Quds Day: Homeward Bound

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The Iranian government fielded an impressive squad of angry, hungry, Jew-hating fanatics. What of the opposition? Their counterprotest, centered slightly north and east of the main event, has attracted ample coverage from many sources, who offered reports that to my eyes, on the fringes of the counterprotest, sound plausible and accurate. I did not see Muhammad Khatami shoved to the ground, or any of the other more dramatic scenes of thuggery. Around Haft-e Tir, the government did break out the batons and beat protesters at the fringes, but mostly they seemed to have learned the lesson that by isolating the protesters to a few small areas they could avoid the spectacle of outright violence.

The real counterprotest was something I saw later that day, and the day after -- something much more muted, and harder for the government to suppress. By two in the afternoon on Enqelab Street, the streetsweepers had begun picking up the inevitable paper trash of a poster-intensive pro-government rally, where even pictures of Khomeini and Khamenei and Al Aqsa ended up dirty, folded, and ground into the street.

Cleaning after Quds Day march

I headed back south toward my hotel, and stopped in at a dried-fruit stand to pick up snacks to tide me over till my iftar kebab. Down the road, though, past the natural moraine of parade detritus, I found a small pile of poster scraps, shredded in an obvious rage and left by the streetside. In the scraps were ragged triangles of bearded faces (funny how easy it is to identify Hassan Nasrullah or Ali Khamenei by facial hair alone). Someone had taken one of these posters and destroyed it, a silent protest against the day's events.

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And there were more signs of protest, most of which I declined to photograph, in case someone found my camera later. In the neighborhood surrounding Tehran University, where the pro-government side of the rally started, the walls bore furtive graffiti. This was just outside the western edge of the campus:

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It reads "Quds Day Green V," the Green for the color of the Mousavi movement and the V for Victory. So at least someone thought the counterprotest a triumph.

It would be awfully difficult to grind down the opposition so thoroughly that even the graffiti ceased. (After all, there is anti-government graffiti even in North Korea.) My sense is that the government regards the opposition now as something like herpes, capable of being managed but never cured. After all, the Mousavi opposition has -- unlike the Kurdish, Sunni, and Mujahedin-e Khalq oppositions -- never entered a violent phase, and successful political non-violence normally requires unsuccessful political violence as a prerequisite. The 2009 election will be always remembered as stolen, particularly by the young, but fury about the theft doesn't appear to be enduring enough to instigate change on its own. This generation's activists knew hope, briefly, but will have to get a little better acquainted with despair before they know it again.

This is the last installment of an account of the Quds Day protest in Tehran over a month ago. Click here to read all parts of the series.

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Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His personal site is gcaw.net.

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