Page last updated at 23:08 GMT, Friday, 17 July 2009 00:08 UK

Silence and dissent on Iranian border

By Gabriel Gatehouse
BBC News, Suleimaniya

Portraits of Iranian leaders at the border crossing between Iraq and Iran
Portraits of Iran's leaders hang above the border crossing with Iraq

More than a month after the disputed presidential election in Iran, much of the country is still closed to the outside.

Following the street demonstrations in Tehran, the Iranian authorities have expelled and barred some foreign journalists and restricted others to reporting only from the capital.

Little news about the aftermath of the election and the subsequent street demonstrations is coming out of the smaller provincial towns, simply because there is no one there to report it.

But it is still possible to speak to the people who travel from those towns and villages to other places where journalists can work more freely.

One such place is Iraqi Kurdistan, near the Iranian border.

The main street in the town of Suleimaniya is a teeming mass of shops and stalls, selling almost anything you might want to buy, from nuts to vegetables to second-hand mobile phones.

Many of the wares, cosmetics and cheap clothes, come from Iran, but one product that most definitely did not was the whisky.

Tight lipped

A small shop on the high street was piled with bottles from floor to ceiling: Scotch, Irish, American bourbon.

Our translator pointed to three men, crammed into the little store, busy filling their bags. "Iranians," he said.

The market in Suleimaniya
In Suleimaniya, few were keen to speak about events in Iran

The Iranian authorities have blamed "foreign powers" for stoking the unrest that followed last month's elections. Since then, many people in Iran have been nervous about talking openly to foreigners, especially journalists.

I thought that here, in autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, on the steps of a liquor store, we might find tongues a little looser. I was wrong.

The three men were ethnic Azeris, one of Iran's largest minority communities. They live mostly in the north-west of the country.

In 2006, clashes between Iranian Azeri demonstrators and police left five dead, according to reports at the time.

But despite this history of tension with the central authorities in Tehran, these three had nothing to say.

Had there been any demonstrations in their home town following the elections? They were not interested in politics. How was the economy, how was business? They were satisfied with their lives.

What did they think of Mir Hossein Mousavi, supposedly a liberal, a reformer? (I eyed their plastic bags stuffed with booze.)

Might he have made life at home a little more relaxed? They were, again, satisfied with their lives. Or was it fear?

Spot the police

The following morning we drove up through the hills of Kurdistan towards the border with Iran. The little town of Bashmagh is the main frontier post in this area.

A steady stream of vehicles and pedestrians were crossing over mainly in one direction - from Iran into Iraq.


These people were lorry drivers and traders, or simply families going to visit relatives on the other side of the border.

Watching over them were two brooding portraits - those of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei, the father of the Iranian revolution and his successor, the current supreme leader.

As if aware of their gaze, most of the people crossing here were even more reluctant to speak than the Iranians in Suleimaniya.

Some said they were convinced the Iranian secret police had agents watching and listening to them, even on the Iraqi side of the border.

I looked around. I saw a plethora of men in different uniforms, border guards, customs officers, policemen.

Three money-changers sat behind fold-up tables counting wads of brightly coloured bank notes. Old men wearing turbans and baggy pantaloons stood around doing nothing much, apart from smoking.

This government is not the elected government of the people
Kurdish trader

In the eyes of a wary traveller, any one of them could be an Iranian agent. The nervousness was easy to understand. And yet there were those who were willing to talk.

Hadi is an Iranian Kurd in his mid-twenties. He lives in Mariwan, a small town not far from the border, and makes his living trading in cosmetics, crossing back and forth between Iran and Iraq.

He voted for Mr Mousavi, he said, in the hope that the economy would improve. But he believes his vote was stolen.

"This government is not the elected government of the people," he said. "It is a fake and a coup d'etat. Nothing can change this system except force."

Watching the protests in Tehran over the past month, Hadi and his friends had wanted to demonstrate too. But, he said, in Mariwan it was simply too dangerous.

"There were more police than civilians in the streets, we couldn't do anything in these small towns, because if you talk freely it could cost you your life. Everybody wanted to take part in the demonstrations. But we couldn't."

"This government it so repressive," he went on, "we are afraid even when we are in our own homes."

Friend of the poor

It is unusual to hear someone speak so openly and critically of the Iranian authorities.

Lorry driver Sayyad said Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a friend of the poor

Reading between the lines though, many seemed unhappy with the events of the past month. But not everyone.

A short while after we spoke to Hadi, a vast yellow truck rolled across the border. Out of the cab jumped Sayyad, the driver.

He was transporting a consignment of rice from Pakistan, destined for Iraqi consumers.

Sayyad, who is from another town in western Iran, voted for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he said, because the president was on the side of poor people.

To prove the point, he told us how he had recently bought his own lorry, at a good price and in instalments.

So he was pleased his man had won the election. He was also relieved that the authorities had restored law and order.

Of all the people we spoke to at Bashmagh, whatever part of Iran they came from and whoever they had voted for in the election, they all appeared to agree on two things.

Firstly, the Iranian economy is in bad shape. Many complained of high unemployment and of having difficulty making ends meet.

The other was that - excepting Tehran - there had been no recent demonstrations on the streets of their hometowns.

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