Why I Left Tehran

With everything else they have to deal with, I didn’t want my Iranian friends to worry about me.

Read more from Slate’s coverage of the Iranian election and its aftermath.

Imam Khomeini Airport

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates—The chorus of people telling me I should leave Iran started up shortly after June 14, when Slate published this piece about the first day of postelection riots. A week later, it had grown to a noisy, untuned symphony of well-intentioned worriers. It started with people I didn’t know, then they were joined by friends of my mother’s, then their friends, until finally, on Sunday morning, I got a call from my dad.

For several days I’d been trying—without any luck—to make a phone call to the United States. Keeping my family informed about my safety was an annoying priority. Short e-mails were best. Not going into much detail cut off the potential for people to chime in with their opinions about what my next move should be.

When the phone woke me around a quarter to 8 on Sunday, I wasn’t sure who to expect. I hadn’t gotten many calls in recent days as people were avoiding the lines they believed to be monitored (including mine). Some of the calls I did get were bizarre requests to appear for questioning from agencies I’d never heard of before. Simply put, the phone was no longer my friend.

When I answered Sunday morning, though, it was my dad coming through crystal clear.

“How are you, Baba?”

“I’m fine, Dad,” I mumbled, probably sounding exhausted.

“Well, I’ve been a little worried. Seems like last night was busy. We’ve been seeing a lot of disturbing things on TV. I’m glad you’re OK. Think about taking a trip for a few days.”

My father is not a subtle man, but when it comes to giving his sons advice, he realized long ago that soft, diplomatic suggestions are the only kind that work. After a week of ignoring frantic “your mother loves you so much; please don’t put her through this any longer” calls from people I’d never met, for the first time I considered leaving Iran.

I had already been told by the authorities that I could no longer do any reporting from Iran, but I decided to stick around because I had watched this entire election season, and, like the rest of the world, I desperately wanted to see what would happen next. But being reduced to a voyeur was stifling.

I had watched public sentiment go from one of apathy a few weeks before the election to the point at which many people felt they had been robbed.

In Iran, public opinion flows in waves. The sea seemed tranquil for the supreme leader and the president in the run-up to the election, but after June 12 a tsunami of resentment and frustration came crashing down on top of them, and they’ve been bailing water ever since. I don’t even think they realize how ridiculous their public reactions to the current turmoil look. It felt important to me to continue to watch those tides. Unfortunately, it became clear that I wouldn’t be able to do so.

On the day I left, I heard that Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahary had been detained and that John Leyne, the BBC’s correspondent in Tehran, was being expelled. The number of Iranian journalists working with foreign media was dwindling—but the ones who remained were being blamed for much of the unrest. I had lunch with two local photojournalist friends who had been arrested the day before for taking photos of the police opening fire hoses on a crowd. They were rattled, but they planned to go to the next protest later that afternoon. They, too, thought I should leave.

I had become one more thing that my Iranian friends worried about. It was fine for people back in Marin County to have a couple of sleepless nights, but I wasn’t willing to burden my friends in Tehran any longer.

Driving to the airport, I noticed Basij militia members lined up in the streets near certain major intersections and squares, but things appeared less tense than in the previous few days. It’s hard to know for sure, though—in the telecommunications blackout, all anyone knows is what they can see for themselves. Still, I thought about canceling my flight.

When I got to Imam Khomeini airport, it was crawling with government security forces. They’re never hard to spot: dark suits, blue shirts, cropped beards, big ruby or turquoise pinky rings, trying conspicuously to be inconspicuous. Really classy dudes.

People preparing to depart huddled around a lone TV monitor to watch a report about the terrorism being inflicted on the people of Tehran by the protesters. It showed a member of the Basij being beaten with his own baton. It was meant to induce sympathy for the militiamen. People only smiled. These punks, who have long been a face of Iran to many outside the country, were finally getting some comeuppance.

Over the years, I’ve read several authors describing Iranian society as a place where people live as if they were free—doing all the things that are banned in public behind closed doors, accepting the rules of the Islamic republic as a series of annoyances to be worked around. Over the last few weeks, those doors blew open, and now it feels like the regime is the one acting as if it still has a handle on things.

Ultimately, I think I had been worried for nothing. In so many ways, people are beginning to see this regime as having more bark than bite. All of a sudden, vast swaths of Iranian society feel as though the absolute power the regime has wielded for 30 years is fading. This great Persian lion is being reduced to a mangy alley cat, lashing out from the corner where it is trapped. The people are worried for their safety, but they aren’t scared of the fight. Now the question is, do they have the stamina to see it through?