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UI student sees history unfold in Iran

BY MICHAEL DALE-STEIN | JUNE 19, 2009 7:21 AM

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A car pulled up to a police checkpoint in Tehran, Iran. Machine guns pointed at the faces of the family within.

Inside the vehicle, one Iranian-American UI student was directly confronted with the reverberations of the June 12 Iranian presidential election. The government declared incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the winner, which almost immediately sparked cries of outrage and large protests.

But it didn’t start this way. The UI student, who has dual citizenship, was visiting his family, excited to vote in his first Iranian election.

Now that the election is over and accusations of voter fraud have surfaced, danger and violence have concurrently risen. Though Iran has put efforts into blocking social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter, many are still using the Internet to express their feelings to the world.

The Iranian government announced June 17 those who talk to foreign media and post information on blogs and websites will be severely punished.

And an acquaintance of the student was reported to be missing on Thursday — proving the risks for Iranian citizens are greater than first thought.

“[The government] arrested many people today — mainly journalists, activists, and people who have been talking on the ’net,” the student wrote to the DI in an e-mail.

He asked the DI for anonymity because of possible dangers associated with talking to U.S. journalists — adding he has been utilizing proxy servers, methods of keeping his computer messages anonymous. The student has tried calling family and friends in the United States more than 30 times Thursday, but none of the calls went through.

Since the election, the government has filtered websites and blocked text messaging, and it is rumored to be monitoring landlines, sparking intense reaction from abroad. Protests have occurred in California, Georgia, and even Iowa City — an event that collected 102 signatures Wednesday.

Many of the protests in America called for fair treatment for the other Iranian presidential candidates.

The most popular of the losing candidates, Mir Hossein Mousavi, was seen by many as the more democratic option — a reformer, both economically and socially — and a popular choice for many, including the UI student.

The student, who moved from Iran to the United States when he was very young, said he could feel the excitement of the electoral atmosphere when he first arrived in Tehran, the nation’s capital. Campaign fliers and billboards plastered the city, he said, and his family gathered in front of the TV every night, watching debates among the four presidential candidates.

“It was Obama versus McCain over again,” he said. “Everyone had an opinion.”

Though he did not feel strongly about any of the candidates, he said he thought Mousavi was by far the best option.

“He promises greater freedoms to the Islamic society and is willing to review laws that discriminate against women,” he said.

Mousavi’s supporters say the speed in which the voting ballots were tallied (they are tallied by hand) and the wide margin of victory for Ahmadinejad are signs of a rigged election.

The student said he suspects forgery because the voting numbers simply don’t “make sense.”

On Thursday, hundreds of thousands of people choked the streets of Tehran, joining Mousavi in mourning the seven demonstrators killed so far in the protests.

In the United States, many are debating the ramifications of mass demonstrations in Iran.

Sara Mitchell, a UI associate professor of political science, said if protests continue, the chance for dangerous governmental crackdown is high.

Mitchell said the U.S. government has taken a fairly hands-off approach to the Iranian election controversy, leading to criticism of President Obama.

Interestingly, she said “low-key statements by U.S. officials could actually have significant consequences and increase the risks for civil war in Iran.”

While it is unclear that civil war will hit Iran, regional leaders are trying to quell dissent. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader who holds ultimate power in Iran, said on Iranian TV a panel will look into Mousavi’s declaration that he is the winner of the presidential election.

“Issues must be pursued through a legal channel,” Khamenei said on Iranian TV.

But many have crowded the streets in protest. The student told the DI he has seen stores destroyed, fleeing refugees, and riots. Last weekend, he said, a rioter smashed a window 200 feet from his bedroom. His parents, who lived through the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, have forbidden him from attending rallies.

A nearby apartment in the family’s building even became a safe house for several Iranians when a neighbor hid three people who were running from the Basiji — the religious police.

Despite the dangers, the student is uncertain he wants to take the safe route and return to Iowa City.

“I feel fortunate to be here while history is in the making,” he said. “Yet the streets are very dangerous.”

For the student, the urge to be part of history is greater than the opportunity to go back to America. He said, “I don’t think I am ready to leave quite yet.”


Iran Election Timeline

• June 12 — Iranian presidential elections held, letting voters choose among incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi, and two others

• June 13 — Incumbent Ahmadinejad declared landslide winner in a suspiciously quick ballot count.

• June 14 — Protests form across the country. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declares an investigation into claims of voting fraud.

• June 15 — Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gather in the capital city, Tehran. Seven people are killed in the protests.

• June 16 — Journalists are restricted from going on the streets. Also, a Mousavi rally occurs in Tehran.

• June 17 — Protests continue in Tehran.

• June 18 — Mousavi demonstrators, wearing all black, mourn the seven killed in prior protests.


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