For the last two years, Oscar nominated filmmaker James Longley (IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS) has been at work (and basically living) in Iran, as he worked on his new documentary film.
24 hours ago, we exchanged emails. He'd been posting to the D-Word online community about his experiences in Tehran in the aftermath of the recent contested elections and rare public protests. He gave me permission to reprint his comments here on the blog.
Sunday night, before I'd had an opportunity to post his observances, a mutual friend emailed me his most recent post, a first-person account of the detention and beating of Longley's translator.
Here, in order, are Longley's posts over the last 3 days. They show the situation in Iran escalating by the hour.:
From what I've seen, the opposite was more likely the case.
At the moment, off-hand, I would expect some rather upset people in Iran when they wake up on Saturday.
(Responding to a suggestion that revolution my be at hand and rumors that opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi has been arrested.)
Well, revolution I don't know. It's kind of an unpopular idea here still, after the last one. I do think there's bound to be some significant social unrest, however.
Your rumor would jive with the fact that there has been no word from the Mousavi campaign all day.
All gatherings on the street have been banned and those violating the ban are arrested.
It is not possible to approach within several hundred meters the building where votes are being counted.
SMS is still not working – hasn't been working since yesterday morning. Mousavi had complained specifically about this at his press conference last night (around 10:45 pm local time) because his election monitors were to have communicated any irregularities via SMS.
All the Farsi language independent news sources that my translator usually uses to read up on the elections are now blocked.
Tehran's chief of police has reportedly said he hasn't heard anything about the incident yesterday evening at Mousavi's campaign headquarters where armed men burst into the offices and threatened the mostly youthful staff – which is odd since hundreds of riot police were on hand in the scene that followed, as well as the deputy chief of police.
The rumor about Mousavi being arrested is only that – a rumor. Nothing of the kind happened.
Right now the official election results have still not been announced, so it may be that the Mousavi campaign is wrangling in the background and doesn't want to make any public statements yet.
At the moment, the city seems quiet but tense.
The AP is reporting:
"Even in Mousavi's hometown province of Tabriz in northwestern Iran, the ministry claimed Ahmadinejad received more than 60 percent of the vote." link
I think – and this is just my opinion from what I've seen and heard in the run-up to this election – that the ministry numbers coming out are simply false, and statistically impossible. There is simply no way that Ahmadinejad could have taken so large a margin in Tabriz, where the local Azeri-Turkic population has a strong and abiding dislike for the current Tehran government and where the rallies in support of Mousavi have been truly massive. I don't believe any numbers being released by the government right now.
The decision has now come down from Ayatollah Khameini that Ahmadinejad has won a second term. So it would seem impossible that Mousavi could continue to fight effectively in the face of that official decision.
Mousavi has called the official election results a "dangerous charade" and warned that the alleged vote rigging "could lead to tyranny" in Iran.
Mousavi just tried to hold a press conference, but journalists who showed up were forced away by riot police.
There are some running confrontations between protestors and police in various spots of the city.
(Another commenter wonders whether, in the long run, a Mousavi victory would have changed much.)
Nobody fully understands the internal workings of the Iranian government.
It's true the Iranian president exercises relatively little power compared to, say, the US president. In Iran the president is not commander in chief of the armed forces, cannot declare war, does not have access to the nuclear portfolio, and does not even appoint most of his cabinet ministers.
However, he does appoint people like ambassadors / negotiators – so the people who would meet in potential talks with the US, for example. Also, the president tends to become the "face of Iran" and is responsible for implementing – and thus putting his own spin on – decisions that come down from on high. And certain broad aspects of how the domestic economy is run, how the budget is handled, and so on – these things do come from or are strongly influenced by the office of the president.
So a Mousavi government, while it might not have represented a giant leap to the left, would certainly have put a more conciliatory approach – mirroring that of the sentiments of the majority of the literate population – to dealings with the rest of the world. Additionally, it is possible that the internal policies of the government concerning things such as freedom of speech, access to information, and women's rights, might have been significantly improved under a Mousavi presidency, as that was his platform.
_______________________________No sitting president since the 1979 revolution has lost an election in Iran.
The leadership was backing Ahmadinejad, and it is my impression that they did not want to lose face by having their guy sent packing.
Also, it may be that the Iranian leadership sees this period as the point when they want to make changes in their relationship with the US – and they don't want an opposition candidate to take credit for that, thus undermining the authority of the hard-liners in the government.
Additionally, for the first time in this campaign there has been open discussion on live TV during the debates – about changing internal policies like the constitutional provisions that keep all radio and TV in government hands. Also, the other reformist candidate even suggested getting rid of the system for vetting candidates, which prevents the possibility of truly opposition candidates from getting elected. This idea was not opposed by Mousavi.
In short, however distant the possibility, I think that certain members of the government may have felt threatened by the possibility of a Mousavi presidency, one which might have put in place reforms that could eventually alter the nature of the Iranian political system in fundamental ways.
So I think they decided to steal the election and crush any dissent. That's my opinion.
Word as of late this afternoon is that Mousavi is now under house arrest.
The other reformist, Karoubi, who – according to the government – got around 1% of the vote, has his own problems – apparently his political party and newspaper office is under siege.
Just had eyewitness reports of pro-Mousavi demonstrators being savagely beaten by riot police on Mirdomad square.
Protestors are throwing stones and in at least one instance set a city bus on fire.
Cell phone service has been turned off.
We'll see how long my dial-up Internet lasts.
(Another member hopes that James will be able to continue shooting in the midst of the turmoil.)
I have a permission paper that allows me to film events surrounding the elections in Tehran. But I agree it's all arbitrary at this point.
It occurs to me that one of the consequences of all this is to create a division in Iranian society – one that is far deeper than what existed before. A division between those who accept the re-elected administration and – by extension – the legitimacy of the system as a whole, and those who believe the election has been stolen and the whole system is corrupt, deeply flawed and illegitimate.
This division already existed, of course, but because of the brazen way in which this election seems to have been manipulated, the division will now be much more bitter and much more serious.
If this outcome is allowed to stand, we now have a situation where tens of millions of Iranians will be going through the next four years believing that the president was installed by force in a coup de etat, whereas in the past there was merely a sensation of creeping, teeth-grinding dissatisfaction with the antics of those in power. The difference may seem academic, but it is fundamental. In history, Iranians have always eventually brought down governments which were regarded as not respecting the will and needs of the people to an unbearable degree. But only time will tell what the real consequences of all of this are.
The majority of Iranians are young and urban; that is the vast majority of the Iranian electorate. It also happens to be Mousavi's base of support. Young people I spoke with, even in poorer neighborhoods in southern Tehran, told me they are supporting Mousavi.
In the past elections in 1997 and 2001 – when a similarly popular reformist candidate, Khatami, was running, he won those elections very handily due to the large voter turnout, which allows the young/urban demographic to express itself. In this election the voter turnout is said to have been 82%, which is the highest it has ever been here. This should have favored Mousavi, since it means that an enormous number of young urbanites cared enough to make their way to the polls.
It is certainly possible – in theory – that Ahmadinejad won the majority of votes. But for them to declare such a large margin (2 to 1) of victory for Ahmadinejad, even in places where he has virtually no support, such as Tabriz – Mousavi's home town – is simply implausible and unbelievable. And if they can lie about that number, they can lie about all of it.
And it hardly lends confidence to the process that they prevented Mousavi's election monitors from communicating via the SMS network, and that they raided his offices before the polls were even closed, or that they announced the vote tallies of millions of ballots within only an hour after polls closed, or that spoiled ballots were not even listed in that count until the following day, almost as an afterthought, like "Oh, we have to say there was a certain number of spoiled ballots ... okay ..."
I think there are plenty of reasons for doubting the legitimacy of this election, and I know I'm not the only one who feels that way.
About three hours ago I was interviewing people on the street in downtown Tehran with my translator, not far from the building.
There were some riot police about 100 meters away at the other end of the street.
A couple people spoke to the camera – one young woman was saying that "The riot police are beating people like animals. The situation here is very bad; we need the UN to come and help with a recount of the votes!"
At about that time a plain-clothes security guy started grabbing my arm, and together with several uniformed police they dragged me and my translator off to the Ministry of Interior building.
I fared much better than my translator, whom they punched and kicked in the groin. They ripped off his ID and snatched away both our cameras. A passing police officer sprayed my translator in the face with pepper spray, although he was already being marched along the pavement by three policemen.
Unfortunately my camera was still recording and the battery was dislodged in the hubbub, destroying the video file of the interview.
As we reached the Ministry of Interior building they separated us and dragged my translator by his arms across the floor and down a flight of stairs; he eventually regained his footing on the second two flights of stairs leading downward to the holding cell, where about twenty people who had already been grabbed off the streets were kneeling on the floor in the darkened room with their hands tied behind their backs.
All during this process my translator was being kicked and sworn at. The police told him how they "would put their dicks in his ass" and how "your mother/sister is a whore" and so on. At one point he was beaten with a belt buckle. At another moment, they beat him with a police truncheon across his back, leaving a nasty welt.
My translator kept on insisting that he was an officially authorized translator working with an American journalist – which is perfectly true.
At this time I was above ground, in the entrance to the ministry, yelling over and over at the police to "Bring me my translator!" It was clear that they didn't intend to beat me – although they may have wanted to – because I was a foreigner.
After a few minutes they relented and sent someone off to retrieve my translator from their holding cell, three floors down in the Ministry of Interior building.
They came into the holding cell and shouted "Where is the translator?!" and then, when he identified himself, they beat him again for "not telling them he was a translator."
An English-speaking riot policeman tried to sweet-talk me, saying that in a riot situation anything can happen. I might have taken him more seriously had a riot actually been taking place when we were arrested. He also asked my translator to convince me not to report what had happened.
Eyewitnesses are reporting that fully-credentialed foreign journalists are similarly being detained all over Tehran today. The deputy head of the Ministry of Guidance just told me on the phone that other journalists have also been beaten, and that the official permissions no longer work. Also, foreign journalist visas are not being extended, so all of those people who were allowed in to cover the elections are now being forced out in the messy aftermath.
All in all, it made me really question what I am doing in this country. It has become impossible to work as a journalist without the risk of physical violence from the government.