The fear factor: A year after the 'green' uprising, Iranians are no closer to breaking free

Katherine Butler finds a nation ill at ease, and a regime whose ruthlessness is matched only by its cynicism

Friday 30 April 2010 00:00 BST

If showing affection in public was the indication of a happy society, then the signs from Iran would be encouraging. At the outdoor tables of a restaurant near the base of the snowy Alborz mountains north-west of Tehran, a young couple is not exactly canoodling, but his arm is stretched behind her shoulders and she's resting her head on his neck. The parks in the centre of the Iranian capital too are full of youthful couples holding hands, the odd pair even kissing with impunity as they stroll in the April sunshine.

A springtime of free love in the Islamic Republic? Hardly. Not, in any case, for the election protesters on death row, or the political prisoners whose lawyers claim they have been dosed with sedative drugs before their trials. The atmosphere has not been as oppressive for years, so a little steam needs to be taken out of the pressure cooker: let the young hold hands, and they'll think less about their stagnant lives or demonstrating in the streets. That, at any rate, is one local interpretation I am given.

No visas have been issued to Western media organisations to report from Iran since the disputed June 2009 election and the popular uprising that followed. But with the attention of Iran's Western adversaries fixated on trying to isolate Iran over its supposed nuclear threat, and Barack Obama seeking to drive a fourth round of sanctions through the UN, the government's quixotic-as-ever response is to host an international summit on nuclear disarmament, and invite the Western media in to cover it.

From the moment you slip your headscarf on in preparation for the pre-dawn touchdown at Imam Khomeini Airport you feel literally hemmed in. Getting the stamp on your entry visa is just the start, then you need a laminated press pass, a stamped certificate detailing in which areas you have authorisation to move.

Iranians have a penchant for polite ambiguity. This time there is polite clarity. I can apply for interviews, but it will be a waste of time. More tellingly, I am warned that no amount of paperwork will protect me if I am detained by an "irregular" branch of the security or intelligence services while interviewing members of the public. Is this perhaps an indication of the internal struggles that are said to be raging?

The Laleh International Hotel is where visiting journalists are encouraged to stay because it is run now by the Islamic Guidance Ministry. Before the 1979 revolution it was the American-owned Intercontinental. The blue outdoor swimming pool stands empty, the famous wine cellar is long gone. Most of the guests are either Chinese businessmen or groups of elderly Americans on archaeology tours, the women gamely struggling with tunics and hijabs over breakfast. They are charmed by the legendary Iranian hospitality they've encountered everywhere. If they notice the men from intelligence hanging around the lobby, they don't seem bothered.

It takes me a while to understand why so many people reach silently for their mobile phones, only speaking when they've removed the batteries. "Even among ourselves, we don't talk about the political situation now. You get into a shared taxi and the music is turned up loud immediately," says one who returned from exile to support the 1979 Islamic revolution. "People are scared. We have memories of the Savak."

The last time I was here, in spring 2009, people were fired up about the impending election. They openly attacked the government's mishandling of the economy, the rampant corruption. Even conservative girls in chadors were openly rude about the President. Ahmadinejad was "a joker", "a clown", "a big puppet".

In the 10 months since the poll, the prevailing atmosphere has grown queasy with fear and suspicion. Months of arrests, detentions, harsh sentencing, forced confessions, reports of people being raped or beaten to death in detention, and televised show trials have cast such such fear that some Iranians have begun comparing the atmosphere to the one that prevailed in the Iraq of Saddam and the Baath party.

Under the returned President Ahmadinejad the internal clampdown on "enemies of the regime" has been stepped up. Sons of pillars of the establishment have been arrested. TV economists, blogging clerics, even internationally acclaimed figures like the film maker Jafar Panahi have been jailed. Two of those arrested during the protests have been convicted as "ringleaders" and hanged, nine more are awaiting execution. A purge of liberal academics is believed to be under way in the universities.

The Savak were the Shah's feared secret police. Suspected enemies of the despotic monarch were fried alive on electric plates in their torture chambers. Nobody felt safe, people were terrorised just by the notion that anyone, even their best friend, could be a Savak spy. And anyone could be held and tortured even if they had done nothing wrong, just to spread fear.

Nobody is suggesting yet that things are as bad as in the final days of the despotic Western-backed Shah. And whether Nokia mobile phones can really be used as conversational bugging devices (mobile phone calls and texts are routinely monitored) seems unlikely. But the powerful Revolutionary Guards Corps, an elite parallel army, controls the Ministry of Communications. And many believe that the Guards mounted what was in effect a coup during the election. If people fear they are being listened to, the effect could be as chilling as it was in 1978.

The Basij, a volunteer youth militia controlled by the Revolutionary Guards, administered much of the brutality to the street protesters. They number at least a million, and are hated. The wife of a friend went to help her 18-year-old daughter buy a new jacket. "We searched for something that would make her look ugly. The last thing you want is to enrage the Basij by looking attractive." "Attractive" is code for provocative, and these days only the foolhardy would seek to provoke.

The police-state atmosphere sits oddly with the urbanised familiarity. Parts of Tehran could be Germany, or Belgium. The efficient air-conditioned metro puts London's Tube to shame. On the surface, things look normal.

But the political landscape has undergone a transformation since the election. The checks and balances built into the complex architecture of the state, which used to give Iran a plurality of voices and power centres, have it seems, given way to something more sinister.

Since the disputed poll, power has tightened around a radically hard-line troika: the Supreme Leader, the President and the elite parallel army, the Revolutionary Guards. Parliament, parts of the clerical establishment and even the judiciary have, according to insiders, lost ground. Some of the clergy in Iran's holy city of Qom are horrified by the repression they believe is dragging the values of the Islamic revolution into disrepute. But more is at stake than the survival of the Islamic state. The struggle between the regime's elites is also about who will control the spoils of an oil economy worth billions of dollars.

Although a layman, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the victorious President, wears his faith on his sleeve. He is a devotee of a millenarian sect who believe that Imam Mehdi, the Shia saviour, who disappeared down a well 1,000 years ago will return in "a time of chaos", a return that is imminent, and that his followers have a duty to prepare for. He emerges triumphantly onto the stage at the nuclear conference after international delegates have first been warmed up with rousing music, sung Koranic verses, and a black-and-white video showing terrifying images of the aftermath of Hiroshima. He greets a mullah with both arms raised theatrically, and then asks us to join him in a prayer for the reappearance of the Twelfth Imam.

Poetry, it is said, flows in the blood of Iranians. That cut little ice when Abbas, a young poet, went to the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery to pay his respects to those who died in the protests.

"We were beaten like animals" he recalls. "They accused us of tearing up pictures of God. It was lies, all lies. We didn't tear up anything."

Seeing Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 71, the Supreme Leader unmasked as a ruthless political operator was the biggest shock of the election. "We thought he was a religious figurehead, a fair man, who stayed above the fray," the young poet says. "But then we realised he, not Ahmadinejad, was the one in charge and he condoned the shooting of unarmed people in the streets."

I meet Abbas in a wooded spot in Laleh park, almost dark with the shade of tall pine trees. The mothers of the detained or disappeared tried to gather here once a week after the upheaval of last summer but were bundled away by police. One of the poet's friends, a brilliant student, was recently sentenced to four years in jail for leading protests.

Iranians like them, are lost to the Islamic Republic; they crossed a threshold last June. They went out on the streets to protest an election and ended up rejecting the entire system. The structural weakness, the poet thinks, is the contradiction in Ayatollah Khomeini's constitution between the doctrine of Velayat-I-Faqhi, the sovereignty of the Supreme Leader, and the sovereignty of the people. "How can Khamenei set himself up as the only one who judges what is good, or moral, or who is deserving or within the law? Where does his authority or mandate come from? And if he is infallible, what is the point of elections? It is nonsense. We cannot progress as a society until we shake off our isolation and the superstitions of the people who rule us."

The West's fixation with the nuclear programme is a distraction from what has happened since the election, the poet says. "We hear nobody speaking out about the torture. Does anybody care about our sorrow?"

The young woman accompanying the poet has brought along her French books, her passport to a life abroad, she hopes. Far from being "rich north Tehranis with sunglasses", the kind derided by George Galloway and Iran's ultra-conservatives during the upheaval, they make their living in low-paid clerical jobs earning about $200 a month. He is originally from a provincial village. His parents are conservative and religious. In some ways, they sum up Iran's tragedy. Educated, intellectual and (like most Iranians) under 30; yet neither sees a future unless they can escape.

Real change will take 10 or maybe 15 years, he predicts. "It will happen, but it won't happen for us."

In the meantime, the poet is a victim of the increasingly intolerant censors. "Some poems come back with just one or two words left in a sentence," he says, with a mix of comedy and despair. He tries to get around them by pleading that the love poems are about the love of God. "You see, the conditions, even for freedom of thought, are deplorable."

As we talk, a man in stonewashed jeans and dark glasses walks a little too slowly past not to arouse suspicion. We lapse into silence. Not until he is well out of earshot do we resume, laughing nervously. "We could just say we are talking about some research. You wouldn't believe how stupid they can be," says the poet, perhaps to reassure himself.

Will they go back onto the streets? "For now, the people have no energy," the poet says sadly. "They are drained by fear, of watching over their shoulders. We don't know who we can trust."

Leaving the park, I stumble on an alter-cation between a bearded man in a uniform carrying a truncheon and a young girl. "If you're hot, Miss, why don't you go home and lie in front of a fan. But don't come to a public place dressed like that." Her scarf is indeed skimpy, pushed back to the crown of her head. Otherwise she's modestly covered. She beats a retreat, fixing the scarf, not chastened, cheeks flushed with anger and humiliation as we look on embarrassed.

Friday prayers remains the longest-running piece of political theatre in the Middle East. It's the stage on which Iran acts out its part as the West's pantomime villain: stern, alarming, forever threatening to lay waste to America and Israel.

In reality, it feels a lot more like a well- organised social gathering, and not a very big one when you consider the population of Tehran. My bag disappears into a mobile van for security screening, and mobile phones have to be surrendered to the friendly usher women in chadors with walkie-talkies. There's a printed programme, like the line-up for a concert at Hyde Park. There's even a press office. Ten o'clock start, political speech slated for 12.25. Today it's the Foreign Minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, on nuclear power. Regiments of the armed forces process down the surrounding streets and into the prayer enclosure.

Women are segregated into a side area, behind a high screen. Those praying place their handbags in front of them as they kneel in rows on the prayer mats.

It's not easy to keep focused on Mr Mottaki's message because of the constant repetition of denunciations, suspicions, warnings, and exhortations. It's not that Iran does not have many justified grievances against the West, grievances that are shared by Iranians of all leanings, from the British-American backed coup which overthrew its democratically elected government in 1953, to the West's endorsement of Israel's secret nuclear weapons arsenal. It's just that he repeats them ad nauseam in a long-winded fashion.

Suddenly he bellows: "The whole world is shouting, 'Nukes for all!'" To which the reply comes "God is Great!".

Then he summons the crescendo, his voice rising to a high-pitched cry.."The Great God will advocate on our behalf....this great nation [louder]...Iran's good answer to the US is [louder]...

Then the ritual roar "Down with America!"

Then it's Israel's turn. "The Zionist entity should know they are getting one step closer to their own death. So we say....Death to Israel!"

Mottaki's narrative reflects the sense of victimhood about Iran's place in the world. But I wonder too if it isn't about the imperative to sustain a sense of continuing crisis with an external enemy. The headlines on the front pages of the pro-government newspapers like the ultra-conservative Kayhan, serve a similar function. One day last week Kayhan announced: "Obama admits his role in organising the post-election turmoil in Iran".

Behind the prayer area, under a row of trees, a few women take a break in the shade, chatting quietly on the park benches.

Zahra Vaezi, 64, is covered from head to toe in her black chador. "Of course nuclear power is our right. I'm a housewife myself, so it doesn't really affect me, but our scientists need to have this technology."

But is it a good thing to shriek "Death to America" at a prayer event? She smiles: "Well I hope you're not from America, but yes, definitely! You see, America doesn't want us to exist. It's not just that, but they don't care about our faith. They are our enemies."

Before the revolution, she travelled to the UK and Europe. "I would love you to come to my house, you would be so welcome," she says, writing her phone number in my book.

She asks if I'll excuse her because the white-turbaned Mr Sedighi, the presiding cleric, is next and a favourite. Mr Sedighi sermonises in what sounds like a kind, reassuring drone. God loves you no matter what, he is saying. Then he tells worshippers that immorality, or women who dress immodestly can cause earthquakes.

I approach one of the few young people visible at prayers. Zahra Behnoush, a 21-year-old law student in skinny jeans and black headgear like a balaclava admits she only came to buy books. But her script is similar to that of the older woman. It is Iran's "right" she says, to have nuclear energy. "America wants to stop us because they hate Islam, that's their only problem."

"The protests were wrong. The election was credible. Those who demonstrated made an egregious blunder. They are now at a dead end. I'm sure they are looking for another opportunity, but Iran is a strong country, safe and secure, and free."

The law student seems to speak with conviction. The problem for the regime is that the people who attend Friday prayers are the ones who already believe in the West's evil intentions. For countless Iranians, Friday Prayers is the stage where on June 19 last year, Ayatollah Khamenei sealed his loss of legitimacy, and his slide into disgrace, by demanding an end to the protests.

Just behind the main prayer area, women are distributing free snacks piled on tables. Everyone is entitled to one pineapple juice and a wrapped muffin in a clear plastic box. At the end, the soldiers coming out are all carrying their free boxes, like children coming home from a party.

To most of Iran's Facebook generation, the 30-year-old rhetoric about America seems about as desiccated as the dreary talk-shows between bearded men that seem to dominate state television.

Near the university bookshops (where Barack Obama's autobiography is incidentally on sale) a fashionably turned-out young woman with an extravagant fringe is waiting for a bus. She's 19 and on her way to the cleaning job which she combines with her studies.

She's dismissive of the endless chatter about nuclear rights. "One day we are celebrating Iran joining the nuclear club, another day is in honour of yellow cake [the raw ingredient of uranium]. What I think is that Iran should be stopped from getting nuclear energy. Not for weapons and not even for electricity." Why? "Why do we need these nukes? We need jobs. Besides, they can't be trusted to build a car,"

Is she worried about sanctions? Yes, if they hit us – the ordinary people. But if they really work on the people at the top, then America should do it.

But sanctions, in official circles, are dismissed as a joke. Iran's economy, far from going to rack and ruin, is so resilient and strong, insists the Minister of Commerce Mahdi Ghazanfari, that they will have no impact. Much of this is bluster, and Iran is believed to be already stockpiling imports of refined oil (petrol) because while it has massive reserves of crude it does not have enough of its own refining capacity to keep the pumps going. In Mr Ghazanfari's parallel universe, exports of such Iranian goods as pistachios, cement and carpets soared to $21bn last year. This will help cancel out the effects of sanctions on the oil sector, he boasts, before asking: "After 30 years of sanctions, have you seen any shortcomings here?"

Projected in front of us are colour slides of the dazzling Iranian pavilion for the imminent Expo 2010 in Shanghai. "We hope it will be an opportunity to destroy the negative propaganda we observe in the Western media," Mr Ghazanfari notes dryly. "Practically all countries are chasing after new markets. The sellers need us," he adds. "It is the buyer who is the king."

His non-oil export figures might be suspect (oil and its products account for more than 80 per cent of Iran's exports), but he has a point. Many European corporations trade with Iran selling everything from household appliances to telecommunications equipment. The US wants sanctions targeted at the Revolutionary Guards, but China and Russia are embedded in the energy and defence sectors and will be mindful to protect their long-term interests.

Neither the vice-like grip of the Revolutionary Guards over the economy, nor the widespread public disgust that this mob-like power provokes, is discussed by the Commerce minister. The Guards are thought to control at least a third of the economy, owning vast conglomerates and banking empires, with front companies abroad which will be an extremely difficult force for the West to topple. Their activities reach into everything, from imports of bootleg vodka to exports of Persian cats.

One Iranian I am introduced to has an uncle who served in the Revolutionary Guards having previously been decorated for his service in the Iran-Iraq war. This uncle is no genius – he never finished High School, the family say with disdain. But now he lives "like a king, a millionaire from exporting stone to Lebanon. The stone quarries and all other mining activities are controlled by the Guards, so the uncle doesn't have to be a great businessman; there's no competition.

From the "roof of Tehran" (Bem e Tehran) there's a spectacularly panoramic view of the vast concrete capital in the valley below. Today, the air is unusually smog-free so you can almost see in the windows of the apartment towers. You can also see satellite dishes everywhere.

There is a strange irony about these illegal links with the outside world. On the one hand they give Iranians access to another reality, a welcome change from the worthy one-note fare on offer from state television. And satellite TV is what many in the West assume will tip Iran into a velvet revolution. Yet the dishes symbolise something that may help explain why, despite the fear and loathing, the sorrow of the poet, the young cleaning lady, the language student and millions like them, Iran is not at the tipping point.

The government accuses channels like BBC Persian, Euronews and Deutsche Welle of encouraging sedition. So why not seize the dishes and prosecute the owners, I ask one householder. "Well sometimes they jam the foreign stations. But the dishes are part of the game," he explains. "They turn a blind eye, allowing us to infringe the law, because then you are compromised, you are drawn into a kind of compact. It makes you less likely to raise a fuss about bigger things because you've been allowed to get away with a transgression. That is the game they play with us." It's like allowing young people to hold hands in public, or subsidising the price of bread: it takes steam out of the pressure cooker.

Inflation might be running at 20 per cent and it is common to have to work two jobs. The average salary for a graduate in an office job with years of experience is $300 to $400 a month. Internet access is filtered and slowed, your mobile phone is probably tapped, you can't travel abroad much, but it's not a failed state, even after 30 years of sanctions.

While life is hard economically for millions of Iranians, for the workers in car or china factories who reportedly have not been paid for weeks, for many of the middle classes, it's not yet bad enough to risk challenging the status quo.

Thanks to generous subsidies paid for out of oil revenue, gas and electricity are almost free. Food staples are still relatively cheap and petrol is subsidised. Education is free and health provisions good. As long as you challenge nothing, you can even negotiate some decent perks and live a reasonably satisfactory life shopping in Tajrish, where the stores sell slinky dresses, hair extensions and a lot of nail varnish.

"The Shah made the mistake of not making allies, he failed to keep people satisfied. That was the lesson the revolutionaries learned," one beneficiary of the largesse admitted.

Tajrish shopping district caters for the richer, more secular types. The stores here sell slinky dresses, fishnet tights, hair extensions, a lot of nail varnish. "Before the revolution, you should have seen Iran," one store owner, a man with staring eyes, tells me. "The women could wear whatever they wanted. Minis, maxis, hotpants, everything. It was" He keeps repeating the word "Free!" He might be glossing over the reign of terror overseen by the Shah.

And what of the Green movement? He slides the palm of one hand over the other in a gesture that suggests it's finished. "Hitler! Our leader, he is like Hitler."

On the other side of the city, at the Grand Bazaar, the merchants, a powerful force, traditionally allied to the forces of clerical conservatism, lament the high inflation but on the record are wary about offering a political view. "Everything is good, very good," I'm told repeatedly.

Down a side alley, through a maze of shops and souks, the carpet wholesalers can be found. Here "Mr A" unrolls a stunning silk rug depicting Persian gardens that would fetch $3,000 in London he says. It can be mine for $700. I think he knows I am not going to buy the carpet, but he wants me to see the colours and textures.

The big carpet dealers from London used to come to him, not buying in ones or twos but hundreds at a time. Now, there are no dealers and few tourists. "All I have left is these people," he says, gesturing to an elderly pair who don't look like wealthy customers. The man has a weather-beaten face like a farmer. "They are Iranian families buying because carpets are what you must buy for your son or daughter when they get married."

His nephew interjects, telling him in Farsi to be careful what he says. "She can put these things on the internet."

"I'm not saying anything I don't defend", says Mr A. "I just don't know why we can't be a modern country. We have beautiful things to show the world."

You should change taxis twice. Don't ask for the intersection of Khosravi Street and Salehi Street or you'll arouse suspicion," I'm told. "Pretend you're going somewhere else. Half of the taxi drivers are spies." I wanted to see the spot where Neda Agha Soltan was killed by a bullet from the gun of a Basij militiaman as she attended a peaceful demonstration on 20 June last year. The final blood-soaked moments of her life were caught on video and seen around the world within hours. For a while it looked like the outpouring of grief over Neda would change the face of the Middle East.

Of course there is nothing official there to commemorate what sympathisers call "Neda Street". Just the word "Neda" in Farsi scrawled in green paint on one or two of the adjoining alleys. The 27-year-old was buried in Behesht e Zahra cemetery. Her grave has been desecrated twice. A government minister has suggested that she was shot by the CIA and the head of the state broadcaster claimed that the videos of her death were made by the BBC.

Many people's faith in the Islamic Republic died with Neda that day.

In a few weeks' time, the first anniversary of the election comes around – and the anniversary of Neda's death. The elderly cleric Mehdi Karroubi who came last against Ahmadinejad in the election has since emerged as a courageous figure and is calling on supporters to mount a renewed assault in the streets. But anti-government forces are a broad coalition, from women's rights activists to labour unions to students and journalists, to old-style political reformists. Despite all the social networking, the tweeting and YouTube information streams, they appear leaderless and drained of impetus. Their last show of strength was on the anniversary of the revolution in February.

The ongoing ill-treatment of political prisoners (some detainees were, alleges Karroubi, raped or tortured to death in the aftermath of the vote) caused profound shock and disgust. This issue is now turning into a political faultline under the regime. Last week, a group of political prisoners sent an open letter to the Grand Ayatollahs in Qom, claiming they were being subjected to "physical, sexual and psychological torture".

The letter said they were warned that if they hired independent lawyers they would be given heavier sentences. Some former prisoners allege they were given up to 12 anti-depressant drugs a day. More significant even than the allegations, is that the complainants went over the head of the Supreme Leader.

"Don't let some individuals, who call themselves the unknown soldiers of the hidden Imam (the agents and interrogators of Intelligence Ministry), and who have caused us all these sufferings, damage you, your religious teachings and our hope. Is there anyone who would answer to the cry for help of us, the oppressed?!" their letter pleaded.

Ahmadinejad and those hardline elements may have the upper hand for now. But the President may well face an internal challenge from pragmatic conservatives and factions of the clergy. Western hopes that this could usher in regime change would be misplaced. The challenge would come because one branch of the elite believes a competing section has mismanaged things badly and represents a threat to the survival of the revolution.

It is also worth remembering that neither Karroubi nor Mir Hossein Moussavi, both under virtual house arrest (Moussavi uses Facebook pages to disseminate his messages) ran on a ticket of radical reform, let alone dismantling the Islamic Republic. They have recently spoken of toning down the "green slogans" because they go beyond demands for a return to the values of Ayatollah Khomeini.

While I'm in Iran, the reformist former President Mohammed Khatami, who once enjoyed the popularity of a rock star is stopped from travelling abroad. The fear apparently, is he could become a Khomeini-style leader in exile capable of rallying the protest movement and destabilising the regime. But even the travel ban has not, as some supporters hoped, provoked him into an open confrontation with Ahmadinejad.

The secular-minded now look to the West and maybe to the destabilising power of economic isolation. But here too lies a trap. It gives the hardliners and the forces of violence a further reason to point and say, this is a Western plot and you are the agents of foreign powers – and thus a pretext for more repression.

And nobody thinks that those who have divided up the economic spoils, the vast sums of oil money that power gives access to, will give it up easily.

"Just now, they spread rumours against themselves," a source tells me. "They whisper of change, that something is happening soon. Perhaps Rafsanjani [the reformist cleric and former president] has a plan. He is orchestrating something that will challenge the hardliners."

Why would they brief against themselves, I ask. "Because it dampens down activity," she explains. "After all, If you're a life prisoner you dig a tunnel, but if you think you're going to be out in six months, you do nothing, you just wait."

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