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Zahra And Millions Like Her Call For Change

Zahra and millions like her won't stop supporting freedom and calling for an open, moderate country with an accountable government.
Zahra and millions like her won't stop supporting freedom and calling for an open, moderate country with an accountable government.
Zahra is a nurse working at the Beheshti Hospital in the central Iranian city of Isfahan. Both Zahra and her husband, Arash, a physiotherapist, work hard, with a lot of overtime, to provide for their two children.

They complain about their relatively low income. Zahra, for example, earns 550,000 tumans a month, about $600, and says the abolition of government subsidies, as planned by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, would further reduce their real income.

But the main reason why both Zahra and Arash voted for Mir Hossein Musavi, Ahmadinejad's main contender in the presidential election seven months ago, was not their economic situation, Zahra says.

"Financially, we are surviving, somehow. But we want to live in a moderate and free society with better perspectives for our kids," she says. "The election proved that our votes don't count and everyday there are new restrictions and hostilities.... It's as though we were constantly at war with ourselves and the world."

But Zahra is afraid of losing her job and of pressure on her husband and school-age kids. That is why she ignored the opposition's call for mass demonstrations on Ashura, the Shi'ite holy day, on December 27.

On that day, in spite of harsh official threats, hundreds of thousands of people again took to the streets to protest against the ruling establishment under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But Zahra also managed to excuse herself for "family reasons" from a pro-government counterdemonstration two days later that all Revolutionary Guards and Basij families, schoolchildren, and employees of state-run agencies and companies, including Isfahan's Beheshti Hospital, were ordered to attend.

"I'm not that much into politics. But they obviously first rigged the election results and now, seeing that it doesn't help, Khamenei openly stepped in," Zahra says. "They have declared war against anybody who is not with them."

Election Protests

Before the presidential election, there was a slim hope that Khamenei, in his capacity as the supreme leader -- an unelected authority with ultimate decision-making power in all major political and strategic issues -- would allow a fair election between candidates who had been short-listed by a council that he himself selected.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has thrown his weight behind the president.
But Khamenei openly sided with incumbent President Ahmadinejad, as did the leaders of the Revolutionary Guards, the judiciary, and the security agencies who directly report to Khamenei.

Even before the vote count ended, Ahmadinejad was hastily declared the winner with some 24 million votes, although even by official accounts opposition candidate Musavi received more than 13 million votes. In many polling stations, Ahmadinejad officially received more votes than the maximum number of eligible voters.

Since then, the opposition has not stopped protesting. On any given occasion, millions of people went out on the streets to demand freedom and democracy.

Learning from the experience of the election, the focus of the opposition democracy movement turned from Ahmadinejad to Khamenei himself as the supreme leader. The most common slogan in recent months, "Death to the Dictator!" suggests that the opposition now demands changes to the political system based on the supreme authority of any unelected "rahbar," the supreme leader.

'Regime Is Finished'

The radical wave of crackdowns on demonstrations, public figures, political groups, and the media was supposed to do two things: to silence the people and deter them from taking any further action; and to reduce the number of protesters from millions to a limited and suppressible number of "radicals." So far, this attempt has largely failed.

The crackdown, accompanied by executions, show trials, imprisonment, torture, and the closure of media outlets, has also led to a further internal isolation of the regime, considerably minimizing the likelihood that the leadership could save itself through relative moderation and inclusion. Typically, the more exposed and isolated the regime becomes, the more brutally it acts against whomever it deems a "threat."

Interviewed by RFE/RL President Jeff Gedmin, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi said that "the [Iranian] regime is finished" -- unless it changes course soon and dramatically. Many argue that it won't -- and it's too late.

Nobody can predict the course of developments in Iran in the next year or two. Writing for RFE/RL's Radio Farda, Akbar Ganji, a prominent opposition figure, points to two important factors, among others, that guarantee the ultimate success of the democracy movement: remaining peaceful in spite of regime provocations to draw the protesters into violent actions, and expanding the number of its active supporters in spite of persecution and threats. Those two factors complement one another.

Zahra and millions like her won't stop supporting freedom and calling for an open, moderate country with an accountable government. What is crucial is to keep them engaged and active by reducing their fears, and to further increase the number of those who dare to show the flag. Looking back at the mass demonstrations during the last years of the shah's regime, Ganji notes, "It is not easy to massacre peaceful mass demonstrations."

Abbas Djavadi is associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL