Tehran's wild nights of protest

TEHRAN — Tehran is living strange days. After two nights of rioting, this city that manages to combine the frantic with the lackadaisical takes even longer than usual to get going in the morning.

Street-sweepers brush glass away from shattered bus-stops as slow traffic trundles past torched and blackened bank fronts. An overcast and cooler than usual summer with frequent rainstorms makes for a brooding atmospheric backdrop to the scenes of urban tension unfolding in the streets.

People go about their daily business against a backdrop of disrupted city life: scorched tarmac, overturned and torched trash bins, bus-stops bereft of glass sidings.

"I feel like that guy who was sitting in the Berlin cafe as Hitler came to power and, unlike those around him, knew that this was the end of democracy and freedom," said a 25-year-old journalist as he steered his car through the streets. "Not that we ever had freedoms and democracy here."

The now nightly shulugheha (troubles) that start as night falls and stretch until dawn are the talk of the town. But much debate revolves over whether the vote was rigged or not.

"The meta-narrative in the West now is beginning to emerge that these elections were not rigged but represent Ahmadinejad's popularity in the countryside," American journalist Robert Dreyfuss told a group of Iranian journalists as they sipped tea in his hotel lobby.

Some Iranians concur.

"Maybe there was some rigging, one or two million votes," a taxi driver told me as he steered his cab around the carbonized detritus of overnight rioting. "But Ahmadinejad still won by 24 million to Mousavi's 13 million. You can't falsify such a large number. The protesters were just looking for an excuse to cause a revolution."

That is the same accusation being made by Ahmadinejad's government. They believe that a Color Revolution is in the offing that is being promoted by invisible Western hands working through young, impressionable and highly excitable students.

"In our questioning we're after finding links between the plotters and the foreign media," said Ahmadreza Radan, the deputy police chief at a news conference today, according to the state-run Fars news agency.

"It's a psychological war," said Nader Ghassemi, a factory owner and Ahmadinejad supporter standing in the middle of a Tehran avenue with his wife and family at 4 a.m. waving posters of their leader. "They're trying to manipulate our people."

Meanwhile, the protests continue. The more people become angry at what they charge was blatant vote-rigging and the repression of their protests, the more they flock to street-corners to shout anti-Ahmadinejad slogans.

"They didn't even want to do a subtle vote-rigging," said a film director attending the protests. "They wanted to do it as blatantly as possible in order to let us know how unimportant we are in their schemes."

After the police violently demonstrated that it was ready to massively repress any reactions, a shocked populace largely refrained from challenging the status quo Sunday, switching to passive resistance techniques.

"These people thought that the nights after the election would be like the ones before," said a student activist manning a roadblock, referring to the extraordinary nightly scenes of the last week when thousands of Tehranis flooded Vali Asr Avenue, the longest boulevard in Tehran, and shouted anti-Ahmadinejad slogans without the police intervening. "They were beaten up and are now scared to come out," said the student.

Another frustrated student activist described how, on a night before the elections, he witnessed a lively debate in a central city park transformed into passivity as a Korean sitcom began broadcasting on the park's giant screen.

"People just cast around for a piece of newspaper, sat on it, watched the program and forgot about why they had come out," the student said.

On Jolfa Street, a largely residential avenue, locals clustered at street corners shouting slogans and spreading news of Monday's rally planned by opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who is challenging the election results. Smoke from car exhaust and several fires created a choking atmosphere. Young men and women stopped columns of cars with their bodies and shouted slogans with a strange intensity until motorctycle-mounted riot police swarmed down the road, prompting them to flee.

"Sukute har musalman, ehanat ast be Quran," (The silence of every Muslim, is a sin by the Quran) shouted a group of black-hijabed middle-aged ladies.

It is 3 a.m. and a shell-shocked peace has descended on the center of the city. Tehran's wide avenues are smoldering to the echo of water running in the water-channels that bring icemelt down from the mountains behind the city. At intersections, groups of police stand talking to each other and to Ahmadinejad supporters emerging from their houses to reclaim the night for their celebrations.

Siren lights blink at every intersection, bathing the multi-story cement and glass buildings in red then blue. A suffocating mix of car exhaust and the acrid remnants of blazes suffuses the air.

As we drive, the cars around us begin a frenzied honking that is more mass hysteria than any kind of pro-Mousavi expression. The klaxons become wilder and wilder until a long column of vans ferrying Yegan-e Vizhe (Special Units) overtake us, bringing silence upon the chaotic crowd of automobiles. The soldiers stare at us blankly through smudged visors, seemingly contemplating the fires they'll be called to quell on their journey to the night's riots.

Humor has also been on display even during the worst of the violence. Even as the mounted motorcyclists of the riot police swooped down on demonstrators who ran for their lives, an overweight Iranian man mounted a motorbike and, holding on to his friend who was driving, adopted a mock-heroic voice and shouted, "Don't be scared, I will protect you!"

The burning of garbage cans — hundreds of them across the city — has become so commonplace that Tehranis are beginning to joke that the true force behind the fires is the city municipality in an innovative technique to dispose of rubbish without having to pay garbage collectors' salaries.

"I'm just putting the rubbish out to be torched and will be right back," a friend smirked as she put on her headscarf to carry a large plastic bag out of her flat and into the street.

"Karroubi came fifth in the elections," announced a protester, referring to the only cleric among four candidates, who received an unrealistically low percentage of 0.89%. "He got less votes than the blanks."

(Iason Athanasiadis is reporting from Iran on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.)

More GlobalPost dispatches on Iran:

Tehranis riot, claiming flawed poll results

As night falls, Tehran still ablaze

 'New' dawn breaks over Iran

Iran's elections: The view from the highway

Iran's elections: The view from the US

Young, Iranian and ready for change

Seven visas: Reporting from Iran