Archive for the ‘iran’ Category

The fall of the shah

shahThe shah of Iran fell in 1979, overthrown by Ayatollah Khomeini, a 76-year-old religious scholar who did not fire a shot.

The shah thought of himself as a king, but he was in fact a dictator of a banana republic. America helped to bring him to power in the Second World War and kept him in power to protect the oil of the Persian Gulf from Russia and as a counterweight to the Arabs.

He was hated by the people, as a dictator, as someone who licked America’s boot. But the shah had a powerful army and a secret service to match, Savak. He crushed his enemies – all except for one: Ayatollah Khomeini.

Khomeini lived in exile, in the holy city of Najaf in Iraq. He had a network of supporters inside Iran. The shah kept an eye on them but never moved against them. Perhaps out of respect for religion. But after crushing everyone else, the religious leaders were the only ones left who could challenge the shah.

Khomeini’s supporters kept asking him to start an uprising to overthrow the shah. But he kept saying, “Not yet.”

Then in January 1978 Savak planted an article accusing Khomeini of being a British agent. Khomeini said: “Now.”

His supporters staged a protest. The army crushed it, killing dozens. Forty days later came the mourning, which became a protest. More violence. And so on.

It seemed strange to the shah that Khomeini would have that much support. He thought America must be behind it, so he blamed foreigners for the unrest.

The protests would not go away. He changed prime ministers, several times. Nothing helped. Khomeini would not give an inch: he did not want to work with the shah – he wanted him gone. He kept up the protests.

In September 1978 the shah tried to crush the protests once and for all by military force. Some say thousands were killed. It failed. Worse still, it gave the military a distaste for shooting on its own people.

He put the country under military rule. But then later he freed a thousand political prisoners on his birthday and arrested some of his past ministers. His enemies saw it as weakness, his friends as betrayal, his wife as confusion.

When people saw that the military would no longer shoot them down, the protests grew. In December 1978, on Ashura, one of the biggest holidays in Iran, millions filled the streets, dressed in black for as far as you could see. It soon became apparent that they were protesting against the shah and for Khomeini.

On January 16th 1979 the shah left the country. He knew he was not coming back: he took his father’s ashes with him. The prime minister now ran the country.

On February 1st Khomeini returned to Iran after 15 years of exile. No one shot down his plane, not even Mossad, the Israeli secret service, despite being asked. Six million came out to greet Khomeini.

By February 11th the military swung behind him. It was over.


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Neda Agha-Soltan

NedaAghaSoltanNeda Agha-Soltan (1982-2009), also called Neda Soltani, Iranian martyr, died on the streets of Tehran on Saturday June 20th 2009 during the violent crackdown by the government on protests against the 2009 election for president. It was put on the Internet and people all over the world saw her die.

Despite the media blackout, everyone in Iran knows about her. The government knows that they know.

She was about a kilometre away from the protests – people were running up the street fleeing the tear gas. She was in a car with her music teacher on the way to Freedom Square to take part. They got stuck in traffic. She was getting hot, so she got out of the car to get some air. Then there was the sound of a crack in the distance: she was shot square in the chest. People helped to lay her down. She said, “I’m burning, I’m burning”. In the video you see her eyes go dead and then blood comes out of her mouth and her nose to cover her face and people cry out in despair.

It is extremely upsetting to watch. Partly because of her age and sex: men are supposed to protect women, not kill them.

The killer was not shown – the video seems to start a second after she was shot. Witnesses say she was killed by a Basiji gunman on a roof across the street. The Basiji are paramilitary roughnecks that the government uses to do its dirty work.  They are the ones that drove motorbikes during the crackdown looking for all the world like human hyenas or something out of Mad Max.

She died at 7:05 pm Tehran time (14:05 GMT) at the corner of Khosravi and Salehi streets. It was recorded by mobile phone and a few hours later was up on YouTube on the Internet. A doctor at the scene said she died within two minutes of getting shot, that there was no saving her.

She was denied a public funeral. The government would not even allow her family to mourn her properly. She was buried Sunday afternoon.

State television said nothing about her death until several days later: they said it was staged by the BBC – or maybe the CIA.

She was the second of three children, the daughter of a civil servant. She studied Islamic philosophy at Azad University. She loved travel and was learning Turkish to become a tour guide.

Time magazine points out that in Shia Islam, the main religion in Iran, people mourn their dead on the 3rd, 7th and 40th days. The 40th day is the big one. The Islamic revolution 30 years ago, in fact, progressed on a 40-day timetable: protests would lead to deaths, deaths to public mourning 40 days later, which would also became a new protest, which would lead to more death and so on.

Martyrdom is big in Shia Islam. From their history Shiites are very familiar with the idea of evil rulers dressing themselves up in religion and creating martyrs.

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mousavi_vs_ahmadinejadMir Hosein Mousavi (1941- ), or Moussavi with two s’s, was prime minister of Iran from 1981 to 1988. After more than 20 years out of public office, he ran for president in 2009.

Opinion polls showed he would win 54% of the vote. In the event the government said Ahmadinejad, the sitting president, won by a landslide – despite high prices and high unemployment. In utter shock Mousavi and his supporters took to the streets in protest.

Hundreds of thousands, some say millions, have been peacefully marching in protest through the streets of Tehran and other cities for a week, wearing his election colour of light green.

A week after the election the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamanei, who commands the military, said enough is enough, to stop protesting or face the “consequences”.  Mousavi called for a huge march the next day – that is tomorrow as I write this. Some say to bring your Koran to make it harder for the army to shoot you down. (Mousavi always asks for his protesters to be peaceful for the very same reason – to make a violent crackdown less likely.)

Mousavi is an unlikely leader. He cannot speak well; he has little charm. He is every bit the quiet professor that he seems. And yet his experience as prime minister shows he can run the country. But, even more, he has proved he has the courage that few would to stand up to the liars who are taking Iran down a dead end. Some say he is a frontman, for Ayatollah Rafsanjani or others. This is not the actions of a frontman.

Mousavi favours a more liberal Iran, one  more friendly to the West. He is not for the narrow, hard, army-boot-in-your-face, God-and-country Iran that Ahmadinejad seems to want. Mousavi wants freedom of speech, privately owned television stations, more open government and no more moral police.

Mousavi would continue Iran’s push for nuclear power but only the peaceful sort. (His daughter is a nuclear physicist.)

Mousavi asks where the $300 billion windfall went that Iran got from higher oil prices in the Ahmadinejad years: Iran should be doing well, but instead prices have gone up (destroying middle-class savings) and more are out of work.

Mousavi is favoured by those who are young, live in the city and have good educations.

Mousavi took part in the Islamic Revolution of 1979 which overthrew the shah. He was a trusted friend of Ayatollah Khomeini. In the 1980s Mousavi was hard-line and helped to pass the very laws that he now wants to reform. But by 1997, for reasons unclear, he had become a reformer.

Mousavi is not Persian but Azeri, a Turk, from the city of Tabriz in the north-west, the son of a merchant. He studied architecture, particularly the Islamic sort, though he favours the work of Renzo Piano. He is also a poet and a painter. But for years his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, an artist and professor of political science, was the famous one.

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The 2009 election in Iran


Last update: Tue Jul 21 05:37:21 GMT 2009

On Friday June 12th 2009 Iran held an election for president. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was running for re-election, but in Tehran, the capital, it seemed like Mir Hosein Mousavi would win by a landslide. Instead, to Tehran’s utter shock,  the government said Ahmadinejad did. People took to the streets, in Tehran and cities across the country, protesting “Where is my vote?” and shouting from the roof tops “Death to the dictator!”

For a week hundreds of thousands, some say millions, have marched in protest through the streets of Tehran and other cities, wearing green, Mousavi’s election colour. The Western press was not allowed to attend. The Internet was slowed down, but Twitter still worked.

A week after the election the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamanei said to stop the street protests or face the “consequences”. The next day violently cracked down on protesters. The death of one young woman, Neda, was caught on video by mobile phones and seen by over a 100 million on YouTube. It gave the protest a humanity that everyone could feel and understand.

In the weeks that followed there have been some protests here and there. The government has been quick to break them up.

There was not a single foreign observer at the election so no one can know for sure whether the election was fixed. But it seems likely:

  • Ahmadinejad won Tabriz, Mousavi’s home city, by 57%
  • Ahmadinejad won the Kurdish part of Iran. Again unlikely.
  • The government came out with its numbers too quickly.

But far more telling was the crackdown that followed. It seemed like the government was forcing its will, like it had something to hide.

Ayatollah Montazeri said four days later that “No one in their right mind can believe” the outcome as stated by the government.

In Iran the president has limited powers. It is the Supreme Leader, currently Ayatollah Khamanei, who controls state security and state television.

Four men ran for president, but only Mousavi was close enough in the opinion polls to be a threat to Ahmadinejad. It seemed like it was going to be close.

Mousavi is a reformer. He appeals to the young and those with education. He used to be prime minister, back when Iran still had one.

Ahmadinejad, well to the right, appeals to the poor, the religious and those who live in the countryside.  He became president in 2005. Under him, despite all the money the high price of oil brought in, unemployment and prices went up. He has helped to cut off Iran from much of the world by shooting off his mouth and taking unwise stands.

Because of the crackdown on the Western press and Iranian websites, much of what we know comes from protesters through YouTube and Twitter, which came into its own with this event. Certain blogs have given better and more timely news than the likes of BBC or CNN. The revolution has not been televised but tweeted.

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The June 12th coup

IRAN/I agree with those who say that the election for president in Iran on Friday June 12th 2009 was a coup d’etat, an overthrow of the rightful winner, Mir Hosein Mousavi. I have no hard proof of that but the government’s actions are not those of a winner:

  • Cracking down on the Western press;
  • Arresting leaders among Mousavi’s supporters, blaming them for the protests;
  • Beating up a middle-aged woman without mercy in front of her young daughter;
  • Allowing Ahmadinejad’s followers to gather but not Mousavi’s;
  • Blocking the wounded from getting to hospitals;
  • Ahmadinejad saying, “Elections in Iran are the cleanest.”;
  • Defending the Interior Ministry with tanks.

The government said Ahmadinejad won. Tehran was in utter shock. It seemed like Mousavi was going to win by a landslide. That is why it took to the streets. But if Tehran had such strong support for Mousavi, it is hard to believe, as the government reported, that Ahmadinejad won Mousavi’s hometown, Tabriz, by 57%. He even carried the Kurdish part of Iran, which is highly improbable.

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Qom or Kum (sounds like “come”) is the religious capital of Iran and one of the holy cities of Shia Islam. After Najaf in Iraq, it is the greatest seat of learning in the Shia Muslim world. These days Qom is much richer and safer than Najaf. It is a place to go if you want to study to become a mullah or an ayatollah. Ayatollah Khomeini once lived and taught there.

Many of the top people who run Iran and Hezbollah studied in Qom.

In Qom there are several universities and dozens of religious schools (madrasas). There you can wear robes and study the Koran, the hadith, Islamic law, theology, philosophy and logic. Its teaching of philosophy is very thorough. It takes 20-30 years of study to become an ayatollah, at least six for a mullah.

Qom has been a centre of Shia learning since at least the 1500s.

Qom is an hour south by car from Tehran on the road to Isfahan. It stands at the edge of the Great Salt Desert.

Qom is also a place where ten kings and 400 saints have been laid to rest in beautiful buildings from another time.

The most famous of the dead is Fatima the Pure who died in Qom in 816. She was the sister of the eighth imam and has made Qom into a place of pilgrimage. Her body now lies beneath a gold dome.

Outside of Qom is a well. People drop messages in it for al-Mahdi to read. No one knows where he is, but they say that at the end of the world, al-Mahdi will come up out of the well and bring justice and Islam to the whole world.

If you go to Qom you will have to dress so that your arms and legs and everything in between are covered. Women must cover their hair. It is a strict Muslim town.

In addition to religious education, Qom also has centres for computer science and medicine. It is one of the two places in Iran that tests long-range missiles.

Qom is not just a town of schools and beautiful buildings. It also has industry. Oil has been discovered in the area, but it is not high quality.

Qom has been destroyed several times over in its history: by the Mongols in the 1200s, by Tamerlane in the 1300s and the Afghans in 1700s.

A town has stood there since ancient times. Qom first became an important city under the Arab empire. The Arabs planted their armies at the edge of the desert. This made Qom the perfect place to station their army in Iran. In fact, “Qom” with a “Q” is the Arab spelling of the town’s name.

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