First came the protests, which the regime brutally quashed in November. Then, in January, the United States assassinated Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most important general -- and millions of mourners took to the streets. Shortly thereafter, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard accidentally shot down a passenger jet, killing 176 people, and protests against the government reignited again, especially at universities.
Something is brewing in Iran, the country where I lived from 1999 to 2004. I was recently issued a three-day visa, allowing me two whole days in Tehran, a city currently vacillating between fear and fearlessness.
Tuesday Morning: The Husband
It's Tuesday morning. Reza Khandan suggests meeting in his office. Almost a year and a half ago, in September 2018, I stood in front of his house in a narrow side street off Valiasr Street. His door stayed shut at the time. Earlier that day, Khandan had been arrested. He was released 111 days later.
But this time, the door opens. Khandan is the husband of the renowned human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has defended political prisoners and women protesting the law mandating headscarves. Since the spring of 2018, she has been incarcerated in the infamous Evin prison north of Tehran.
Khandan speaks quietly. He's a gentle man. Framed postcards from children around the world hang on the wall, sent by Sotoudeh’s supporters. A colorful, cheerful painting she made in prison hangs alongside them.
He is alllowed to visit his wife once a week for half an hour, sometimes for 45 minutes. They're allowed to speak on the phone twice a week for 10 minutes.
During her last trial, Sotoudeh didn’t defend herself. She didn’t hire a lawyer, and didn’t even appear in front of the Islamic Revolutionary Court. She didn’t want to lend any legitimacy to an unjust system. If nothing changes in the country, Sotoudeh will remain in prison until the end of this decade. Her son, who was 3 when his mother was arrested for the first time, is now 13.
Sotoudeh shares her cell with another political prisoner. “She's doing OK,” Khandan says. “Most of the time.”
Why is she doing this? “She is convinced that the rule of law is the basis of everything. Without the rule of law, there is no democracy.” And what is she hoping for? The question briefly flusters him. He hides his face in his hands and sighs. In the short term, he says, there is in fact no hope. The opposition is weak and divided. “The people only know what they don’t want, but not what they do want.”
The government, Khandan says, used the mourning for Soleimani to show how many supporters it has. But not all who took part in those marches were supporters of the regime.
"The majority of Iranians are certain that the Islamic government cannot solve the country's problems," he says. "Had you asked me 10 years ago, I would have been much more optimistic."
But 10 years ago, the mood in Iran was already depressed. At the time, many felt things couldn't possibly get any worse. And yet they did.
A Tuesday Afternoon: On the Street
It's noontime on a Tuesday. I'm at a bookstore along Valiasr Street. "Where are you from?" an employee asks. "From Germany?" "Then you know about our situation. You had Hitler. We, too, now have our own Hitler."
In a nearby cafe, a young man approaches me. He gives me his full name and phone number, but says he wants to remain anonymous. He's from southern Iran and is studying economics at the University of Tehran. He works for a logistics company that does business in Dubai. Despite the sanctions, I ask? "Iranians always find a way," he says.
When I ask him what he thinks about the government, this is what he says: "They have to go. It can't go on like this." The protests at his university were brutally crushed. "What are these for people who beat up their own countrymen?" The Basij, he says, referring to local Islamic militias, has to go. He's convinced the protests will continue.
In a coffee shop, women can be seen sitting around who aren't wearing headscarves. For two minutes, then five. They look around. What a triumph. Everyone pretends as if nothing unusual is going on, especially the men. But at some point, the women halfheartedly pull their scarves back over their heads.
It is a subtle yet persistent form of resistance -- and it has been going on for more than 20 years. At first, headscarves would get smaller and more transparent from one year to the next. Now the resistance has shifted from the spatial to the temporal. The moments when women would take off their headscarves have grown longer. And longer.
There are also women sitting in the same coffee shop who are wearing black chadors and are deeply veiled.
Tuesday Afternoon: The Student
While I was still in Berlin, I had asked contacts of mine if they could put me in touch with students in Iran. That would be difficult, they said. Many are in prison or are too afraid to talk to journalists. Now that I'm in Tehran, a friend of a friend finally writes to me through a messenger app. He says he's willing to talk to me but that it would be difficult to meet in person. He's afraid he'll be called and questioned. This had happened to friends of his who spoke to Western journalists, he says.
Eventually, he proposes that we meet in the mountains to the north of Tehran. It's later in the day on Tuesday and the student, who I'll refer to as Babak in this article, leads me to a village on the edge of the city. From there, trails lead into the Alborz Mountains. He has sent me a photo of his hoodie so that I'll recognize him. Then I'm supposed to follow him.
It snowed two days ago. The houses and trees lie under a thick, white blanket. We walk up an icy path bordered by a small river. Soon it's only us, a few other hikers and the occasional donkey herder. He's sure we haven't been followed. We sit on some stones under a bridge. The mountain stream rushes beside us and dawn begins to break.
Babak, 23, tells of the vigils at Sharif University. Students from his university were among the plane crash victims, including some close friends of his. It took the Revolutionary Guard three days to admit that they had shot down the plane. And only then did they inform the government. The students' grief turned to anger.
On campus, students and security guards gathered near the main entrance as an angry crowd tried to get in from the outside. Riot police stood by, but at first they didn't intervene. Days later, Babak says, things grew more violent. Exams got postponed and some students were taken into custody, though they were later freed by their professors.
Sharif is an elite technical university. Many students leave the country after graduation, moving to Europe, Canada and the U.S. Babak says nly a few students had taken part in the protests. "The elites have so much to lose." I ask him whether he thinks a political movement will coalesce. "No," he says, "nothing will happen." Babak describes himself as a "not particularly political student." I ask: Is he politically active? "Not unless it makes sense," he says, "and it rarely does."
Babak isn't a revolutionary, but nor is he a supporter of the system. He considers the U.S. sanctions regime to be counterproductive. "Economic sanctions are the worst thing the West can do to the Iranian people," he says. "Second only to all-out war." Iran has an educated middle class -- the motor of any democratization. "Because of the sanctions, this class of society is now fighting for its survival rather than for democracy."
Wednesday Morning: The Former Journalist
The next morning, the former journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi walks into the lobby of a large hotel. When I texted him earlier and asked whether we could meet, he responded: "Yes, with God's help." Zeidabadi, 54, was once close to the reformers. He worked for media outlets, including the BBC, but was arrested after the 2009 demonstrations. Now he's been banned from his profession and is instead working on his memoirs and some political books.
"It's a dangerous situation for the system and the country," he says. "Anything could happen at any moment." He believes the government is in a predicament. It has run out of money due to the sanctions. The budget for the next Iranian fiscal year, which begins on March 21, envisages a deficit of 50 percent.
Zeidabadi says the government has three options available: It could print money, though that would increase inflation. Otherwise it won't be able to pay its civil servants. In both cases, new protests would likely occur. The third possibility is that Tehran negotiates with the U.S. "Then the protests against the government would stop," says Zeidabadi. Most Iranians are in favor of talks. But negotiations with Iran's archenemy would change the very identity of the system. "That's what the regime is afraid of."
Wednesday Afternoon: The Intellectual
It's Wednesday afternoon and I'm in an apartment in northern Tehran, in Elahijeh, one of the city's most expensive neighborhoods. The bookshelves are filled to the ceiling with books in English, French and Persian. Modern Iranian art hangs on the walls.
"Soleimani's murder isn't the beginning, it's the end of a process," says the intellectual, who wishes to remain anonymous, adding that Iran is retreating within the region. The Israelis successfully pushed back against the Iranian military presence in Syria, and in Iraq even Shiite Muslims protested against Tehran's influence in the country. The same thing happened in Lebanon as well. "Soleimani's death is a symbol of Iran's loss of power in the Middle East."
But, I ask, what about the masses who turned up to mourn the late general? "Iran is a humiliated nation in search of a hero," he says, adding that the only lesson to be learned is that Iran must seek a solution domestically. "Every Iranian hates Trump."
"Iran is one big mess," he continues. No institution knows what it wants, not even the Revolutionary Guard.
What about a military coup? Impossible, he says. How about a civilian one then? "Who wants to be president of a country that has no money?"
Yet this intellectual is the only Iranian I have spoken to who sees a shimmer of hope. He says that perhaps the events of the past few months were a turning point. Maybe they will spark a discourse about what Iran really wants.
Wednesday Evening: The Conservative Student
By the time I get to Café Movaazi in downtown Tehran, it's almost 7 p.m. Zahra Rezai is 21. She studies petroleum engineering at Sharif University. Rezai is religious and wears a black chador. She's involved in a conservative student association at her university, but now, she says, she wants to make clear that she's only speaking for herself.
Zahra says that religious women like herself are "the future managers of this country, and this chapter needs to be shared with the entire world."
What is it like for her, I ask, when she hears her fellow students calling for things like "Death to the revolutionary leader!" or "Death to the dictator!" "Our hearts ache," she says, "but we keep this to ourselves and stay quiet." She says the mourning gatherings at her university had been exploited by outside forces.
Rezai describes General Soleimani as "a father and son of Iran." She says she saw "the hand of God" in the mass mourning for Soleimani as well as in the Iranian military strike against targets in Iraq. Soleimani had been "a symbol of resistance against injustice and oppression," she says. "We will not forget the vicious murder of Iran's son. Iranians will forever remember General Soleimani's murderers. Of course we won't forgive them."
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 6/2020 (February 1st, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.
Wednesday Night: The Activist
On Wednesday night, I meet 23-year-old Alborz Habibi. He's doing his master's in European Studies at the University of Tehran. Habibi is a political activist in the student movement. He sees himself as a reformer. Habibi says he doesn't want regime change, "but we need changes in this country. We need social and political liberties."
"Students are a very important force for Iran's future," Habibi says. They're the only proper activists, he says -- the nucleus of civil society. Among them, he counts three political groupings: There are the conservatives and fundamentalists. They have considerable resources and are the only ones who are allowed to organize nationwide. Then there are the reformers, former supporters of Hassan Rouhani's government who have now turned their backs in disappointment. And finally, there are the leftists.
Dozens of students were arrested at his university following the November riots. But that didn't prevent students from demonstrating again in mid-January. Now it's quiet on campus. Very quiet, he says. There isn't even anyone campaigning for upcoming parliamentary elections in February.
But Habibi has no doubt that protests will erupt again soon, everywhere. There will be a new reason, and they will start again. People's demands for liberty, justice and real structural changes have not been met.
Back in Berlin
"Well, how was it?" an Iranian friend asks once I'm home. She's been living in Europe for several months.
It was sad, I say. And it could get worse. The days I spent in Iran reminded me of a cauldron in which the temperature is slowly rising.
Trump's campaign of "maximum pressure" has changed the country. The sanctions have hounded the government. Even the powerful Revolutionary Guard can't do a thing about the economic suffering. Almost every Iranian I managed to speak to had lost all faith in the country's leadership. But no one is placing any hopes in the U.S. government, either.
Iran is a desperate and depressed country looking for a way out. But most of the likely outcomes will lead to only one thing: further violence. Many people have increasingly less to lose. Others, however, have too much to lose to change anything.