Iran was back in the news yesterday, as anti-government protestors defied a government ban on demonstrations and a brutal crackdown on dissent to mark the tenth anniversary of the 1999 uprising by Iranian students at Tehran University.
Yet news reports missed a crucial aspect of the story. In portraying yesterday’s protests as the first anti-government activity in two weeks, the media inadvertently reinforced the impression that Iranian democrats and demonstrators really had been passive over the past few weeks.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Insofar as there has been a hiatus, it was taken by the media, not the demonstrators. I spoke with Iranian friends who said that they have been out protesting on their rooftops every day since the June 12 election. Following the old adage of the tree falling in the forest, we have been trained to believe that if it’s not in the news, it didn’t happen. But just because the death of an American pop-culture icon trumped the Iranian people’s ability to make headlines, that doesn’t mean they have been idle.
It has been a tough and ill-fated course for Iranians. After three decades of tyrannical theocratic dictatorship, they boldly turned to the streets to voice their accumulated outrage. At last, the world began to pay attention to the regime’s human-rights violations and its vicious and inhumane treatment of its own people. For the first time in years, the outside world could see that the government did not have the full support of its people, that, indeed, many Iranians bitterly opposed the regime’s oppressive rule. Then the media turned away, and the government cracked down hard.
While network helicopters were hovering over Neverland, Basiji militants were openly shooting at rooftop protesters. During this time, hundreds, if not thousands, of Iranians have gone missing. It’s common for the government militiamen to pull random individuals off the street, whereupon they are taken to be tortured and held for ransom. Yesterday’s protests took place in the face of these growing threats.
In fairness, the media has seemed to appreciate the import of the massive turnout in honor of the July 1999 student demonstrations. Also known as the 18th of Tir (the Persian month), these were the most violent and widespread protests since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, resulting in a bloody, six-day insurrection. The protest began peacefully, with students in Tehran contesting the closure of a reformist newspaper called Salam. The following day, however, hundreds of plainclothes riot police raided student dormitories, beating the students. This attack sparked demonstrations and rioting throughout the country, killing several and injuring hundreds. It had been the most significant uprising staged against the mullahs’ regime.
Until now. This latest round of protesting is even more significant than what occurred last month. First, it is no longer about the election. Iranians have put their differences aside and are now on the streets to express their outrage against the government. The entire political system – not merely one fraudulent election – is now under assault from the streets. Second, given the risks they have faced over the past month, the courage of the Iranian people is astonishing. Iranians are demonstrating despite knowing full well that they may be killed, tortured, or arrested by militia guards. Finally, the continued presence of these protestors is an indication that their movement will not be quashed as easily, or as quickly, as the regime had hoped.
Their resistance must not be ignored. Whether it requires following Tweeters or speaking to protesters on the ground in Iran, the media owes the audacious and justice-seeking Iranian people the opportunity to be heard. It is their best chance to confront the regime. It also may be their last one.
With the news networks once more attuned to their plight, the anniversary of the 1999 riots could not have come at a more opportune time for the Iranian people. Iranians are more determined than ever to show the world that, despite the threats, they will not back down. This time, the world will be watching.