Excerpt from Chapter 7, The Rising

Trouble in Paradise

[I]n the week before the [June 2009] vote I returned to Birjand, the modest provincial capital eight hundred miles southeast of Tehran, which I had visited one and a half years earlier when Ahmadinejad was there, receiving rock star treatment everywhere he went. This was the Ahmadinejad stronghold where voters in 2005 favored the firebrand in higher percentages than in any other city.

So no one would have been more surprised than Ahmadinejad himself to see the exuberant welcome that I witnessed being given to his main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who by chance arrived in Birjand just thirty minutes after I touched down at the airport. Electricity of expectation crackled in the air as hundreds of green-clad supporters—some young men wore green face masks to hide their identities—awaited the arrival of their unlikely new hero. And they were not all starry-eyed students stepping into Iranian politics for the first time.

Those waiting included war veteran Gholamreza Ghanbari, who lost both his legs in the Iran-Iraq War and considered Mousavi a fellow veteran “in the war with me,” because he was Iran’s premier at the time.

“He can be our savior,” Ghanbari told me. “We hope, with the people’s vote, their good choice will bring a bright future and restore Iran’s national dignity.” […]

The veteran had personally met Ahmadinejad twice during Birjand visits, and by his own conservative appearance and war experience, Ghanbari might have been reasonably expected to be an Ahmadinejad supporter. But “nothing changed” after the president’s visits, he said. Many manufacturing companies like his had shut down. “He didn’t solve the problems. He speaks very well [but] hopefully there will be a change.”


MOUSAVI WAS MOBBED IN Birjand from the moment he stepped out of the airport terminal. Two cows and a number of sheep were slaughtered to honor the former prime minister, and as he passed bloody handprints were slapped onto the hood of his silver SUV to offer a traditional form of protection to the man hailed by supporters as their savior in chief. The convoy could barely move because of the number of people lining the roads.

I jumped out of the crammed photographers’ truck—all of them Iranian shooters, with no other foreigners—to get a closer look. I was engulfed in the energy at street level, and the visceral imagery of the bloody handprints. One sacrificial cow with blood gushing on the roadside was bound by all four hooves to a cable and lifted by crane to become a swinging totem of political hope as the convoy crept forward.

When Mousavi stood up through the sunroof, Iranians lunged forward to touch his outstretched hands, or held up babies in search of a blessing as the motorcade inched along. Smiling wanly as if embarrassed by the attention, the candidate was taking in what analysts had been calling a fresh surge of support. Indeed, several weeks earlier this candidacy did not exist at all. Any suggestion that Mousavi had a chance at winning—even seven days before—would have been contrary to all received wisdom of Iranian politics.

Yet acolytes of the uncharismatic artist/architect—who had chosen painting over politics for twenty years—were calling it a Green Wave, after the campaign color. While reformists rejoiced at the level of excitement, even comparing it to the one that swept Khatami to his first landslide in 1997, hard-liners began to see the bones of a Velvet Revolution stitching themselves together. [...]

The result in Birjand was an evening opposition rally in which thousands of wildly cheering, green-draped supporters welcomed their candidate in a sports arena with deafening cries of support. “Death to the dictator!” rang out against Ahmadinejad. […]

The journalists who had been traveling regularly with Mousavi told us the uptick in energy at rural political rallies could easily be measured day by day.

In the sports arena, standing at the podium above the pandemonium below, Mousavi addressed those in the five-thousand-capacity arena. The temperature was a sweltering fifteen degrees hotter than the warm night outside.

“The heat in here is the heat rising toward freedom!” Mousavi told the throng, who sweated in their physical effort of standing up, waving flags, and shouting. “Birjand is known as a city of culture. [Conservatives] came here to buy you people with money, but they could not.” Since the debates, Mousavi’s statements at rallies had shed their earlier politeness for more direct attacks; Ahmadinejad and his crew were “delusional fanatics.”

“The people are on the scene today and they will change the atmosphere of lies and treachery, lies in the name of the Islamic Republic, lies in the name of Islam,” Mousavi thundered. “The worst corruption is to lie to the people in the name of Islam. Is it correct . . . that you stick your head in people’s private documents and private lives?”

The crowd erupted again. And Mousavi delivered more. I had already soaked through my shirt, and even my backpack, standing on a barrier—legs braced against the metal bars and other people—to get a better look.

“This country was built on the blood of martyrs,” Mousavi reminded these loyalists. “Is this the message of the martyrs, that you step over everything for the interests of your group or your family?”

Mousavi addressed Ahmadinejad, who had once been so popular in this town, “You ask why you are being called a dictator. What is a dictator? Isn’t it a person who stands against the law? You don’t follow any rules.”

When Mousavi finished, he stepped down behind the podium and the crowd pushed forward, over the barriers. Pressing him against a brick wall as he tried to leave, dozens of supporters touched his white hair, rubbing their hands on his head and suit as security guards tried to prevent the candidate being caught in the physical crush.

Outside and gulping fresh air, I found a grandfather called Mohammad who had brought his daughter, granddaughter, and other family to the raucous rally—and had waited for five hours. I asked why he was there.

“Freedom,” the patriarch replied. “If there were really freedom [under Ahmadinejad] there would not be so many people here.” He said the last time the president had visited Birjand—the same “rock star” trip in November 2007 that I had observed—local schools and universities were closed and people told to go to his rally. By contrast, Mohammad told me, surrounded by several members of his family, “these are real people in this place. For love, we will give our lives.”