KlinKlin, 1 November 2022
Since September 16, Iran has been rocked by violent protests against the government. They were sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was beaten in custody for refusing to wear a headscarf in public. Since then, a number of analysts have been predicting the end of the Islamic Republic “within days”, while Tehran itself claims that the government is more stable than ever. Not a single major Western publication is broadcasting directly from the country because of the ban, and local media are under total censorship.
We visited the country as the only representatives of the Bulgarian media and one of the few worldwide to find out what is really happening there.
Pretending to be a stupid Russian
“Do you know Farsi?” asks Leila*, a 40-year-old Iranian woman who has lived abroad for years but returns twice a year to her relatives. We strike up a conversation at the airport in Istanbul.
“I’ve been studying, but…”
“No!” she interrupts me – “You haven’t studied! You know nothing about Iran, you have no idea what’s going on. You’re just a tourist. Better yet, you’re a stupid tourist who can barely pronounce in English. If the police detain or question you, you have to pretend to be just that. Do you know Russian?”
“Great. The authorities don’t touch Russians and Pakistanis, since those are the only countries left as any kind of allies of Iran at the moment. You don’t look Pakistani, but you’ll pass for Russian. If they detain you, start speaking in Russian, raising your voice and saying in broken English – as the authorities speak English but not Russian – that they will have big problems with the embassy. Unless you did a huge stupid thing, like join a protest or attack the police, they would let you go in a heartbeat because they wouldn’t risk firing or punishment.”
“And most importantly.” adds Leila, “Don’t talk to anyone like that again, like you talked to me. You can’t have faith in anyone. If they find out you’re a journalist, you’ll just disappear.”
When speaking out is a crime
Though exaggerated, Leila’s words were not without foundation. It is impossible to say with accuracy what proportion of the population supports the protests, but informed guesses say:
- between 40 and 50% of Iranians support the protests;
- between 50 and 70% are against the wearing of the hijab by women being legislated and enforced (not to be confused with support for the hijab in general, between 30 and 40% of the population do not support the mandatory hijab at all);
- between 20 and 40% of the population support the government.
This makes the picture quite colourful and complex. Contact with officials, journalists or academics is almost impossible because it would draw enormous attention to themselves. Why are they meeting foreigners at this point, what have they talked about, how have they got in touch?
A person expressing criticism of the government to a foreign media outlet could be accused of conspiracy, espionage, national treason, or at the very least subversion. All these actions are punishable with sentences starting at 15 years in jail and going up to death penalty.
The lives of others
Iran’s population is 80 million and it is not easy to keep track of everyone at the same time. But you don’t have to. Certain institutions and social circles are the usual suspects that create problems. They are put under increased surveillance by civilian police and basiji***, and they also keep tabs on each other. Denounciations are not a rare phenomenon in Iran, but it is mainly due to the fear: if you do not report, it is you who might be accused and put on a rigged trial.
Fear is in the air like the sticky smell of sulfur. It is heavy enough to make breathing difficult and uncomfortable, but still allowing you to live. Ordinary activities – like talking to a stranger on the street, taking a picture, even staring – are now gravely suspicious.
I have lost count of the number of times when I had to show my passport to my interlocutors to prove I am not an undercover government agent conducting counterespionage. Nor the number of times when angry Iranians, especially Iranian women without hijabs, demanded to know why I was taking their picture.
A graffiti war is being waged on the walls of Iranian cities. Every night, municipality officials paint the walls, and in the morning they are again covered with graffiti: ‘Women, Rights, Freedom’ / ‘Mahsa Amini’ / ‘Death to the Dictator’ / ‘Death to the Basij and the Revolutionary Guards’ / ‘For the Brainwashed’ / ‘For Freedom’ and many more. Sometimes government supporters write on these graffiti, “Death to Protest” / “Glory to the Revolutionary Guard.” Neighborhoods with the most graffiti are subjected to increased surveillance by plainclothes police and Basiji.
“At any moment they can arrest you. Even for no apparent reason,” says Maryam, 32, from Isfahan. “I used to walk the streets without a scarf. It took 10-15 minutes until I felt like picking it up and no one had a problem with this. But now it instantly becomes a political message and I’m a target. I wish I was braver, but I’m scared.”
Taking pictures of government, military and police sites and faces also may lead to direct arrest. And if you try to take pictures surreptitiously – again, you have no guarantee that there are no civilian police or vigilantes around you. And cities are teeming with them.
The Grand Ayatollah
Even before the protests, internet space in Iran was severely restricted. Access to sites such as Facebook, Twitter, BBC, YouTube and others was already banned. However, a simple VPN solved most of the problems (Virtual Private Network or VPN is a tool that disguises a user’s real internet address. In countries like Iran and Russia VPNs are used to circumvent government restrictions on the internet).
This is no longer the case. Since the beginning of the unrest, internet speeds have slowed dramatically across the country, and the palette of banned sites and apps has been enriched by Instagram and WhatsApp – the two most popular ways to communicate in the country. Most VPNs have also been blocked, and the government has announced its intention to criminalise their sale.
Only in the evening time from 11pm onwards were the measures relaxed, but only to a certain extent: Instagram became accessible again, internet speeds increased to bearable, VPNs also started working better. “The police were asleep then”, the locals joke. The reasons are simple: the authorities want to limit large groups of people organizing in one place, and stop the flow of information to the country. There is hardly any mention of the protests on the national media, and if there is, then they are reported in a very flattering light for the government.
Any mobile card must be registered with passport, name and address even if it is temporary. The process takes about 20-30 minutes because of the slow internet connection to government servers. Foreigners have to wait at least 24 hours after entering the country to have their passport entered into the system and the card issued. Even then they must provide the name, passport number, address and residential registration of their Iranian guarantor.
To top it off, security forces can very conveniently track your location through an app you voluntarily install – Snapp. Snapp is the Iranian version of Uber, which is widely used by the population and is really a convenience that makes life easier. A convenience that is controlled by the Revolutionary Guard****.
While what we’ve described so far sounds difficult to navigate, there are really only two simple rules to follow:
- Don’t openly criticize the government;
- don’t openly support protests.
While the second point is pretty straightforward, the first is an underwater stone. Reporting a crime can land you in jail. This has happened to Niloufar Hamedi and Ilahi Mohammadi, the two journalists who first reported Mahsa Amini’s death. Exposing corruption by the government or the Revolutionary Guard has the same consequences. And so has a disagreement with the beatings and arrests of political opponents.
“We have freedom of speech in Iran. What we don’t have is freedom after speech,” laughs Maryam.
And it’s absurdly clear when a group of heavily armed men crush a schoolgirl protest in front of your eyes…
*Farsi is the language spoken in Iran, many people mistakenly call it “Persian”.
**For the sake of the safety of the people interviewed, their real names and faces will not be published.
***A paramilitary group of the Revolutionary Guards, which numbers about 1 million people, with an active core of about 100,000.
****The Revolutionary Guards is a specialized branch of the Iranian armed forces under the direct authority of the Ayatollah, overseeing military operations at home and abroad, but also heavily tied to the economy and domestic politics.
Photo: An image of Ayatollahs Khomeini (left) and Khamenei at the Iran Mall Library, Tehran. (source: KlinKlin)
The article has been first published in Bulgarian on the author’s independent site KlinKlin. It is republished and translated with author’s permission.