The videotaped killing of Neda Agha-Soltan, who was shot to death by an unknown gunman while watching a demonstration in Tehran, spread quickly through the world via the Internet, and has made her the martyred symbol of the protests that followed her country's disputed presidential election.
When the 40-second video of Agha-Soltan's death appeared nine days ago, the powerful image of a defenseless woman silenced by a brutal regime cemented her place in history as the symbolic victim of oppression. The 26-year-old's death has outraged the world and brought almost universal resistance to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election as President of Iran.
The videotaped killing is forbidden viewing in Iran, and the government quickly declared the killing a fabrication. Ahmadinejad on Monday ordered a public investigation into Agha-Soltan's death, calling it "suspicious," but don't expect a reversal of claims that the state militia had nothing to do with it.
"Interference by enemies of Iran" was among the explanations that Ahmadinejad cited as a reason for the death. He also blamed "propaganda by the foreign media." He said that reports that Agha-Soltan was shot by pro-government Basij militiamen from a rooftop near where protesters were demonstrating was fabricated by western media. This prompted Iran's ambassador to Mexico, Mohammad Hassan Ghadiri, to give his view of who was responsible: "It was the CIA."
The timing of Ahmadinejad's sudden response into the death of Agha-Soltan's is no coincidence. It comes just as Iranian officials finished their recount of the vote in the disputed election between Ahmadinejad and Mir Hossein Mousavi. The government announced on Monday that the results remain unchanged.
What was supposed to be a close race ended in a landslide, and there remains no explanation for this. And the government knows that just saying the file is closed is simply not enough. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Iran's powerful Guardian Council, both released statements last week saying the results are final and that no errors were found. The protests have continued, however, even as the government has continued it's crackdown.
Protesters are not likely to be swayed by reports, whether on election fraud or the death of Agha-Soltan, put out by the same government officials that most people blame for these crimes. The government can win back the streets, but it has no control over myth making. As writer Howard Chua-Eoan said in the recent issue of Time magazine, Agha-Soltan "died on the Web, and she is being given a second, perhaps eternal, life on it."
By her tragic death, Neda Agha-Soltan became a powerful, larger-than-life symbol of protest. The Iranian government can't control the powerful image of her dying as we watch on YouTube or on the evening news, or as protesters carry pictures of her bloodied face. Ahmadinejad can try to divert the public's attention, but it won't work. The videotaped killing has become the defining image of her country's corruption, and Agha-Soltan has become a symbol of that corruption. Fueled by Internet sites, blog posts, Twitter messages, and the traditional media, the gruesome death of a young woman in a nation in turmoil has given birth to an icon.