Tehran's Streets Become a Battleground

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A supporter of Iran's moderate presidential candidate Mirhossein Mousavi protests in Tehran, June 13, 2009.

It's way past midnight in Tehran, but this city is not sleeping. Outside on the streets, people are honking their horns in protest and stretching their hands out of cars making peace signs — a sign of support for Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the opposition candidate apparently defeated by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran's presidential election on Friday.

In neighborhoods across north and central Tehran, shouts of "Death to dictator!" fill the air, mostly in female voices, coming from house windows. There are also shouts of "Allahu akbar!" — reminiscent of the revolution — on the urging of a communique from Mousavi's office.

Some of Tehran's main streets have been turned into urban battlegrounds. Groups of mostly young men have set large garbage bins on fire in the middle of streets, torn out street signs and fences, broken the windows and ATM machines of state banks and burnt at least five large buses in the middle of streets.

"They have totally fooled us," said one sad man, a 32-year-old state employee, standing by the roadside. "This time they went too far. They just want to eliminate 'republic' and turn this into an Islamic dictatorship," he said with a sigh.

On Ghaem-Magham Street, a lone chadori woman stood by the roadside, making a peace sign with her index finger wrapped in a green ribbon, saying "Mousavi" to every passing car. Out of 50 cars that passed, all but five either honked, rolled down their windows to shout their support, or made peace signs in solidarity.

One man passing by told her, "You wrote Mousavi, they read Ahmadinejad!" She responded: "They're illiterate and need to learn reading."

Then a man in a car moving in the other direction rolled down his window and shouted at her in anger, "You whore! Why are you creating conflict between people?" A basiji (a member of the volunteer paramilitary aligned with Ahmadinejad) charged at her from nowhere with a metal rod and was about to beat her when he was held down and beaten himself by five or six men streaming out of nearby cars.

"I mean, just look at this! If Ahmadinejad won 25 million votes, which they claim, we should be celebrating, right?" an onlooker commented.

On Jahankoodak Square, dozens of armored Police Special Forces were driven in on pickup trucks; dozens more arrived on motorbikes. They chased groups of people chanting, "The theft of the elections must be uncovered!" and beat them badly. Several people were bleeding from their heads and had to be taken to hospital. There were also rumors that several people had died in the clashes.

Other groups of people had formed fronts and threw stones at the police forces, leaving stones covering many streets. One of the men throwing stones said they would not stop until "they hold fair elections. Do they think we're that dumb?"

Wherever crowds were gathered, the police used pepper stray, which also affected passengers in cars and buses driving by. On Taleqani Street, where some of the worst clashes took place, a motorcade of basijis drove by waving metal batons and chains in the air.

"When the leader did not respond to Rafsanjani's protest letter," said another man standing by, "I knew the game was over. We should have never voted in the first place." He was referring to Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the head of Iran's Expediency Council, who had written a letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last week, sharply criticizing Ahmadinejad's accusations against him and his family in a TV debate, and asking that the leader ensure fair elections.

"This is a mammoth battle between the two Islamic Republic dinosaurs," said Reza, a 28-year old accountant, watching the protests from inside a flower shop.

From early evening onward, the entire cellphone network was cut off, making it difficult for protesters to coordinate, or to learn of the widespread nature of the protests. The Internet was also blocked in certain parts of the city, and satellite TV transmissions were reduced to snow. Out of Iran's six television channels, only the all-news channel aired reports on the election, and those mostly exalted "the glory of people's participation in the election."

"They tricked us into this whole thing. They got us out in droves, only to fool us and credit themselves," one woman watching the clashes said, unable to hold back her tears.

"I even got five of my family members who had not voted since the revolution to come out and vote," she sobbed. "Shame on me!"

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