x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

From the inside

Cover story Iason Athanasiadis on the eruption of violence on Tehran's streets - and his three weeks in Evin Prison.

Members of the Bassij militia and riot police on motorbikes clash with protesters during Friday prayers in Tehran on July 17.
Members of the Bassij militia and riot police on motorbikes clash with protesters during Friday prayers in Tehran on July 17.

Iason Athanasiadis on the eruption of violence on Tehran's streets - and his three weeks in Evin Prison. "In your opinion, were the anti-government demonstrators on the streets Westoxified?" I never expected to have to answer such a question - much less to have my freedom depend on it. It was my third week in Tehran's Evin Prison and the start of a second round of interrogations. The first wave began after my arrest on June 17 and ended when I signed a confession admitting to the administrative crime of working as a journalist in Iran between 2004 and 2007, when I lived and studied in Tehran.

The voice over my shoulder was mildly hectoring, the voice of a man whose life had been moulded in ideological institutions. But it retained an element of detachment and inquiry, an almost academic concern with the issues at hand. My first interrogator - a bearded 50-year-old with a golden filling in his mouth- had been gruff and angry, quick to jab or slap me violently when I departed his script; his questions came from the canon of the intelligence professional: "What trips did you make while living in Iran? Who were the people who accompanied you on them?"

The new interrogator took a different approach: he was, it seemed, more interested in discussing politics and world affairs than demanding information. And so, after two weeks in prison, sitting in a narrow, bare room surrounded by the sounds of separate interrogations all around, I spent intermittent sessions, lasting from five to 12 hours, talking about the ideological roots of the Iranian Revolution, about the Iranian philosopher Jalal al-e Ahmad's theory of "Westoxification" (which posits that Iranian society will be poisoned by any engagement with western culture), about American efforts at democracy promotion in Iran, about Velvet Revolutions and neo-liberalism. For my interrogators, the protests raging on the streets outside were nothing less than a battle for the identity of Iran - a struggle to the death they were determined not to lose.

On the second Saturday in June, the day after the presidential election, angry Iranians clustered in the corners of every square in central Tehran. An angry static, as from a broken radio, coursed through the crowds as they confronted plainclothes intelligence officials on motorbikes. Office workers watched hungrily from the windows, balconies and rooftops of surrounding buildings. On Vali Asr Avenue, the spine that bisects the Iranian capital and is said to be the longest boulevard in the Middle East, it was hard to discern an existential struggle amid the violence. Agile, well-built policemen raced after panicking crowds, striking men and women alike with indiscriminate rage.

Ahmadinejad supporters took to the streets first, cruising and gloating in cars adorned with the flag of the Islamic Republic, which the president had appropriated as his campaign symbol. For those who hoped to change Iran's domestic stagnation and end its international isolation, there was only shock at the dawning realisation that their president had been given another four years to fulfil his dream of returning the Islamic Republic to the stringent orthodoxy of its first years.

Kurosh, a young government employee, had been fired from his entry-level job at an Iranian ministry shortly before the election, after pro-Ahmadinejad appointees discovered his support for Mir Hossein Mousavi. "I feel like that single, lonely person sitting in the Berlin cafe as Hitler came to power, who knew that it was the end of democracy and freedom," he told me as we drove through Tehran on the day after the election.

For Kurosh, the election was not just an abstract democratic disappointment - it was a deeply personal setback: he knew that he would be blacklisted; as we watched the simmering crowds flooding the streets, he wondered aloud whether he should flee the country now. For him, the fledgling protests were not so much a diverting pastime as a second chance at salvation. We were stuck in bumper to bumper traffic; the street ahead was seething with honking horns, Mousavi supporters distributing printouts of their candidate's defiant post-election speech and motorists craning out their windows to catch a glimpse of the jammed road ahead. Kurosh turned conspiratorially to three young men watching the scene in the car next to ours and asked them: "Are you in this?"

"No, we're passing through," they shrugged disingenuously. "Are you guys involved?" "Shouldn't we be?" Kurosh shrugged back with a gleam in his eye, and the ice broke. The young men loosened up and began to describe the flashpoints erupting all over the city; already, driving around, they had witnessed indescribable violence. "Like the 1999 riots?" we asked, referring to what had been the worst unrest to hit Iran since 1979. "Worse," they replied, without hesitation.

In 2004 I left my home in Greece after the Athens Olympics and moved to Iran to study for three years. I learnt Persian, travelled the country, mounted photography exhibitions and made several close friends. When I returned to Tehran on June 11, carrying a seven-day journalist visa, there was no indication that a few days later the Islamic Republic would explode into its most convulsive political crisis to date. There was even less forewarning that my view would soon shift from the street to the wrong side of the bars in an Iranian prison.

The presidential debates that took place for six consecutive nights at the beginning of June cleft open the sharp antagonisms that had simmered for decades among Iran's ruling elites. When Ahmadinejad, during a contentious live television face-off with Mousavi, publicly accused his rival's backer, the two-time former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, of corruption, he shattered an enormous taboo. The allegation was an open secret among Iranians, but it was the sort of charge that the closely guarded clerical regime, which always protects its own, would never air in public. A psychological barrier was breached. From then on, anything was possible.

So when Ahmadinejad was credited with a resounding two-to-one victory, the millions of people who had earlier taken to the streets to support Mousavi were sure to return with a vengeance. After taking part in Iran's already loaded electoral process, they regarded the result as a betrayal of their trust. As smoke mingled with the heavy storm clouds over Tehran, the authorities blocked reformist websites, cut off cellphone communications and moved swiftly to repress pockets of dissent. Rioters battled body-armoured police while Bassiji militiamen in cloth trousers and loose shirts holding metal pipes and two-way radios thronged the streets, threatening motorists honking their horns or people shouting slogans from their balconies. Balding gentlemen in the dark jackets and white collarless shirts that are the uniform of Iranian civil servants came out from behind wooden desks in government offices to brandish revolvers at demonstrators, then shoot to kill. These were eerie reminders of the revolutionary days from whose ashes the Islamic Republic emerged. But this time, the regime defenders scrambling to maintain their rule were the revolutionaries who had deposed the Shah 30 years ago. It was a spectacular turning of the tables.

When I arrived in Tehran, I sought out a source whose tips had all come through in the past. But this time, his information stretched credulity: not only would Ahmadinejad win, he said, but he would do it in the first round. By a landslide.

I scoffed, sure that the man -  a deeply intellectual observer of current affairs who despised the Iranian regime - had finally been carried over the brink by his own despair and become a delusional nihilist. But I then remembered a conversation I had over three years ago with one of Ahmadinejad's close childhood friends. At a time when 2009 appeared an impossibly distant date, he had invited me to his summer villa in the Alborz mountains for a meeting of old comrades in a lush green bagh (garden). Over chello kebabs the conversation turned to politics. The president's friend then warned me to watch the Bassij. This volunteer religious militia - which enforces public morality, supports Ahmadinejad and pushes for the re-Islamisation of public life - already numbered "more than 12 million" he said. "The goal for the Sepah," he continued, referring to the Revolutionary Guards, "is to eventually have 20 million so as to be able to elect a president."

"The Sepah people privately say that in the next elections we'll have 15 million Bassij, which is a threshold number that will allow them to elect the president decisively." The morning of the election, I went to visit an acquaintance in South Tehran's traditional Shahr-e Rey district. Abbas, a driver and handyman, always had a finger on the pulse of his neighbourhood, where he was something of a legend - respected and admired for the fight he waged and won against his addiction to heroin.

I rode the metro from the towering luxury apartment blocks of Mirdamad to the humble two-storey brick abodes of the south and knocked on Abbas's door. He ushered me out of the glaring afternoon heat into his cool house to introduce me to his father and to his brother - a good-looking man in his thirties who belonged to the Bassij. "Those who want to achieve power will ascend the ladder of power, stepping on stone and humans alike to get there," Abbas told me. "If there's strife over this election, then brother will kill brother, the struggle will enter right into our houses."

Abbas, who claims to pray every day, noted disapprovingly that his brother Saeed had only entered the Bassij to tap into the organisation's sprawling patronage network. He joined a few months before he was drafted into the army; according to Abbas, the affiliation had led to cushy appointments and some guarantee of financial recompense after he left the barracks behind him. It had also coincided with the rapid and deliberate expansion intended to turn the Bassij into a reliable force for winning elections.

Saeed told me he voted for the Iranian president because he believed him to be the candidate who could best defend his country's interests against the West. As we talked he did not meet my eye, and his suspicion was evident. But if massive Bassij turnout could not, by itself, explain Ahmadinejad's inflated vote tally, the militiamen served their purpose in the riots that followed: unleashed in the streets, they fought pitched battles with demonstrators, raided university dormitories and, in one documented case, shot several people dead from the roof of a military base in central Tehran. Horrifying videos showed an ungainly helmeted figure partly obscured by the smoke of several fires shooting rounds from a rooftop, then lurching about in disarray as protesters screaming "Allahu Akbar" tended to the wounded and pelted him with stones.

Terrified students abandoned their dormitories for fear of being assaulted while they slept; the security services arrested others by the dozen. "The government that makes universities into prisons turns prisons into universities," one student told me as he packed up his belongings and vacated the student hall for a friend's house on the second day of protests. Detractors call the Bassij a ragtag militia. But there is evidence that it is a powerful economic and security force. Unlike the Revolutionary Guard, whose gozinesh (Islamic entry test) is notoriously difficult, joining the Bassij is easy - a simple matter of stating allegiance to Islam and the flag of the Islamic Republic. As we walked away from the house Abbas waved at a mosque, explaining that it was a symbol of the financial support the state provides to the Bassij. Many modern mosques constructed since the Revolution have shops set into their ground floor: these are apportioned as rewards to Bassij loyalists.

One evening, Kurosh and I were driving around after sunset when we became stuck in an enormous traffic jam on a six-lane motorway. Over the past few days, his mood had swung wildly, alternating between exhilaration at the protests and a deep-rooted fatalism, certain they would fizzle out before long, leaving nothing changed. In his 30 years of life in the Islamic Republic, he had never known even the possibility of an alternative to the regime - save for the lingering images of the ousted Shah, whose flickering form could still be seen in archival films, and the failed revolutionaries of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, members of a Marxist-Islamist cult whose alliance with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War won them few friends among their countrymen.

As the car crept forward, we knew that the jam on the motorway meant shologhi (Persian for both "traffic" and "violence") up ahead: first demonstrators running for their lives, then riot policemen on high-powered motorbikes weaving their way through snarled cars, slamming the occasional baton on horrified motorists' windscreens, and finally short ugly clashes as security forces isolated and then swarmed around lone protesters, subduing them with horrific beatings before leading them away to incarceration, interrogation and more violence.

Ahead of us a burning pedestrian bridge arced over a wilderness of motorway and rocky wasteland. As we inched along, we saw hundreds of Mousavi supporters and riot police clashing on the bridge. The scene of soaring luxury apartment blocks flanking columns of cars on the motorway off whose polished surfaces dancing fires were reflected resembled an otherworldly film set. We heard what had become a familiar cacophony: the sound of men screaming, the thuds of stones hitting plastic shields carried by the police, and the rumbling exhaust of hundreds of idling vehicles, whose transfixed inhabitants watched the brutal scene above them with horrified fascination. It was a deeply modern scene: the motorist as passive viewer isolated and untouched in his car: a participant in a traffic jam, not a riot.

Three decades after Khomeini's rise to power, pious technocrats like Ahmadinejad have edged aside the ruling caste of revolutionary clerics who mismanaged the country for years. The fallout from the presidential election, therefore, is not merely a political confrontation; it is the latest instalment in a long-running culture war that began with the overthrow of the westernising Shah, continued with the Cultural Revolution that sought to reimpose Islamic values in the 1980s, and extended through former president Mohammad Khatami's efforts to reduce the imprint of Shiite mourning in public spaces and Ahmadinejad's attempts to reimpose it.

The struggle between cultural narratives seeking to define Iran is hardly a new one. Reza Shah, who founded the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925, was a friend and admirer of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the secular Turkish Republic. Reza Shah emulated Ataturk, building roads and railways, factories and universities, and pushing through aggressive reforms of the bureaucracy and the army. But his authoritarian rule was marked by controversial efforts at "modernising" Iranian society; he condemned an entire generation of traditional women to home imprisonment by banning the chador in public.

After the 1979 Revolution, Iran's new Islamist leaders mercilessly persecuted the former ruling class: they were jailed or forced to flee over the western mountains to lives of exile in Turkey, Europe and the United States. The cravati (someone who wears a tie) became a social anathema, and bureaucrats swapped polished shoes for slippers - all the more easily to discard them and bend down in prayer throughout the day. In a reversal of Reza Shah's ruling, all women were forced to adopt the hijab in public.

Twenty-six years later, the Islamic Republic had failed to deliver on its initial promises of freedom and equality. Every possible permutation of cleric had paraded through the state's institutions: from the ideological Khomeini to the pragmatist Rafsanjani and the moderate Khatami. But none of them tackled ballooning problems such as a weak economy supported only by oil receipts, increasing drug addiction,

spiralling prostitution and the cynicism of a younger generation divorced from the idealism that fuelled their parents' struggles against the Shah and Saddam's invasion. Disillusioned, Iranians elected a layman with a proven track record as a technocrat from his days running Tehran's city hall: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad promised a return to innocence and to the revolutionary principles that had once captivated Iranians. But his policies - including heavy investment in rural-development projects and a campaign against corruption - ran aground on his poor handling of the economy, which alienated middle-class Iranians who felt their interests had been ignored, or even threatened. His attempts to re-Islamise society at a time of economic crisis and geopolitical tension were even more unpopular.

On election day, I travelled to the clerical centre of Qom. A capricious rainstorm tossed rubbish past hurrying pilgrims cramming into the town's central shrine to pay their respects. Qom was a town divided: Ahmadinejad's televised accusations of clerical corruption had opened a rift in this conservative, pro-regime city. "How can this man want to be elected as president of a regime that he disrespects?" a cleric asked me in the courtyard of the shrine of Masoumeh.

But elsewhere the focus was on the unending struggle between religious and secular factions. "The people who were out on the streets are those who want to be too free," said Mohammad Ghiasi, 32, a civil servant in Qom. "Mousavi's stadium appearances were full of badly hijabed women while Mr Ahmadinejad's meetings were attended by ladies in correct hijab and respectable gentlemen who wouldn't think of going out into the streets to shout and scream."

These badly hijabed women and their male counterparts were the people Ahmadinejad was shortly to dismiss as khasokhashak (rabble, literally "dirt and dust") in a taunting victory speech. The slur became a badge of pride for the throngs parading defiantly through the streets of Tehran. But what, beyond expressing their fiery defiance of the regime, were they seeking to accomplish? "They want freedom, but what kind of freedom?" asked Jason Rezaian, a San Francisco-born Iranian-American, as he smoked a cigarette outside an expensive new restaurant in one of North Tehran's exclusive residential complexes. "Freedom to dance? To drink? To f***?"

Across the city in a poor district called Shahrak-e Modaress I met a group of young men playing cards outside a mosque. Here, too, there was talk of freedom, but of a nebulous sort, animated above all by a distaste for the president. "We voted against Ahmadinejad because that way we'll have more freedom," one said as he flipped cards onto the ground. "The oil receipts don't come to us, whether under Ahmadinejad or Mousavi - but at least under [Mousavi] we would be free to do what we want." "They all have that singular Iranian mentality of needing a leader they can unite behind," Rezaian concluded as he took a last drag from his cigarette and headed back into the restaurant. "And when has that served them before?"

Reza is only 24, but his protruding belly seems to signify that he is already an adult, with the responsibility of a man. The recently married son of devout schoolteachers who survived the ideological persecution of the Cultural Revolution, Reza is an employee of the Intelligence Ministry, and my new interrogator.

"They choose the most ideological ones among us," he told me as we sat in the stifling heat of an indoor yard in Evin's Section 209, a part of the prison exclusively controlled by the Intelligence Ministry, where inmates shuffled around in blindfolds under the scrutiny of plain-clothes guards. Young Reza seemed tired. For two weeks he had shuttled around the capital, racing from riot to riot on a motorbike. His two-way radio spat out garbled instructions directing him to new outbreaks of violence, to provide backup wherever protesters outnumbered police or soldiers. It was in this serendipitous way that Reza came to attend the killing of Neda Agha Soltani, the young woman whose death, recorded and broadcast around the world, had become the iconic emblem of these protests.

"We got a call that hundreds of demonstrators had surrounded a small group of policemen protecting a government building," Reza told me as I sat facing the jail wall during a lull in the interrogation. "Our only protection was a can of tear-gas. We didn't even have a plastic shield." As Reza and his colleagues battled what he described as "heavily armed" protesters, a shot rang out. "A girl was on the ground and it was tragic, absolutely tragic," Reza said. "But the bullet she was hit with was 7 millimetres," he insisted, "and all the Islamic Republic's security forces only use 9 millimetre bullets."

His conclusion was that the woman - whose beautiful features disappear under a crimson torrent as she writhes in the last moments of life - had been shot by an agent seeking to inflame the situation and blame the killing on the Islamic Republic. Later, the BBC correspondent in Tehran, Jon Leyne, would be accused of orchestrating her killing, and expelled from the country. Reza and his comrades, fervent regime loyalists all, had been working around the clock, almost to the point of exhaustion. As Tehran erupted into 20 and sometimes 30 simultaneous clashes, weary security forces were bussed around the city, a nearly futile exercise in fire-fighting. In moments of rest, they curled up on park benches or stretched out onto pavements to snatch a few minutes of sleep before their commanders roused them for the next pitched battle. On June 30, Ahmadinejad recognised their hard work when he visited the Intelligence Ministry to thank its employees for their loyalty. But within a few weeks, a feverish turf battle would erupt here as well, as the intelligence minister, an ally of Supreme Leader Ali Khameini, was dismissed after he opposed Ahmadinejad's attempt to appoint an in-law, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, as his vice-president.

I had been arrested on June 17, as I was preparing to board a flight at Imam Khomeini International Airport. A man in a grey suit accosted me as I walked through the terminal and ordered me to follow him to a deserted part of the airport. There he handed me over to two plain-clothes policeman, who drove me to Evin Prison. I was charged with espionage and locked up in an isolation cell, subject to a total information blackout. Without a clock, reading matter or paper and pen, time dragged on intolerably in the narrow room. I watched the progress of the day as the sunlight slid over the 17 bars on the prison window, shedding shifting streaks of light across the far wall. When the fire of late afternoon died into dusk's pensive mauve, after the maghreb call to prayer, oblivion crept over me. Sometimes, I struggled to stay awake until 10pm, when the distant shouts of "Allahu Akbar" wafted over the prison walls from the rooftops of nearby buildings.

Section 209 was busy. Loads of disoriented prisoners were deposited here every day, fresh from the riots where they had been arrested. Inside the ward's labyrinthine corridors, jailers roughly positioned inmates to face the walls as they awaited summons to interrogation. Rows of prisoners sat in the middle of the corridor or squatted against the walls, some clearly injured, their eyes covered with bloodied blindfolds.

My cell was at the end of a corridor, which offered a kind of privacy but led to a nerve-racking anxiety each time the footsteps of a guard began to echo down the hall toward me. We exchanged few words when it was my turn to be taken to the interrogators. They had little interest in small talk and even less in substantive conversation. Most of the guards were working-class religious young men from South Tehran; they were polite, if sometimes rough, and generally seemed to subscribe to the Islamic ideal of treating a guest well - even if he was a political prisoner presumed to be an ideological opponent of Islam.

"Don't believe what they say about gouging your eyes out if you take out your blindfold," Reza told me one day after we had retreated behind the soundproofed walls of the interview room. "They're ill-educated but honourable people." My interrogators were inflexible ideologues, but they were widely read, and eager to engage a foreigner in debates and discussions. "I've been very anxious to be introduced into your world," the chief interrogator rather ominously greeted me on the first day.

The Americans, Reza told me one afternoon, "pretend that all ideologies are bad and that their so called 'neutral' neo-liberalism is benign. But they pursue its application with greater fundamentalism than any al Qa'eda terrorist." For Reza and his colleagues - as it had been for Kurosh - the struggle on the streets was not simply about an allegedly rigged election, but a battle for salvation; in this case, however, the souls of Iranians needed to be saved from what they called Westoxification. They asked me whether I had ever met a people that were so prone to Westoxification as Muslims.

They carefully (and disdainfully) disassociated themselves as religious Shiite Muslims from their less observant compatriots who fled the country during or after the Revolution. Iranian emigrants were no longer tarred with outdated terms like Shahi or cravati. But by departing for the West, or even for the Sunni Arab world, these Iranians were not just seen to have abandoned Iran during its most difficult years - they were betraying Shiism itself.

"Damascus is more sinful than London," Reza answered when I asked whether he might consider moving to the Syrian capital famous for its Shiite places of pilgrimage. "The Iraqi refugees are so poor they are forced to begin selling their daughters into prostitution from as early as 12 years old. Is that where I want to bring up my family?" One day, while facing the wall in the bustling corridors, waiting to be called into the interrogation room, I noticed a stack of books piled on a radiator. On top was a hardback titled A Refutation of Wahhabism. I imagined stressed-out interrogators leafing through the pages as they relaxed during their tea breaks, between rapid-fire sessions with political dissidents and other threats to their Islamic Republic.

The more time I spent in prison, the more I witnessed a battle for hearts and minds unfolding around me. Those interrogators who were not sadists still resorted to brutality when they felt their charges' souls were unsalvageable. "Two ideologies confront each other in prison," a businessman who had been imprisoned in the early years of the Revolution told me once. "The pasdar (Revolutionary Guard) believed that by seizing me he was serving Islam and Allah - so when he would hit me I could never hate him, because I knew that he didn't understand; he's a person driven by ideology." "When we had the opportunity to sit together, I realised that neither is he very Muslim nor am I very Communist. We had fallen in the trap of espousing roles dictated to us by the West."

After three weeks of interrogations, I was released. Wardens processed me through the prison bureaucracy and we raced through Tehran on our way to the airport. It was a weekday afternoon and the city bustled with traffic. On the surface, the streets outside my window looked completely normal. But plainclothes agents were visible on street corners, keeping an eye on the traffic and making sure people did not begin gathering at street corners to shout slogans. I was reminded of what a pro-Mousavi student had told me about the security state into which Iran had been transformed: "One group is busy following our telephones, another one is engaged in interrogating prisoners, the third are out in the streets, and all of these people have salaries that need to be paid. It's obvious where all the oil money is going."

Aside from the evident security costs, the political crisis has inflicted ample damage on Iran's faltering economy. The rioting put a halt to the state's already moribund foreign investments, while the daily blockages of the mobile network, intended to thwart protesters, brought business transactions to a standstill. The regime's indifference to the looming economic calamity was, in a way, a perfect emblem of the Islamic Republic today: the clerics had always publicly shown a pious disregard for material concerns, and yet the present crisis was based on a power struggle between powerful interest groups. As Abbas, the former addict, told me, "this is no longer a jumhuri (Republic) - it's a jumpuli (cashpublic)".

The violence the regime inflicted on the same voters who trustingly flocked to its polling stations to participate in an increasingly hesitant quadrennial renewal of faith in the system had now stripped the state of any authority. Hundreds of thousands of citizens reclaimed public spaces that had been controlled for decades by the Islamic Republic's moral guardians. They broke through the psychological barrier of fear and poured into the streets - and emerged on the other side, their fear replaced by pure contempt.

"It goes in eight year cycles," one observer told me. First, he suggested, "people don't vote because the system is rigged. Then they become disillusioned with the people the regime brings to power, and vow to vote in the hope they might have an effect." "Given where we are now," he smiled, "that brings us to 2017." Iason Athanasiadis is an Istanbul-based writer and photographer.