Reza Aslan: An Iranian Icon on Today's Protests

July 10th, 2009

An Iranian Icon on Today's Protests

A new wave of violent strife swept Iran on Thursday as thousands of demonstrators marched across the country to show outrage over President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election. But baton-wielding police officers broke up the protests, firing tear gas at 200-300 people who were chanting “death to the dictator.” Demonstrators wearing surgical masks to protect their identities from security cameras marched through the streets to Tehran University, a move they said commemorated the 10-year anniversary of student unrest there. The Daily Beast's Reza Aslan talks to Ahmad Batebi—a young Iranian who became a symbol of those student protests a decade ago and spent years in prison for it—about why today's protests are unstoppable.

by Reza Aslan | The Daily Beast

Thursday is the 10th anniversary of the day Iranians refer to simply as 18 Tir. On that day in 1999, a group of students who had holed up in Tehran University for six days to protest the government’s closure of a major reformist newspaper, Salaam, were savagely attacked by paramilitary forces under orders from the Revolutionary Guard.

The protests were the biggest of their kind since the fall of the shah two decades earlier—though they have been dwarfed by this past month’s protests, which have swept through the whole of the country. The university students had been emboldened by then-President Mohammad Khatami’s reform agenda to demand greater rights, including the right to peaceful assembly and a free press. However, the regime, frightened by the spectacle, saw the student movement as a threat to the stability of the state. In what has now become a familiar sight, the government unleashed the full force of its security apparatus on the students.

Early on the morning of 18 Tir—the date according to the Iranian calendar—while most of the students were asleep, Basij forces raided the dorms of Tehran University, indiscriminately beating and arresting people. In the melee, a bullet whizzed by the ear of Ahmad Batebi, a young university student, and lodged itself in the chest of his friend. Batebi took his friend’s shirt off and used it to put pressure on the wound, but to no avail. He then ran to the front of the protests and held the shirt aloft for all to see, a witness to the massacre that had just taken place.

A photographer in the crowd snapped his picture. The next day, the image was splashed across the cover of The Economist and instantly became a symbol of the uprising: It was the lonely Chinese man standing before a phalanx of tanks at Tiananmen Square, or, more perhaps more fittingly, it was Neda Agha-Soltan slowly bleeding to death on the streets of Tehran, blood pouring from her mouth and nose.

The day after Batebi’s picture appeared, the police arrested him. He spent the next 10 years in prison, most of it in solitary confinement, in a cell the size of a bathtub. He was repeatedly tortured and forced to undergo a mock execution. The government wanted him to sign a statement saying the blood on the shirt was not blood at all—it was tomato sauce. Batebi refused.

After suffering two strokes, Batebi was temporarily released from prison in 2007 to receive medical attention. With the help of Kurdish militants, he fled Iran, smuggled first by car, then by donkey, through the mountains of Kurdistan into Iraq. He was granted asylum by United States in 2008 and now lives in Washington, D.C.

For 10 years, the government of Iran has allowed no commemoration of the events of 18 Tir. But this year, despite the brutal crackdown on protests, mass demonstrations have been planned, not only all over Iran, but all over the globe.

On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the day that changed his life forever, and may yet prove a catalyst for change in Iran, The Daily Beast sat down with Ahmad Batebi.

Do you see parallels between the uprising that has rocked Iran over the last month and the student protests at Tehran University you took part in 10 years ago?

The 18 Tir uprising involved only students who were asking for greater freedoms of speech and the press. However, the current uprising in Iran is not made up only of students but of people from all parts of society. That has partly to do with how many people participated in this election. They all feel as though the government owes them something.

Perhaps the biggest difference between 1999 and 2009 is that the people are wiser and far more experienced at dealing with the regime. In 1999, we were hot and angry and unfocused. The protesters of today are much more calm and purposeful, more experienced. They know how to deal with the government, how to embarrass it through nonviolence and civil disobedience.

What are the demands of the protesters now? What were they 10 years ago?

As the protesters themselves say, “Where is my vote?” But of course this is more than just about an election. It is about all the many ways in which the regime has failed them over the last 30 years. It is about the things that the regime has failed to provide: a secular government, human rights, women’s rights, etc.

Ten years ago, the students demonstrated because their rights had been violated. Today, the issue at stake is a lot bigger. The government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has perpetrated a coup d’etat. For two decades we tried to make the young people, who make up some 70 percent of the population, aware of the real nature of this government. Yet people still maintained a level of trust in the regime. But this coup has changed everything. The government has shown its true face to the people and the people have lost all trust in the government. In a sense, the government did the reformers’ job for them. Even if we had another 20 years we could not have revealed the true nature of this regime in the way that the regime itself did in 24 hours. It’s like the reform movement progressed 20 years in a single day! Now everyone knows the truth behind this regime.

Has the regime changed over the last decade, since the events of 18 Tir?

The government of Iran has gone through a 30-year evolution. The first decade of the Islamic republic was all war and economic turmoil and foreign intervention. There was no time for people to think of such things as freedom and liberty.

After the war, Hashemi Rafsanjani rose to power [as president from 1989 to 1997]. At that time, people were mostly concerned about the economy and with rebuilding the country after eight years of war with Iraq.

In the 1990s, when the social and economic problems began to get better, people suddenly started thinking more about freedom. Even the people who were in the government 10 years earlier began to call for greater freedoms. These were the reformists, and they became very active during the Khatami presidency [1997-2005].

With Khatami, the country opened up a bit. People started to change. More newspapers popped up and stayed open despite their criticism of the regime. Books that had been banned before were now published. Films that could not have been made before were released. The first four years of Khatami’s presidency [1997-2001], Iranian society flourished. There was a huge push for greater freedoms. And the government—well, I should say the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guard—realized that if they did not curb the growing power of the people, they would never again be able to contain them. So the Revolutionary Guard became more active in politics and in society. They took control over the courts, the military, and the offices of government. They then used those positions to help Ahmadinejad defeat Rafsanjani [who ran again] in 2005 and become president.

With the backing of the Revolutionary Guard, Ahmadinejad spent the next four years erasing every gain that we had built up during the previous eight years. They imprisoned people and shut down newspapers. They created a closed society.

You spent 10 years as political prisoner so you know what some of the recently arrested protesters and journalists are going through.

I still have nightmares of the torture I endured in prison. I have dreams that I have to return to Iran to help someone, a friend. And I end up getting arrested again. The nightmares have doubled recently, as I see the images of protesters being beaten and arrested.

I learned a lot in prison: how not to be bothered; how to get out sooner. Ironically, I also learned how not to get arrested. Or, rather, how to protest without getting arrested, which is something I wish I could share with the protesters on the streets today. However, I speak with them very little because if I get too close, they will be arrested. The regime is already searching for my brother.

For example, in Iran, when they arrest someone, they often say, “Sign this piece of paper and we will let you go.” But you find out later that paper you signed was not a release form but a confession. Or they take you to the interrogation room and say that your parents have died, and unless you appear on television and confess to receiving money from foreign powers, they will not allow them to be buried.

Your iconic photograph on the cover of The Economist became the symbol of the 18 Tir uprising, much as the video of Neda dying from a gunshot wound has become the symbol of the current uprising. What role do you think such symbols, seen around the world play, in pressuring the Iranian regime? Do they help or hurt the protest movement?

These images definitely help. The world sees what is happening and the regime cannot hide. The world saw my photo and realized that someone had been killed. They saw Neda dying and realized that she had been shot for doing nothing.

Of course, for the person in the image—Neda or me—it is not so helpful. I was in prison for 10 years. For Neda…well, she is now a spirit, an angel.

When I was in prison I used to regret that photo. I wished I had not been on the cover of that magazine. But I don’t think that way anymore. A person must stand proudly behind his actions.

How do you see the current crisis playing out?

The one thing history has taught us is that no government can defy the will of its people for long. The whole world is moving toward greater human rights and democracy. All people want these things. No one wants dictatorship. No government is powerful enough to stand against the will of the people forever. Chile, Argentina, Yugoslavia, etc. All of these dictatorships eventually collapsed, and the same thing will happen in Iran.

The people of Iran have turned on a light. The flame may dim a bit now and again, but it will never die. This is a long war, a gradual process. It may take another 30 years, but freedom and democracy will come to Iran.

Reza Aslan, a contributor to the Daily Beast, is assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and senior fellow at the Orfalea Center on Global and International Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He is the author of the bestseller No god but God and How to Win a Cosmic War.