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Protests In New York Bring Iranian Diaspora Together

  • Nikola Krastev

Protesters shout slogans against Iranian leader Mahmud Ahmadinejad in front of the United Nations during the General Assembly.

Protesters shout slogans against Iranian leader Mahmud Ahmadinejad in front of the United Nations during the General Assembly.

NEW YORK -- Asked why he is waving a massive banner featuring an image of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad crossed out with bright red streaks, a young protester answers incredulously: "He's even trying to talk at the UN, can you believe that?! He's claiming that he's representing my people and he's not. He's definitely not representing my people."

Ali, who would only provide his first name, was taking part in a daytime rally alongside hundreds of green-clad protesters in front of Iran's Mission to the UN in Manhattan on September 23, ahead of Ahmadinejad's UN address that evening.

With world leaders in New York this week for the opening debates of the UN General Assembly, thousands of green-clad Iranians living in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere have been exhibiting their support for those who took to the streets in Iran to protest the results of its disputed June presidential election.

Ali made clear his belief that Ahmadinejad's victory in Iran's contentious June 12 election was fraudulent.

"He’s not a legitimate leader. Four years ago he was elected. I know he was elected four years ago; my people voted for him," he says. "It wasn't totally free election, but still he won that election. But not this time."

'No Photographs'

Hena, who is originally from Iran but has lived in the United States for 25 years, takes care to shield her identity. Wearing large mirrored sunglasses and a green headscarf, she orders: "No photographs."

Such precautions are necessary at such rallies, she explains, because one never knows who among the other participants might be reporting back to authorities in Iran.

"Everybody's got glasses on. Everybody's got paintings on their face. It's because of that [precaution]," she says. "I mean, if we had a free country where we were able to say whatever we would like, then we wouldn't be wearing all glasses and a lot of these people wouldn’t be afraid of going back."

By mid-afternoon, the crowd has grown not only in size but in rowdiness as well. As during the protests in Iran that followed Ahmadinejad's disputed reelection, there is discord among groups of protesters. The majority seems to favor former Iranian Prime Minister Mir Hossein Musavi, the candidate they claim is the rightful victor of the election.

Several older Iranians are not actively participating in the rally. One of them, who identifies himself as Frank, tells me that he doesn't necessarily agree with the younger protesters.

"I have a very different opinion about this event right now because the whole problem is not just Ahmadinejad, because changing Ahmadinejad is not the first priority," he says. "Basically, the priority has to be the change of the whole system."

Unlike the younger protesters, many of whom were born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, some of the elder participants display flags showing their loyalty to deposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Signs of other fringe groups opposed to Ahmadinejad can also be seen at the rally, including those voicing their support for the Mujahedin-e-Khalq.

End To 'Show Trials'

Differences in opinion regarding Iran's future -- from outright regime change to tweaks to the current system -- are openly exhibited on the streets of Manhattan.

By and large, protesters are calling on the international community to uphold human rights and reject policies of military aggression and economic starvation. To say "no" to torture, killings, and rape, and to say "yes" to freedom of speech and assembly.

They also are demanding an end to mass "show trials" being staged against protesters in Iran; freedom for all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience; and for those responsible for the violations of human rights to be held to account.

On the evening of September 24, the protesters plan to look to the sky, where they will see the top of the Empire State Building bathed in green light.

A request for the skyscraper to be lit in the color worn by members of the Iranian opposition was officially denied by the Empire State Building Co. LLC, which makes decisions on lighting of the iconic building.

But in what appears to be sheer luck, "green" protesters will get their wish anyway.

"The lighting of the Empire State Building green is in honor of our Emerald Gala celebration of the 70th Anniversary of 'The Wizard of Oz,' " according to Ronnee Sass, vice president of publicity and promotion for Warner Home Video, which is hosting the gala.

"Any other association is pure coincidence," Sass tells RFE/RL.

Also on September 24, thousands are expected to march across another New York icon, the Brooklyn Bridge, with a nearly 2 kilometer green banner proudly on display.

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