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Next month, Iran will choose a new president and the country's leaders are intent on avoiding a repeat of the massive street protests that followed the controversial 2009 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The sponsors of those protests, known as the green movement, have been effectively silenced inside Iran, but not on the internet. NPR's Peter Kenyon has this story about a virtual campaign starring a popular fictional character.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Her name is Zahra, a wife and mother in Tehran who starred in the 2010 online graphic novel "Zahra's Paradise." Zahra's Paradise happens to be the name of a vast cemetery in the Iranian capital, where Iranians from ayatollahs to war veterans to student dissidents are buried. Readers were riveted by Zahra's struggle to find her son Mehdi who had disappeared during a street protest. As with many real life Tehran mothers, Zahra's search ended at a gravesite in Zahra's Paradise.
The Web comic became a global phenomenon translated into 15 languages. Now, Zahra's creators and the human rights group, United for Iran, have launched a new storyline in which she runs for president. In excerpt, read by United4Iran's executive director Firuzeh Mahmoudi, Zahra's best friend, Miriam, a caustic critic of the government who calls Iran's clerical leaders clowns presiding over a circus, urges Zahra to enter the campaign, despite Zahra's sighs that it won't bring her dead son back.
FIRUZEH MAHMOUDI: (Reading) So, what are you going to do, Zahra? Wear black toga in this time? Watch these clowns dance above Mehdi's grave? Watch them stop Mehdi's friends and to Evin for daring to dream of a world without clowns? And a life outside the circus?
KENYON: The Evin is Evin prison, allegedly the scene of the torture, rape and murder of political prisoners. Freeing political prisoners and ending the death penalty feature prominently in Zahra's campaign, along with demands for a transparent and fair voting process. Mahmoudi says these are not things any real-life candidate would dare say in Iran these days.
MAHMOUDI: What our aim is for the next month is to use Zahra as a tool to talk about these issues, and directly calling on the leading candidates on their track record and the violations they have had in the past, while they were in power. And asking them how would they run the country if they are elected.
KENYON: The author of "Zahra's Paradise," Amir Soltani, says one key to its resonance with Iranians is that Zahra isn't a hard-line political dissident. She's just another ordinary Iranian caught up in the tragic aftermath of the 2009 election. Soltani says Zahra's persistence and bravery can be found among Iranian women, like the mother of blogger Sattar Beheshti who died in custody last year.
AMIR SOLTANI: And this single woman, just with nothing but her pride and her courage and her convictions, is taking on the Islamic Republic. You know, she doesn't even have much of an education. So the notion that protest is somehow the domain of leaders, or that protest somehow belongs to the educated is actually not true. At every level of Iranian society we're seeing protests.
KENYON: But these behind-closed-door protests have nothing like the impact of the 2009 public demonstrations. And activists in exile say the government and security forces are determined to prevent something similar from happening this year. Dozens of journalists, bloggers, and students have been arrested in recent months, according to the United Nations. And leading opposition figures Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi remain under house arrest. The Green Movement has been forced underground.
And activists say the candidate attracting some attention from reformers, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, is a founder of the Islamic Republic who seeks only marginal reforms.
Author Soltani, who left Iran when he was 12, takes the long view; arguing that young Iranians will eventually throw off the clerical regime. In the meantime, he hopes that Zahra's virtual campaign for president will give voice to their aspirations.
SOLTANI: I think there's another Iran. I think there is an Iran that has incredible potential. And that Iran does not have a reflection in the current elections. That's the Iran Zahra represents. You know, in a way, demography is destiny. And a new Iran is beginning to emerge and we want to honor that Iran.
KENYON: But Soltani can't say when that other Iran will emerge, only that it's not likely to happen this election season.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.