Iranian protestor during Ashura (AP)"Right now [a compromise is] unlikely. A lot will depend on what happens on Thursday. The state is not going to compromise unless it absolutely has to. … On the other side … I think that if Khamenei is interested in compromising at all, people like Khatami and Mousavi are going to encourage the movement to stop protesting. … [But] that doesn’t guarantee that the demonstrations end."
What might we expect on the anniversary of the Islamic revolution on Thursday, February 11?
We know now that both sides are planning demonstrations. The state is planning the usual rallies that they organize to mark the anniversary of the revolution, and the opposition is going to take advantage of this, as they’ve done in the past, to come out and demonstrate against the government.
Do you have any sense of how big it’s going to be? Is it going to be different from other protests?
At this point there are conflicting views from inside Iran as to what the best strategy is. The symbolic leader of the opposition, Mir Hossein Mousavi, in particular, has called for people to demonstrate and for the demonstrations to be peaceful. However, because parts of the opposition have become quite radicalized, people are expecting that that radical fringe will definitely come out and it’s likely that, as happened in December, they will fight back when the Basij starts shooting and beating demonstrators. Because there’s so much hostility in the population now against the government, it’s not really about the rigged election anymore in June, it’s about the fact that people have seen the terrible human rights violations that have gone on over the last several months. As everyone knows now from reading the stories the government is executing young people in their twenties and they have continued to arrest all the major players in the opposition. So there’s a lot of resentment within society, because they can’t believe that the regime has become so violent. As Mousavi wrote this week, the authorities now are even worse than the Shah, so people are quite resentful of the violence that has been carried out.
On the other side, the authorities see this as being in a fight for their own survival. Some hardliners, such as an ayatollah by the name of Janiti, announced that the state will use all of its military might to crush people who demonstrate this Thursday no matter how much violence is required. Both sides are placing a lot of importance on this day as a way to demonstrate their own strength.
You mentioned Mousavi’s comments this week, what is the significance of his statements?
The role that he plays right now is to articulate the grievances of the part of the society that really wants political reform. What he and others have tried to emphasize is that the Islamic Republic is no longer an Islamic state, nor is it a republic, if it were ever a republic. What the opposition has done is to say that the people who are now running the state are not legitimate because this is not the way Khomeini, who founded the modern Iranian state, really intended. Of course, this is a bit disingenuous, too, because everyone spins Khomeini’s statements and his writings to suit their own political agendas. People were executed after the revolution, so even during Khomeini’s time Iran was not necessarily a peaceful state. But Mousavi’s general point is that this is the worst violence that the country has seen since the revolution. So they’ve tried to continue to emphasize and highlight the violence and the executions and this sort of thing because this is not only galvanizing the opposition, but it’s causing Iranians who had historically been the base of support for the hardliners like Ahmadinejad to now also oppose the state, even if they don’t go out and demonstrate. There have been studies that have been conducted—and run on my organization’s website, InsideIran.org—showing polling done by scholars in Iran surveying Iranians in some of the very traditional and religious provinces and they have concluded that part of the population is in fact turning against the hardliners, people who had in the past been their supporters.
Can you talk more about how the protest movement has evolved, the different elements in it, and how the evolution has happened?
The protest movement started only about ten days before the June 2009 election. People became interested in the election because they thought Mousavi was going to win. At that time, it was primarily young people; it was an urban movement and a middle class movement. The movement at that time very much resembled the opposition ten years ago in 1999 when there were demonstrations when Mohammed Khatami was president. But as we saw a few days after the election, three million people came out into the streets of Tehran—this is according to the mayor’s estimates. Since then it is really irrespective of the protestors because as the violence has increased people are too afraid to protest. But that doesn’t mean the number of the people in the opposition has declined, it just means that only the very fearless as coming out in the streets.
The whole thing has evolved and all kinds of people have joined the movement. There are a lot of women now; part of a labor movement has joined the opposition; university professors have joined the opposition; and clerics have joined the opposition, which is very significant. Clerics now have come out—even conservative clerics—and sided with the opposition. Even others who have not sided with the opposition have publicly condemned the regime for its behavior. Chief Justice Larijani this week made staunch statements in a meeting of other jurists, saying that the judiciary should be free of politics and that he was not going to sanction executions any longer where people were sentenced to death for political reasons. This is very significant; it means there are serious cracks even among the conservatives.
Are all the people in the opposition coming from the same place in terms of what they want to see happen, or do they all have different hopes?
Because Iran’s political system is so complicated, and of course they’ve lived in an Islamic state for thirty years, I don’t think the opposition has reached the next stage to even think of how they would reform the system. What they want in the short term is some sort of compromise with the government. The realists in the opposition are calling for compromise that would come in the form of some sort of unity government, where they would be able to have their own representatives inside the government, in Ahmadinejad’s administration, that’s what they’re aiming for. Another important thing for the opposition would be if they were allowed to run candidates for parliament in the parliamentary elections. As has been the case, the conservatives on the Guardian Council just ban candidates from running—that’s another concession that the reform movement would like.
But as to what sort of state and what sort of reforms they’re seeking, I don’t think they know. The movement is so diverse that some even would say that they want to dismantle the Islamic state or that they don’t think Iran should be run by an ayatollah. There are certainly people who believe that now. Exactly what percentage of the movement that they are is impossible to measure. I wouldn’t say they’re a large part of the movement, but there is a percentage of the opposition that believe that Khamenei should step down and that Iran should not be ruled by a supreme leader.
What are the odds of reaching a compromise?
Right now it’s unlikely. A lot will depend on what happens on Thursday. The state is not going to compromise unless it absolutely has to. If there is much violence this Thursday, and if it is clear that the demonstrations will continue and the situation is escalating, of course there will be more pressure on the state to compromise. The other possibility is that there is a lot of violence and key figures within the state that are allies of Khamenei go to him and say there has to be a compromise to end the demonstrations.
On the other side, the opposition may shout very grandiose demands, but I think that if Khamenei is interested in compromising at all, people like Khatami and Mousavi are going to encourage the movement to stop protesting. It’s unclear if the grassroots will listen to Khatami, Mousavi, and Karroubi, that’s the other problem that the opposition is having. That means that even if the state could strike a compromise with the symbolic leadership of the movement, that doesn’t guarantee that the demonstrations end. On Thursday we will know a lot more, because we will know the commitment of both sides to maintaining their positions and the strength of both sides.
How do you think these internal dynamics are affecting the decision-making process in Iran in general and also on foreign policy specifically?
The crisis has paralyzed the government. There are a lot of reasons that Iran is not cooperating on the discussions over its nuclear program. But a main reason is that the whole government is so preoccupied with the crisis and with the opposition that they don’t really have a foreign policy agenda any longer. Iran isn’t really talking about Afghanistan any longer, it’s not talking about Iraq that much, because they’re so concerned about what’s happening internally. The state cannot deal with two crises at once, so they’ve sort of put the problem with the West on hold for now. Also, there’s no looming threat that makes them all that concerned. They don’t take threats from Israel all that seriously because they don’t believe Israel would attack without the approval of the Obama administration and they’re very convinced that President Obama will neither initiate military action against Iran nor will he sanction it by another state. So they feel quite comfortable that they can deal totally with their internal problem and put their foreign policy issues on hold.
How has the Obama administration impacted Iran’s internal decision-making?
That’s a really complicated issue. A high-level delegation that visited Iran last week, including people from Bahrain, reported that the Iranians are very pleased with the policy of the Obama administration. They feel that Obama is not going to initiate any sort of attack on Iran and also the Obama administration, until now, has remained pretty silent about the human rights violations.
That could change, and in fact Congress is considering legislation now in part proposed by Congressman Ellison to draw attention to the human rights situation in Iran. So there’s a lot of conversation right now within the U.S. government, debating how they are benefiting the opposition by staying silent, particularly now that the nuclear negotiations have reached an impasse.
In the past the thinking of the Obama administration was that they would remain silent on human rights as long as it appeared that there could be some sort of nuclear deal. Some members of Congress are now asking, rightly so, why should we continue to remain silent on human rights if we’re not going to be able to reach a compromise with the Iranians on the nuclear side anyway, we’re just selling out the opposition with no gain for us or them.
I think it would be wise for the U.S. at this point to try to highlight what is happening inside the country in terms of the torture and the executions that are going on because this will pressure the regime internally and that’s very important irrespective of how this will make Iran look internationally. It’s important that people inside the country know what’s happening for one thing, because I think we forget that a majority of the population doesn’t have access to the internet or to satellite. Many people just consume the state-run media and really all there is now is state-run media. If you are an Iranian sitting in a province, the only information that you have access to about what is happening in the country is what the state is telling you. That is why it is very important for there to be some sort of attention paid to what the Iranians are doing to their own people, because this could cause those conservatives who still support the state to think again if there is so much attention on what is happening internally. That indirectly could help the opposition, of course, if more and more people are turning against the regime.
What is the most effective way of doing that without tarring the opposition as Western-supported?
First of all, I think it’s important for people here, particularly in Washington, to understand that the government since June has been blaming the West and the United States in particular for inspiring, if not orchestrating, the demonstrations anyway. They have been saying this now for seven months, so it’s not as if this would be something new, if the United States did help in some way.
Secondly, I think that there are measures that can be taken. This bill that has been outlined by Representative Ellison, for example, addresses issues of the internet. There are things that the United States can do that would be basically invisible that would help the opposition. For example, the opposition would like help in any sort of technology that could be used to bypass the interruptions of the internet by the state. Every time that there are demonstrations, even this Thursday for example, we were trying to call people in Iran to communicate with people in Iran. For unknown reasons, because there weren’t demonstrations on Thursday, the state was interrupting the communications system, which they own. This is one thing that the opposition feels that the United States could help on—any sort of communications that would help them for example move websites to independent servers that the state wouldn’t have access to, to communicate on Facebook.
Also if sanctions are going to be imposed, some of the opposition leaders say, ’Why don’t you impose sanctions on foreign firms that sell all this communications technology to Iran?’ Firms such as Seimens, Nokia, these firms, if there were sanctions imposed upon them, then the state wouldn’t have all this advanced technology which prevents people in the opposition from communicating.
Some of the other things I think they feel would help them are meetings or workshops—not in the United States of course—in countries where Iranians could travel freely so that they could network with people, Iranians outside, which is very helpful because now—and this is another reason communications is so important—the people in the opposition inside are being helped by Iranians in the diaspora. This is a very important part of their success inside Iran. They would like to be able to come out to network with people that are helping them. They would like also, for example, to have any sort of network conducted with other NGOs in the region; they feel that this would be helpful. Some of the kinds of things that under the Bush administration democracy funding was used for. They think that this could be helpful.
There is a big debate whether the opposition, whether activists would want to take direct aid from the United States, how much damage that would do to the movement there. There is a lot of debate among the activists as to whether this is a good idea, a bad idea, but I think they would like some sort of aid that would help NGOs. For example, everyone is probably familiar with the million signature campaign. This is a campaign that women launched in Iran over women’s right issues—that was its initial purpose. Now they’ve joined the opposition and would like help funding. They feel that could help their campaign. These are the kinds of things I think that the opposition would want the United States to do.
Basically what you are saying is because the foreign policy process is frozen anyway, it won’t really affect the U.S. ability to impact the Iranian government; because there is a total freeze in foreign policy decision-making this won’t really impact the ability of the United States to influence the Iranian government?
I think the opposition feels, to some degree, that if Secretary of State Clinton stood up at the White House and said, ‘We are supporting the opposition, we are for all the people fighting for freedom in Iran,’ that would not be helpful. That definitely would reaffirm what the regime has been saying. But if there is real, tangible assistance, that is maybe not so apparent, that would be helpful.
I hope that answers the question, but I’ll say, for example, what the Iranian government did, because it is so worried—they are very worried about real aid going to the opposition in terms of funding. They published three weeks ago, a month ago, in FARS news, which is basically Ahmadinejad’s news agency, a list of 60 foundations and think tanks in the United States. The state now says that any Iranian associated with these foundations, which include basically major think tanks and foundations that in the past have given money to Iranian NGOS, could be imprisoned. Now, for example, the people that I am calling in Iran—professors, activists—to come here for a meeting I’m organizing in February, they are all saying, ‘Is your organization on the list? Because if your organization is on the list or you are being funded by someone on the list I can’t come, I am going to go to jail.’
All of this really has a tremendous effect in a very real way on the population. The regime is extremely clever in intimidating the population. The problem now, to some degree, for people there is that if they do accept funding it’s likely that if anyone finds out they will go to jail. But, to me, that is all more the reason that the United States should be trying to figure out ways to give assistance to civil society; because without that you can’t really expect the movement to be able to succeed even to the point of forcing the government to make any compromises.
On a slightly different tack, what do you think the implications are of the internal situation in Iran for its region?
I think the first lesson that the region is going to draw from this is that no autocratic state is necessarily secure any longer. I know that Arab governments are quite concerned about the protest movement because they fear that this could happen in their own societies. Countries, such as Egypt, and Jordan to some degree, worry, which is why they aren’t particularly pleased with the opposition movement in Iran. They worry that something like this could happen in their own country. Especially in a place like Egypt, where the situation is quite unstable and people are completely focused on the succession to President Mubarak. They don’t want it to be his son, Gamal, and they’ve been demanding free elections for so long. Not much attention is paid here to Egypt, but it is very much a totalitarian state. And so, the Egyptian government has reason to worry and the population also looks at the three million people in the streets of Tehran and asks ‘Why can’t we manage the same thing? What’s wrong with us? We’ve been sitting here with the same president for the past twenty five years and we’re just passively tolerating our own authoritarian state.’ I think it’s had a great effect on Arab public opinion in terms of their own ability to create political reform.
The second important part of this is that we see now that one of the few modern Islamic states has failed. I think that this is really something that Islamist groups are drawing lessons from. Here was an Islamic state that really transformed the region in 1979. The rise of Islamism has a lot to do with what had been believed to be Iran’s success and Khomenei’s inspiration. Back in the seventies we saw not only the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to a greater degree than in the past, but we also saw the rise of militant Islamic groups. The militants aside, because I don’t think they will necessarily be discouraged by what happened in Iran, for those moderate Islamic groups that had hoped that Iran would be an example it’s pretty clear that there needs to be another paradigm now for an Islamic state, and that religion fused with politics and people who are religious figures running a state is problematic. I think it’s going to cause Sunni Islamic movements to rethink how practically there could be Islamic governance if the state also aspires to be a democracy, to some degree, though it wouldn’t be a Western-style democracy. That’s going to be an interesting development to watch in terms of some of the Islamic groups in the region.
The third important issue is that this crisis has caused Saudi Arabia, for example, and other foes of Iran to put a lot of pressure on the United States and to encourage Israel to destabilize Iran. The Saudis really want some sort of regime change in Iran. I think that this crisis has encouraged the Saudis that, with a little help externally, the system could be totally destabilized. Which I think is a complete misreading of the strength of the Iranian state, because the people in power now could certainly be in power for the next decade if they’re willing to rule by military dictatorship. The Revolutionary Guards are extremely strong and they have economic as well as political power. So, I think it’s a little bit unrealistic for there to be regime change, but I know that that’s something that the Saudis are advancing at this point.
Geneive Abdo is a fellow and Iran analyst at The Century Foundation. She is the editor and creator of insideIRAN.org.