Talking to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—and the opposition—about Iran today.
by Jon Lee Anderson 
In a rare interview with a Western reporter in Iran, the President denied repressing the opposition. “Everyone is free,” he said.
Early this summer, while walking in the Alborz Mountains outside Tehran, I came across three members of Iran’s reformist Green Movement. It was a parching-hot afternoon, and they had taken shelter from the heat in a cherry orchard next to a stream, where fruit hung glistening from the branches. The Alborz Mountains have long provided refuge, clean air, and exercise for the residents of north Tehran. The northern districts are more prosperous than the rest of the city, and their residents are generally more educated and aware of foreign ideas and trends. North Tehran was not the only locus of the Green Movement, but support there was particularly intense last summer after the conservative hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed victory in the disputed Presidential elections.
One of the most popular hiking trails begins just outside the walls of Evin Prison, where in recent decades thousands of dissidents have been tortured, killed, and buried in secrecy. A few hundred feet away, just across a wooden bridge over a narrow river canyon, the last paved streets of the city end. Along the river’s banks are open-air teahouses, where nostalgic music is played and people drink fresh cherry juice and smoke narghile waterpipes. Such places offer a respite from the restrictions of life in the Islamic Republic, away from the roving units of religious police and the paramilitary Basij, the plainclothes zealots who attacked Green Movement supporters in last year’s protests.
Since the government crackdown, street demonstrations have been rare, and so, too, have foreign journalists in Iran. I had been given a visa to come interview Ahmadinejad, and during my stay was watched closely by the government. Even a hike in the mountains did not insure privacy; as I climbed, I saw, among the other hikers, several pairs of men who wore the scraggly beards, nondescript clothing, and tamped-down looks of Basijis. At one point, I passed a unit of soldiers. They were out hiking with everyone else, but it was apparent that they were there to make their presence felt. The women on the trail were flushed and sweating in their chadors and manteaus, the black tunics that Iranian women are obligated to wear over their clothes.
In the orchard, though, women had taken off their head scarves and were laughing and talking animatedly. People greeted me politely, obviously recognizing me as a Westerner, a rare sight in Tehran these days. One man struck up a conversation; in excellent English, he made it clear that he was a reformist. Three other men who were sitting together nearby looked over appraisingly, then raised their voices enough to be overheard. Quoting the late Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlou, one of them recited:
They smell your breath,
lest you might have said I love you.
They smell your heart.
These are strange times, my darling.
The butchers are stationed at each
crossroads with bloody clubs and cleavers.
Gesturing toward Tehran in the distance, he said, “There are the new butchers. They sniff out everything, not only in public but in private life, too.” His friends nodded. One of them said, “The people’s frustrations will find an outlet once the cracks in the monolith begin to appear.”
The man I was speaking with told me that he recognized two of the others, professionals in their fifties, from the protests in June, 2009. They were, he said, followers of the reformist Presidential candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. The protests, which had started over election fraud, had grown into huge demonstrations against the Islamic regime, the largest in Iran since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah, in 1979. But in the weeks that followed, Iran’s ultimate political authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, endorsed Ahmadinejad’s victory and condemned the protests; riot police and Basij, armed with knives and guns, were sent into the streets to attack the protesters. Between forty and eighty people were killed, Mousavi’s nephew among them, and thousands were arrested.
In show trials held in August, more than a hundred detainees were paraded in court, many of them thin and pale and clearly terrified; according to Amnesty International, many detainees had been beaten, tortured, and raped by guards and interrogators, often at secret detention centers. Several “confessed” to an improbable range of political crimes, including treason. Since then, most have been released on bail, including the Iranian-Canadian Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari, who fled the country. But hundreds of others have been sentenced to harsh prison terms, and at least five sentenced to death. Two have already been hanged for the crime of moharebeh—warring against God.
The Green Movement continued to hold intermittent demonstrations through the end of last year and, in diminishing numbers, into the spring. But the movement has been constrained. Days before a rally planned for June 12th, the anniversary of the election, Mousavi and Karroubi called it off, explaining that they were doing so for the “safety of the people.”
During the campaign, Mousavi spoke out brazenly for women’s rights and for normalizing relations with the United States, and denounced Ahmadinejad’s statements questioning the reality of the Holocaust. Now he rarely leaves his home in north Tehran, appearing only in pictures and statements on his own Web site. He and the other reformist leaders have been living under an informal house arrest, subjected to heckling and assaults by pro-regime mobs whenever they venture out.
At mourning ceremonies held on June 6th, the twenty-first anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, his reformist grandson Hassan Khomeini was jeered by hard-liners, who forced him to leave the stage. (Afterward, he reportedly walked up to Iran’s interior minister and punched him in the face, breaking his nose.)
Mehdi Karroubi, who was also present, was accosted by a mob of men yelling “Death to hypocrites.” A week later, Karroubi visited the reformist cleric Grand Ayatollah Yousef Saanei at his home in the holy city of Qom; while he was there his vehicle was attacked by an organized mob of men chanting “Dirty,” “Corrupt,” and “American stooges.” Under such sustained pressures, the Green Movement has effectively ceased to exist as a visible political force. Karroubi is the only prominent reformist leader who still regularly appears in public.
In the cherry orchard, the Green Movement men were joined by their wives. One of the women spoke about Spinoza, whose writings had helped lead to the Enlightenment in Europe and the separation of what she called “mosque and state.” “We need a Spinoza in Iran,” she said. In the meantime, she believed, social-networking sites were “the best way forward for the people to be able to communicate and be ready when the rifts in the power structure emerge to provide an opportunity for change.” Otherwise, there was little the Green Movement could do. There could be no more street demonstrations, she said, because it would “cost lives,” and “violence only begets more violence.”