TEHRAN (Reuters) - Mina and Mohammad stood on opposite sides of the political barricades when protests against Iran’s rulers erupted into mass street violence; she, a student demanding democratic reform, he a member of the hard-line Basij militia that helped crush the greatest challenge ever to the Islamic Republic.
Now the two, both 27, are brought together for the first time in a small sitting room in central Tehran. Two years have passed. Iran faces painful trade sanctions over its nuclear program, prices soar, the opposition is silenced and parliamentary polls loom for Mina as an empty promise of democracy.
They greet each other warily, these representatives of two estranged sides of Iran, the victor, perhaps, and the vanquished. Both smile courteously, refusing offers of tea to ease the awkwardness.
Mina, an English tutor with a sociology degree, recalls the days in 2009 when thousands rallied to accuse President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of falsifying votes to secure re-election. Mohammad, a university graduate, newly married, invites her to talk first.
“I wish it hadn’t happened,” she says, leaning back on a black sofa, wearing high heels, a black manteau and tightly fastened black headscarf. “I suffered depression for months and had nightmares.”
Mohammad looks down at the marble-tiled floor, perhaps uneasy, perhaps simply following the Islamic custom not to look an unknown woman in the eyes.
“Violence breeds violence and hostility,” Mina continues. “I‘m so disappointed at the establishment for using violence against its own people.”
Mohammad, sporting a thin beard, his hair cut short, agrees the vote and protests divided the nation, but sees the opposition as the guilty party, an instigator.
“Immediately before and after that election, families fell apart and the first question many...asked each other before getting to know each other was which candidate that person was supporting.”
“Many of my friends who were fans of (opposition candidate Mirhossein) Mousavi ended their friendship with me, as I was an Ahmadinejad backer. We used to go to the mosques together and I didn’t object when they wanted to listen to Western music when we were sitting in a room together but they ended their friendship with me because we had different political ideas.”
This week’s parliamentary election is, tellingly, bereft of liberal forces. The campaign comes down essentially to a rivalry between Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the man to whom Mohammad gave his vote in 2009, President Ahmadinejad.
Eight people were killed and thousands arrested in the 2009 violence. Most were later released but scores of pro-reform politicians, journalists, activists, lawyers remain in jail, some incurring sentences of up to 16 years.
Mousavi, the other ‘Green’ leader Mehdi Karoubi and their wives have also been subject to restrictions.
Mina grows visibly agitated at Mohammad’s reference to one crucial day in the protests when a young woman, Neda Aghasoltan, was shot dead. Film of her final moments spread across the world through the Internet.
Mohammad cites an incident when pro-reformers interrupted mourning ceremonies of a Shi‘ite festival, Ashura.
“Iran is a traditional society and what happened on the day of Ashura was unacceptable to many.”
He seeks to assure Mina he sees no solution to Iran’s problems in force.
“Many reformists had a wrong impression of Basij forces and conservatives. They all believed we were extremists but our slogan before the 2009 vote was ‘our regards to Mousavi, our vote for Ahmadi’.”
Mina, who will not vote on Friday, smiles courteously.
The Basij, a plain-clothes arm of the elite Revolutionary Guards, deployed alongside uniformed security in combating the demonstrations. They used batons to disperse protesters and sprayed them with paint to mark them out.
As the meeting progresses, both appear to grow more relaxed. They ask for tea, served then in small tulip-shaped glasses.
Both Mohammad and Mina see the opposition as finished, but for different reasons. Mohammad describes the ‘Green’ movement as stillborn, led by impatient leaders without clear ideas.
Mina holds still some sympathy for Mousavi; but she is one of many young people born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution that shapes and confines the country who are simply withdrawing.
”The Green movement lost its identity after the election.
“Right now I only want to have a good job that provides for my life. I am trying hard again to become a member of this society because I lost myself after the 2009 presidential vote.”
Mohammad upbraids her for her decision not to vote.
“When someone doesn’t vote, he doesn’t have the right to shout in opposition tomorrow.”
Mina fires back: “Any Iranian has the right to shout in opposition.”
Common ground, however, is there, even if they approach it from different directions. Laughs and jokes are possible.
Mina laments Western sanctions intended to curb a nuclear program Western powers say is intended to develop an atomic bomb -- an accusation Iran denies. Talk of a possible Israeli air strike on nuclear installations also alarms her.
“Western sanctions only hurt ordinary people like me. The West is making a mistake. The current establishment enjoys a lot of support,” she says.
“This support shows itself only when talk of a possible war intensifies and then we will all rally behind the leadership. The more sanctions there are against Iran, the closer people get to the leadership.”
Mohammad smiles and nods agreement. For Mina though this is not, as it is for Mohammad, an outcome to be welcomed.
Would Mina consider, then, leaving Iran and returning to Canada where she spent some of her student days? For all the country’s problems, no.
“Iran is the only thing in the world which I feel belongs to me.”
At the end of the encounter both stand and smile appreciation, a barrier of sorts broken down and each professing a better understanding of the other.
“Now I don’t fear them as I did before,” says Mina.
There will be no photographs, but in a mark of trust on Mina’s part, they exchange the surnames they had withheld in the first anxious moments of the encounter.
Smiling, then, they return to their respective worlds where life will not be as easy as for a moment it may have seemed, sitting on black sofas, in a small Tehran living room, over a glass of tea.
Writing by Ralph Boulton