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From Iran: 'A Significant Red Line' Has Been Crossed

I reached Babak Rahimi in Tehran. He teaches Iranian and Islamic Studies, including Shia Islam, at the University of California, San Diego — but has been in Iran since March, researching and writing about the development of the Internet there. He says he never expected to be in the middle of all this!

Question: "What are your observations about what has happened the past couple days?"

Rahimi: "It seems as though the opposition is fully aware that it has a chance to challenge the status quo. The way they are challenging is through orderly means of demonstrations and symbolic acts of defiance.

"For example in the past few nights, the sounds of people just shouting 'Allahu Akbar' (God is Great) on their rooftops. They are in their private homes and it is difficult for the government to control. This harkens back to the 1979 revolution when similar chants could be heard at night."

Question: Talk about the role of the internet and new media. How is that playing itself out?

Rahimi: "I would make an argument that Iranians have an alternate social space now.

"The Iranian computer-savvy youth are finding very innovative ways of getting immediate reaction and satisfaction through uploading photos and videos on their mobile devices. It is extremely difficult for authorities to monitor mobile devices and the Internet.

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"Twitter is a new phenomenon in Iran — it has only been here for the past year or so and those who have it are sharing their ideas instantaneously.

"I want to describe further what I mean by alternate social space. Days before the election, there was this astonishing sense of enthusiasm among pro-Mousavi voters not just going on Facebook to talk about their opinions — it was mostly motivating each other and that is what I mean by social space. (It was) almost like being in a football stadium so everyone is pumping each other up and encouraging each other to go vote."

Question: What happens next?

Rahimi: "It's like rolling the dice. The opposition wants to push the limits of state power, so they will continue with acts of defiance in whatever form. But they realize that they have to be more blunt than before — more straight-forward. For example, when you hear 'death to dictatorship' they are not referring to Ahmadinejad. They are referring to the spiritual leader Khamenei. I asked someone why are you chanting 'death to dictatorship" and they said it's the best way to convey a message to the authorities. To me this is a significant red line that has been crossed."

Question: "How would you describe the political turmoil inside Iran right now?"

Rahimi: "The Iranian political landscape has dramatically changed since Friday's election.

"There is now a major split within Iran's conservative establishment. On the one side, you have the older revolutionaries like Rafsanjani, Nategh Nouri and Rezai. And on the other side you have conservatives like Ahmadinejad and other middle age revolutionarries in their late 40's and early 50's who support Ahmadinejad — most of whom have links to the Revolutionary Guard. That is why events of the past weekend were called a coup because middle age hardliners have taken over (and are) trying to marginalize the older generation.

"The case of Ayatollah Khamenei is a major puzzle. Some academics here say he is realizing his own limits — as he sees himself as a symbolic leader and not an active participant. Other academics say that the spiritual leader believes that this is the natural evolution of the Islamic Republic and that the young guard want to restore the 'true' ideologies and spirit of the 1979 revolution."

Question: "What happens to the tech-savvy generation of Iranians if Facebook and YouTube are down?

Rahimi: "At the moment everything is slowed down — even satelite TV is not working properly. For the moment, they will have to keep Twitter and the use of mobile devices to a minimum. But eventually they will reach out more to these technologies because before the election the significance and power of this alternate space and virtual world motivated them and gave them something they couldn't have through traditional means of communication."

(Davar Iran Ardalan is supervising senior producer of Weekend Edition. Yesterday, she posted about e-mails she had received from a contact in Tehran and a conversation she had with Iranian human rights lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani.)

Trying to follow what's happening in Iran via the Web? Try:

Bit.ly/expiran for tweets that are supposed to be from people within 250 miles of Tehran.

Bit.ly/expgreen for tweets from users around the world who have gone "green" in support of Iran's reformers.

Bit.ly/exprally for videos of what's happening in Iran.