Neda Agha-Soltan’s memorial ceremony took place Thursday, 40 days after she was shot through the chest during a demonstration in Tehran.
Neda was the music student whose face became the symbol of the Iranian revolt after a graphic video of her death circulated on YouTube. Police dispersed thousands who gathered at her grave, yet their chants reflected the advance of Iran’s opposition to a more intense level.
“Neda is alive, Ahmadinejad is dead,” the mourners shouted, referring to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; he is set to begin a second term this week, despite a rigged election. However, even as police pushed back the crowd with tear gas and batons, it was possible to imagine that Neda could triumph in the end.
Consider the symbolism of this 40th day of mourning, a critical milestone in the Shiite variant of Islam. Neda’s grave is in Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery, where many of those killed during Iran’s revolution are buried, along with casualties from the decade-long war with Iraq.
For years, the water in the cemetery’s fountains ran red to remind Iranians of their sacrifices. When I visited the cemetery, I saw families carefully tending grave sites adorned with pictures of young, fallen soldiers, considered to be martyrs. A reverence for martyrs is a critical component of Shia Islam.
This time, the mourners were grieving for a new type of martyr – an innocent young woman, along with scores of other protesters who were shot or tortured to death in prison.
Among the new martyrs: the son of a well-known conservative. His murder – the youth’s face was bashed in while in prison – has provoked sharp criticism of Iran’s leadership even among backers of Ahmadinejad.
This case, which touched the hard-line elite, has ensured that the regime can no longer deny committing such killings. In Neda’s case, officials made the absurd claim that her death had been arranged by a BBC correspondent so that he could record the famous video. But now hard-liners fear their own children could be murdered, and cracks in the regime’s facade are appearing.
“The whole question of torture has suddenly become the issue in Iran,” said Hadi Ghaemi, director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. Even conservatives, including leading parliamentarians, appear disturbed that they don’t know who is directing the torture and killing.
Security has apparently been taken over by shadowy groups under control of the Revolutionary Guards. The leaders of this force are close to Ahmadinejad, and they may or may not be under full control of the nation’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Whoever is in charge, the deaths of Neda and the others have pushed some senior clerics to compare the current situation to the repression under the former shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. “Was the regime of the shah able to resist the wave of dissatisfaction by using terror, oppression, censorship, torture, forced confessions, and lying propaganda?” asked a senior cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri.
The elderly Montazeri is a longtime critic of Iran’s current leadership but in the past has been put under house arrest and muzzled. The fact that he can now issue such stunning critiques reflects an Iranian regime uncertain how to proceed.
For the first time, I hear experts speculate that Ahmadinejad’s days as president may be numbered, if conservatives feel he must be ousted to save the system. Many question marks attend such a prediction, not least whether the Revolutionary Guards would permit the removal of their political front man.
What appears more certain is that Iranian civil society, ordinary people like Neda and her fellow martyrs, will continue to drive the movement for change.
Until the election produced an unexpected challenge to Ahmadinejad, many Iranians had given up hope for change, said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council. “It’s having their hopes suddenly raised (by these elections) and then dashed” that has energized this opposition, Parsi said. “People rise up not when things are really bad, but when they have a little hope.”
What has kept the movement going, Parsi continued, is the fear that if this moment passes, there will be no option but bloody revolution.
“A lot of Iranians are concerned that this may be their last chance to make a difference peacefully from within,” Parsi said.
Much will depend on whether the murders of Neda and others shock Iran’s conservative establishment into splitting, permitting the emergence of new leaders who want to engage seriously with the rest of the world rather than pursue nuclear weapons. Such change will emerge not from pressure by the West but from pressures within Iranian society. We don’t know how this drama will end, but Neda’s role will always be remembered.
“Knowing that the world cried for her … that has comforted me,” Neda’s mother told the BBC. “I am proud of her. The world sees her as a symbol and that makes me happy.”
Neda is alive, the mourners said. As for Ahmadinejad, we’ll know his fate soon.