A Tale of Two Rallies

In the space of 24 hours, Tehran’s Valiasr Square sees baton-wielding cops and a presidential victory celebration.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of Iran’s June 12 election and its aftermath.

Defeated Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi addresses supporters

TEHRAN, Iran—Events here over the last two days have highlighted the vast differences in how supporters of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and those of his main rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi, view the official results of Friday’s election.

From a logical point of view, the results seem dubious at best. Ahmadinejad is reported to have received well over 60 percent of the vote, compared with just more than 30 percent for Mousavi. Given the large number of Azeri Turks (Mousavi’s ethnicity) in Iran, the number of people in major cities campaigning for him—and, perhaps most important, the number of women mobilized by his outspoken wife, Zahra Rahnavard—the race seemed a lot tighter than the final tally would indicate.

A feeling of dejection hung in the air for most of Saturday. Spontaneous street demonstrations early in the day were small and were quickly broken up by riot police on motorcycles.

As reality set in, people began taking to the streets en masse. Around 5 p.m. on the approach to Fatemi Square, where the Interior Ministry is located, I could see that the entire traffic circle had been closed to car traffic. About 200 riot police waited in the middle of the square. I headed down an alley, just steps away, where protesters had created a blockade of flaming garbage cans.

The demonstrators pushed aside a garbage can, opening a path, and rushed forward. Simultaneously, baton-wielding police charged. The protesters hurled rocks, and the police responded by beating everyone who couldn’t escape into one of the connecting alleys.

Citizens, nearly all on the side of the protesters, left their front gates open just a little to offer those of us fleeing the police an escape route.

As we caught our breath in someone’s driveway, I asked a man in his mid-30s whether he had witnessed anything like this before. “Over the last two weeks,” he told me, “between the debates, the number of people in the street last week, and the violence now—no. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Along with the anger, there was still a sense of excitement and exuberance, as though the nation were releasing frustrations bottled up for decades.

Just to the south, above Valiasr Square, one of Tehran’s major commercial hubs, lines of protesters chanting “Death to the dictator” blocked traffic on the city’s busiest street. In every direction, small groups of four or five congregated to discuss what they’d seen, sometimes dispersing when the police began to move in.

A woman who was trying to cross the avenue was shoved onto the sidewalk by a member of the Basij militia, who spat at her, “We will kill those of you who come into the street!” As she walked away, she exclaimed in disbelief, “They steal our vote and then they talk to us like that?”

Chaos erupted again as people fled in all directions. As they attacked the crowds with their batons, the Basij responded to the protesters’ shouts of “Death to the dictator!” with cries of “God is great!”

I approached an elderly man who seemed riveted but disgusted by the scene unfolding in front of him. “I’ve never seen violence like this before,” he said, “What can you expect when you disrespect the people? This is a coup d’état. After blatantly cheating the people, they won’t be able to turn this off.”

Similar riots took place throughout Tehran Saturday night.

Sunday presented an entirely different scene. Starting early in the day, riot police positioned themselves throughout the city. The morning hours were quiet ahead of an official press conference at which President Ahmadinejad would address the foreign press.

After a short prayer—an offering of praise to God, the revolution, and a wish for the speedy return of the hidden imam—Ahmadinejad scolded the foreign press, accusing us of meddling in Iranian politics and disseminating propaganda against him and his government. As I listened, I couldn’t help but think how ungrateful he is—over the last four years, it’s the Western media that have given him a voice, and he knows it. The press conference wasn’t for the people of Iran; it was about giving the world the show it wanted.

In his opening remarks, Ahmadinejad proclaimed the election “the most glorious in recent history.”

He went on for some time, claiming a series of achievements that anyone who has spent time in Iran would dismiss as nonsense. Among the most laughable: “Iran has provided an international model for managing a state.” He went on to compare the current street violence to the aftermath of a soccer match and condescended to a domestic reporter, “Don’t worry about it too much.”

Halfway through the press conference, I joined some Iranian photographers who were heading out to Valiasr Square where Ahmadinejad was scheduled to deliver a speech to his adoring fans later in the afternoon.

As we approached the square by car, the crowd had grown so massive that we had to get out and walk the last half-mile. These people were very different from the folks who had gathered in the same spot 24 hours earlier. A mix of government workers, injured war veterans, schoolchildren, and the elderly filled the area, many of them bused in for the occasion from remote corners of the country. I saw some activity in the middle of the crowd and thought it was a fight, but it was just Basij handing out cookies and juice boxes.

The location of Ahmadinejad’s speech—the third-floor balcony of a rundown commercial building—was an odd choice. I joined the photographers on the ledge overlooking the throngs.

One of the people charged with stirring up the emotions of the crowd told them, “There are cameras from every major newspaper and TV station in the world. Let’s show the world our love for Dr. Ahmadinejad!”

When the warm-up guy led the crowd in the singing of the national anthem, he stopped partway through and asked them to start again with “more feeling.” The orchestrated nature of the event came as no surprise to this crowd, but I doubt that many of the non-Iranian journalists knew just how blatant the showmanship was.

I moved toward the back edge of the balcony, away from the stage and crowd, to give the photographers room to shoot. Behind me, in the alley below, I heard a few cars and saw a commotion as people rushed toward several Japanese SUVs. Then I saw blood. I thought a member of Ahmadinejad’s entourage had been hit by a car. No. They had slaughtered a calf for the auspicious occasion.

As the photographers snapped pictures, I made my way toward the only door leading from the street to the balcony to get a closer look.

Ahmadinejad is as short as he looks. I was able to stand among his security people for quite a while. I guess I look like one of them. I can’t go into detail about what he said, because, frankly, I was marveling at the manufactured spectacle of the whole thing and wondering what it must look like on television back in the United States.