Accidental icons: 10 years ago, Ahmad Batebi was the bloody face of Iran

currentcoverusThis time, the protester’s face is covered up. This time, all we see are his eyes, looking away from the other demonstrators at Tehran’s Azadi (Freedom) Square. The latest edition of The Economist (“Iran rises up”) doesn’t repeat its cover of July 1999 (“Iran’s second revolution?”), when another young Iranian protester – his face clearly visible – held up the bloody shirt of his friend. For appearing on the magazine’s cover, Ahmad Batebi was arrested, tortured, and imprisoned for nine years until his harrowing escape early last year. Now, Batebi – living near Washington, D.C. – is protesting the crackdown in his country and saying, “My story is finished. There are hundreds of these stories (of Iranian protesters) unfolding in Iran right now. That’s what we should pay attention to.”

batebiIran is a nation of accidental icons. Batebi wasn’t trying to become a household name when he took to the streets of Tehran 10 years ago. Neda Agha Soltan had just gotten out of her car last Friday when she was shot dead – a bloody event captured on video that thrust her name and image onto the world stage. Even the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was an equivocal choice to be Iran’s Supreme Leader – in 1989, he was supposed to be a temporary fit until someone with a more rigorous religious background could be found. Months before his appointment, according to the book “Persian Mirrors,” Khamenei said, “I’m not qualified to be Supreme Leader. It’s not the proper place for me.”

Iran’s religious hierarchy made it Khamenei’s place, and 20 years later, this unexpected cleric is using threats and force to maintain his control of a country where more Ahmad Batebis and more Neda Agha Soltans will surface from their previous places of anonymity. All of them will have blood on their hands, one way or another.

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