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For Once, the Veil That Hides Conflict Slips

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 obstructionist.

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 cell phones.

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 cars.

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 acting.


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