TORONTO — In the winter of 2000, when I first met Nikahang Kowsar, he had just been released from jail in Tehran.
It was, as it often is in Iran, a tumultuous time. The country was in the middle of parliamentary elections and hard-line conservatives were cracking down. Their accomplices in the judiciary were closing reformist newspapers practically every day. Kowsar, one of Iran’s best-known political cartoonists, became a target.
His sketches, published in three widely read newspapers, rattled the ruling theocracy. He was jailed — accused of mocking a powerful hard-line cleric — for a cartoon showing a crocodile shedding tears as his tail strangled a journalist.
“Those people are killing the press and then they pretend that the press is killing them,” he told me when, as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star, I met Kowsar in his Tehran apartment.
As a condition of his bail, he was banned from drawing cartoons for the rest of the election campaign. Supporters of the cleric he allegedly mocked, Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, took to the streets in protest. Some chanted that Kowsar should be executed. Police then informed him that 48 of his past cartoons had broken the law.
He fled to Toronto in 2003. Today, half a world away, he takes part in the latest Iranian revolt through his blog, radio broadcasts, Facebook pages and cartoons.
“In a way, I think I'm there," said Kowsar, 39. “I'm chatting with people inside Iran probably three or four hours a day. I'm just sleeping four and a half hours because I don't want to miss a thing.”
Kowsar estimates 20,000 visitors daily read his Persian language blog, called “Notes from an angry exile.” Some 6,000 friends in Iran exchange messages on his Facebook pages and an estimated 100,000 Iranians listen to Amsterdam-based Radio Zamaneh — broadcast via the internet and satellite TV — on which Kowsar does a 10-minute daily analysis of the protests and Western media coverage.
Iranian authorities have tried to block the sites, but proxy servers and “mirror” sites have kept many Iranians reading and listening.
At one of the protests against alleged vote-rigging of the June 12 presidential election, a Tehran demonstrator held up a poster of a Kowsar cartoon — a giant foot, representing the hard-line Revolutionary Guards, squashing a voter. On it, a protester had written: “I will fight, I will die, I will get my vote back.”
His most recent cartoon is a showdown between a hand pointing a cellphone camera and two hands pointing a rifle.
The dead on Tehran's streets attest to the rifle's power. But cellphone cameras — and protesters broadcasting the images to the world through the internet — might turn out to be mightier. At least Kowsar hopes so.
He knows what repression feels like.
During his cartoon days in Iran, he was also a consultant to the reformist deputy mayor of Tehran at the time. The municipality wanted the return of some land being used as military sites and gave Kowsar documents about them. Iranian authorities later claimed his possession of the documents threatened national security.
He received two death threats, one from an underground group suspected of being involved in the killing of Iranian intellectuals in the late 1990s.
“This is how it works in Iran,” Kowsar said.
In June 2003, he received permission to attend a cartoonists' convention in Quebec City. While he was in Canada, Iranian police questioned his family and relatives in Tehran and they made it clear they intended to arrest him. He stayed in Canada and has applied for citizenship. His wife and daughter, now 10 years old, joined him in 2007.
Kowsar was convicted in absentia for his crocodile cartoon and handed a four-month jail sentence. He has also learned that charges of threatening national security are pending.
His parents still live in Iran, but Kowsar hasn't called. He says their phone is tapped and calling would invite grief from authorities.
He is convinced that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole the election from rival Mir-Hossein Mousavi. But he described Mousavi, a former prime minister, as a product and upholder of the Islamic regime.
A power struggle at the regime's highest echelons pits Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who supports Mousavi, against Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who supports Ahmadinejad, Kowsar said. Rafsanjani heads the Assembly of Experts, a cleric-run body with the power to remove the supreme leader.
On the streets are largely middle-class Iranians with an alliance of interests: more democracy, a better economy and the removal of a president they consider an international embarrassment, he said. Some desperately want an end to the rule of clerics, but dare not say so.
Hard-liners are reasserting their control of Tehran’s streets. On Wednesday, Mousavi issued a website statement describing any government led by Ahmadinejad as “illegitimate.” Kowsar is certain of one thing: Even if Mousavi somehow comes to power, it won't be safe for him to return.
“I'm very lucky to be in Canada,” he said.
More GlobalPost dispatches about Iran:
Essay: The flight from Tehran
Radio free Iran
How to run a protest without Twitter