Keeping an eye on repression

The Famous IKONOS Satellite Image of Azadi Square


Keeping an eye on repression
by Ari Siletz

In the days prior to the Bahman 22 anniversary of the Iranian revolution, Khamenei’s forces were making furious efforts to tighten a blindfold on the media so that the world could not see the magnitude of the Iranian opposition. At the same time the opposition movement, with far fewer resources, had to find a way to get the truth out with as little bloodshed as possible.

It was during this time that Mark Brender, the Vice President of Communications at GeoEye (, an operator of high-resolution Earth imaging satellites, received a call from an unusual customer. A professor at one of Iran’s universities was wondering if a GeoEye satellite would be in position on 11 February, 2010 to take a picture of Azadi Square at the time when Ahamadinejad was giving his 22 Bahman speech.

I spoke with Mr. Brender who received that historic call, and he was eager to read some of the emails he received from grateful Iranians:

“Dear sirs, I want to say thank you, thank you…” signed a Persian member of the Green Movement.” The Green Movement member was thankful that the satellite image showed the area inside Azadi Square as mostly empty, whereas the streets leading to the square were packed with crowds the regime did not trust enough to let inside. That is, potential opposition supporters.

Here’s another email, “You guys are so incredibly awesome for publicly exposing the fascist Iranian regime and its claim to millions of supporters to the critical eyes of the free...” Awesome because the image also suggests that even the regime’s few trusted supporters may not be very committed. The long line of buses to the south of the square shows how the regime was able to gather the few supporters that it did. They were bused to the location in an organized government effort to pack the event.

One more email, “Your image of Azadi Square is a big help for democracy and the Green Movement in Iran. In all social networks people are expressing their appreciation.”

You get the picture, no need to go on.

I asked Mr. Brender how he felt about GeoEye’s role in giving the world an accurate picture of the democracy movement in Iran, and he humbly said, “We were just the photographers.” Yet he obviously understood the significance of the Iranian professor’s request.

In fact, it was GeoEye who contacted Google to let them know there was a “hot” picture available that the whole world would be interested in seeing. Google then loaded the one-meter resolution, IKONOS image to GeoEye’s Google Earth layer and posted the image on their lat/long blog.

Of course it was by no means certain that GeoEye would be able to fulfill the request of the Iranian professor. He wasn’t just asking for any image of Azadi Square, which would have been a cinch for GeoEye. He was asking for Azadi Square at a particular time, a much taller order for a satellite that’s in orbit around the Earth.

There were two elements of luck involved in getting this time-sensitive satellite image. First, Azadi Square had to be clear of clouds at the time of the ceremonies. Bahman is a winter month in Tehran, increasing the likelihood of clouds. Second, one of GeoEye’s satellites had to be in the right place in its orbit at that time.

Mr. Brender explained the timing problem in this way, “The satellites are sun-synchronous, meaning they follow the sun to get optimal light and consistent shadowing on the ground. They are also only overhead mid-morning on any given day. Just imagine, these satellites are flying 681 kilometers above the earth at an average speed of 7.5 kilometers per second. The Earth’s rotation also decides where they are going to be, since the satellites are in a fixed orbit and make 15 orbits per day while the Earth is constantly spinning beneath them.”

Simply put, the task needed Nature’s cooperation.

The weather obviously cooperated. But to appreciate the second element of luck let’s see what odds we were up against relative to the satellite being in the right place. GeoEye operates two high-resolution imaging satellites, and between the two of them they are able to image any point on the planet every 24 to 36 hours. These polar-orbiting satellites can approximately revisit any point on Earth once every three days or sooner (they repeat their exact orbit every 144 days). So, if customers order a desired location they have to wait until the satellite comes around again in its orbit. If this were a poker game you’d have to be holding a two pair to beat the odds of getting a picture within a one-hour window of the desired time.

GeoEye checked the flight path of their newer, higher resolution satellite, GeoEye-1, well in advance of 11 Feb, and it was scheduled to be nowhere near the right place. If it weren’t for IKONOS, GeoEye’s very first high-resolution satellite, the regime would not have been exposed in this way. IKONOS happened to be passing 225 kilometers to the east of Tehran (somewhere on top of Dasht e Kavir) at 10:47 A.M. on that day. Commanding the satellite to tilt its gaze about 20 degrees to the west, GeoEye caught Despotism in an embarrassing moment.

I light-heartedly asked Brender if GeoEye would be sending a bill to the Iranian freedom movement for this image. He said, “No charge.”

Though their images are usually custom-ordered for a fee, there are special public interest circumstances--the Haiti earthquake, for example -- where providing free images helps with humanitarian causes, while bringing name recognition to the company. Another way of humbly saying, “We were just the photographers.”

Yet GeoEye gave the public an important photograph that no journalist in the world was able to achieve, all taken from outer space where individual governments don’t have any control.

Please, Pulitzer Prize committee, keep this in mind!


1. GeoEye is a publicly traded company (NASDAQ: GEOY) and independent of Google Inc. (NYT: GOOG). Google happens to be one of their customers.

2. GeoEye’s “map-accurate” images can help with accurate crowd estimates. For example, each digital pixel in a GeoEye-1 satellite image represents an object on the ground which measures.41-meter resolution, so it’s capable of seeing the home plate on a baseball diamond. It also offers three-meter geolocation accuracy, which means that customers can map natural and man-made features to within three meters of their actual location on the surface of the Earth without ground control points. In this way any area of Azadi Square or surrounding streets can be calculated to high accuracy, and the crowd estimated. To get a scale for headcount per unit area, you can use the satellite photo of, say, the Obama inauguration ceremony and the figure of 1.5 million attendees for that event.

3. Over the years, GeoEye has helped expose many other secrets in Iran. Their GeoEye-1 satellite image of the enrichment facility north of Qom was seen all around the world. As was their imagery of the Natanz nuclear complex.


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more from Ari Siletz

he density of the

by Adriana on

he density of the demonstrators at certain points supports the presence
of insurmountable security lines isolating the northwest quadrant and
the rest of the Azadi dough

Ari Siletz

جناب آقا داریوش

Ari Siletz


یک پایی‌ از یک طرف و جهت ندانستن از طرف دیگر این سیمرغ را بر ایران ما نا‌ شایسته کند. همانطور که میدانی سیمرغ نامدار چندی از پر‌های خودرا به زال داد تا در هنگام سختی زال بتواند او را احضار کند. اگر در هنگام زاییدن مشکل رستم و احضار آن مرغ افسانه ای، سیمرغ بجای سیستان به طرف جنگل‌های سیبری  پرواز میکرد، سرنوشت ایران ما چه میبود؟



سی‌ مرغ یک پا


آری جان من تا به حال سی‌ مرغ یک پا یک جا ندیده بودم. این ایرانین هم سرزمین غریبیست.

Ari Siletz

Thanks MM for the informative link.

by Ari Siletz on

A few descriptive lines on the picture capture the state of affairs so well.


Seamorgh: the IC picture is right side up; your incorrect analysis, which puts the Azadi bus terminal to the south of the square, is upside down. There is no evidence that the IRI went so far as to dig up a whole bus terminal and move it south. Also you need a new watch; it's running about 2 hours too slow.


Ari - there were 2 security barricades around Azadi square

by MM on

The density of the demonstrators at certain points supports the presence of insurmountable security lines isolating the northwest quadrant and the rest of the Azadi square.  For an analysis of the satellite picture of the Azadi sq. taken on 2/11/2010, see:



You are right...

by seamorgh on

You are right. The image posted on is upside down. The picture here though is a pretty good one and covers the area I was most interested in. Now, tell me again, how does this picture, taken some 2 hours before Ahmadinejad’s speech, prove our case? Looking at the full resolution picture, I think this was a day of celebration for Ahmadinejad and his crowd.

Ari Siletz

Thanks maqshush

by Ari Siletz on

Yes, the sense of tight control is there even in the official photos. By the ways, the views of the Azadi crowd are not aerial photos, but taken from the Azadi tower itself with limited angle of view (Milad tower view of Azadi Sqaure  would be a good one to find if it exists). In the case of the "parachute" images, the crowd has gathered around the landing area, creating a higher crowd density in the field of view of the camera.


Also worth mentioning is that the satellite image time of day that IRI sources often question is virtually impossible to credibly fabricate. There is a data base of satellite locations available to the public that gets updated every 30 seconds. You will find it here (you may need to install the plug in). 


Ari, here are some pics at

by maqshush on

Ari, here are some pics at a gov't site w/ aerial views of part of the square:


The 1st 4 pics from the top, which show the western half of the square, seem to indicate that the southwest quadrant was kept partly clear for parachuters at least during the "1st morning hours" mentioned at the top of the page.  But looks to me like they weren't filling up the northwest quadrant, which is closest to the podium, as also in the satellite photo: 


Seems to me fairly clear that they were rather tightly controlling population flow into the square, for otherwise the crowd should have filled up the east side and more of the northwest.

hamsade ghadimi


by hamsade ghadimi on


hamsade ghadimi

tahgord joon

by hamsade ghadimi on

to your own admission the mehr news agency's picture is not too different from this satellite picture.  and unfortunately, i read your "explanation"/speculations at the beginning of the thread.  why don't you read other comments that responded to those speculations and get back to me.  and it seems that you even failed to read my entire post.  pay attention tahgord; you're getting sloppy.

Sargord Pirouz

hamsade, check some of the

by Sargord Pirouz on

hamsade, check some of the MEHR news agency photos. They're actually not too different than this satellite pic, only they might have been taken at a slightly different time, as the square is a little more filled in certain accessed areas.

I've previously provided an explanation earlier in this thread. I suggest you check it before referring to such as "devil advocate."

hamsade ghadimi

devil's advocate

by hamsade ghadimi on

where's iri's photos to refute these pictures?  are we just to assume that people filled azadi after this picture was taken?  how do you explain anti-riot police, basijees, special forces all around the city on iri's "independence day"?  can you think of another country with militia waiting to pounce on protesters on their independence day?  any other day?  how come you guys are devil's advocate when iri is embarrassed and not when iranian people have grievance against the iri?  why not explain the beating, torture, and execution of innocent people?   what country busses thousands of people on government money to celebrate their independence day?  do they have a surplus of funds to give away food and gifts?  i will anxiously wait for the response of all you devil's advocates. :)

Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

Yes, the podium was on the northwest. Perhaps a professional photographer/cinematographer can speculate better as to why the crowd is dispersed in this way. From what I know, crowds around well known features of a landmark (such as the fountain in Azadi sq.) create the impression that the whole landmark is crowded. So photo ops such as this were made possible (badly executed, by the way).  Telltale however is that this obvious photo op from Milad tower was not taken by the IRI media(11th photo from top). In fact, I have found no IRI photos with an objective panorama of the crowd; all the photos seem to be from "trick" angles.  


The satellite photo was

by maqshush on

The satellite photo was taken at 10:47A, 17 mins before the start of Ahmadinejad's speech (which lasted for 1.5 hours), w/ the main elliptical lawn area of the square (around the tower) less than half full, w/ huge crowds waiting outside: 


If this were like a "concert" setting, which some have claimed below, then one would expect the elliptical lawn to be filled w/ people.  In fact, the population distribution in the lawn area is puzzling to me.  Is my guess that the speaker's platform is right behind the northwest corner of the lawn area correct?  If so, that would explain the crowded northwest corner of the lawn.  But there's also a crowd wrapping around the west side of the tower itself, and a corridor full of people from the tower to the west side .  Why these different congregations in the lawn area?  Looks to me like the northwest quadrant is cordoned off and half-filled w/ ardent supporters carrying the right placards.

Ari Siletz

seamorgh, if you don't succeed at first...

by Ari Siletz on

The link I sent you of Azadi Square on a normal day (not 22 Bahman) is an upside down map (north is down). Failing to catch that, and basing your analysis on the wrong orientation of the map, suggests your grasp of Tehran's layout is not adequate to the task of analyzing the 22 Bahman crowd. You had your streets upside down in your first try too.  Thank you for your efforts though. I Look forward to your revised attempts.


Obviously it's empty

by seamorgh on

That is what always happens during demonstrations. The terminal is vacated into the Azadi-Aryashahr route before large scale demonstrations so that their operation is not hampered by the crowds since Azadi road, Azadi Square and Jaddeh Makhsoos are all blocked by the demonstrators and if the busses remain in the terminal, they have to stay there pretty much the whole day. ALSO, indeed public transportation is used to bring people into and out of the main demonstration routes free of charge. How else do you expect all of these people to get there / out of there?? Tehran is a very large city. It is 686 square kilometers for God’s sake. And Yes, there are what they call Istgah Salavati giving people (while supplies last) snacks, tea, and juice. We would, however, be fooling ourselves if we were to believe that all of these people were either forcibly bused to come to the demonstration or were enticed by snacks. Such analysis would only hurt our efforts, not help it. We need to come to terms with ourselves and have respect for alternative points of view.

hamsade ghadimi

oops seamorgh

by hamsade ghadimi on

the wrong side of azadi is called tyranny.  you can always come to the side of azadi.  i guarantee you'll like the view better.

Ari Siletz

seamorgh, no mistake

by Ari Siletz on

Weak observation on your part. You should be quite surprized by the bus depot image.

Here's your bus terminal on a normal day. On 22 Bahman--as can be seen here- the terminal is totally empty. The 2 kilometer long line of buses parked on the street, end to end and sometimes several across, show the extraordinary efforts of the regime to bring "safe" crowds to the speech. I'm glad your comment provided the opportunity to re-emphasize this fact.


"wrong"side of Azadi

by seamorgh on

ooops. The picture is from the "wrong" side of Azadi Sq. The demonstration take place on the Enghelab - Azadi route while the picture is showing the Azadi - Arya Shahr (Sadegheeyeh) route, which is also the location of the West Bus Terminal (terminal Gharb), which is the second largest bus terminal in the country. So not a surprise you see so many buses. I wish they would have taken a picture from the Enghelab - Azadi route. That would have been more telling.



by Mehrban on

You need to post this comment (ghoshaah goshaad) to the "Are we crazy?" blog of Arash Monzavi Kia too. :-)


گشاد گشاد شعار نیست


در این روز آخر هفته اینترنت را سیاحت می‌کردم که به این سری عکس‌های «هوایی» و زمینی از مراسم رسمی-دولتی ۲۲ بهمن برخوردم. مرا یاد این داستان قدیمی اوایل انقلاب انداخت که جماعتی از امت همیشه در صحنه راهپیمایی می‌کردند که ناظم راهپیمایی از بلندگو فریاد کرد «گشاد گشاد راه نروید» و امت همیشه در صحنه هم بلافاصله شعار دادند «گشاد گشاد راه نروید». ناظم دوباره در بلندگو گفت «گشاد گشاد شعار نیست» و امت هم فروتنانه همان را تکرار کرد...     //



by minadadvar on

You, lecturing Ari about honesty is a joke.  Your blog about "Simon", getting engaged to an "IRANIAN WOMAN", is a pathetic lie to get the readers interested in your post.   

I wonder, what it says about your character?  Of course, assuming, you have one. 



Mamadali torture Ari

by divaneh on

I think Mamadali should torture Ari the betrayer until he confesses that he wrote this article on an order from Doshman. It was indeed mischievous  Ari who turned the Ikonos steering wheel and steered it towards Iran, and then tilted its damn lenses. 

If you think it's all disrespectful accusations and like an akhond I have not even given one stupid reason to support my statements, then read Mamadali's comment.



by benross on

since you implied to AO that you know her

Then I certainly need an English teacher! No I don't know any of them. But her comments reminded me of Ann Coulter that I saw a few times on TV. Even for writing that comment I had to do a little google to find her name. Unfortunately I have a very limited memory capacity and I don't keep junks in it.

Anahid Hojjati

Ari jan,thanks for a great article. AN speech like Boston ...

by Anahid Hojjati on


Ari jan,thanks for a great article.  You always have excellent and unusual (in a fantastic way) take on events. 

Jaleo: AN speech like Boston concert!?  Next you will say that Khamenei's speeches are like Beyonce's concerts.


COP: Mamadali is the

by vildemose on

COP: Mamadali is the Islamists best and the


Ari jaan Ahmadi & co are all about haggling about the obvious!

by Anonymouse on

They don't see any green movement yet they declare it "defeated".  They don't see any torture, yet Khamenei closes Kahrizak for torture.  They see thousands of supporters but don't see any opposition. And the story goes on ...

Everything is sacred.

Veiled Prophet of Khorasan


by Veiled Prophet of Khorasan on


Months ago I asked you to post a number of great things the IRR did.

Stil waiting.



by Cost-of-Progress on

"Please post more and prove even more how you do not have the best interests of Iran in mind."

This is normally what you Islamists say..."best interests of iran". WTF do you care about Iran? If you did, you would not support this assbackward regime bent on the destruction of our ancient culture.

And you say" Javedan Iran" what an ironic statement. It is like a person committing suicide saying "zende baad khodam". How can iran be javedan with your anti nationalist masters at the helm?

Did they use Clorox when they brainwashed you?





What astounding (and obvious lies) being spread by non patriots

by mamadali on

I was laughing so hard reading through this 'article'.  I can't imagine MORE damage to the credibility of the 'green' movement than disingenuous articles like these.  Please post more and prove even more how you do not have the best interests of Iran in mind.  :).

 Javedan Iran!

 Mamad Ali