For Once, the Veil That Hides Conflict Slips
By ELAINE SCIOLINO
The New York Times
July 18, 1999
THINGS are not always what they seem in this country of high walls and
black veils. Invasions, occupations, foreign meddling and arbitrary rule
over the centuries have have made politics a dangerous game, and Iranians
have learned some survival strategies: improvisation, role-playing and
even deception. So it was natural that the unrest last week in Iran,
the worst since the early days of its 1979 revolution, produced images
that sometimes betrayed reality: There were students who didn't look like
students, policemen who didn't look like policemen, true believers who
weren't really true believers.
Masquerade is a large part of the Iranian reality, and it helps explain
why events unfolded here with such a baffling series of turnabouts and
surprises: One day tens of thousands of protesting students were in the
streets, chanting for more freedom. The next day an even larger crowd,
summoned by conservatives, denounced the students. And the following day
a near-normal calm settled over the streets, almost as if nothing had happened.
The crisis started when students at Teheran University demonstrated
to protest a tough new press code and the closing of Salam, a popular newspaper
supportive of Iran's reformist President, Mohammed Khatami.
Islamic vigilantes and security forces stormed a dormitory, beating
students as they slept and pushing some from windows.
For six days students -- whose ranks were probably infiltrated by their
enemies -- took to the streets, but the demonstrations deteriorated into
rioting; security forces and street thugs used as surrogates swept the
demonstrators off the streets with tear gas and truncheons. Huge crowds
followed up with Government-organized counter-demonstrations. This time
the students stayed home.
And then, as if a cloak had been swept over the events, a new quiet
left it difficult to figure out who had won or lost or where or when the
next battle would take place.
One way to look at these events is as the latest scenes in a national
epic drama. The students' frustrations with the strict Islamic system system
have been building for years. But before last week, they were mostly expressed
in private, much as the conflict between Mr. Khatami's followers and Islamic
conservatives has developed behind the scenes. Once the frustrations burst
into public view, the play-acting that infuses much of Iranian politics
accelerated the chain of events, with each side reaching for the most dramatic
-- even overdrawn -- way to make its point.
"Iranians are like wheat fields," one saying goes. "When
the storm comes, they bend; when the storm passes, they stand up again."
Another goes: "Iranians are like water in a vase. If the vase is
a globe, they become a globe; if the vase is long-necked, they become long-necked."
Consider, for example, how Iran deals with Hafez, its great medieval
lyrical poet. He wrote love poetry in which lines of the Koran are interspersed
with lines about red-lipped, big-breasted women and the pleasures of drink.
When young Iranians study Hafez in school, they are told that the wine
he discussed was not an alcoholic drink that caused intoxication but a
divine drink that caused mystical rapture. Even Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini,
the stern father of Iran's revolution, wrote Hafez-like love poetry. No
one would dare say he wrote about real women and real drink.
The sudden about-face, too, is a familiar part of Iranian history. On
Aug. 2, 1953, 2.5 million people heeded the call of their nationalist Prime
Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, and voted to dissolve a Parliament he called
Seventeen days later, tanks poured into the streets in a coup d'état
financed by the Central Intelligence Agency that ousted Mr. Mossadegh and
restored the monarchy.
That day, his supporters stayed home.
Often what is happening can be tolerated; the exposure of what is happening
cannot. "Talk is more important than reality," said one political
analyst who, until the events of last week, was accustomed to speaking
outside the shelter of anonymity. "Everyone knows that dogs pee in
graveyards. But one of the worst things you can say to someone is, 'A dog
peed on your father's grave.' "
So it was perfectly acceptable when people complained about Iran's supreme-leader-for-life,
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in private. But when people appeared in the streets
calling for the downfall of dictators in general and for Ayatollah Khamenei's
resignation in particular, the regime had to reply -- not just by organizing
the counter-demonstration calling for the Ayatollah's long life, but by
playing images of that demonstration over and over on the television system,
which the Ayatollah controls.
And it was perfectly understandable that the Government switched off
Teheran's cellular telephones.
Students involved in the demonstrations on the whole were a privileged
lot; they communicated with each other, and with journalists, over their
This was open talk, and it had to stop.
Complicating any effort to figure out who is who and what level of protest
is permissible is that Iran's clerical government is split in two, but
the sides have a lot in common.
Iran's elected President has preached tolerance and the rule of law.
Ayatollah Khamenei cares more about keeping the revolution Islamically
strict and anti-Americanism high. And under the Constitution, he holds
more cards, controlling the armed forces, intelligence and security apparatus,
judiciary and radio and television.
But on television last week, the two men switched roles. Despite his
reformist message and friendly manner, President Khatami is a cleric too,
and he is on record as supporting the Constitution and the concept of Supreme
Leader. As he has done before, he played the bad cop, warning that the
regime would do whatever it had to to keep order. By contrast, the normally
aloof, often strident Ayatollah Khamenei played the loving father figure
ready to sacrifice himself for his children.
At one point, he confessed mournfully that the violence at the dormitory
had broken his heart.
Many of the other television images distorted reality. On the day of
the pro-Government counter-demonstrations, television broadcast footage
of angry crowds from at least two dozen Iranian towns and cities chanting
"Death to America." Paradoxically, the streets were safest for
Americans that day. Unlike the unpredictability and chaos of the student
protests, this performance was planned and scripted and the players knew
just what their roles were.
It was left to the reformist newspapers to publish both sides of the
story and print the rest of the images, including photos of students bloodied
by vigilantes and female protesters crammed into cages mounted on police
On the streets, what was safe one day was dangerous the next. Iranian
journalists who normally don't shave so they can blend in with the Islamic
purists on the streets decided to shave to fit in with student demonstrators.
When the purists took over again, the journalists felt naked.
Female journalists had it easier. They could put on the black chador.
Even reality itself deceived. A phalanx of young women swathed in black
chanting "Death to America" and punching the air with their fists
looked fearsome on the day of the anti-student demonstration. Until one
noticed their feet. They were wearing high-heeled, high-soled shoes, fashionable
in the West, dead giveaways that they were not as Islamic as they were