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Iranian-American UI student returns, shares stories from society in tumult

BY MICHAEL DALE-STEIN | JULY 15, 2009 7:15 AM

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“Ali Elmi” saw it all.

The UI graduate student watched as people crowded the streets, rejoicing until 4 in the morning. The women even removed their hijabs, disobeying the law of the country.

That was Tehran a month ago. Elmi saw the Iranian capital flooded with celebration in the early hours of Election Day for a unified goal: freedom.

“It was like a football game in Iowa,” Elmi said of the initial excitement surrounding the prospect of a new Iranian leader.

But the mood changed quickly. For weeks, the streets have brimmed with clashing police and protesters.

In June, Elmi, who holds dual Iranian-American citizenship, told The Daily Iowan via e-mail about his experience voting in Iran and the protests that followed. At the time, fear of arrest prevented him from providing too many details.

Even though he has since left the volatile country, he wishes to remain anonymous out of concern for the safety of his family members still in Tehran, and the DI has granted him a pseudonym.

Back in Iowa, he is able to divulge more about his trip without fear of arrest, or worse, being sent to the notorious Evin Prison in northwest Tehran — where, he said, masses of Iranians wait out front, hoping to hear news regarding missing family members.

For almost a month before leaving Tehran, the graduate student saw people crowd the streets again. But they weren’t celebrating anymore — they were protesting the June 12 election, in which Iranian officials declared President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad beat out three candidates.

“I don’t think they predicted this at all,” Elmi said of the Iranian government’s reaction to the widespread demonstrations.

While many across the country supported Ahmadinejad, the voting numbers suggest election fraud may have taken place. An overwhelming number of Iranians believe Mir Hossein Mousavi — the main opposition leader and seen by many as a political reformer — was robbed of the presidency, sending his supporters cramming the streets in the hundreds of thousands to protest the incumbent’s continued reign over the country.

Elmi saw firsthand helicopters that hovered 100 feet above the chaos, and later learned they sprayed chemicals on protesters that burned skin and irritated eyes. The dissenters would light cigarettes and blow smoke in each other’s faces, a method to combat the sting of tear gas.

Elmi’s immediate family forbade him from attending protests. Other relatives were more outspoken.
He said his 55-year-old cousin was beaten and chased by the Basiji — religious police who answer to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — until, by chance, a family hid her at their house. When Elmi’s cousin tried to sneak out the backdoor, a policeman was waiting for her, aiming a metal baton straight at her skull.

He turned out to be more sympathetic than he appeared, however. She arrived home with only a bruised arm.

According to Elmi, the Basiji police chased down, beat, and arrested protesters. Many of the police are young, he said, sometimes 15 or 16 years old.

“They’re brainwashing these kids,” he said of the government.

Other young Iranians have worked to spread news of unrest in their country through social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Elmi said many Iranians, including himself, are tech-savvy, and they have found methods around the government’s Internet filters.

To communicate with the DI in June, he connected to computers in other countries via access points called proxy servers, which allow untraceable Internet use.

“I don’t think any information would have come out without Twitter and Facebook,” Elmi said. “The [foreign] reporters are stuck in their rooms.”

Dan Berkowitz, a UI journalism professor, said social-networking websites present an unprecedented method for dispersing news in a country with strict media controls and limited access for journalists. However, he cautioned that people reading Facebook and Twitter for news from Iran need to question what they read.

“As control over information shifts from journalists to citizens, the trustworthiness also needs to come into question,” he said.

Elmi said he believes the Iranian government will keep trying new methods to block communication outlets in the future. And the police have also adapted. The Iranian government has reportedly used social media to promote fake protests — essentially sting operations — on Twitter.

When protesters show up to the gatherings, the police are already waiting to make arrests.

“You would see different Twitters saying ‘so-and-so is part of the government, don’t listen to them,’ ” Elmi said.

He returned to Iowa City in early July with his parents. They were worried about the 3,000 digital photographs he had on his computer, so he encrypted them, put them on an external hard drive, and hid it in his mother’s bag. Luckily, security didn’t check for them. It was fairly easy for the family to leave Iran, he said.

The family first left the country when Elmi was 15 months old, and extended family members remained. Elmi’s immediate family then briefly lived in Washington, D.C., before settling in Des Moines.

But in a move that some interpret as controversial, Elmi’s adopted country has chosen to remain neutral in the disputes over the election.

“The U.S. is not trying to side with one group in the dispute and is not trying to influence the electoral process,” said Brian Lai, UI associate professor of political science.

There are two reasons the current administration has adopted a neutral stance, he said. First, the United States does not want the Iranian regime to be able to label the American government as interfering with domestic politics. Also, the Obama administration does not want to portray the protesters as part of a broad U.S. plot.

Lai believes antagonizing the current government in Iran could spoil possible negotiations about Iran’s nuclear program, he said.

Elmi said Iranians crave the same freedoms Westerners enjoy. Comparing the Iranian election with last year’s U.S. election, he said he found parallels between youthful ideologies.

“Everybody’s dying for freedom [in Iran], especially the young generation,” he said.

Now, the leaders of Iran are embroiled in a political battle. Though the country’s supreme religious leader is an outspoken supporter of Ahmadinejad, the clerics who can remove him from power disagreed over the legitimacy of the election.

Meanwhile, the fight continues on the streets. Though the protests have calmed in comparison with those of June, pockets of resistance remain. Last week, thousands of activists, mostly students, used the Internet to formulate an impromptu protest in Tehran. “Death to the dictator,” the young Iranians chanted.

“People are tired of the suppressive regime,” said Elmi, who hopes to return to Iran in the future. “I think in the next year or two, I’m hoping, that there will be some sort of revolution.”


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