2009/07/24

On Tehran's Streets, the Basij's Fearsome Reign

You don't know whom to trust nowadays in Tehran. Members of the feared Basij paramilitary roam the streets at night, often blending in with people lounging in parks or window-shopping at the capital's many squares. Locals are reluctant to discuss anything remotely political in public, let alone divulge their opinions. And looming over everything else is the constant paranoia of surveillance: on the Web, over the notoriously unreliable mobile networks, on the hectic, crowded streets, even at work.

In many ways Iran, and in particular Tehran — the epicenter of over a month of protests triggered by the June 12 presidential election — has become an Orwellian police state. Security has particularly tightened in the past few weeks as the regime has attempted to root out the intellectuals, journalists, opposition leaders and political organizers who have been firing up dissent. "We haven't seen this kind of security in 30 years," says one office manager in northern Tehran, alluding to the days before the 1979 revolution when the country was ruled by the Shah and his much-feared secret police, SAVAK. "They [the security apparatus] are lashing out because they're afraid the system is going to fall."

(See pictures of the Basij in action: terror in plain clothes)

The renewed shakedown has led many Iranians to be subversive in more discreet ways. Instead of joining street protests, they try to short the electrical grids by turning on all household appliances en masse; they boycott products advertised on state TV; and they increasingly turn to Twitter, blogs, Facebook, e-mail-distribution lists and underground newspapers to bring attention to the regime's brutal tactics.

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