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Page last updated at 15:45 GMT, Sunday, 21 June 2009 16:45 UK

Freedom craving 'fuelling Iran unrest'

By Hugh Sykes
BBC News

Supporters of the leading reformist candidate in Iran's presidential elections, Mir Hossein Mousavi, during a election campaign rally on 23 May

The Iranian leadership is falling into the same trap that their arch-enemy the Shah of Iran fell into in the 1970s.

They are not listening to the people.

After a meeting with Shah Reza Pahlavi, the US ambassador William Sullivan complained: "The king will not listen."

Soon afterwards, the king had to leave the country, and Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in triumph.

Khomeini's successor as Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, claimed at Friday prayers at Tehran university that "foreign agents" were behind efforts to stage a velvet revolution.

Change

Having spent 10 days in Iran for the 12 June election, that accusation sounds to me like a classic case of blaming the messenger.

We want the freedom to talk, and the freedom to think. We want freedom for our spirit, ok? That's not very much to ask
Supporter of defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi

There is a velvet rebellion taking place. It is not a revolution yet - but it could evolve into one if the Supreme Leader and his associates do not listen to the people.

I heard with my own ears dozens of peaceful, young Iranians saying they wanted change.

Sixty percent of the population are under 30 years old. They have no memory of the Islamic revolution in 1979. Many of them use the internet and watch satellite TV. Their window on the wider world is irreversibly open.

Many of them simply want peaceful change - and in particular an end to the strict laws that govern personal behaviour in Iran.

Double lives

They want to be able to sing and dance. They wonder why the Iranian leadership continue to ban such expressions of human joy - a ban very similar to the rules imposed on Afghanistan during the Taliban regime.

Iranian woman on the internet
Many young Iranians have a wide window on the world

And of course Iranians do sing and dance. I have been to several parties where the dancing was intense. And so was the drinking, though alcohol is also illegal.

Prohibition does not work. Many Iranians simply lead double lives.

An article in a magazine - available at Tehran news stands when I was there last year - carried the headline: "We are all hypocrites now."

Many women only cover their heads because they would be arrested if they did not.

Several women I met openly complained about the religious "guidance" police enforcing the female dress code of the chador, or the hijab and "manto" coat.

One young student told me: "I like the hijab. My friend doesn't like it. I should be free to choose to wear it, and she should be free to choose not to."

Another woman said: "The hijab is not really the problem. The real problem is that men and women are human beings - they are the same, and they should have equal freedoms."

Embarrassed

Most of the Iranians I spoke to - even supporters of the president - lamented Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's economic performance over the past four years, especially his failure to control inflation.

Others - including two former Ahmadinejad supporters - told me they could not vote for a man who used a live TV debate to level "undignified" accusations of corruption against former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his family.

Supporters of Iran's incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Ahmadinejad does not command such support among all Iranians

And others - a significant number - told me they were embarrassed by Mr Ahmadinejad's goading of the West - especially his hysterical tirades against Israel.

One man referred to a phrase that is often associated with Mr Ahmadinejad, though its exact translation has been disputed.

"Talk about 'wiping Israel off the map' is simply not rational. It is not rational," he repeated several times.

There is widespread opposition to Zionism in Iran - but at the same time most Iranians vehemently deny that they are anti-Semitic.

Two men separately volunteered that they "like and respect" Jewish people. One pointed out that more than 30,000 Jews happily live in Iran, many of them resisting pressure from the Jewish Agency to move to Israel.

The antique dealers who cluster along a small street off Ferdowsi Avenue in central Teheran are nearly all Iranian Jews.

And surrounded by a crowd in a bazaar, another Ahmadinejad opponent said for all to hear: "I believe our uranium enrichment is not only for peaceful purposes. It is bringing us nothing but trouble. And we should stop it."

What so many Iranians want now is very simple. It's freedom.

A man in a crowd supporting the main reformist candidate in the election, Mir Hossein Mousavi, said: "We want the freedom to talk, and the freedom to think. We want freedom for our spirit, ok? That's not very much to ask."

Violence

Since the election demonstrations began a week ago, the official line has been that "provocateurs" were stirring the violence.

The only people I saw "stirring" violence were the riot police and the volunteer basiji militia.

The day after the election, I watched a small crowd of unarmed, and very courteous Mousavi supporters being charged by baton-wielding riot police.

A few minutes later, I was in a larger crowd of Mousavi supporters who were demonstrating entirely peacefully when they were attacked by Basiji militia driving motorcycles and wildly swinging wooden batons at anyone in their path.

I saw who was stirring the violence on the streets of Tehran. It was not the unarmed demonstrators.

Another accusation from the Iranian leadership is that British "meddling" is behind some of the vote-rigging protests.

You can't prove a negative, but my sense is that the British are doing all they can to avoid meddling.

When the UK (and America) interfered before, conspiring to overthrow the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953, the law of unintended consequences came fully into play.

The blowback from that case of meddling is still being felt more than half a century later.

The 1953 coup led to more than two decades of repression under the Shah, and sowed the seeds of the Islamic revolution that sent Mohammed Reza Pahlavi into ignominious exile 26 years later.

I doubt the British want to risk anything like that happening again.



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