Persian Letters

Two reporters and the protests in Iran

Photograph by Mehri Rahimzadeh.

I was desperately trying to get a hold of Matin. Some of their friends had been detained or arrested during the protests in Iran. I worried the government had come for them, too.  

 After days of unanswered messages, Matin finally responded to me through an encrypted messaging app. Their messages came in quickly, one after another.  

 It’s as if we’re dead. 

The internet crackdown and horror are terrible. 

We don’t matter to the world. We don’t matter to anyone. 

I feel like I can’t breathe. 

I’ve never experienced this kind of censorship. 

Write these down if you care about us. 

Then please delete these chats. 

I met Matin in 2018 when they were in the United States. They’re a young reporter who has written for some of the most prominent newspapers in Iran. Normally I would describe them to you—the color of their hair, their outfit, where we met, what they were doing in America—but I have to keep all these details to myself to protect them, even their gender. When I approached Matin about writing a piece together, we had to come up with a highly secure way to communicate. And I have to keep that secret too. 

When I finally got a hold of them it was a week into the deadliest protests in the Islamic Republic’s forty-year history. The country was on day six of a near-total internet blackout, which would remain in force for ten days. I couldn’t just pick up the phone and call them, on account of the very rational fear of bugged landlines. Even during the best of times, Iranians aren’t comfortable saying anything on a regular phone call. The only safe way to talk about sensitive political topics is on encrypted apps, and even then most proceed with caution.  

Since I’ve known Matin, they’ve been an incredible reporting partner. They’re always my first call when I’m looking into stories about Iran. To them, nothing is more important than getting the story of Iran right. We’re the same age, in the same profession, from the same misunderstood country—they’re my twin flame. That’s how I see them: my mirror, my double, another version of me. They’re living a life I might have lived—maybe the version I should have.  

Matin says that work as a journalist has been impossible for two reasons: the censorship they face from the Iranian government, and the self-censorship from Iranians afraid to share their stories. I’ve often heard Matin discuss getting another master’s degree, or maybe applying for a PhD program so that they can leave the country. But with the Iranian rial devaluing day by day under the weight of US sanctions, they’re stuck in limbo. It’s not lost on me that their dreams of leaving are the mirror image of my dream of returning, possibly forever. Both now feel impossible. 

I was born in Iran in 1989 and moved to Canada as a toddler, but I came back to Tehran in the summers. My family was lucky to be able to leave when we did. I know that. I’ve always known that. Like many Iranians, they just happened to be alive during the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the Iran-Iraq War that followed. And though they weren’t political in any way, my dad decided to leave. He wanted his children to live somewhere where they could study whatever they wanted uninterrupted. We’ve been able to leave and come back, our experience uncolored by politics or the need to show and adhere to allegiances during Iran’s revolutionary development 

Even so, like every other Iranian I know, I learned to censor myself. I self-censored, just as my sources in Iran did. I was paranoid about reporting on my home country because I knew I was one of the few who could go home. I’ve tried to use this privilege to tell stories about people living inside the country, to document their experiences with care and compassion.  

I miss my homeland, my language, the smell of corn cooked on the street, but I’m not naive. I have no illusions about what it would be like to be a reporter based in Iran. Matin has told me what it’s like; they’ve helped me understand the intimidation they face from government authorities. I know I would be living through the same nebulous uncertainty and terror theyre facing.   

At midnight on Friday, November 15, after most Iranians had gone to bed, the government announced it was cutting fuel subsidies, increasing the real price of gas by 50 percent. Like most energy producers, the Iranian government has subsidized the price of gasoline for years. And Iran has among the most heavily subsidized prices of gasoline in the world. The move, the government said, was meant to increase revenue to provide cash handouts to the poor. According to Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, “The government’s goal is to help the middle class and lower-income households.” But cash handouts don’t do much for poor Iranians who have been dealing with nearly 40 percent inflation for the past year. 

Already buckling under the pressure of the Trump Administration’s sanctions—which halted the country’s oil exports and virtually all trade, including even the importation of humanitarian goods like medicineIranians reacted to the new increase with fury. Many have been unable to afford medicine, diapers, and food, this on top of the lack of job opportunities in the country. Now the government was squeezing them further. It was just too much. So within seventy-two hours of the announced gasoline hike, Iranians spilled onto streets in cities and towns across the country. They strategically shut down highways near petrochemical plants. Videos on social media showed some protesters chanting “death to Khamenei.”  

The government shut down the internet two days after the fuel subsidy announcement. Almost the entire country was suddenly unreachable. Access to the internet had been restricted during past moments of unrest, but this was more total and lasted longer. The silence was eerie. My normally bustling family group chats on Telegram and WhatsApp stopped refreshing and updating. I couldn’t reach many of my sources, and the ones I could reach were too scared to say anything or send any updates. We had no idea what was going on. 

At which point Amnesty International reported the death tolls. On November 19, more than 100 protesters killed. On November 25, 143 dead. On December 2, 208. On December 16, 304.  

I went numb seeing these numbers without being able to verify what was going on behind the blackout. Many journalists in Iran complained that they weren’t able to publish their reports, or interviews with the families of those killed in protests. “Censorship and intimidation cannot erase reality from history. The blood of the oppressed is stinging,” one local Iranian journalist tweeted on December 9.  

It wasn’t just Iranian journalists speaking out. Weeks after the protests started, Parvaneh Salahshouri, a member of parliament representing Tehran, stood up in parliament and criticized the government. “The Islamic Republic is now a dictatorship in every sector of power,” she said. “A complete and raging dictatorship.” 

Some Iranians were able to connect during the internet blackout if they already had VPNs set up. The few I could get in touch with would say that everything was fine, that reports of chaos were overblown but that the connection we were speaking on wasn’t safe. I understood what they were too afraid to say—they were protecting themselves. 

Watching the protests from New York is incredibly challenging. Many stories I report on for the New York Times about protests inevitably depend on videos from social media. We study these videos to see if they can give us insight into whether police have used disproportionate force against protesters. Of course, we have to verify the videos to make sure that they are relevant and not forged or fabricated. Yet most of the social media footage coming out of Iran is pushed by politically motivated groups—particularly the monarchist factions and the Mujahedeen-e Khalq, or MEK, a fringe dissident sect that blends Marxism, martyrdom, and Shia Islam. It fashions itself as the official opposition to the Islamic Republic. The MEK was one of the first groups listed as a US Foreign Terrorist Organization in 1997, but in recent years they have enjoyed the support of high-level Americans inside and outside the Trump Administration: Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, has been linked to them for years, speaking at their annual rally in Paris less than a year before taking up his post. Rudy Giuliani, DNC Chair Ed Rendell, and Trump transportation secretary Elaine Chao have also spoken at or attended MEK events. 

In the past, both monarchists and MEK have pushed out footage from old protests that they purport to be relevant to a current situation. With politically motivated opposition groups vying to be the alternative to the current Iranian government, I have to be extra careful in checking any footage they publish. This means reverse image searching to make sure I’m not looking at an old video, or checking everything frame by frame to ensure that footage has not been doctored.

The US has been following these protests closely. While it’s difficult to independently verify the number of casualties, the Trump Administration has quoted the highest number we’ve seen to date. “It appears the regime could have murdered over a thousand Iranian citizens since the protests began,” said Brian Hook, the US Special Representative for Iran, at a press conference on December 5. It’s worth noting that the only group that appears to be using the thousand number so far is the MEK. Many experts I’ve spoken to have said that a thousand casualties seems far too high based on the information we have at the moment. 

During the same press conference, Hook was asked about how the United States is helping Iranian protesters during the internet blackout. He responded that since coming into his role, he has “worked to get tools into the hands of the Iranian people to allow them to communicate with each other in spite of regime efforts to shut that down.” This type of statement was incredibly damaging to genuine protesters in Iran. During these protests, the Iranian government has used the theory that protests are organized and supported by foreign powers looking to overthrow the regime to legitimize cracking down on and suppressing demonstrations. Hook’s overt comments about “tools” for Iranian protesters, which likely have nothing to do with the Iranians marching on their streets, played directly into the Iranian government’s suspicions. 

What paralyzed me in my conversation with Matin was that I felt utterly useless. I wasn’t in Iran to report. I couldn’t make space for Iranians to tell their stories because of the internet blackout and their fears of speaking to the press. I broke down in my newsroom when Matin told me to broadcast their story to the world. Frozen in place, all I could do was wait for them to contact me and watch from the sidelines as the protests went on. At last, on November 22, I heard from them and they were able to send me their writing, a little bit at a time.

Matin: For all the efforts official media outlets made to bury the darkness beneath a wintry whiteout on November 15, viral videos revealed the truth about jammed highways in Tehran. That morning, the governor of the eastern city of Sirjan had confirmed the death of a protester named Javad Nazari Fathabadi, photos of whose body had already gone viral. He had been shot in the head. We were clueless. We didn’t know if the protests were new, or the continuation of those that had been happening sporadically over the past two years in cities like Kazeroun, Baneh, and Khorramshahr!  

Later that day, in Tehran, the protests kicked off: People in Tehran abandoned their cars along major highways for hours. On the online maps, all routes were red with traffic. As time went on, more videos came out showing blood on the streets as protests broke out in more and more cities; Saveh, Shahriyar, Esfahan. Even Tabriz, which had remained peaceful in 2009 and 2018, saw demonstrations.  

Twenty-one cities were in a state of unrest. Initially, everything seemed to look like the ongoing nonviolent protests in Iraq and Lebanon, as if protests had simply become a part of the daily routine. All the protesters wanted was to show discontent. But the establishment showed no tolerance. Instead, they responded with excessive force. “They fired at people with real bullets,” an appalled young man shouted, “in Shiraz!” 

As days passed, more and more information started to spread about the brutal repression. Along a highway, an officer shot a protester directly in his heart. As the dying protester let go of the stone in his hand, another picked it up, his eyes fixated on the officer.  

Now everything was real: bullets, corpses, bloodshed, wrath. We didn’t yet know if the crackdown was nationwide or local. But one thing was obvious: riot police had been authorized to target the heads and faces of protesters using live ammunition. 

The latest video I saw was from Gorgan, a town northwest of Tehran near the Caspian Sea. It showed a horrible duel between an angry protester wielding an axe and a riot police officer targeting a pistol at him.  

“Bastard, gun against axe?” the man shouted to the officer’s face.  

The video stopped before the result was clear. It was the most horrendous suspense I’d ever encountered 

And then the suspense got worse. The government cut off the internet, and I lost my patience. I decided that I should join the protesters, but I had no clue where to go. I made sure to put on warm clothes before leaving home: Tehran was snowy and bitterly cold. 

I headed to southern Tehran, which is mainly populated by the poor. On one of the boulevards there, a protester was trying to singlehandedly block the avenue by stopping cars. Some would slow down, say something encouraging, and drive away. For one moment I worked up the courage to join him, knowing full well what we both risked. 

They are going to target my heart and head, I thought to myself. The crosswalk light was red, and the man was on the other side of the street. With my face covered and fist clenched, I waited for the light to change so I could cross and join him. But it was too late. The cops arrested the protester before I made it to him. 

I hopped on the city bus. Mobile data was unavailable. Heavy riot police presence made it impossible to get off the bus at the Valiasr intersection. I headed south. Ever since 2018, the makeup of protests and where they occurred have changed drastically. No longer was the center of the city the heart of the protests. Over the past few years, Shoosh Square in South Tehran, among the city’s poorer neighborhoods, had become an important protest site. Surrounded by small, old houses and narrow streets where only one person can pass at a time, the square is more like a round, cement park, the center of a traffic circle where cars whiz past. During the day, people sell second-hand items like a single tattered shoe. At night, sex workers look for business and people gather to use drugs. Shoosh used to be a bustling downtown before Tehran grew north and left the square as a grimy memory. When I got there the place was suffused with the acrid smell of torched tires. Returning home, I learned there had been a large demonstration there the preceding night. 

We expected the internet blackout to be over by the morning of November 16. All we’d hoped was for the government to undo its surprise fuel increase declaration. But something else entirely awaited us. The government was about to turn off access to the world wide web and only allow its citizens to use a filtered and surveilled national internet network.  

On November 17, online taxi services and Iranian news websites were accessible again. The headlines didn’t surprise us. The Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, warned against rolling back the price increase. One MP, FatemehSalahshoori, called out the circumvention of the parliament on Twitter. Other Reformist MPs, who had drafted an urgent motion to stop the price increase, pulled back after they saw Khamenei’s warning.  

Understanding the political costs associated with the price increase, Khamenei acted very cunningly, kicking the can to the Supreme Council of Economic Coordination. “I am not an expert on these issues. But they have my backing if they make any decision, the leader said in a speech made to a gathering of clerics.  

The message behind the words was also crystal clear: security forces have the authority to crack down on “thugs, as Khamenei called the protesters. 

Fars News Agency, the mouthpiece of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, published apocalyptic videos and photos of torched banks, gas stations, and hospitals overcrowded with the injured 

Phone calls were the only communication channel. I got in touch with my relatives and friends across the country. One was hospitalized after being hit with pepper spray. The medical team decided not to include that in his hospital records. Some received intimidating messages from security forces after being spotted in protests in Shiraz. These protesters used to be staunch supporters of the Islamic Revolution, and many had previously voted for the conservative Islamic-populist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  

On November 19, I finally managed to go online using a proxy server. “Iran is buried like the Italian Pompei,” a US-based friend of mine posted. “It was as if the voice on the other end of the line was shaking in disbelief,” he said of the moment he got to chat with his family. The national internet is a jail as large as Iran! “For god’s sake, stop before you make immigration the only option,” read the first Twitter post by a magazine editor. 

 This repression will go down in history as one of the deadliest ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. For years, after the crackdown on the so-called “Green Movement” protests in 2009–2010, the central conflict in Iran—or at least the conflict into which public energy was funneled—was the partisan infighting between reformists and hardliners. But the public has stopped taking the hinta precursor to an inevitable rethinking of the entire establishment. For many Iranians, there is no more ambiguity and no more escape. The situation became either/or: either you are accomplice to the repression or not. 

On Twitter, the journalist Javad Heidariyan confirmed the death of his cousin, Farzad Tezmipoor: “My dear cousin, was shot dead in the head by security forces. His head had been shattered in such a way his mother couldn’t identify him. He was an employed youth killed by the Islamic Republic.” 

Through Whatsapp groups, Telegram channels, and even Twitter, I watched University students chanting in solidarity “down with repression, destitute, and corruption;” security forces hiding inside ambulances to get onto campuses and capture students in secret. News spread on social media platforms that other protesters were shot by snipers: Amaneh Shahbazi was trying to help an injured protester when he was shot in the back. A young man was killed while trying to buy powdered milk for his four-month infant. More than thirteen children were among the fatalities. 

As expected, Khuzestan province was at the forefront of the protests. It’s a majority ethnically Arab province that has confronted Iran’s central government in the past and has a history of being brutally repressed in response. Reports showed that in at least eighteen cities in the province people took to the streets. Many protesters were killed, but the most horrible incident is believed to have occurred at a marsh near Mahshahr. Reportedly, protesters there blocked the road leading to Imam Khomeini Port but were met with tanks, helicopters, and machine guns.  

27-year-old Pooya Bakhtiyari was among the dead. Moments before he was killed, he encouraged others to join the protests in a video: “Like you, I’m somebody’s son. Let your children take to the streets!” 

Days after his death, the city was covered graffiti that read “I’m somebody’s son.” In an interview with the BBC Persia, Pooya’s father confirmed his son had been killed, shot in the head.  

Families of the victims—warned to bury their beloved ones overnight without any funeral or public mourning whatsoever—are breaking their silence. The family of Nikta Esfandani, a 14-year-old girl who was killed in the Satarkhan neighborhood of Tehran, went on national TV under pressure from the government and initially denied that their daughter had been murdered by the police. But a few days later, they came back and told the truth. Mothers of those killed in the recent protests and previous ones over the past two decades have started to find one another, building a community and offering mutual consolation. Akram Neghabi, Shahnaz Akmali, Hajar Rostami Motlagh, Gohar Eshghi, and Nahid Shirpisheh are now the emblem of resistance against a repressive system, and have have been pressuring Iranian authorities to give them answers about what happened to their children, who died at the hands of security forces. 

Journalists have received calls after calls from the various security agencies. Nobody really knows what is going on. But we’re all are furious and frustrated at comments made by establishment sympathizers who still have access to the internet. Media leaders have been allowed access only if their correspondents do not cross the line.  

I received Nilo’s messages. But I am hesitant even to read them out of fear that I might be accused of espionage, unfortunately a normal charge for anyone interacting with foreign media. I knew she was worried! Eventually I read her messages, wondering to myself whether she had any idea of what we were going through. I wrote back:

It’s as if we’re dead.”  

“The internet crackdown and horror are terrible.” 

“We don’t matter to the world. We don’t matter to anyone.”  

“I feel like I can’t breathe.” 

“I’ve never experienced this kind of censorship.”  

“Write these down if you care about us.”  

“Then please delete these chats,”I added, shaking with rage and frustration while I wept. 

I looked at the news online. President Trump was pardoning a Thanksgiving turkey.  

The hands-off approach to the developments from the international community is both frustrating and maddening. Instagram was flooded with eye-catching photos of cooked Thanksgiving turkeys next to low-quality footage of bloody bodies of Iranian victims. 

On November 27, President Hassan Rouhani threw his full weight behind the crackdown. Elected as a moderate and touted by reformist politicians, Rouhani now reminded the nation that, “Fortunately, we have so many cameras and monitors to identify car plates. He has now placed the nation in indefinite detention. Even though his administration pretended to ease its grip on the internet in the days after the public protests, that felt like a trap. Meanwhile, the government finally acknowledged the protests, but in a way that made them seem both insignificant and yet also the work of a few violent extremists: IRGC Deputy Commander in Chief Ali Fadavi confirmed that demonstrations broke out in twenty-eight provinces, where the police “fought for forty-eight hours.”  Yes, they foughtagainst unarmed Iranians!  

That same day, the Interior Ministry announced a death toll of 143 with more than 7,000 arrested. But the Iranian government has a history of downplaying the numbers of protesters killed by state security forces. Reuters now puts the number of dead as high as 1,500. The truth is in there somewhere, but I doubt I or anyone else will ever learn it. 

No one can foresee when protests will start in the future. One week, one month, or maybe one year from now. But we know we will never feel the same way we used to, and nothing can undo this. We have experienced unprecedentedly brutal repression and frustration beyond our capacity to quietly endure. We have learned important lessons, too. Iranians are bracing themselves for darker days and mastering more strategies to survive and communicate at times of internet blackout. I’m installing apps with offline services. You never know if the internet will be available from one moment to the next.

On December 31, the Thursday before my birthday, my friends surprised me with a party. The gathering was a momentary relief from all the disappointment, fear, and anger that’s been hanging over us. That night, the latest developments in Iraq and the storming of the US embassy kept getting brought up in conversation. Trump was warning Iran of hefty consequences: “This is not a Warning, it is a Threat,” he tweeted. Everybody was wondering if he really meant it. Days later, my friend broke the news to me, first thing in the morning over the phone. The United States had killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’s Quds Force. I was caught completely off guard. 

 “What do you mean? Why did they take him out?” I asked my friend, still half asleep in the early hours of the morning. “We’re fucked now.I sat up straight in my bed, feeling the shadow of war closer than anytime before. I was glued to my laptop all day, keeping abreast of the news. It was unbelievable: Trump directed the drone attack to kill Soleimani at Baghdad’s international airport. The Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, announced three days of national mourning. But Iran was already in the middle of mourning those who’d been killed by our own government. I asked myself if they really expected Iranians to mourn Soleimani’s death after a brutal crackdown 

 The establishment sympathizers objected when Facebook removed pro-Soleimani posts on Instagram, in accordance with US sanction laws. They called it a breach of freedom of expression. These are the same people who cut off the internet for ten days during the public protests! 

Vengeance was all over newspaper headlines. But we had to wait for the announcement from the National Security Council. The reactions from Iranians were mixed. There was everything from neutral comments to dissidents cheering on those who condemned the killing. A group of comments referred to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp’s role in cracking down on the demonstrators: did Soleimani’s death outweigh those of his fellow citizens? Some called him a bulwark against ISIS in the region, where others saw him as a killer of Iraqis and Syrians. 

The Green Zone in Iraq is under rocket attack again. As I’m writing this, another Trump tweet catches my attention: “ . . . targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran &  the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.” 

Nilo: Over the winter holidays I went home to Vancouver to visit my family. I was exhausted from the news and looking forward to having a moment to recharge, but a potential war between Iran and the US came up in nearly every conversation I had with relatives or family friends.  

“America should just get rid of the regime and everything will be over with. I mean, Iran slaughtered hundreds of our people in the protests. The Islamic government has to go,” said one family friend in his sixties who lived in Iran until the 1990s. I ran into him at the mall and was hoping for polite small talk.  

People kept asking me if the US was pushing regime change or what the US would do next. My response was always: I have no idea, but tensions have never been so high. 

And then everything changed in a matter of days with the Soleimani assassination. After a busy news day to cover the attack, I texted my mom: “What will happen to our beautiful country?”  For a long time, I’ve dreamed of going back to Iran and moving into my family’s old apartment, where I lived as a child. My grandmother lived there until she died in November of 2018, but we still own the place. I want to go back and make it my own, to live as close to her legacy as possible. I don’t want to be this weird western alien, the first generation of my family to grow up outside the country, completely disconnected. And now with the US and Iran in direct confrontation with each other, people like me, who are dual nationals or have ties to the US, are extremely vulnerable. There’s a risk I could be arrested by the Iranian government on dubious charges like other foreign journalists, used as a bargaining chip while tensions continue to ebb and flow.  

Things in the United States might not be any better for me.As analysts speculated about how Iran would retaliate, we started to hear reports of dozens of Iranian-Americans with dual citizenship and even global entry expedited clearance being stopped at the Peace Arch Border Crossing into Washington state from British Columbia. I’ve been through that border crossing hundreds of times. I started almost every day with a feeling of nausea.  

Meanwhile, some of my friends and journalism colleagues were sending me World War III memes related to Soleimani and Iran. I guess they thought they were being funny.  

I messaged Matin.  

They replied: 

Sometimes I think we are living in a dark nightmare. This can’t be real. 

I hope he just Tweets and they won’t attack. 

God help us, I am going to take pills to sleep and forget. 

Praying not to receive an attack until morning. 

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