As hundreds of thousands of Iranians marched down Tehran’s main thoroughfare to protest allegations of fraud in the country’s June 12 presidential elections, a college student named Niloufar felt a sense of belonging.
“It’s heartwarming to feel you are not alone,” said Niloufar, 21, who asked that her full name not be used out of concern for her safety. “We asked him to get our votes back and now we can’t withdraw our support for him,” she said yesterday, referring to opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who spoke at the June 15 rally.
The movement she has joined represents the biggest challenge to the Islamic republic since its inception 30 years ago. And it may not go away even if the protests don’t result in the unseating of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said Richard Dalton, a former U.K. ambassador to Iran who now is an analyst at Chatham House, a London-based research group.
“Many people, especially the young, have learned that politics, public demonstrations, defiance and idealism are open to them and potential instruments to improve their life chances,” Dalton said. The authorities “must be nervous.”
The opposition has spread the word of protest through means both modern and traditional. Some shout from their rooftops each night, calling out “Allahu akbar” (“God is great”), just as opponents of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi did before they overthrew him in 1979.
Then there are people like Arash Naimian, 25, a cinema student living in Paris, who learns of plans for demonstrations on Web sites blocked by the government. He then tells his friends, as well as his mother and grandmother, in Tehran via cell phone or e-mail.
“We want a free and independent Iran,” Naimian said as he protested with 300 others in front of the Iranian Embassy in Paris yesterday. “I want my vote to count.”
He is part of a technological network that has swept up Iran’s youth. Activists inside and outside the country are thwarting government Internet restrictions by using social networking sites such as Twitter to organize rallies at home and attract support around the world.
Mousavi yesterday rejected an offer by Iran’s Guardian Council, the clerical body charged with supervising the poll, to undertake a partial recount. He demanded new elections. Ahmadinejad, 52, received almost 63 percent of the vote to Mousavi’s 34 percent, according to official tallies.
Fifth Day of Protests
Tens of thousands of supporters of Mousavi rallied in central Tehran today, Sky News reported.
President Barack Obama yesterday said he hoped that Iranians would be able to “express their voices” and that he had “deep concerns” about the violence, adding that the U.S. would stay out of internal Iranian politics.
Authorities have arrested dozens of opposition organizers and security forces killed as many as eight people two days ago at a rally in Tehran.
Those forces used live ammunition against demonstrators in cities including Tehran, Tabriz, Mashad and Rasht, according to the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. Plastic bullets were used against crowds on university campuses in Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz, it said.
Seven people have been killed in attacks on university dormitories in Tehran and Shiraz, south of the capital, the British Broadcasting Corp.’s Persian service reported.
“I think the situation is very similar to China in 1989,” Hadi Ghaemi, the rights group’s coordinator, said by phone. “You may see a Tiananmen-style crackdown,” he said, referring to the violent suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing in 1989.
Mousavi has called a mass demonstration tomorrow to mourn the deaths and on his Web site today described the killings as “savage.”
Foreign media in Iran were banned yesterday from covering the street protests, which continued for a fourth day with a large opposition rally in Tehran. The Revolutionary Guards, an elite force, said today through the Iranian Labor News Agency that Web sites and bloggers must delete Internet content that creates “tension.”
Since the election, reformist Web sites, as well as Twitter and Facebook, have been cut off in Iran, although Iranians are evading the controls via proxy servers, which can disguise a user’s location.
“There are many ways of getting around blocked Web sites, particularly for a technologically switched-on and motivated population, which certainly applies to Iran,” Jeff Mann, research vice-president for social software at Gartner Research, a technology consulting firm, said in a phone interview from Amsterdam.
“We honor and thank the people of Iran and especially the hackers. Baseej have guns, we have brains,” said one Twitter user, persiankiwi, referring to the pro-government militia known for its violence against opposition youth.
Twitter Inc. this week said it was postponing a network update in light of demand for its services in Iran.
“We realize Twitter is playing an important role in the events taking place in Iran,” San Francisco-based company spokeswoman Jenna Sampson said in an e-mailed statement. “We’ve seen many instances of people using Twitter to communicate when there was no other way.”
Iran has one of the world’s youngest populations, with as many as 70 percent under the age of 30, born after the Islamic Revolution.
The ability to communicate translates into a desire for political freedom, said Jennifer Windsor, executive director of democracy-promotion group Freedom House in Washington.
“This election could very well represent a watershed event for Iranians, who are no longer willing to tolerate increasing restrictions on their basic freedoms and the international isolation they’ve experienced in recent years,” Windsor said. Bloomberg