TEHRAN — The Iranian police commander, in green uniform, walked up Komak Hospital Alley with arms raised and his small unit at his side. “I swear to God,” he shouted at the protesters facing him, “I have children, I have a wife, I don’t want to beat people. Please go home.”
A man at my side threw a rock at him. The commander, unflinching, continued to plead. There were chants of “Join us! Join us!” The unit retreated toward Revolution Street, where vast crowds eddied back and forth confronted by baton-wielding Basij militia and black-clad riot police officers on motorbikes.
Dark smoke billowed over this vast city in the late afternoon. Motorbikes were set on fire, sending bursts of bright flame skyward. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, had used his Friday sermon to declare high noon in Tehran, warning of “bloodshed and chaos” if protests over a disputed election persisted.
He got both on Saturday — and saw the hitherto sacrosanct authority of his office challenged as never before since the 1979 revolution birthed the Islamic Republic and conceived for it a leadership post standing at the very flank of the Prophet. A multitude of Iranians took their fight through a holy breach on Saturday from which there appears to be scant turning back.
Khamenei has taken a radical risk. He has factionalized himself, so losing the arbiter’s lofty garb, by aligning himself with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against both Mir Hussein Moussavi, the opposition leader, and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a founding father of the revolution.
He has taunted millions of Iranians by praising their unprecedented participation in an election many now view as a ballot-box putsch. He has ridiculed the notion that an official inquiry into the vote might yield a different result. He has tried pathos and he has tried pounding his lectern. In short, he has lost his aura.
The taboo-breaking response was unequivocal. It’s funny how people’s obsessions come back to bite them. I’ve been hearing about Khamenei’s fear of “velvet revolutions” for months now. There was nothing velvet about Saturday’s clashes. In fact, the initial quest to have Moussavi’s votes properly counted and Ahmadinejad unseated has shifted to a broader confrontation with the regime itself.
Garbage burned. Crowds bayed. Smoke from tear gas swirled. Hurled bricks sent phalanxes of police, some with automatic rifles, into retreat to the accompaniment of cheers. Early afternoon rumors that the rally for Moussavi had been canceled yielded to the reality of violent confrontation.
I don’t know where this uprising is leading. I do know some police units are wavering. That commander talking about his family was not alone. There were other policemen complaining about the unruly Basijis. Some security forces just stood and watched. “All together, all together, don’t be scared,” the crowd shouted.
I also know that Iran’s women stand in the vanguard. For days now, I’ve seen them urging less courageous men on. I’ve seen them get beaten and return to the fray. “Why are you sitting there?” one shouted at a couple of men perched on the sidewalk on Saturday. “Get up! Get up!”
Another green-eyed woman, Mahin, aged 52, staggered into an alley clutching her face and in tears. Then, against the urging of those around her, she limped back into the crowd moving west toward Freedom Square. Cries of “Death to the dictator!” and “We want liberty!” accompanied her.
There were people of all ages. I saw an old man on crutches, middle-aged office workers and bands of teenagers. Unlike the student revolts of 2003 and 1999, this movement is broad.
“Can’t the United Nations help us?” one woman asked me. I said I doubted that very much. “So,” she said, “we are on our own.”
The world is watching, and technology is connecting, and the West is sending what signals it can, but in the end that is true. Iranians have fought this lonely fight for a long time: to be free, to have a measure of democracy.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic revolution, understood that, weaving a little plurality into an authoritarian system. That pluralism has ebbed and flowed since 1979 — mainly the former — but last week it was crushed with blunt brutality. That is why a whole new generation of Iranians, their intelligence insulted, has risen.
I’d say the momentum is with them for now. At moments on Saturday, Khamenei’s authority, which is that of the Islamic Republic itself, seemed fragile. The revolutionary authorities have always mocked the cancer-ridden Shah’s ceding before an uprising, and vowed never to bend in the same way. Their firepower remains formidable, but they are facing a swelling test.
Just off Revolution Street, I walked into a pall of tear gas. I’d lit a cigarette minutes before — not a habit but a need — and a young man collapsed into me shouting, “Blow smoke in my face.” Smoke dispels the effects of the gas to some degree.
I did what I could and he said, “We are with you” in English and with my colleague we tumbled into a dead end — Tehran is full of them — running from the searing gas and police. I gasped and fell through a door into an apartment building where somebody had lit a small fire in a dish to relieve the stinging.
There were about 20 of us gathered there, eyes running, hearts racing. A 19-year-old student was nursing his left leg, struck by a militiaman with an electric-shock-delivering baton. “No way we are turning back,” said a friend of his as he massaged that wounded leg.
Later, we moved north, tentatively, watching the police lash out from time to time, reaching Victory Square where a pitched battle was in progress. Young men were breaking bricks and stones to a size for hurling. Crowds gathered on overpasses, filming and cheering the protesters. A car burst into flames. Back and forth the crowd surged, confronted by less-than-convincing police units.
I looked up through the smoke and saw a poster of the stern visage of Khomeini above the words, “Islam is the religion of freedom.”
Later, as night fell over the tumultuous capital, gunfire could be heard in the distance. And from rooftops across the city, the defiant sound of “Allah-u-Akbar” — “God is Great” — went up yet again, as it has every night since the fraudulent election. But on Saturday it seemed stronger. The same cry was heard in 1979, only for one form of absolutism to yield to another. Iran has waited long enough to be free.