PART VII: We are not dirt and dust, we are the nation of Iran
The people who had been disappointed with Khatami in his last two years as President and who had therefore refused to vote in the next election were now excited. Experiencing the four years of terror under Ahmadinejad had brought most people to their senses, especially the younger generation looking for quick results. One thing was clear: they had been better off with Khatami. The four years of Ahmadinejad’s administration had taught them an important lesson: change should happen gradually.
When Khatami declared he would try for the presidency, I decided to do anything I could to support him. Mehdi Karroubi, another prominent reformist figure, had also announced his candidacy but I was sure that Khatami was the one we needed now. Apparently, millions of others had come to the same conclusion.
I followed the news obsessively, and regularly called home. However, a month later, Mir-Hussein Mousavi also announced his candidacy. Khatami pulled out immediately and chose to endorse Mousavi. Doubts were raised about this move. Mousavi had not been directly involved in politics for 20 years; the younger generation didn’t know him and he was said to be more conservative than Khatami.
On the other hand, there was a lot of discussion about exactly why he had stayed away from politics over the last 20 years: because he had stood up to Khamenei when he was Prime Minister and Khamenei was President. There were rumours that Mousavi had decided to try for the presidency several times but the Supreme Leader had said that, while he was alive, Mousavi would not be allowed any executive posts.
It was also said that this time Mousavi had decided to run regardless of Khamenei’s disapproval. The hardliners were certain he would be disqualified by the Guardian Council. But, after the unprecedented popularity he gained during the campaign, there was no way of disqualifying him without compromising the authenticity of the election in the eyes of the outside world.
The Green Wave began when, at an enormous gathering and in the presence of thousands of Khatami’s supporters, Khatami handed over a green scarf to Mousavi, showing his absolute support. The green scarf symbolized the fact that they were both descendants of Prophet Muhammad, that they were both Sayyeds. This symbolic act officially launched the Green Wave, which became the Green Movement after the election and was soon, most unusually, adopted by all classes in society thus changing the religious implications of the gesture and giving it the wider connotations of prosperity and peace.
The Supreme Leader was perhaps happy that Khatami had pulled out because he had a high chance of unseating Ahmadinejad. He approved of Mousavi’s candidacy based on the assumption that though he was a prominent reformist figure and his presence would help the election look more democratic, he had been out of politics for 20 years and the younger generation, most likely to determine the outcome of the election, was not familiar with him. Hence he didn’t stand a chance against Ahmadinejad’s populism.
What he didn’t know was that Khatami’s support would act as a trigger. He didn’t know the extent to which the people were fed up with Ahmadinejad. He was not aware of the new revolution that the youth of Iran were going to introduce, not only to Iran but also to the world: the social media revolution.
In less than a month, millions of people around the country were wearing the green symbol: a green shawl, scarf, headscarf or ribbon. This worked like a badge of belonging and people realized they were not alone—indeed, there were many who wanted the same. The Wave that began in Tehran then flowed through all the cities and small towns, even to the villages and beyond the borders. For the first time since the Revolution, hundreds of thousands of Iranian emigrants and exiles became involved and joined the Wave.
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs . . . The social media were taken over by the supporters of Mousavi. While Ahmadinejad enjoyed the unfair publicity provided by National TV which covered every move he made, every speech he gave, every campaign meeting he held and simply ignored the other three candidates, Mousavi was infiltrating cyberspace. He would give a speech at a meeting and a few minutes later it would appear on thousands of blogs and be shared by hundreds of thousands on Facebook and Twitter. Like a pebble dropped in a pool, sending out ripples to the four corners of the world. The polls began to reflect this: even those who had not voted during the past 30 years now decided to vote for Mousavi.
Mousavi changed his strategy when he realized he had already won the hearts of the hitherto silent part of society. He began to address Ahmadinejad’s supporters, the poorer classes who still thought that Ahmadinejad was genuinely trying to provide a better life for them through social equality. Mousavi began to expose all Ahmadinejad’s lies to the people, and soon proved that he, too, was a major contender. People knew that he had been most successful in abolishing poverty and bringing financial stability to the lower classes during the eight years of the war when he had been prime minister. He also uncovered the inconsistencies in the budget: US$1 billion were missing, unaccounted for. Ahmadinejad claimed that those who had checked the records had made a mistake; that nothing was missing. But the longer the scrutiny continued, the clearer it became that a lot of money was unaccounted for, and that the scope of the financial scandal was far greater than US$1 billion. Everyone in Iran knew where the money had gone: in support of Hamas and Hizbollah in Palestine and Lebanon, and in creating turmoil in Iraq and Afghanistan. The working class was outraged. While they had been struggling to support their families and provide them with basic necessities, the huge amount of money earned through the unprecedented increase in oil prices over the last four years was being pumped into Iran’s nuclear ambitions and controversial groups such as Hamas and Hizbollah.
On the other hand, those who were committed to the Revolution knew that Mousavi had enjoyed the full support of Imam Khomeini, even during the conflict between him and Khamenei. An endless sea of supporters, from different classes, backgrounds, religious beliefs and ethnicities closed ranks behind Mousavi, committed to unseating Ahmadinejad.
The President knew this, and it was then that he decided to display his favourite tactics: populism and lies, on TV, in a desperate attempt to humiliate his opponents. For the first time in the history of Iran, live debates between presidential candidates were scheduled.
Back in Oxford, I was glued to my computer. Iranian National TV’s website wasn’t working but there were people who were recording and uploading the debates on YouTube within minutes of the live debate. Maryam and I said not a word as we watched Mousavi and Ahmadinejad challenging one another while Kay played with his building blocks.
Ahmadinejad claimed that Mousavi had spread lies about him, and attacked Khatami and Rafsanjani as the powers behind the scene. Mousavi produced facts and figures showing how Ahmadinejad had ruined the economy. He criticized the censorship, Iran’s involvement in suspicious activities in the region, the lies and apocalyptic superstitions on which Ahmadinejad had based his administration . . .
Ahmadinejad, taken by surprise, began to defend himself with a barrage of blatant lies. When Mousavi was, for example, asked about the 15 British Navy personnel captured and detained by Iran, Ahmadinejad said, ‘Tony Blair sent an official apology for intruding into our waters. So I decided to release them.’
Everyone was aghast: this was an absolute lie. Tony Blair had sent no such apology but Ahmadinejad continued to insist that the letter was archived in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mousavi simply smiled: it was too late. Now, even those who had no access to the Internet or satellite TV channels, and whose only source of information was National TV, knew that their President was nothing but a liar. Mousavi had won.
When I went back to Iran after the election, one of my friends said to me, ‘You should have been here, you should have seen it with your own eyes. I cried so many times. The Green Wave brought a new energy and rejuvenated society. People grew kinder, they held up their green banners as a sign of unity. People were happy, they felt that it was finally their turn . . .’
A few days before the election, the supporters of Mousavi held hands and formed a chain that extended 20 kilometres through Tehran. There was no doubt that Ahmadinejad stood no chance.
It was then that the Supreme Leader decided to intervene.