clear: Gather at your peril.
That threat had already been rammed home Saturday evening, when a student named Neda Agha Soltan was killed by a single shot. Her last moments were captured on video that has gone global. Martyrdom is a powerful force in the world of Shia Islam. Mourning on the 3rd and 7th and 40th days after a death form a galvanizing cycle.
Neda is already another name for the anger smoldering here, whose expression, in my experience, has been bravest, deepest and most vivid among women. She could become Iran’s Marianne.
Tehran, cradled in its mountainous amphitheater, is holding its breath. Sunday was quiet and Monday dawned quiet but between them the defiant cries of “Death to the dictator” and “Allah-u-Akbar” reverberated between high-rises once again.
In this pregnant lull, I keep hearing three questions: Will Mir Hussein Moussavi lead? How powerful are the internal divisions of the revolutionary establishment? And what is the ultimate goal of the uprising? On the answer to them will hinge the outcome of this latest fervid expression of Iran’s centennial quest for pluralistic freedom.
After the shootings Saturday that took several lives, Moussavi seemed absent. The bespectacled revolutionary leader thrust now into defiance was silent. People risking their lives craved guidance. Disappointed in 1999 and 2003 by the legalistic kowtowing of the reformist former president, Mohammad Khatami, they feared resignation redux.
Then, early Monday, Moussavi spoke. “Protesting to lies and fraud is your right,” he said, referring to the preposterous manipulation of the June 12 election and laying down the gauntlet again to the once sacrosanct pronouncements of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader invested by the Islamic Revolution with an authority close to the Prophet’s. Last Friday, Khamenei said: “I want everyone to end this sort of action.”
Khamenei also said, “Trust in the Islamic Republic became evident in these elections.”
In fact I believe the loss of trust by millions of Iranians who’d been prepared to tolerate a system they disliked, provided they had a small margin of freedom, constitutes the core political earthquake in Iran. Moderates who once worked the angles are now muttering about making Molotov cocktails and screaming their lungs out after dusk.
Moussavi is trying to calm their rage and coax the multiple security forces to his side. Restraint was the core appeal of his Monday statement. He urged his followers to avoid violence and adopt parental forbearance before the “misbehavior” of security forces — an appropriate reference given all the teenage thugs out there.
I think Moussavi is right to avoid extreme positions even as Khamenei has deliberately radicalized the conflict. He’s right because his moderation fans internal divisions that seem rampant. Any counterrevolutionary stance, at least at this point, would have the opposite effect.
Which brings me to the fight within. On Sunday, I saw Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani, the son of the establishment’s embittered éminence grise, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. He told me his father, who despises President Mahmoud Adhmadinejad, is fighting a furious rearguard action to have the election annulled by the Guardian Council, the 12-member oversight body that will pronounce this week on the election’s legality.
The ruling had seemed a formality, given Khamenei’s summary dismissal of a recount and the loyalist composition of the body, but the Council is now talking about irregularities in 50 cities and discrepancies that could affect 3 million votes. Out of a total of 40 million votes, that’s a significant number.
There are rumblings from the influential parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, who is close to Khamenei but not Ahmadinejad. With Rafsanjani, Khatami and the defeated conservative former Revolutionary Guard leader, Mohsen Rezai, the dissenting front has breadth. Rezai, who officially won 680,000 votes, says more than 900,000 voters have written to him with their ID numbers saying they cast their ballot for him.
The third question — the strategic goal of the uprising — is increasingly fraught. Khamenei said, “The dispute is not between the revolution and the counterrevolution,” and that all four electoral candidates “belong to the system.” He was right, if his words had been spoken the day after the vote.
Ten days on, however, the brutal use of force and his own polarizing speech have drawn many more Iranians toward an absolutist stance. Having wanted their votes counted, they now want wholesale change. If Moussavi wants to prevail, he must keep his followers tactically focused on securing a new election. That’s essential because it’s the one position the opposition within the clerical establishment will go along with.
Whatever happens now, all is changed utterly in Iran. Opacity, a force of the Islamic Republic, has yielded to a riveting transparency in which one side confronts another. The online youth of Iran will not be reconciled to a regime that touts global “ethics” and “justice” while trampling on them at home.
I received this from an anonymous Iranian student: “I will participate in the demonstrations tomorrow. Maybe they will turn violent. Maybe I will be one of the people who is going to be killed. I’m listening to all my favorite music. I even want to dance to a few songs. I always wanted to have very narrow eyebrows. Yes, maybe I will go to the salon before I go tomorrow!”
And she concludes: “I wrote these random sentences for the next generation so that they know we were not just emotional under peer pressure. So they know that we did everything we could to create a better future for them. So they know that our ancestors surrendered to Arabs and Mogols but did not surrender to despotism. This note is dedicated to tomorrow’s children.”
I bow my head to the youth of Iran, the youth that is open-eyed, bold and far stronger and more numerous than the near-beardless vigilantes.