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The irrepressible thirst for liberty

Iran | Tehran protests show no less driving force than the freedom movements that felled the Berlin Wall and ushered in U.S. civil rights

Issue: "2009 Books Issue," July 4, 2009

What President Barack Obama has seen in Tehran is not what I saw.

Crowds that Western reporters on the scene estimated to number 300,000 filled the four-lane wide Vali e Asr Boulevard and jammed into Vanak Square after Iranian officials declared President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the landslide winner in June 12 elections. As supporters of defeated candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi kept up massive street protests, they streamed video and photos of bloody confrontations between police and protesters, defying a shutdown of the internet and outside media.

"Nothing has been seen upon the streets of Tehran like this since the revolution right back in 1979," said the BBC's John Simpson, whose camera crew was briefly arrested and its tapes confiscated by police June 15. In the streets behind him Mousavi supporters wearing trademark green scarves chanted, "We want freedom, we want freedom." By midweek the unrest had left at least 12 dead, according to on-site reporting by The Los Angeles Times, and as many as 1,500 in Tehran are reported detained by police.

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What I saw of Tehran coverage recalled scenes across the cities of the Eastern Bloc 20 years ago, described by Pope John Paul II this way: "Warsaw, Moscow, Budapest, Berlin, Prague, Sofia, and Bucharest have become stages in a long pilgrimage toward liberty" as "entire people" spoke out-"women, young people, men, overcoming fears, their irrepressible thirst for liberty speeded up developments, made walls tumble down and opened gates."

Obama? In his first extended statement on the crisis in Iran June 17, the president said he had "deep concerns about the election" and "the Iranian people have deep concerns about the election. But it's not productive given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations to be seen as the U.S. president meddling in Iranian elections."

Later the president said: "It's important to understand that, although there is amazing ferment taking place in Iran, the difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as has been advertised." Either way, said Obama, "we were going to be dealing with an Iranian regime that has historically been hostile to the United States, that has caused some problems in the neighborhood and has been pursuing nuclear weapons."

Not a league of Western political leaders and analysts can tell the street-going Iranians that their mass demonstration, in the end, won't make a difference. As the week following the disputed election wore on, protests spread from Tehran to Rasht, Tabriz, and other Iranian cities, and as far north as the province of East Azerbaijan, birthplace and home to Mousavi, the 67-year-old presidential runner-up who served as prime minister of Iran during the 1980s. Then he was a supporter of the Ayatollah Khomenei. Now Mousavi fashions himself as a reformist politician and is more well known as a painter and president of the Iranian Academy of the Arts.

The protesters feel repressed enough under a ruthless Ahmadinejad's first term to find that enough change. They may not succeed as those at the Berlin Wall, given the overarching control of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Council of Guardians. But they remained determined: "Peace if possible, truth at all costs," said Raymond Jahan, whose Twitter feeds kept track of the protests. "What is a president without a country?" asked another named "persiankiwi" after the fourth day of protests.

Minorities in Iran, including Christians, typically keep away from politics. But many fear they could become part of any purges exacted by Ahmadinejad, assuming he retains full power. "I think an escalation in repression is to be expected," said one Christian observer.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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