Then They Came for MeA Family's Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival
Random HouseCopyright © 2011 Aimee Molloy
All right reserved.ISBN: 9781400069460
"Are you sure you're pregnant?" I had asked as I leaned down to kiss Paola's stomach. "Maybe it's something you ate."
Her voice sounded tired as she walked me to the door. "Just get back home as soon as you can," she said. She had had more than enough of my traveling. I had spent the last several weeks in Iran, reporting on the upcoming presidential elections for Newsweek and producing a film for the BBC, and now, after just a week in London, I was heading back again. Her patience for my silly jokes was running thin. We gave each other a long kiss good-bye, and when I finally pulled away from her, her eyes were full of tears.
In the taxi from our flat in north London to Heathrow Airport, I couldn't ignore the pangs of guilt I felt for leaving Paola alone again. I had promised her I'd be with her during her pregnancy, but in the five months since she'd found out she was carrying our first child, I'd already broken that promise twice. As much as I wanted to be with Paola in London, reading the pregnancy books piled near our bed, I knew that I had to get back to Iran to report on the historic elections just days away. I needed to witness for myself the choice my nation was about to make. There was so much at stake. There were four candidates in total, but two of them-Mehdi Karroubi and Mohsen Rezaei-didn't stand a chance. The main battle was between the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his chief opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi.
I believed that the reckless policies of President Ahmadinejad's government were ruining Iran. His economic mismanagement had caused high rates of inflation and unemployment, and his irresponsible rhetoric had created far too many enemies. But even more disturbing, was that by the end of his first four-year term as president, and with the well-known support of Ayatollah Khamenei, the country was well on its way to becoming a dictatorship.
A former member of the Revolutionary Guards himself, Ahmadinejad had bestowed on the Guards a dangerous amount of power. When the organization was created, in 1979, the Guards was mostly a voluntary force with very few resources, led by guerrilla fighters who had been active against the shah. In the years immediately following the revolution, the Guards had effectively become the new government's trusted army and police force, tasked with crushing the groups they deemed anti-
revolutionary. But in the thirty years since-and most notably under Ahmadinejad's presidency-the Guards' political power had grown to such a degree that it surpassed that of the Shia religious leaders who had been ruling Iran for years. In addition to operating ever more effectively as a military force, the Guards had also gained control of much of Iran's economy and, most alarmingly, had taken over the nation's nuclear program. In fact, by the time of the June 2009 presidential election, it appeared that Ahmadinejad and the Guards, with Khamenei's blessing, were trying to tighten their grip on the country and return Iran to the claustrophobic days of the 1980s, where any voice of dissent would be brutally suppressed.
According to the Iranian Constitution, the supreme leader makes the final decision about all affairs of the state. The president, as the head of the executive branch, is in charge of the day-to-day running of the country. Even though the president has to listen to the supreme leader's directives, a strong president-one who has the support of the public and knows how to manipulate the loopholes in the system-can attain a level of independence that allows him to challenge the supreme leader.
From 1989, when Ali Khamenei became the supreme leader, until Ahmadinejad's election in 2005, Khamenei had two strong presidents: Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. At times, they harshly, albiet privately, disagreed with him, so in order to keep the public's support, Khamenei tolerated these differences of opinion and did not speak out publicly against Rafsanjani or Khatami. The presence of these relatively independent presidents curtailed the supreme leader's power and kept Iran from becoming a totalitarian state, even though it always remained, in essence, a brutal authoritarian regime.
Now, with his handpicked president, Ahmadinejad, in place, Supreme Leader Khamenei could gain absolute power and snuff out anyone who sought to challenge him. While to many Iranians this was a terrifying prospect, to many of those who supported Ahmadinejad, there could be no higher goal. For they didn't think of Khamenei as merely the leader of the country; to them, he was Allah's representative on earth, a god-king who should have absolute control over the citizens' lives.
Though the supreme leader is supposed to remain impartial when it comes to elections, it was clear that Khamenei supported Ahmadinejad in his quest to amass power. Earlier that month, in a speech in the province of Kurdistan, Khamenei had criticized "those who exaggerate problems in Iran" and asked Iranians to vote for "the candidate who lives more modestly, is not corrupt, and understands people's pain." Khamenei did not mention any names, but there was no doubt that he was urging people to support Ahmadinejad.
With the help of Khamenei and the Guards, Ahmadinejad had taken every measure to secure his reelection. With the rising price of oil, which accounts for 80 percent of Iran's revenue, the government had billions of dollars to spend. Ahmadinejad had been unabashedly using quite a bit of this money to hand out unguaranteed loans for anything that could secure him a vote: mortgages, college educations, even weddings. The amount and the number of loans granted had been steadily rising in the months before the election, as Ahmadinejad traveled around the country and reminded the anxious crowds that only he would continue to support the poor like this. Should anyone else come to power, he claimed, loans would be cut and the poor would suffer. Ahmadinejad was, in effect, trying to buy his reelection.
In many ways, Mousavi was Ahmadinejad's opposite. He had served as the prime minister of Iran from 1982 until 1989, though the office was never clearly defined by Iran's Constitution and was abolished after Khomeini's death, in 1989. Mousavi was now one of the leaders of Iran's reformist movement, part of a generation of ex- revolutionaries who wanted to bring an end to the extremist policies and rhetoric of the recent past and move Iran more progressively toward greater respect for freedom of expression and human rights and rapprochement with the rest of the world. Mousavi believed in a more open and democratic interpretation of Islam than Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, and was campaigning on the promise to bring more accountability and transparency to the Islamic Republic. Those who supported him hoped that under his leadership, there would be less government and religious interference in the personal lives of Iran's citizens, giving them more freedom in matters ranging from the way they dressed to how they conducted business. What this meant, it was quietly understood, was that Mousavi would do what he could to curtail the power of the supreme leader.
Of course, among the many unknowns in the upcoming election was the question of how, exactly, Mousavi would accomplish this goal. He could not talk in specifics. The election
supervisory councils, whose members were selected by Khamenei, could easily disqualify Mousavi if he ever criticized the supreme leader openly. In Iran, only candidates who are approved by the supreme leader and his selected officials can qualify to run for office. In fact, Mousavi was the reformists' main candidate only by default; all the other candidates had either been disqualified by the supervisory councils or had chosen not to register because they knew they would be disqualified.
Iran's labyrinthine system of government puzzles foreigners and Iranians alike. The complex structure is derived from the fact that "Islamic Republic" itself is a contradiction in terms. On the one hand, the government follows democratic procedures, such as elections and referendums, through which people choose their president, members of parliament, and other government officials. On the other hand, according to the Iranian Constitution, the supreme leader has the final say in all affairs of state, affording him absolute power. But there are cracks in the system, and through these cracks light sometimes shines.
According to the Constitution, the supreme leader can overrule parliamentary bills and even force a president to step down. In practice, however, he rarely goes directly against the will of elected officials because he also needs some degree of support from them, and the people who have voted for them, to maintain his political, religious, and popular legitimacy. There have been times when the supreme leader did not exert enough control over the selection of candidates and certain reformist politicians entered parliament and even became president. In May 1997, Mohammad Khatami was elected president despite the fact that Khamenei openly supported the other, more conservative candidate. Almost three years later, in February 2000, reformist politicians took over the parliament. By the end of Khatami's presidency, in 2005, the supreme leader and his conservative supporters had learned a lesson.
They set up a stricter qualification process for parliamentary and presidential candidates; in 2009, out of 476 men and women who registered, only four men qualified as presidential candidates. All the qualified candidates had been high-ranking members of the regime since the 1979 revolution.
Now the vote would take place in just three days, and as my plane began its descent into Tehran, I tried to push away the guilt I felt for leaving Paola again and remember that I was in a unique position to help others understand the complex nature of my government. I relished the opportunity to report on the upcoming elections. It seemed that the nation, and much of the world, was waiting to find out the results, as was I. I had always argued for nonviolence and peaceful change of government. I believed that many people in the Iranian government understood that suppressing people inside the country and alienating the rest of the world would result in a disaster that would not only hurt the people but also weaken the government's ability to lead the country. I hoped that Khamenei and his cohorts could understand that young Iranians were becoming increasingly educated and were changing every day, and that the government had to change as well. The alternative to a peaceful change was chaos and violence, more international condemnation and economic sanctions. More suffering for my people.
I had promised Paola that I would make up for my absence. "You mustn't worry, I'll be back a week after the election," I'd told her the night before as we sat at the dinner table, enjoying our first candlelit meal together in months. "We will get married in July. And I'll be with you every day until you give birth, and for at least three months after that. I won't go to Iran or any other place in the world, no matter how big the story." As we cleared the dishes and she helped me pack, I felt excited about everything that awaited me: more time with Paola, the birth of our child, and, with the election of a new progressive leader, a new hope for my country.
As soon as I arrived in Imam Khomeini International Airport, just after four a.m., I knew that I'd made the right decision. The airport felt electric. Crowds of foreign journalists packed the customs area, lugging large camera cases and equipment behind them. Typically, the Iranian government restricted the number of visas it issued to foreign reporters, but with the upcoming election, it had issued hundreds, hoping to show the world Islamic democracy in action.
It was still dark outside when I left the airport, and the June air was thick and steamy. Among the cars waiting to pick up passengers, I spotted Mr. Roosta, a driver for a cab company I frequently used when I was in Iran. Mr. Roosta ran toward me and took my suitcase. There was a big smile on his face, partly hidden by his thick white mustache.
"Salaam, Aghayeh Bahari," he said. "Hello, Mr. Bahari. How about that Mousavi? It seems that we are winning!"
I was surprised to hear him say this. When I had spoken to Mr. Roosta a couple of weeks earlier, he had told me that he didn't intend to vote. I had urged him to reconsider his position. "Can you stand four more years of this idiot Ahmadinejad?" I'd asked him.
"I can't even stand one more day of him," Mr. Roosta had replied. Then he'd looked at me with a knowing smile. "My dear Mr. Bahari, our votes will never count. Khodeshoon"-"they"-"will choose who will rule over us."
This is not uncommon thinking among Iranians. For twenty-five hundred years Iran was ruled by tyrannical and often corrupt men, and in the two centuries prior to the Islamic Revolution, Russia, Great Britain, and America interfered freely in Iran's internal affairs. With this long history of foreign invasions and successive dictatorships, many Iranians believe that the shape of events in Iran is decided by this shadowy "they"-an imaginary conglomerate composed of Western nations, multinational companies, and corrupt Iranian politicians.
I had never liked the expression khodeshoon. My father had always believed that blaming your problems on "them" was a cowardly way of escaping responsibilities. "It's maa, us," he used to say. "We fuck up and blame it on them. It's as simple as that." My father always added a bit of spice to his language to make his points.
I told Mr. Roosta that I really didn't know who "they" were but, regardless, we had to use the only weapon at our disposal to get rid of them: our vote. Mousavi's election, I argued, would send a positive message about Iran to the rest of the world, which was at best agitated and at worst provoked by Ahmadinejad's irresponsible comments and policies. While nobody could describe Mousavi as a Jeffersonian democrat, at least he wasn't denying the Holocaust, insulting world leaders, and threatening countries with destruction, as Ahmadinejad did on a consistent basis. If nothing else, he would be a solid step in the right direction.
Now, just two weeks after this discussion, I was happy to see that Mr. Roosta had changed his mind and was planning to vote. He'd even taped a large picture of Mousavi on the back window of his cab.
"Have you put Mousavi's picture on the rear window so you can't look back in anger anymore?" I joked.
"In this country, Mr. Bahari, it helps not being able to look back," Mr. Roosta said. "And with this heat, it also helps that he doesn't let the sunlight through."