Iranian authorities must respect and nurture debate
Whatever their immediate outcome, the events now unfolding in Iran are truly momentous, with the scenes beamed out of Tehran and across the world on Monday as amazing as they were unexpected: hundreds of thousands of Iranians parading through Tehran's Freedom Square in protest against what they claim was a stolen election. And they came back again throughout the week, once again in large numbers, despite the violence that erupted at the end of Monday's rally and the government's media clampdown. Having turned out to vote in numbers that politicians in most countries could only dream about, the people of Iran are determined to make their voices heard.
This is particularly true of those who had stayed away from the last presidential elections in 2005 but were galvanized by the unprecedented way in which Iranian media reported this year's campaign, covering the four candidates' election platforms and broadcasting lively televised debates. People – especially the young who make up the majority of the population - suddenly saw a point in participating and flocked to the ballot boxes. It's precisely the young, and the students among them, many of whom supported opposition candidates – who are being particularly harshly treated – university premises in Tehran, Tabriz, Babol, Esfahan and Shiraz have been raided, and students beaten, some even reportedly killed.
But Iran's youth are not the only ones standing up in defence of their rights. Prominent among those who thronged the streets are many women. Zahra Rahnavard's charismatic contribution helped energize the election campaign of her husband, Mir Hossein Mousavi, the main rival to incumbent President Ahmadinejad. The question of women's rights and status, in fact, featured prominently during the election campaign, reflecting the degree to which these questions have been brought to the forefront of political debate by the courageous determination of activists in the women's movement - such as the One Million Signatures Campaign, a grassroots movement demanding an end to legalized discrimination against women.
The rights of Iran's diverse ethnic minorities – groups who have been increasingly vocal in recent years in demanding greater political and cultural rights, were also high on the issues list. Two of the four candidates could be seen as representatives of particular ethnic minorities. Indeed, it was the announcement by the authorities that these candidates had failed to win majorities in their home communities that many people seem to have found the most unbelievable. Arrests have been reported in cities with large minority populations including Ahvaz, Tabriz and Zahedan.
The other interesting feature of what is going on in Tehran and other cities across Iran is the way people are using social networking as a powerful, and empowering, tool to exercise their right to freedom of expression, individually and in mass demonstrations. Networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and SMS messaging were heavily used during the election campaign to mobilise support for the candidates, despite efforts by the government to block access to them. Now, the authorities are attempting to stifle news about the unfolding situation by blocking satellite transmissions and access to the internet, banning foreign journalists from covering demonstrations, cutting phone lines and closing down other telecommunications such as SMS messaging. Nonetheless, Iran's young and technologically savvy activists have so far been keeping one jump ahead of the censors and finding ways around the closures to bring information to their compatriots and the world at large.
The scale of the protests has not been seen since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and over the past 30 years protests have swiftly been crushed by force. Media correspondents in Tehran say that the authorities simply did not expect to see hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets in defiance of all the threats. It scared them.
But they do not have the right to crush peaceful dissent through tactics of intimidation. The authorities have a duty to maintain law and order but must abide by international standards of policing: the deaths of the demonstrators killed in Tehran and any elsewhere must be urgently investigated by an impartial body.
And they should realise that healthy debate on issues of fundamental importance to people's lives informs – not threatens - policy makers, and that the young, with their boundless energy and optimism are the source of the future solutions to the many pressing problems our planet faces. The Iranian authorities must learn to respect and nurture debate, not seek to close it down. After all, even if they succeed in the short-term to repress it, the political awakening that is taking place in Iran right now – that each and every person can peacefully influence their country's destiny - cannot easily be pushed back into the box of fear.