Neda's Funeral: Another Round of Protests in Iran

It's tempting to think that protesters may have finally given up on overturning Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed election. At points it has seemed like the broad base of support they once enjoyed had gone and that demonstrators were now merely wealthy secularists. At others, it seemed like the fierce official response—and government attempts to limit movement and assembly—was thwarting organizers of the opposition. But a funeral Thursday showed not only that the Green Wave lives on, but that we can expect regular revivals well into the future.

Today is the chehelom, the 40-day anniversary, of the death of Neda Agha Soltan, a young woman who was shot at a post-election protest on June 21. Her final moments were captured in a shaky, bloody, cell-phone video (viewer discretion advised) that became a rallying point for the opposition. To mark their grief, thousands of Iranians flocked to the Behesht e Zahra cemetery south of Tehran today, where they clashed with security forces (dozens were wounded and many were also arrested) and chanted "death to dictator." Mir Hussein Mousavi, the presidential candidate disputing the election results, was turned away from the cemetery by security forces.

The chehelom has deep symbolic significance in Iran and among Shiites around the world. The origins of the practice can be traced to the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Mohammed. In Iran, the chehelom has also taken on political significance. During the Islamic Revolution in 1979, these anniversaries were used as an excuse to mount protests against the Shah and to keep up the momentum of street rallies. The same thing is happening today. Except now that they're in the government, the revolutionaries will have a hard time telling chehelom participants not to grieve without looking like hypocrites.

Which is not to say they haven't tried: since post-election violence broke out last month, security forces have prevented the families of people killed in protests from holding large funeral ceremonies, infuriating mourners. Families have also been blocked from burying their family members in Tehran so protesters wouldn't have a fixed gathering site.

Today's gathering was a clear sign that the opposition still has the ability to rally crowds, despite the threat of violence. Farsi news sites report that hundreds of riot police and plainclothes Basiji surrounded the cemetery, which is about 10 miles south of the Tehran city center. Still, protesters began gathering in the early afternoon and attempted to reach Neda's burial site. Amateur videos posted on YouTube show large crowds surrounding Mousavi's car and chanting, "Ya Hussein, Mir Hussein." "People inside Iran know that the world is watching and listening to them," says Akbar Ganji, a prominent dissident who attended an Iran rally in New York last week.

Neda's murder 40 days ago drew out today's throng of dissidents. But she wasn't the only protester to die: in the past week, Tehran has announced the death of four detainees, including Mohsen Ruholamini, the son of an adviser to conservative presidential candidate Mohsen Rezaie. (Authorities claim that there was an outbreak of meningitis in Evin, a notorious prison where many political prisoners are being held, but Farsi news sites report that most of these detainees died after beatings in custody.) Roughly one month from now will mark their chehelom, and the protests—which were only just beginning to peter out—will return again to challenge the regime. Every protester killed will breathe more life into the Green Wave.