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Essay: The flight from Tehran

A GlobalPost correspondent reflects on why Iran will never be the same.

Iranian security personnel ride past burning debris on the streets in Tehran June 20, 2009. (Your View/Reuters)

TEHRAN — The night before I left for Imam Khomeini airport, an editor of mine requested a list of telephone numbers to call in case of an emergency. The emergency the editor had in mind went unstated, but it was clear enough.

In Iran’s post-election crackdown, journalists both foreign and domestic had been included among the official threats to national security. Given that Iranian intelligence agents have a penchant for sweeping up their targets at Tehran’s airport, I knew that I had to plan for the possibility that my plane out of the country might leave without me.

It was not a thought that had crossed my mind when I booked the flight several months ago. The Islamic Republic’s nine previous presidential elections had not been the cause of crises. Most of them had been strongly contested. Some of them had spurred unexpected political developments. But, as elections are wont to do, all of them underscored the stability of the regime that organized them.

Certainly, none of the previous elections had set the stage for what I encountered in my final days in Tehran: millions marching in silence in hopes that their grievances would register with their rulers; middle-aged men setting aflame police motorcycles; government-affiliated militiamen mercilessly using batons, knives and guns against their own countrymen; daytime screams mourning the dead and nighttime chants praising the greatness of God. I thought I would be covering an election, but found myself observing a war in the streets.

It’s hard right now to remember that before dread settled over the country, before violence and fraud tore the threads that bound Iranian society together, the Islamic Republic enjoyed several weeks of unprecedented vibrancy. There was, of course, the joyous green-clad tidal wave that swept over Tehran in the days prior to the vote. But, the streets of the capital were also home to many earnest, if mundane, displays of democracy.

For all the acknowledged flaws of their country’s electoral process, countless Iranians expressed their pride in their country and their devotion to politics in a spirit of generosity and optimism. They were college-age volunteers who canvassed undecided voters. They were strangers who staged impromptu public debates on street corners. They were tens of millions who waited long hours in the summer heat to cast their ballots. And they were all Iranians who wanted their voices heard.

It was the feeling that their devotion had been betrayed, that their claim to fairness had been violated, that sent Iranians onto the streets. The thousands who protested on the day after the election knowingly crossed the line separating sanctioned from illegal political expression. The sight of the first demonstrators elicited surprise and admiration from their fellow citizens. The protesters were probably themselves surprised to find themselves taking on the risks they did. But so many of the decisions made by demonstrators in the aftermath of the election were made spontaneously, an instinctive response to the festering pain of wounded self-respect.

And when the government proved, on that first day of protest, that it was prepared to use force to silence its own people, the spiritual injury suffered by the Iranian public was deeper and more lasting than the physical pain inflicted on it. The protests were bound to get bigger before they got smaller. What started as scattered groups chanting on busy streets became within two days a march of millions on one of the city’s largest and symbolically most resonant thoroughfares, Revolution Avenue. The references to the events of 1979 were fanciful at first, but increasingly serious with each passing day.

But the government has enormous advantages, and it used them propitiously to sow as much uncertainty as possible throughout the country. Telephone service was interrupted; the cell phone network was periodically shut off entirely; the internet slowed to a crawl. And, of course, security forces were instructed to use unrestrained violence. Martial law was imposed after dark. It was an environment in which it was easy to feel alone, stranded from one’s friends, family and the outside world.