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
Red Wine


by Red Wine on

آری جان خیر ببینی‌ و  خدا شما را حفظ کند که اینجور دل خلق را با مطلبت شاد کردی.


Ari, you are a beautiful balance of intelligence and heart

by Monda on

Thank you for sharing your resources with us.  Love you man!


4th of July at Esplande Boston Pops concert

by Jaleho on

gathers a large crowd (sometimes over 100,000) at the Hatch Shell on the Charles River banks. People start reserving thier place near the live concert early in the morning. They play games and have picnics on the lawns. By late afternoon, it becomes frustratingly difficult to get near the concert, but there are loudspeakers along the river where the music extends to few miles. After the end of fire works, the crowd who came earlier disperse from the Hatch, and many who didn't manage to get close they keep going that way, and the music continues from the tapes after the orchestra has gone home.

The Ahmadinejad speech that I saw in Maydan Azadi was EXACTLY like the Boston Esplanade concert. People with their family, kids and slogans were chatting, charged and energetic, going from the bus stations with the crowd. (you can't take any car beyond a limit naturally and buses are the main means you CAN go). After the live speech was over, the height of adrenalin was gone and and the earlier crowd started to disperse, many kids started to play football, families rested along the lawns for picnic or watching their kids play, many who couldn't get close enough to Meydan to hear the live speech approached to hear the repeat on the tape while the original early crowd was moving out.

Really, it would be easier to accept your delusions about new "green revolution of 22 Bahman", and the fact that you were completely wrong in your assumptions. That's better than hanging to any straw, no matter how pathetic, and calling it a "pulitzer Prize" winning proof ;-)

Yeah right, that Geoeye knew exactly what time what part of the crowd were listening to a live Ahmadinejad, (afterall Ari claims that the heaven and earth and the star alignment collaborated in a maginificent  stroke of luck to give the green revolutionaries a boost!) it knew when they were moving in or out of the Meydan, and it detected the political orientation of the crowds in the street around Meydan as anti-Ahmadinejad, let alone that they were all carrying pro-government slogans and picture ;-)

Better yet, before making ridiculous announcements like this, attend a large live concert, a large demonstration, or evena a large movie theatre to get an idea about the corwd movement dynamics.



by amgw4 on

Pathetic desperation. That image shows and proves nothing of significance, unless you're so warped in your perception that everything you see proves your point.


Dear Ari

by minadadvar on


Ari Siletz

Glad so many like the article

by Ari Siletz on

Many thanks folks.    For sending notes of appreciation to GeoEye, here's their main office email:  

Will post google's email as soon as I find the right one.


Ari, we need email addresses to send thank you notes

by MM on

Please post a few contact email addresses (Geo Eye and Google) so that we send thank you notes to the decision makers in this effort.

Besides you and the green professor!


Absolutely Brilliant, Ari!

by Princess on

Incidentally, this is also "god's" perspective as well. :)

Kudos to the intelligence of the green activists! Kudos to Geo Eye and Google for being so cool! And Kudos to you for writing this article and letting us know how these things work.

I was disappointed on Feb 11 to see that the government had been successful in clamping down the green movement, but this makes up for it. The greens are everywhere and they are not going anywhere. Let those who want to continue to stick their heads in the sand do so. 

Or as a 22 Bahman billboard slogan said "31 Spring Revolution Dear." :)[English translation under " see-yo yekomin bahaare enghelaab gerami baad.]You see, google doesn't just help the greens in Iran.


Jahanshah Javid

The sweet truth

by Jahanshah Javid on

Thanks Ari and, of course, GeoEye. The one thing that's doing the most to counter the Islamic Republic monopoly on information is technology: Digital cameras and phones, the internet and satellite photography.

Why would the security forces, unlike previous years, keep three quarters of Azadi Sq. empty during the president's speech? Surely it wasn't to prevent damage to the grass. They probably used common sense and figured there was no way they could guarantee a Green-free zone without limiting the area to a chosen few.

The lengths this regime went to put on a show pointed exactly at how weak and insecure it has become. Far gone are the days of spontaneous, basij-free, demonstrations to commemorate the revolution. Now they need barricades around Azadi Sq., hundreds of loudspeakers to drown the opposition, every bus available to bring in hardcore supporters from out of town. Not to mention cutting phone texting and the internet as well as arresting scores of activists.

Happy 31st anniversary. Takbeer!


Mr. Ari Sherlock, how do you know

by Jaleho on

the exact time of those pictures with low concentration of the crowd?

Secondly, do you imagine that people who want to attend a demonstration must go there on their private planes or wings, or else you imagine them "brought like gaave by force in buses?"

When I attended one of those demonstration for Iran's nuclear right  in the very same place in Ahmadinejad's first term speech, there was no taxi who could go close to the area because of HUGE crowd closing all paths. You could only take the buses to a certain area, and after that you had TO WALK, DOH! If you found a better way of allowing MILLIONS attend a demonstration, publish your ideas please!

Of course, when I went home, everyone was talking about how that crowd we see in TV is photo-shop and how the meydan was all empty and how people are forced there....I had to close their mouth by showing them the very pictures I had taken myself from the event 2 hour prior!

Multiple Personality Disorder

Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant article!!!

by Multiple Personality Disorder on

Ari, Fantastic job!  You are a brilliant man.  Great research, great interview, great exposure of the regime's lies.

Also, kudos to the Iranian professor who thought of this and made the phone call, and kudos to Mr. Brender who humbly said, "We were just the photographers."  Indeed a photo worthy of Pulitzer Prize for Photography.  And, we need to come up with a prize for Ari for writing this excellent article.


Thank you Ari

by HollyUSA on

for posting and I am glad he (they) know how appreciative we all are. And thank you Mother Nature for cooperating too :)

Nazy Kaviani

Excellent and Exclusive work!

by Nazy Kaviani on

This whole thing has been the most amazing project! First, the act on GeoEye and Google's parts has completely blown me away. What a gift to give the Iranians! Second, that you actually found Mr. Brender and talked to him is a really thoughtful and positive thing. I'm so glad he knows how thankful many Iranians are for this. Last, that you wrote this very interesting article and posted it at our home, I hope everyone realizes that this is an "Exclusive for" piece which is blazing a trail with the sheer number of people who are coming here from other sites to read it. Good intentions, good deeds, and good work all the way through! Thank you Ari, thank you!


Ari, thanks for posting this!

by Monda on

I was hoping someone would, not only that but you contacted Bender!  Great job!


  well as certain

by vildemose on



 Ari jan: Fantastic reporting. thank you very much for sharing.

 Sargord-e khol vaz'e:

You are a joke. Sargord.. When was the last time people watched concerts from the side streets while the concert hall was empty.. You're delusional fool.

Why do you think the throughfare is satured ?? Because the regime build a f ortress and allowed only the Khodis in the square. The streets and side street leading to the square were cordoned off so people could not get to the Main square if they were not Khodi.

Thank you Ari janL This was fantastic reporting.


Azadeh Azad

Technology in the Service of Truth

by Azadeh Azad on

Thank you, Ari, for this informative article.

We shall overcome,



Sargord there you go again :-)...

by Khar on

Read this article if you can read Farsi (really can you?), Engineered Pro Regime Rally:


By the way, most who showed up were there to have a picnic and free Saandis. Dude who wouldn't go for free Saandis, free food and free bus ride to city, in a country in which there are 25% unemployment, 20% inflation and 20% of its population living under poverty line!

David ET

Great collboration

by David ET on

 Thank you for the very informative article.


Sargord Pirouz

I inspected that image.

by Sargord Pirouz on

I inspected that image. While the square itself is not saturated at the time of exposure, the thoroughfares are saturated for considerable distances, as well as certain segments of the square. Anyone familiar with "state fairs" or heavily populated events such as concerts will recognize such patterns of distribution.

Yes, there were elements inside the square that appear empty. But ask yourself: while attending an event, would you prefer to be behind the stage with no line of sight to what's taking place, or in front? Would you prefer to be near the event booths, or in an area where there are none?

It appears that certain areas behind the stage, inside the square, served to facilitate overflow.

In the news service photos of the event, you do see a few "green" balloons. There aren't many, but there are a few. 



by benross on

Thank you.