'Don't the Basij have parents?'

[Editor's note: This is the latest on-the-ground dispatch from our Tehran-based correspondent, who cannot be named because of the increased danger of arrest as the government cracks down on journalists.]

TEHRAN — As Tehran burned and Iranians bled for the second consecutive night Tuesday, the Hosseini family tried its best to celebrate Iran's Mother’s Day. The three members of the family had voted for Ahmadinejad in Friday's presidential election, but they didn’t want to join the tens of thousands who had gathered in the center of the city to hear the president-elect give his acceptance speech.

"No, we want to be at home," Shahnaz, an assistant in a pharmacy said, while preparing supper. “We’ve voted, we’ve done our part and the rest of this has nothing to do with us.”

It is the first Mother’s Day holiday on which Shahnaz has not received any gifts — Ali, her son, and Mansour, her husband, came home from work at sunset empty-handed because anxious shop owners in Tehran shuttered their shops. She says she’s simply glad that they are both safe, given the chants and screams coming from Tehran's streets.

“Poor mothers; poor children,” she lamented. “Don’t the Basij have parents, don’t they have children?” She was referring to the feared Iranian paramilitary force which originated as a student collective fostered by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and which was key to the success of the 1979 revolution.

The mothers and children of Narmak — the lower-middle class district where Ahmadinejad famously has his residence — have so far been spared violence, but they’ve also not seen the victory celebrations that pro-Ahmadinejad newspapers and state broadcasters have claimed are taking place.

The Hosseinis, like many in their area, voted for Ahmadinejad after days of discussing their thoughts about the country and the candidates. They belong neither to the segment of the president’s voting bloc that was instructed to cast their votes for him, nor the underclass portion of the populace overjoyed by the president’s coarsest displays of populism.

However many ballots were coerced or falsified, there are a significant number of Iranians who cast their ballots for Ahmadinejad voluntarily and with a clear conscience. And they are now beginning to question their own judgment.

“I saw Ahmadinejad as someone who would defend the revolution,” Mansour said.

The lives of the Hosseini family changed dramatically after the events of 1979. Mansour benefited considerably from the forced post-revolutionary redistribution of money and privilege: As the son of factory workers, his rise, through war-time connections made during military service, to a civil service desk job at the Tehran company amounted to a significant achievement. But, his rise stopped there: He could not afford a down payment on a nicer apartment; his son works around the clock at a real estate agent’s office, but still cannot afford his own place to live.

But, the pillars of the Islamic Revolution are still Mansour’s political and spiritual touchstones. He interpreted the week of nighttime carnival revelry by Mousavi’s green-clad supporters as a slackening of the Islamic traditionalism that he thought maintained societal unity. And he thought highly of the president’s prideful protection of Iranian independence on the international stage, as well as his naming and shaming of corrupt government officials.

“I think he is right that many of the big politicians have lost the purity of spirit they had in the early days of the revolution,” Mansour said.

For his part, Ali, Mansour's son, said that when he first heard the election results — the announcement of a landslide less than two hours after the polls were closed — he smiled, “but in my heart, I didn’t believe them.”

Even in a supposed Ahmadinejad stronghold like Narmak, residents say they thought Mousavi supporters were potentially in the majority: Ahmadinejad voters like the Hosseinis knew they were surrounded by Mousavi supporters in the line to vote at the nearby mosque.

These are the sorts of observations that the Guardian Council will have to consider when addressing Mousavi’s legal appeal. Until now, they have been facts that the Interior Ministry has denied, Ahmadinejad has ridiculed, Supreme Leader Khamenei has ignored and security forces have set out to attack.

The government is everywhere

"Don’t cause a scene," the bearded man in plain clothes firmly told the rest of the passengers in a subway car late on Monday evening.

Those within earshot, including your correspondent, knew he was an intelligence officer and that he was discouraging us all from mentioning the murders at Azadi Square that had just happened. We were very quick to comply, everyone directing their eyes to a corner, or the floor or a wall. Ever more Iranians are responding to their own government in a mood of fear and exhaustion.

But, one young man on the subway decided neither to cower, nor obey. “You were there,” he said gravely, looking at the intelligence officer. “You were there; I saw you.”

The officer stared back. “We all have our opinions.”

The young man boldly replied: “It is a fact. You were there. I saw you.”

It is clear that the young man had seen more than he wanted to. His were the eyes of someone who has lost a friend, a comrade: His pain gave him the strength to utter words that the entire country would probably share, a claim to self-respect that Iranians would like to make a steadfast reality. In the streets of Tehran, there is a desire to name simple facts and to call them such: facts like election ballots, facts like gun shots fired at innocent bystanders. The demonstrators are bound together by their desire for truth.

Your correspondent, too, wanted to say what he had just seen: A young man staggering in the darkness several blocks away from Freedom Square, his eyes wide, as though he'd seen a ghost. He raised his two bloody hands before me as testimony. “Ten people,” he intoned. “They killed 10 people.” He was the first of a stream of people walking between stopped traffic, a nighttime trickle of mourning that followed a peaceful march made by hundreds of thousands. The messengers of bad news, young people of university age mostly, cited different numbers of dead, between cries and sobs.

 

Banking on change

In the weeks leading up to their presidential election, Iranians spent a lot of time and energy debating with one another the country’s rate of inflation and alternative names for the Persian Gulf. That’s forgotten now. The fight for more elemental aspects of political life has superseded the issues of the vote: Whomever it is that takes to the streets will be praying for a basic measure of safety, freedom and justice. In Tehran and other cities in Iran, the mundane political vocabulary of democracy has widened dramatically.

The crowds will get bigger before they get smaller. Already they represent the spectrum of Iranians who voted for Mir-Hossein Mousavi: young and old, rich and poor, modern and traditional. Their common political opinions have in the last days become shared political principles that they say they have no choice but to stand up for. “We were forced onto the street,” one demonstrator said.

Indeed, Iranian society has increasingly found a common enemy in the form of the Basij, the paramilitary group indiscriminate in the punishment it's meted out since the election, whether by baton, or as of Monday, by gun. The conflict between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi supporters is less grave than the one between the demonstrators and their torturers. When Mousavi demonstrators now enter someone’s car or building in order to escape a baton, no one asks how the other voted.

The assembled masses now ask openly for support from anyone and everyone who might have respect for the law, including the standard uniformed police and guards that have stood on the side of the fight. Young women approach police officers at barricades and plead for them to really look at the people gathered before them: “We are all Iranians!”

The Hosseinis deny any sympathy for the paramilitaries wreaking havoc against demonstrators and students, though their votes on election day would likely put them in the same camp.

Ali, who two days prior had waited in line for 90 minutes to give his vote to Ahmadinejad, turns off the television so he can be as clear as possible. “Politics is about dialogue,” Ali said. “They are using the tactics of war.”

Read more about Iran's election:

Protester vs. protester in Iran

Iran: Revolution, Tiananmen, or something else?

Iran election: Obama's dilemma