Gov't supporters on anniversary of revolution (AP)
Following the anniversary of the Islamic revolution last month, large-scale street protests have mostly died down. What is the state of the opposition movement and what do you perceive to be its short-term and long-term goals?
Given the severity of the crackdown against protesters, including beatings, arrests, trials and even killings, it is not surprising that the large-scale protests have died down. What is surprising is that protests continue. Leaders of the opposition have been outspoken in their criticism of the crackdown, but neither one of the two principle opposition leaders is a good organizer. The short-term goal of the opposition movement is to keep the movement alive. Long term, both opposition leaders have articulated similar goals: free elections, freedom of speech, association and assembly; protection of the rights of the people; an independent judiciary; and an accountable government.
What is the role of women in the opposition movement?
From the very inception of the revolution, women were at the forefront of resistance to state repression, on the matter of violation of women’s rights. For the last thirty years women have continued to press for equality. Their participation in the election campaign and in the post election protest should be seen in that context. In fact, two women have become the icons of the opposition movements. The picture of the young Neda Agha Soltan bleeding and dying on a Tehran street after being shot by security forces was seen all over the world. Zahra Rahnavard, the first woman chancellor of a university in Iran, an author and the wife of opposition leader Mir Hossein Moussavi, not only campaigned alongside her husband, she rallied the opposition forces by her bold and uncompromising speeches.
There is a new proposal being developed by the Expediency Council that anticipates the establishment of an independent national election commission. What would the commission do and what is the motive for proposing such a commission? What is the government’s stance on this proposal?
Such a commission would aim at insuring fair and free elections. The government is opposed to its establishment, and the prospects that such a commission will be established are very slim.
Last month the state ordered the hanging of two opposition activists and recently 86 detainees were convicted of charges of acts against the Islamic Republic. What role do you see for internal or outside actors in helping to improve the human rights situation in the country?
Domestic human rights activists operate under severe restraints, but there remain brave journalists and commentators who continue to speak out. While the Iranian government does not appear to soften its repressive policies in the face of criticism by outside actors, I nevertheless believe that attention by human rights organizations abroad to the human rights situation in Iran helps build up pressure on the government to change its ways.
How do various actors and groups within the Iranian government affect the countries’ strategic thinking on domestic and international issues?
Analysts and observers detect differences within the Iranian leadership on major domestic and foreign policy issues but, at the moment, the hardliners are setting the agenda and dictating policy in both areas. For example, the Supreme Leader and the government have repeatedly ignored calls by centrists politicians like former President Rafsanjani for talks and reconciliation between the government and the opposition.
How has the internal situation affected the foreign policy decision-making of the Iranian government?
Hardliners within the Revolutionary Guards, the security organizations and in President Ahmadinejad’s own camp took advantage of the post-election unrest to gain much greater say on foreign policy. For example, the hardening of the Iranian position vis-à-vis the United States and Iran’s more truculent posture on the nuclear issue since the June elections is very striking. Iran’s perception that the U.S. is still mired down in Afghanistan and Iraq, and its belief that it can continue to count on the support of Russia and China, explains the self assurance of Iran’s leaders.
What is the current economic situation in Iran? How does this affect President Ahmadinejad’s political calculations?
Iran continues to suffer from high unemployment, inflation, poor productivity and low investments. Imports financed by oil revenues keep food and consumer goods on the shelves, but are devastating domestic industry. President Ahmadinejad has largely squandered $350 billion in oil revenues during his five years in office in handouts that buy temporary support but contribute little to the long-term economic well-being of the country.
Last week marked one year since President Obama sent a video message to the Iranian people and leadership celebrating Nowruz, the Iranian new year. How do you think the Obama administration’s message has been received during the past year by Iranian society and how has it impacted the government’s strategic decision-making?
President Obama’s message on the occasion of the Iranian new year last year was directed at both the Iranian people and the Iranian government. He hoped by reaching out to open the door for a dialogue between Tehran and Washington. This year’s message by President Obama is striking for the open criticism of the Iranian government, even as the president continues to invite Iran’s leaders to a dialogue with the United States. The Iranian people desire normal relations with the U.S. and welcomed the president’s overture, especially after the eight years of the war of words between the two governments during the Bush administration. I think President Obama in his willingness to talk to Iran succeeded in discomfiting Iran’s leaders. They have not been sure how to respond; but in the end the fear of engaging with the U.S. has trumped the desire to do so.
The United States is pushing for a new round of UN sanctions that target the Iranian government but not society, although the bills on the Hill are focused on the Iranian energy sector. What effect might these different types of sanctions have on the Iranian government? How might Iranian society generally perceive any new sanctions?
There is very little doubt that sanctions, and particularly banking and financial sanctions hurt Iran but they do not hurt enough to cause the Iranian government to change the policy on the nuclear issue. There is very difficult to say how new sanctions will be received by Iranian society. People may resent the U.S. for imposing sanctions; they are just as likely to blame their own government’s clumsy management for their economic difficulties.
How can the United States balance dialogue with the Iranian government and concern for the Green Movement?
I think the Obama administration has struck the right balance. President Obama continues to express his readiness to engage with Iranian officials; but the administration has also spoken out regarding the violation of the Iranian people’s rights by officials. In his message on the occasion of the Iranian new year in March 2010 President Obama was very blunt on this issue and outspoken in his support for the right of the Iranian people to assemble, speak and protest without fear of retribution.