Talking to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—and the opposition—about Iran today.

by Jon Lee Anderson


Reformist groups in Iran have tended to wax and wane—the movement that deposed the Shah took nearly twenty years to gather its full strength—but the Green Movement as it stands seems to present little threat to Iran’s government. Mousavi, on his Web site, recently criticized Ahmadinejad for his handling of nuclear negotiations, saying that his efforts have made sanctions worse and prevented Iran from developing “peaceful nuclear technology.” Some analysts interpret this as part of Mousavi’s continuing attempt to present himself as an unflinching nationalist, in the hope of retaining influence in the reformist movement. But the Iran expert told me that, in the absence of strong leadership, the movement was splintering. He explained, “The Green Movement was made up of different kinds of people: those who hated the regime, those who were offended by the election fraud, and those who joined because they were offended by the treatment of the prisoners. Eventually, they began to separate out.”

One Iranian, who asked to remain anonymous out of concern for his safety, described the movement’s status. “Despotism works,” he said. “That’s what this situation shows. The reformist movement is over. The middle classes aren’t willing to die en masse, and the regime knows this. It has killed and punished just enough people to send the message of what it is capable of doing. The reformist leaders and the regime have a kind of unspoken pact: ‘Don’t organize any more demonstrations or say anything and we’ll leave you alone. Do anything and we’ll arrest you.’ It’s over.”

But the members of the movement I spoke to have not changed their sympathies. In Tehran, I was invited to watch a televised soccer match in the home of an Iranian family. During a break in the action, someone mentioned that I had interviewed President Ahmadinejad that week. One of my hosts, a professional woman in her thirties, immediately put two fingers into her mouth and bent over in a pantomime of gagging. “Oh, how I hate him,” she said. “He makes my skin crawl. He is the worst kind of Iranian; he offends our dignity and our sense of ethics, and the worst thing is he thinks he is so clever.” The mere mention of his name, she said, made her feel depressed. In the crackdown that has followed last year’s unrest, she added, many of her friends and acquaintances—mostly other educated young professionals, of the sort that overwhelmingly supported the Green Movement—had fled the country, or were planning to. She did not plan to emigrate, but she understood the urge to do so. “The frustration is almost too great to bear. People feel so robbed, and their dignity and hopes are so offended. Every day, it is so painful. It hurts. This feeling will not just go away. The Green Movement represents this feeling, and it can’t just disappear. Somehow, maybe in another shape, it has to reëmerge.”


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