In a long narrow conference room in Qom, the religious center for Iran's Shiite Muslims, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sits surrounded by about a dozen of Iran's ruling ayatollahs who make up the Council of Guardians. It is the day after June 12 elections, and he is preparing to mobilize the plainclothes paramilitary group known as basiji to counter rapidly multiplying street demonstrations.
Yet all the while, the 52-year-old, a former mayor of Tehran, civil engineering academic, and son of a blacksmith, is talking into his shirt. He mumbles, his face barely moving, looking downcast, tired, and not at all like someone who just won an election.
This is not the fiery Ahmadinejad, who in April prompted delegates from the United States, Canada, Germany, and Italy to walk out of a UN conference on racism. The boycott erupted when he spoke of the Holocaust as "the pretext of Jewish sufferings" used by the UN Security Council to create "a totally racist government in the occupied Palestine."
Nor is this the jocular Ahmadinejad (though it looks like he is wearing the same jacket) who parried questions about his vow to wipe Israel off the map from 60 Minutes' Mike Wallace in 2006 with a smile and "I will get to that."
Nor is this the hectoring Ahmadinejad who once said of former President George W. Bush: "You shouldn't sit in a room, a dark room, and hatch plots. And because of your plots, many thousands of people are killed."
The Ahmadinejad who is sitting in this dark room hatching plots is on this day an abject man. When he looks up, it is usually to his right, where Supreme Leader Ali Hoseini Khamenei is seated, as if for approval.
Ahmadinejad to many may look like a ruthless dictator who just voted himself back into office. He may have defeated the street favorite, 67-year-old Mir Hossein Mousavi, who is billed an Islamic reformer. But in the conference room at Qom, Ahmadinejad is a man insiders say recognizes that his political future is tied to the ruling Shiite clerics, particularly Khamenei. And as confrontation with the Iranian people has widened and deepened, the Council of Guardians knows its legitimacy as much as election balloting is in doubt.
Tehran since mid-June saw a million-plus demonstrators pouring into its streets to protest Ahmadinejad's June 12 victory. Clashes with police and paramilitary units culminated on June 20 in the deaths of at least 20 civilians and the disappearances of hundreds more. Ahmadinejad drew his tens of thousands, but then Mousavi drew his hundreds of thousands.
As the opposition gathered force, authorities wobbled: Khamenei's June 13 "divine assessment" of Ahmadinejad as the winner was followed by Khamenei's call for an election probe two days later. That turned into a stern ruling June 19 that election results will stand, and Khamenei held that ground even after the Council of Guardians discovered that votes exceeded the number of voters in 50 districts. On June 29 after a very partial recount, the council declared Ahmadinejad the official winner.
But while Tehran has been where the action is, Qom is the nerve center in the Islamic republic's biggest internal crisis since the revolution that brought it to power 30 years ago. Guardian Council meetings like the one June 13-captured on videotape and broadcast via YouTube-have been frequent.
But they are not the only clerical sessions in Qom. As demonstrations spread following the election, senior ayatollahs met separately to discuss changes to the structure of the Iranian state. News network Al Arabiya reported that a foreigner has attended too: Jawad al-Shahristana, supreme representative of Iraq's Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Sistani, 79, is the preeminent Shiite cleric in Iraq and some say around the world. Born in Iran but of Arab descent, he has ties to the Qom clerics but rarely if ever intervenes in affairs of state.
"Arabs are Arabs and Persians are Persians," said Sasan Tavassoli, a former Iranian Shiite who became a Christian in 1985. "For the average Iranian he has no role." But these are not average times, and the presence of Sistani's attaché in Qom indicates that lingering unrest at bottom is less about the legitimacy of Iran's vote and more about the future of its theocracy.
"This is an intra-Islamic fight," said Tavassoli, who now serves as a pastor in the Iranian Presbyterian Church. "How can this country be both Islamic and republic? How can it be ruled both by divine law and the votes of the people?"
At least five of Qom's 14 senior ayatollahs appear to have sided with protesters and Mousavi. The most prominent among them is Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, 85, once presumed heir to revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Considered by followers to be the greatest living authority of Shiite Islam in Iran, Montazeri-who was once placed under house arrest after he questioned Khamenei's theological credentials-called for a three-day mourning period after violent street clashes began June 15. And on June 25 he faxed a statement to reporters: "If Iranians cannot talk about their legitimate rights at peaceful gatherings and are instead suppressed, frustrations will build up which could possibly uproot the foundations of the government, no matter how powerful."
Montazeri wants an "impartial" committee to solve the crisis, presumably paving the way for a restructuring of Iran theocratic structures-perhaps as much to favor him as Mousavi. He said, "No one in their right mind can believe" the election results were fairly counted.
Significantly, Montazeri has called Ahmadinejad's nuclear energy posture "aggressive" and underscores clerical concerns about nuclear armament,contrary to assertions by the Obama administration that no current political alternatives will alter Iran's nuclear posture.
Other clerics who support Mousavi and the protesters include Ayatollah Yousef Sanei, once an ally of Khamenei, and Ayatollah Asadollah Bayat Zanjani, who posted a statement on his website saying, "Now is the time to stand firm against those who oppose the law and who, out of selfishness, disrespect the law and the will of the majority of the people."
On June 22 Ayatollah Hossein Boroujerdi came out in favor of "the brave people of the oppressed and under religious despotism."
In addition, Ayatollahs Amjad, Mousavi Ardebili, Makarem Shirazi, and Bayat Sanjani have been rumored to be under house arrest for statements favoring the protesters and opposition candidate Mousavi. Coming days could bring further crackdowns against the dissident ayatollahs.
In all, 50 of Qom's ayatollahs and other clerics in Qom have sent messages to Khamenei urging him to look into the complaints of the reformist candidates and examine reports of election fraud, according to the Arabic daily Asharq Alawsat.
Mousavi foremost has had support from Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president and current head of the Assembly of Experts. According to unconfirmed reports via Al Arabiya, he has led the renegade meetings in Qom and may have enough votes among the assembly to force the removal of Khamenei.
Mousavi appeared also to gain parliamentary support June 25 when parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, a longtime ally of Khamenei, and more than 100 other parliamentarians boycotted a victory dinner in Ahmadinejad's honor.
Growing clerical and popular dissent are more surprising, considering that Khamenei, with Ahmadinejad's election in 2005, has been consolidating power more thoroughly under the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards. Qom is where the government's formidable Intelligence Ministry has trained terrorists and where Ahmadinejad-with Khamenei's blessing-moved to pack former Revolu-tionary Guard cronies in parliament.
The Revolutionary Guards now control the regular army and paramilitary groups, such as basijis who patrol streets, universities, and shopping centers for women violating the dress code and other miscellany of Islamic law.
Khamenei has placed civilian infrastructure and natural resources under the Revolutionary Guards' military control and appointed a brigadier general-an ally of Ahmadinejad-as head of police in Tehran.
Farhad Nasseri, an Iranian analyst in Dubai told Iran Focus in 2005, "Ayatollah Khamenei is taking no chances. He wants his own men in control everywhere."
The restructuring was not widely noted in the West but would prove game-changing-not only in subsequent domestic crackdowns but when elections rolled around again in 2009.
With Khamenei at the helm, the Council of Guardians approved candidates to stand for election. With Ahmadinejad in control of the Interior Ministry, which oversees elections, the president maintained direct authority over balloting. And Revolutionary Guards controlled all security forces responding to the uprising.
Despite the strong-arm tactics at its disposal, the government has been slow to win back the street. When authorities shut down the internet and other services to block mass organization, Iranian protesters accessed overseas internet servers to communicate with one another and to beam out images of street confrontations (see sidebar).
Even after the bloody confrontations of June 20, protesters organized rallies to mourn the dead. At night loud cries of "Allahu Akbar," or "God is great," rang from rooftops. Remnant protesters took to Tehran intersections, confronted the basijis, pulled them off their motorcycles and set fire to the vehicles. In Tabriz, Iran's fourth largest city, shopkeepers refused to open despite threats from police in a weeklong strike to honor those killed in the protests.
Even as the protest movement gains support among Iran's ruling class and around the world, it's not certain that everyone wants the same thing. Some demonstrators carried signs reading, "Where is my vote?" Others taped their mouths shut with green tape to signify the repression of the regime. They aren't looking for more theocracy, yet neither opposition candidates Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, nor the dissidents among the ayatollahs, favor dismantling the regime. If Khamenei is removed, he would likely be replaced by collective leadership of similarly unelected mullahs.
"They may disarm one and put the power in the hands of five, which is the same and against freedom," said Daniel Shayesteh, a former Shiite and member of Khomeini's Islamic Fundamentalist Revolutionary Movement. Shayesteh converted to Christianity 20 years ago and now is a Missionary Alliance evangelist who lives in Australia. Shayesteh believes that real change will occur only when the supreme leader, or leaders, no longer can confirm and control the president.
When Khamenei was selected to succeed Khomeini, many senior clerics did not accept him, citing a lack of religious credentials and theological training to become a grand ayatollah. Tavassoli: "It's like somebody having a B.A. from a no-name college and overnight becoming a Ph.D. from Harvard."
Twenty years later, Khamenei has broadened his power base-and nursed an inferiority complex-by isolating clerics who are not his absolute allies and gathering acolytes like Ahmadinejad, who, according to Tavassoli, "could not say the things he says unless they were approved by the supreme leader."
And while Ahmadinejad may lack theological training, he is driven by ideology and believes he has his own divine calling: to hasten the coming of the 12th Imam, the so-called "hidden imam." According to legend, this imam, known as the Mahdi, disappeared in the ninth century in Qom. Many Shiites believe his return is imminent-a kind of messiah figure who will lead an apocalyptic battle between good and evil to establish global Islamic rule. The Iranian president is resolute enough to have spent millions on building projects for the Mahdi,including a widened major boulevard in Tehran to prepare the way.
The Mahdi's return is also a reason Ahmadinejad has increased persecution of Christians since taking office in 2005. The 12th Imam is supposed to bring Jesus from heaven, as a follower who will pray to him and convert all Christians to Islam. During Ahmadinejad's first term the Islamic center at Qom formed a Committee on Minorities to "culturally oppose"religious minorities. They include Zoroastrians, Christians, Baha'is, Sufis, Wahabbis, and New Mystics.
Estimates of Iran's Christian population range from 700,000 to 1 million out of a country of 70 million mostly Shiite Muslims. According to Open Doors, more than 100,000 Iranian Christians are so-called "secret believers" who meet in rapidly growing numbers of house churches. Most generally avoid political engagement.
"As long as the sovereignty is in the hand of the supreme leader, no matter who comes [to power] Christians will always be under threat," said Shayesteh. "The country is ruled by Islamic [Sharia] law, and therefore non-Muslims, including Christians, must be dealt according to the Islamic law."
Despite Mousavi's sudden popularity, he is remembered as anti-Jew and anti-Christian when he served as prime minister in the 1980s. Shayesteh told WORLD by email that it's not clear to most Christians whether Mousavi now favors "a softer approach" toward non-Muslims. And Christians have reason to be wary of exposing themselves to further action: In 2008, at least 50 Christians, mostly Muslim converts, were arrested, interrogated, tortured, intimidated, and some even killed, according to Open Doors.
Tavassoli said he believes, "Every Christian should speak up in defense of human rights and stopping the violence." And several Iranian pastors I interviewed said they believe whatever the outcome of the current crisis it can be a win-win situation for Christians: More freedom means more freedom to worship, and more oppression leads more Iranians to Christ. The number of Iranians with interest in the gospel "clearly jumped" 10 years ago after university protests, said Hormoz Shariat, who broadcasts a daily show to Tehran and pastors the Iranian Christian Church in San Jose, Calif., the largest Iranian Christian church outside of Tehran.
For existing protesters, the demonstrations are akin to sacred experiences. A man named Alireza from a Tehran suburb told a Wall Street Journal reporter he and his family went to downtown Tehran to join the throngs marching on Azadi [Freedom] Square. As they arrived, "cars were blowing their horns and people were flashing the victory sign," and about 20 militia men with long beards and batons waited on motorbikes. One of them told Alireza to throw away his green ribbon, a sign of support for Mousavi. When Alireza refused he was attacked by the militia and beaten before his wife and daughter pulled him away.
Arriving at the square, "what I saw there was the most magnificent scene I have ever witnessed in my life," said Alireza. The square can accommodate half a million people and was full. As smoke rose in the distance and gunshots could be heard, "the huge numbers of people were marching hand-in-hand peacefully. There were no slogans being shouted. Hands were held up in victory signs with green ribbons. People carried placards that read, 'Silence.' Young and old, men and women, rich and poor were marching cheerfully. It was an amazing show of solidarity. I was so proud."
For many Iranians that scene won't go away even as Ahmadinejad is sworn in July 26, as planned. Said Tavassoli: "It may look like things are calming, but Iran is a changed country."
What kept the Iranians Twittering, YouTubing, and Facebooking after government officials shut down internet servers and blocked cell phones? Among those outside the country who set up proxies to allow Iranians access to unfiltered web servers, many were supplied by Chinese dissidents who know what it means to be cut off from the World Wide Web.
Global Internet Freedom (GIF) is a consortium formed to circumvent political censorship on the internet. When the Chinese government announced in June it would require all PCs sold in China to be equipped with a chip known as "Green Dam," which both censors and monitors web content, GIF fought back two days later with "Green Tsunami" software that can disable "Green Dam."
Using similar skills and its anti-censorship network, GIF's computer experts deployed servers to keep Iranians wired to the outside world after June 12 elections. At its climax, Iranian traffic for June 20 skyrocketed to more than 390 million hits-or an estimated 1-million-plus users-up from 200 million before the election, nearly double.
"No iron fist is strong enough to shut off the world from bearing witness to the peaceful pursuit of justice," noted President Barack Obama at a June 23 press conference.
Months ago GIF technicians determined to support internet freedom in Iran. They went to work 24/7 after the election, when it became clear that social network sites were providing the backbone for street organization in the midst of a state-run media blackout.
Most GIF workers live in the United States but are affiliated with China's Falun Gong movement, whose members are monitored and frequently arrested.
"The drastic traffic increase from Iran overloaded and crashed our logging server at one time," said a GIF technician who could not be identified for security reasons. "GIF has been scrambling to cope with the skyrocketing traffic from Iran," he wrote in an email. "We are not sure how long we can sustain this kind of overload and the incurred cost, and will have to cut down the traffic if the situation lasts."
GIF patched in new servers to overcome mostly a state-run censoring mechanism the Iranian government has contracted out with electronics powerhouse Siemens AG. With its sophisticated technology, Google searches of "breast cancer," for instance, are blocked in Tehran because they are deemed offensive. But with cyberwalls now broken by GIF and others, that is likely to change-and a world of information technology freedom could open not only in Iran but also Burma, Vietnam, Cuba, and elsewhere.
"This handful of Davids is slaying the Goliaths of the world, even though they are without resources and operate using a handful of patched-up servers," said Hudson Institute fellow Michael Horowitz, who is championing the Internet Freedom Initiative in Washington.
Horowitz believes the United States can be more effective to support what he calls "lifelines" for Iranians and others living in closed societies. A 2008 State Department appropriation of $15 million to support increased server capacity for groups like GIF remains unspent. Rather than view it as meddling, Horowitz says Americans should see it as the 21st century equivalent of underwriting Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.
"It will take the U.S. government to tear down cyberwalls," Horowitz believes, and a small bipartisan coalition of Senate and House members-led by Sens. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan.-show growing support for the cause.
Jan. 16, 1979: The Islamic Revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini topples pro-Western Shah of Iran and speeds Khomeini's return to Iran after a 14-year exile.
April 1, 1979: The Islamic Republic of Iran is established.
Nov. 4, 1979: Iranian militants besiege the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking 52 Americans hostage.
Sept. 22, 1980: Iraq invades Iran and Iran-Iraq war begins.
Jan. 20, 1981: After 444 days in captivity, the American hostages are released.
August 1988: Ceasefire reached in Iran-Iraq war.
June 4, 1989: Ali Khamenei becomes Iran's supreme leader after Khomeini dies June 3.
Jan. 19, 1994: Bishop Haik Hovsepian, Iranian Christian leader who spearheaded an international campaign to pressure authorities to release from prison Christian convert Mehdi Dibaj, disappears. His body is found days later.
June 8, 1995: The United States imposes oil and trade sanctions against Iran for its alleged sponsorship of terrorism.
May 23, 1997: Mohammad Khatami, a moderate, wins the presidential election, defeating the ruling conservative Islamists by a landslide.
July 1999: Pro-democracy students at Tehran University demonstrate after the closure of the opposition newspaper Salam. Clashes with security forces lead to six days of rioting and the arrest of more than 1,000 students.
February 2000: Khatami supporters wrest control from conservatives in parliamentary elections.
April 2000: The judiciary bans publication of 16 reformist newspapers.
Jan. 29, 2002: President George W. Bush labels Iraq, Iran, and North Korea an "axis of evil."
Sept. 10, 2002: Construction begins on Iran's first nuclear reactor at Bushehr.
Nov. 14, 2004: Iran agrees to suspend most of its uranium enrichment.
February 2005: Authorities sentence Pastor Hamid Pourmand to three years in prison on charges of apostasy.
June 25, 2005: Tehran's ultra-conservative mayor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wins the presidential election and vows to restore "Islamic government."
August 2005: Ahmadinejad packs parliament with former Revolutionary Guards (RG) and consolidates all law enforcement and regular army under the RG. The Iranian government intensifies its campaign against non-Muslim religious minorities.
September 2005: The International Atomic Energy Agency finds Iran in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
November 2005: Ghorban Tourani, a Christian pastor who converted from Islam, is murdered.
Feb. 14, 2006: Iran resumes uranium enrichment at Natanz.
May 2006: Authorities arrest and later release Ali Kaboli, a Muslim convert to Christianity.
September 2006: Authorities arrest and later release a Christian couple for leading a house church.
December 2006: Authorities arrest at least eight house church leaders and charge them with evangelization and "acts against the national security of the Islamic Republic."
Dec. 11, 2006: Iran hosts a Holocaust conference that features several Holocaust deniers.
March 28, 2007: Iran detains 15 British sailors for 13 days after they allegedly strayed into Iranian waters.
Oct. 25, 2007: The United States imposes new sanctions against Iran.
March 2, 2008: Ahmadinejad visits Iraq, calling on foreign troops to leave while expressing Iran's desire to help rebuild.
July 9, 2008: Iran test fires a long-range missile it says is capable of hitting Israel.
Feb. 10, 2009: Ahmadinejad says he welcomes talks with the United States if they are based on "mutual respect."
April 18, 2009: An Iranian court sentences Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi to eight years in prison for allegedly spying. She is later released.
April 20, 2009: Western delegates to a UN conference on racism walk out after Ahmadinejad accuses the UN Security Council of creating "a totally racist government in the occupied Palestine."
June 2009: Disputed results following the June 12 presidential election spark protests and unrest.
July 26, 2009: Scheduled swearing-in of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.