The Revolt About to Rock Iran

From sabotaging loudspeakers to circumventing Internet firewalls, Jason Shams—who spent months fighting in the streets of Tehran—reveals some of the underground machinery that fuels the protests. Plus, Michael Adler on the race to stop Iran’s nuclear regime.

AP Photo

Since I came to the U.S. from Tehran in November, after spending months campaigning and then protesting on the streets of Tehran, people keep asking me: How does the Green Movement work? How do you organize and communicate? Who are the leaders? Where is this going? As if coming from Iran, I’m supposed to be some kind of Iranian Martin Luther King Jr., with a blueprint in my head of who, what, and where.

On Thursday the protests resume, eight months after our movement was stained in red, and the Greens are revving up for another showdown. The underground machinery—a network of blogs, Facebook posts, and word of mouth that started back in June—is turning once again, bringing thousands of old and young to the streets.

Web sites have been blocked for ages in Iran, and the computer students are all over the place with their flash drives and proxy programs, always a step ahead of the bearded dinosaurs and their dying ideologies.

The government is revving up, too. It is installing speakers on the streets to drown out our cries of “down with the dictator” with cries of “down with the USA.” But instructions on how to rip the wires off the speakers have exploded throughout the Internet, and our voices rise from countless throats.

Reza Aslan: Iran on the BrinkIt tries to deny our existence in the provinces far from the cities, with oil dollars, Chinese tear gas, and Russian hackers helping make the point; telephones are tapped, activists imprisoned, a stroll down the street and we are faced with gangs of Basij and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iranians can watch MTV and pornography on satellite television, but the BBC and Voice of America have been jammed. The Internet has been reduced to a trickle, newspapers shut down.

When the government kicked out foreign reporters and imprisoned the local ones, we turned on our phone cameras, holding them up while dodging batons and sniffling through tear gas, trying not to trample each other while running from their blows.

The government blocked Facebook and news sites, but Web sites have been blocked for ages in Iran, and the computer students are all over the place with their backpacks filled with flash drives and proxy programs, always a step ahead of the bearded dinosaurs and their dying ideologies.

Death sentences are being passed out to scare the people off, and this time around, they have given up on the intellectuals and are sentencing 20-somethings to death for throwing rocks at soldiers bearing guns. But every street bears the name of a martyr, every house has a lost one from either the Iran-Iraq War or the revolution, and martyrdom compels us to carry on. “We are all Sohrab, we are all Neda” is our motto.

The cries of “Allaho Akbar,” or “God Is Great,” greater than any dictatorship, have started again, echoing through the streets during the day and from the rooftops at night. Right before the children brush their teeth and go to bed, families turn off their lights so their houses can’t be identified, then stick their heads out of windows, and the cries travel down the streets, through the jails and barracks, to rob the oppressors of their sleep.

I am certainly no Martin Luther King Jr., and around this time last year, I was at the Dizin slopes north of Tehran, skidding down the mountain, checking out snow bunnies, Kings of Leon blaring out of my headphones, nasty illegal Armenian liquor running through my veins, oblivious to politics.

And now in New York, I feel a duty to tell you what I know and what I saw, what I observe and read, for you to get a better understanding of the struggle; for we are involved in a propaganda battle, and everyone should know that we are the ones on the right side of the law.

The first time I put on a green wristband was on a rainy day last April, when former President Mohammad Khatami stepped aside in favor of Mir Hossein Mousavi at the Milad Tower in Tehran. It was on that day that we were introduced to Mousavi—not the leader, but the result of our struggle, both when he was our candidate and now that he is our guru.

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And then the snows melted, and spring arrived, and along came a Green wave much larger than I, larger than any one of us, a tsunami that uprooted the nation and left no one unchanged.

The motto of the Green Movement, “each Iranian is a media outlet,” began that spring. That was the period when we learned about social networks, how each one of us has access to a variety of people to approach in our daily lives. At work, on the basketball court, at parties and among family, on Facebook and Twitter and on the blogs, there was not one person to whom I didn’t pose the question “Will you vote?” And then would follow a debate about reform and bringing hope to our people—and also, taking out president monkey face—that brought many of them around.

“Each Iranian is a media outlet” lies at the heart of what we do. From way back, censorship has been a major issue in Iran. We don’t have independent newspapers and our Web sites are blocked, but during the campaign, and to this day, we have employed the indestructible social network that is scattered across any society. Taxi drivers, schoolteachers, office workers, and street peddlers spread the word, which is then passed on to families and friends.

At a rally weeks after the elections, people whispered to each another, “Thursday at 5, Valiasr Square.” A child was hoisted on his father’s shoulders, holding up a paper with scribbles that read: “Thursday at 5, Valiasr Square.” And in a matter of minutes, the chant ran through the mass of demonstrators, booming down the street: “Thursday at 5, Valiasr Square!”

The “post-election” Green Movement is not a revolution. More than anything else it’s a reaction, a reaction to the state’s transgressions. We are not rallied around an ideology, a religion, not even a person. We don’t claim that our man won, we only object to the fact that we were robbed of the opportunity to know who did, and we raised our voices, crying, “Where is my vote?” They imprisoned our activists, leaders, and intellectuals, many of them the only ones with access to the information needed to prove the fraud, and our demands increased, so we cried, “Free the political prisoners.” We took to the streets, exercising our right to assembly, and they let loose gangs of baton-wielding motorcyclists among us, so we demanded, “Stop the repression.”

What we have, and they don’t, is that we are countless, as are our methods and our allies. I suppose the dictator wakes up sweaty, in the middle of the night, with that sentence echoing through his head.. .we are countless...countless...

We have a wide consensus about our minimum demands, and a large swath of the society has been mobilized, including the Persians and Kurds and Turks and Arabs, the religious and the atheists, the socialists and the liberals and the nationalists, the 70-somethings who speak of the bloodthirsty Reza Shah as if he were Jesus incarnate, the 50-somethings who toppled the shah, we 30-something children of the reform movement, and the teenagers shoved out of the World of Warcraft into the world of armored brigades of riot police.

They have our names, they have our email addresses, they know us and who we are; our conversations, bank accounts are at their fingertips. But with our proxies and green symbols, book clubs and classes, gyms and offices, we are Iran. Take us out of the equation, and no one remains to rule over. We are countless, and they can’t kill us all, they can’t build a prison the size of the country, and we all know that.

On Ashura in December, they let loose their trucks to run over people who circled around flowerbeds and carried their children while marching in the millions. Like that day, this is a symbolic event, a day of resistance and victory. Thursday is the celebration of the day when the generation before us toppled the monarch, and for a short moment, brought hopes for democracy and freedom. We have learned from their mistakes and experience, that in order to succeed, every single Iranian must be part of the solution. This time around, we celebrate our differences, passing out symbols of green to be worn on top of the colors underneath.

As Mousavi has said, “Our victory is not one in which another suffers defeat.” Rather than an idea, or promises of an afterlife, it is the vision of our day of victory that gives us the strength to carry on, until the day when no enemy remains, when batons and tear gas will be no more, when we will all dance on the streets in the color of life.

Jason Shams is an American-Iranian who has spent most of his life in Iran. He has worked as translator, interpreter, journalist, and political analyst in Iran for more than 20 years. He moved to the United States in November after being part of the Green Movement for months.