Tuesday, June 23, 2009

An Exclusive Interview with a Pro-Ahmadinejad Cleric in Qom, Iran

I lived in Lahore, Pakistan for a few years during high school. It was during that time that I met Hasan (name altered for anonymity). Hasan lives in Qom, Iran, and is training at the Islamic seminary in the city, the largest institution for the study of Shiite Islamic theology in the world, where both of Iran's Supreme Leaders, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei, received training. Hasan is currently a Hojjat-ul-Islam, the rank Khamenei was when he was selected to succeed Khomeini as Iran's second Supreme Leader.

When I tracked him down, Hasan was more eager to speak to me than I had expected. He felt that his people's views on the Iranian elections were not being represented properly in the international media. Before I spoke to him on the phone, he also consulted with some of his colleagues, teachers, and friends at the seminary to ensure, in his words, that what he tells me is "accurate" and "representative".

As you'll notice, a recurring theme in many of his answers is his very strong belief that "foreign" Western powers, particularly England, are behind the current unrest in Tehran, an idea that is being played up significantly on Iranian state television, radio, and newspapers, which he cites often. Second, he does not make much of the scale of the protests, and downplays the idea of a rift in the clerical establishment, often expressing surprise when I inform him of some of the reports we have seen here.

All of the opinions and ideas presented here are solely his. Here is the interview.

Based on the media and resources that you have access to, can you give us a general idea about what you think is happening in Tehran?

There are several factors in this situation that have come together. There is one segment of the population that did want Mousavi to win the election. These people had done some propaganda to make it seem like Mousavi will get most of the votes. In particular, Tehran... because Tehran is a metropolitan city, you have people with all kinds of backgrounds and thinking. In Tehran itself, [Mousavi] had a lot of supporters. Tehran is part of what we call "Ustan-e-Tehran", where Tehran is the central city and the "ustan" includes the suburbs and smaller towns surrounding Tehran. An ustan is bigger than a district, but smaller than a province. If you look at the election results, in these suburbs and small towns in Ustan-e-Tehran, Ahmadinejad got more votes than Mousavi. But in the central city of Tehran, Ahmadinejad got fewer votes than Mousavi.

But you see, Tehran isn't all of Iran. People in Tehran sometimes think that because they are all supporters of Mousavi, all of Iran must be supporters of Mousavi, but this is not true. Overall, in 2 ustans, Azerbaijan-e-Ghardi and Ustan-e-Sistan-e-Balochistan, Mousavi got more votes than Ahmadinejad. In the rest of the ustans... I think Iran has a total of 24 ustans... in the rest of the 22 ustans, Ahmadinejad took more votes. Even in Ustan-e-Tehran, Ahmadinejad has more votes than Mousavi, but in the Tehran city, Mousavi has more votes.

So what happened is that the people in Tehran thought that he would win, Mousavi, because they had created a sort of atmosphere where they thought that the newspapers there, the Western media, and the American media was supporting him. But if you look at the rest of Iran, Ahmadinejad has done a lot of good work. I mean, there were projects that would take 7 or 8 or 9 years to complete, and he completed these projects in 2 or 3 years. He brought electricity to places that had none, clean water to places where water wasn't clean, and many things like this. He has greatly helped the poor people of Iran. The majority of Iran, therefore, was with Ahmadinejad.

That leaves Tehran, the Tehran city particularly. Now here there were groups led by important people like Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani [a powerful cleric who chairs Iran's Assembly of Experts, and a former president] and others who said they would support Mousavi. They said they would protest, but they wanted to protest peacefully. They never had the intention to come to Tehran and damage property, break things, or burn things, because in Iran, overall, this is not something that's in our history. It's very rare and even if it happens once in many years, it's done by small groups and it is considered very bad. Whoever you are protesting against, doing these things, damaging and breaking things is considered very bad.

Now Tehran has millions of people, and bringing out a few thousand to protest is not such a big feat. When some of these people were going back recently, they were arrested by the Iranian intelligence and questioned. They said that they were neither with Ahmadinejad, nor with Mousavi. In fact, they said they hadn't even voted at all. They said that they had specifically received orders from a lady in England named Zohra, which I think is a fake name, who had given them orders to do all of this breaking and damaging and violence. They recorded her phone calls, and showed it on TV here. I saw it myself. She would call them and give them orders to go out and destroy things, set fire to gas stations, and so on. And now the foreign minister of Iran has done a press conference and openly said that these people in England are calling people over here and telling them to go out and commit vandalism and violence. They had all of this planned ahead of time, well before the election.

What are the people you know saying about Ayatollah Khamenei's sermon on Friday?

If you noticed, in the khutba [sermon] by the Rahber [the title used to address the Supreme Leader], he mentioned Rafsanjani by name and criticized him, but he also supported him and said good things about him. He also criticized Ahmadinejad, but also supported him. So after this, Rafsanjani and the other leaders who were supporting Mousavi withdrew from the protests. They said that after the Rahber's speech, we don't think it is right to continue this opposition, and the Rahber has now shown us the right path. But some of the small parties and groups supporting Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi continued their protests.

Another thing that happened was that during the debates, Ahmadinejad accidentally criticized Rafsanjani and portrayed him in a negative light. As a result, some of Ahmadinejad's supporters began to have a negative image of Rafsanjani. On the other hand, Rafsanjani's people also became angry, saying that Ahmadinejad's people have maligned them. But then, in his khutba on Friday, the Rahber admonished both Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad. He scolded Ahmadinejad for saying negative things about Rafsanjani without any proof. Of course Khamenei and Rafsanjani have differences in their opinions. This is normal in politics. It happens everywhere. It does not discredit the other person entirely. Once the Rahber brought everyone together in this way, Rafsanjani's group withdrew and decided that they will not continue the protests.

The protests that continued after the speech were not done by people here. They were done by foreign influences, like this woman Zohra in England. I saw on the news that yesterday [Saturday], they even burned a mosque. Can you imagine that? You can completely forget about the idea that any real Iranian, even a supporter of Mousavi, would ever burn a mosque. Anyone who would burn a mosque... this means that he is not even a Muslim. When this news came out over here, everybody became completely convinced that the people doing all of this have been planted from outside Iran. Nobody burns a mosque! I told you before that even burning a bank or another building is something that is considered very bad over here. People here are very educated and civilized.

What about the reported bombing of Ayatollah Khomeini's tomb? Do you think that this was also carried out by people planted from outside Iran? Could Mousavi's supporters have done this?

See, this is what I'm telling you. This is not the kind of thing that Mousavi's supporters could have done. They may have had minor grievances with the other side, like the disagreements between Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani, but these incidents of bombings and destruction are all being done by people outside Iran that have been planted by foreign powers. They were showing on TV here that these are people who were given training in Iraq and then were sent over here to do these things. These people have been hired and paid.

What do these people want? They want to delegitimize this record-breaking election we've had where 85% of people came out and voted. They want people to think that this report of an 85% turnout is fraudulent, that there is all this infighting going on in Iran and people don't have faith in the system. But the world has seen on the day of the election here, that there were endless lines at the voting stations before voting had even started... in such a big democracy, where 85% of people came out to vote.

Look, Ahmadinejad got 24 million votes, and Mousavi got about 13 million, and with the rest of the candidates, it's a total of 39 million people who came out and participated in the process of democracy. Think about that... why would so many people come out and vote if they did not have any faith in the system? Who votes? It is those people who know that they can get justice and a better life through the process. If a person thinks there is corruption and deception in the system, he wouldn't bother to vote, he would just stay home. People participated in this election and came out to vote because they accepted the system and had faith in it.

But there are some parts of the process that are very suspicious. First, by law, the final results of the election cannot be certified by the Supreme Leader for a period of at least three days, in order to allow for any grievances that participating candidates may have. Second, voting was done on paper ballots and counted by hand. How is it possible that 39 million votes were counted in such a short time, just a few hours?

As far as the three day law goes, I have to look into this myself and see what the methodology was exactly. [Hasan said that he will get back to me soon on this issue, and when he does, I will update this post.] But I will explain what I know to you about the vote counting.

During the election, there were about 47,000 polling stations for voting. [I have independently confirmed that this is accurate.] For each station, every candidate was allowed to have a representative present to oversee the process. Mir Hossein Mousavi had 47,000 representatives, one at each station, and Ahmadinejad I think had 42,000 or something like that. The other candidates had fewer representatives. When the voting ended at 11 pm, they immediately started counting. Once they had the final tallies at each station, the representatives were made to sign off on them, and the numbers were fed into a centrally computerized system where the tallies were collected.

Now, if you divide 39 million votes by 47,000 stations, it comes to 893 votes per station on average. This is a very small number of ballots that can easily be counted in a short period of time, and the final tally from each station was submitted to the central computerized system immediately. They reported the results live on TV as the final tallies came in. Again, remember that the representatives of both candidates at each polling station were required to sign off on the final tally at that station.

Also, the ballots were present in a booklet, like a checkbook where you can rip out the checks. This is how the ballots were distributed, and like a checkbook, each booklet had a fixed number of ballots. As soon as a booklet was exhausted, they would enter that record into the computer, so that the computer would keep track of how many booklets had been used up. Even after all of this, the Guardian Council allowed for people to come forward and report any irregularities in writing so that they could be investigated. This was not done at first, but later, on prompting, when a complaint was filed, the Guardian Council agreed to a partial recount of 10% of the votes.

Speaking of the Guardian Council, Ali Larijani, the pro-Khamenei Speaker of Parliament, has implied that some members of the Guardian Council are taking sides in the situation, which takes away from Khamenei's statement that this was a clear victory for Ahmadinejad, and even contradicts it--

Ali Larijani said this? Really?

Yes, this is what was reported here on Sunday morning.

No, no. It's not true. I watched Ali Larijani on TV just last night [Saturday] and he said that the Western media wants to take our great success in this election with record turnout and portray it in a negative light. He said to the public of Iran that we should be celebrating our wonderful success as a democracy. I saw this myself, on TV, and everyone in Iran saw it, so no one here will ever believe this report. I think the Western media may have taken his words and edited them to quote them out of context.

I also wanted to ask you about your access to the media. Apart from state-run television broadcasts, do you have complete access to the internet, sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter for instance?

Yes, we have complete access.

Well, over here, because of the ban on foreign journalists covering the events in Tehran, a lot of the major media outlets have started to broadcast web-based images and videos that are being sent in by people on the ground in Iran. There are literally hundreds of videos and pictures that have come in this way showing large numbers of people protesting, and many of them show brutal violence, home invasions, and so on. There is one particularly gruesome video of a woman named Neda who was shot and killed on camera by paramilitary forces, and it has evoked widespread reaction. Are you familiar with these kinds of events?

Look, in Iran, we have a few sources. We have two TV channels, radio, and then we have the newspapers, which are particularly popular among Iranians. Now, we also have the internet, and yes, we are familiar with these videos showing the murders of these people and the violence against them. I can tell you the impression of the people here... they believe that it is the people who are damaging and vandalizing, these planted forces from outside, that are committing these murders. This is what people believe in Iran.

You know, one of the biggest pieces of propaganda is that the forces here are allowed to use firearms. They're not. If you look closely at these videos, you'll notice that the legitimate police and officers are using clubs, tear gas, and water canons to control the crowd, not firearms. If you are seeing people using guns and firearms, these are the rogues from outside Iran who are terrorizing the people and vandalizing property. I'm telling you, all of Iran is against these people who are committing these acts of violence and vandalism.

I'll tell you something which I'm not sure you know. Last week, the office of the Rahber called on hundreds of thousands of people to celebrate at a place called Meydan-e-Wali-Asr, not because Ahmadinejad won, but to celebrate Iran's democratic process, to celebrate our momentous election with a record-breaking turnout. A few days later, people were called out again to demonstrate against these people who were committing acts of violence and vandalism in the protests, and again hundreds of thousands of people came out for that demonstration. But the international media never covers these kinds of things. Instead, the media is taking a few protests with a few hundred or a few thousand people in Tehran and making them out to be much more significant than they are.

And then you have seen the huge crowd that attended the Rahber's speech at Friday prayers. Again, there were hundreds of thousands of people who came to hear him and support him, from all over the country. You have seen them on TV. People were so energized and so excited to see the Rahber that the first twenty minutes were just them cheering and chanting slogans praising him.

Who are these people? Are they not Iranians? Just because the media never shows this side of things, everyone thinks that these protesters committing violence is all that is going on here, while the rest of Iran is silent, and there is no other point of view. In fact, most Iranians are upset with the government for not being more aggressive in cracking down on these people.

In that case, why do you think the government isn't cracking down on these people more aggressively?

Because they are mixed in with the normal people. If you know 100% that the people standing in front of you are your enemy, you can be aggressive. But these people are in regular clothing, they are in the middle of the city, where there are also regular people mixed in, working, in the shops, walking around. So you have to be careful in how you go about tackling the situation. This is also why the government forces are not allowed to use firearms. If they fire at them, the rogues will fire back, and they won't care if the public is in the way. So you have to be careful.

You're speaking a lot about these videos on the internet that are being exaggerated to mean more than what they are, and you're also complaining that the media is not covering your side of the situation. However, if the government bans all foreign media outlets as they have, it forces them to rely on these videos, images, blogs, and Tweets as their primary source of information, which you claim are misrepresentative. Does the government understand that this works against them? Also, why hasn't your side organized events and made their own videos to present your side of the story?

This thing that you're saying is absolutely right. This is something that is lacking on our side. The supporters on our side should do this more of this kind of work. The people who are supporting Ahmadinejad, our government, and our police force need to express what they think, make videos, and send them out so that people can see the other side. We were discussing this among ourselves the other day. It has been shocking to us to see that what we are witnessing here is so different from what the international media is showing.

There are two websites you should read and let me know what you think, pakalert.wordpress.com and prisonplanet.com. On the second one, there is an article about how the BBC took a picture from a pro-Ahmadinejad rally and claimed that it was a Mousavi rally. [Note: Here's the link to the article that Hasan is talking about. The website deals with various conspiracy theories.]

In past protests like the one in 1999, the establishment in Iran was united. However, now there are reports of powerful figures like Rafsanjani and Khatami moving away from Khamenei. Neither of the two was present at the Friday sermon even though they were summoned by Khamenei to attend. Also, on Sunday morning Ayatollah Montazeri declared a period of mourning for those killed in the protests from Wednesday to Friday. Rafsanjani has made a statement saying that the protests and the voice of the people should be respected and supported. Mousavi has also reportedly declared that he is ready for martyrdom. Do you believe that there is a genuine rift in the clerical establishment?

[Expresses surprise at statements from Montazeri and Rafsanjani.] Look, there is no doubt that there are disagreements among some of these men. They are nothing new. Montazeri, although he is respected because he is a mujtahid [the highest rank achievable in Shia religious training], does not have much of a following here. As you know, he was originally selected by Imam Khomeini as his successor, but later the Imam denounced him because of a corruption scandal. It was a dark spot on his character, and although he is learned and respected, he was not qualified to become the next Rahber. He is a controversial figure who gets a lot of attention from the foreign media, but the media and the people here consider him insignificant.

But what about Rafsanjani? There are reports that Jawad Shahristani, the representative and son-in-law of Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq, met secretly with Rafsanjani and the Assembly of Experts in Qom to consider redrafting the system of clerical rule in Iran by establishing a collective ruling body instead of a single Supreme Leader. Are you familiar with this? [Note: Sistani, based in Iraq, is one of the most influential Shia spiritual leaders in the region.]

Well, yes, we have heard something like this, that they are considering introducing the system of shoora-e-rahbariya, or a council of mujtahids that act as a supreme authority instead of one supreme leader. But you see, this is nothing new. The late Shaheed Muttahari, who was considered to be... well, you can think of him as number 2 to Imam Khomeini, also suggested the idea of having a mujtahid council. But this idea was not welcomed or accepted among the people. We do have a report from authentic sources that Rafsanjani, on his last trip to Iraq, met with Ayatollah Sistani, who advised him to obey Khamenei. He said that it was not in the interest of Iran to not obey the Rahber, who provides excellent leadership for the country.

The second thing is that if several people get together to float ideas... well, that is the job of the Assembly of Experts, which Rafsanjani is the chairman of. These are people who are mujtahids and are elected by the people of Iran. They keep watch over the supreme leadership, and God forbid if the Rahber makes a mistake or makes a wrong decision, they have the authority to replace him. So there already is a body that oversees these things. If there was a council of people to issue fatwas and edicts, without a singular figure of authority, it would not have as much authenticity and credibility among the people.

At our institution in Qom, in the Imam Khomeini Madrassa, we have many seminars, where ulema [scholars] from around the world come to speak and debate. They disagree very often and have open debates, where they sometimes have completely antithetical views on things. Open academic discussion and debate are very normal and encouraged here. This does not mean that there are any serious enmities within the clerical establishment.

Do you think, then, that despite their differences, eventually Rafsanjani and Khatami will end up supporting Khamenei?

Look, all of these men understand, accept, and revere the system. This is not something they disagree on. They're united on this. The difference is in their preference of methodology in order to get things done. For example, they often discuss how we should deal with the Western world. One group says that we should be firm and outspoken in our approach. The other says that we should be softer and more diplomatic. For example, Mohammad Khatami may be more open to engaging in talks and making concessions with the West about Iran's nuclear program to avoid sanctions and other headaches. Others believe that we should take a harder stance and stand our ground. These disagreements on policy are very normal. They happen in every country in the world. Remember, even when Mohammad Khatami was president, it was still Khamenei who was the Supreme Leader. Khatami did try his soft approach on the nuclear issue. The Rahber told him to make concessions, but if there is no response or accommodation on the other side, he should go back to being aggressive. So at the end of his presidency, after Ahmadinejad was elected, Iran returned to the aggressive stance.

Regarding the nuclear issue, Ahmadinejad has said that he wants to develop the nuclear program for energy, not to make a bomb. Khamenei has also issued a fatwa against building a nuclear bomb. Why should the rest of the world believe them?

You know, there is one fundamental thing that people in the West don't understand about Iran, and if they can understand this one basic concept, they will understand many other things. Look, the government of Iran is an Islamic government. Their view is, if there is something that isn't even allowed in Sharia, something that Islam does not allow us to do, how can we even think of doing this thing? The Rahber has said this many times, and as you said, issued a fatwa against making a nuclear bomb. He has said that if this is something I give permission for, it can jeopardize my own faith and my own stature as a Muslim. It's against our moral and religious beliefs.

America looks at this issue according to their own mentality. They think, we're lying, so they must be lying too. You can look through all of the speeches of the Rahber, and you will not find a single instance of deception or lying. He cannot do it. If he lies or does something wrong, he cannot stay the Supreme Leader. The Assembly of Experts would have to replace him.

One of the biggest problems that people here have with Ahmadinejad is his stance on Israel and his denial of the Holocaust. It is one thing to be critical of Israeli policy, but what purpose does denying the Holocaust and holding conferences dedicated to Holocaust denial serve in helping Iran's interests and relations with the rest of the world?

Look, if you listen to his words carefully, he doesn't say that he accepts or denies the Holocaust. He is a university professor, an academic. He looks at it as a historical event, like any other. He doesn't understand why each event in recorded history is subjected to research and re-evaluation except for this one. In Denmark, they can make cartoons insulting the Holy Prophet and this is defended as freedom of opinion. But in this case, it is taboo to have any opinions on this issue.

You do see, though, that there are parallels in the way Muslims feel about the Danish cartoons and the way Jews feel about the Holocaust? It is a very personal, emotional issue for them. Academic debate is one thing, but do you think it serves any kind of purpose when people in powerful political positions express these opinions? If the goal is to try and resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue, why should people in political positions highlight an unnecessary issue that would only inflame the other side and complicate the potential for a solution? Wouldn't it be more effective to put the Holocaust issue aside and just focus on the Israeli-Palestinian issue?

Again, many of Ahmadinejad's statements have been misunderstood. He does not reject the Holocaust. Okay, suppose he says the Holocaust happened just as it is recorded in history, without challenging it. It still happened in Europe, right? Why then are the Palestinian people being punished for it? That is the real question.

Also remember, we have 30,000 Jews living in Iran very peacefully. They like the Iranian government. We have always made a clear distinction between Judaism and Zionism. This is very important. Our opposition is to the Zionists, not to the Jews. We have a lot of respect for Judaism... it is also a religion of God, from Abraham.

What kind of approach do you think the people of Iran want to see from President Obama and the United States during this time?

The Iranians have always maintained that that the United States should communicate with them at a level of equality, with mutual respect. They should remember that just as they are a nation, we are also a nation. If the United States talks down to Iran like they are our boss, and want to tell us what to do, we will not listen to a word they say. The same goes for Obama. Obama needs to be more honest. One one hand, he says that we should improve our relations with Iran, and on the other, he comes out and says he is very upset with the unjust treatment of these people who are committing violence and vandalism in Tehran. He should open his eyes and see how many supporters there are of the government and the Supreme Leader. These 85% that came out to vote... whoever they voted for, they are still supporters of the Rahber and the government. They vote because they have faith in the system. He should look in the United States. When has the United States had an 85% voter turnout? What do you have, maybe 40%?

Last year, it was around 60%.

Okay, 60%. Why was it higher than usual last year? Because people in America had some hopes and expectations in the last election. They had faith in the system and thought that Obama would come and change things. Iranians have the same support for their system. This is why there was such a high turnout. So Obama needs to be more honest, specially with his own people. He is taking their taxes and sending American soldiers into different countries where they are dying for no reason, to protect the interests of the rich people in the United States. If Obama can stop this and just take good care of his own people, that is good enough, we will not have any problems with him. The American government spends more time protecting the interests of Zionism than it does the interests of its own people. We have never been against the people in America, just the policies of its government.

My last question is a personal one. You still enjoy a very close relationship with your brother, who lives in the West, is non-religious, and has strong secular beliefs. You on the other hand live in Qom, and are a few years shy of being a religious scholar at the highest (mujtahid) rank. To what extent, if any, have your stark ideological differences had an effect on your relationship?

You know, as I've lived and studied here, I have learned many things. My faith teaches me that human beings are the creations of God, and God has created this world and everything in it for human beings. This is very important. God has given human beings a great stature, and thus humanity is of great importance. If there is any ideology that is against this universal concept of humanity... this is what we are at war with. This concept is present in all belief systems. These other systems and religions only differ in how they translate this concept of humanity. We may try to help them understand our beliefs and they will try to help us understand theirs, but we will never fight them. We will only fight those who are enemies of humanity, those who humiliate others, abuse them, make mental and physical slaves of them, or think of them as lesser beings.

I believe that as human beings, we should worship and praise our creator. But this service to God shouldn't be of the kind that harms others. For example, you can say that you're secular, that you don't believe in a god, and you don't believe in worship. You don't think it's required of you. So your ideology is different. But based on this, we will never clash with each other. Whoever truly understands Islam will never wage war against you for not believing. This is why I will never have a conflict with my brother.

However, if someone's ideology says that I am a lesser person, that he rules over me, or he's my boss, we will probably clash with each other. This is what I mean when I say our conflict is not with Jews or Judaism, but with Zionism. We place great importance on this difference.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.

Thank you.

Friday, June 19, 2009

If Iranians Defy Khamenei on Saturday, We Might Have a Real Diagnosis

Ignore all the Iran experts, says Charles Kurzman at Foreign Policy magazine. For everything that's difficult to discern about what's really going on in Iran after the June 12 election, the only thing we can be sure of is that it's virtually impossible to predict what will happen next.

Add to this Friday's speech by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at Tehran University, unequivocally declaring his support for the results of the election, and vowing "chaos and bloodshed" for any further unrest, the responsibility for which he would squarely place upon the opposition leaders.

From here onwards, continued protests will mean much more than what they have so far.

Apart from the increased risk of a potentially violent crackdown on the protesters, those in opposition to the election results will now also find themselves in opposition to the will of the Supreme Leader, which has resulted in imprisonment and even death for many in the past.

Watching how it all unfolds from here will be diagnostic. There has been confusion over what it is exactly that is being protested. What started out as supporters of Mousavi protesting the election results has now evolved into what many perceive as a rebellion against Iran's political process and structure of power. For some, it's still about Mousavi. For others, it's about the injustice of being lied to and not having their vote counted. Finally, many of the protesters are intent on bringing about another revolution like in 1979, and challenging the fundamental idea of velayat-e-fakih, the system that gives ultimate power to the clerics.

Which one of these constitutes the primary spirit of the protest movement?

If most people still believe this is only about Mousavi, we're likely to see a significant decrease in turnout on Saturday. Mousavi is one of the founding fathers of the revolution, and despite his credentials as a reformer -- and many believe his views have changed significantly over time due to the influence of his wife Zahra Rahnavard, former adviser to reformist president Mohammad Khatami -- he is unlikely to be able to bring any kind of significant change, because his power as president will be greatly stunted by Khamenei, as Khatami's was. Would the "chaos and bloodshed" be worth coming out in support for him when it might not even matter in the end?

If, however, the turnout is high, and we see similar numbers of people lining the streets as we have in the last few days, it's reasonable to assume that this isn't just about Mousavi; the protest movement will then officially be in manifest defiance of Khamenei -- not just of his views, and not just of his will -- but of his threat of bloodshed and chaos.

If that happens, Iran may be either on the path to another revolution, or another Tiananmen Square-like situation. One of the key determinants of which way it might go will be the extent to which Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and paramilitary forces like the Basij are loyal to the Supreme Leader. In 1979, there was a militaristic component to the revolution that successfully overwhelmed the armed forces loyal to the Shah. Without that component, another revolution is very unlikely.

But then, on Thursday night's Rachel Maddow Show, Reza Aslan spoke of reports that some of the Iranian army's high-ranking generals had been detained by the Revolutionary Guard for refusing to open fire on the protesters if ordered to do so. The report, unconfirmed of course, is not entirely implausible. Aslan said:

"The difference now is that, A, these are not just kids. These are not just college students. They‘re not just reformists. Some of them -- the Rafsanjanis, the Khatamis -— these are the pillars of the Islamic republic. They are the people who actually brought the Islamic republic to fruition 30 years ago. So, you can‘t just open up fire on these people.

And secondly... in the 21st century, there is no such thing as a media blackout. Everything that happens in Iran, we will know about -- in real time sometimes. So, they can't hide behind sort of a blackout of the media. They know that whatever they do, the entire world is going to see."
One symbol of the 1979 revolution being re-enacted is the chants of Allah-o-Akbar ("God is Great") being yelled out from rooftops in the middle of the night. This is confusing to many of us watching it all from afar -- is this going to be another religious revolution, or are the chants just a symbolic glimpse into the intent of the protesters?

Again, it's hard to tell. Just as there were many different groups -- pro-secular and pro-theocratic alike -- that rose up against the Shah in 1979, this group of protesters is not monolithic. A protester on the ground in Tehran wrote the following to Nico Pitney at his live update blog at HuffPost after Khamenei's speech:
"...despite the 'leaders' words today I and I'm sure many others will be going out tomorrow... I never took much heed in what he had to say in the past and still don't. there are many in my family who fear for my safety when I go out as I'm only here for 9 more days. My answer for them is that it is my responsibility to march against an unjust regime... hell as a staunch atheist I find myself shouting Allah Akbar in the streets."
The goal of the protesters may be as confusing to themselves as it seems to us. Is Mousavi really at the helm of it all or is he just a symbol? Will the Khatamis and Rafsanjanis, as Reza Aslan implied, continue to support the protesters Saturday onwards in overt defiance of Khamenei? If Mousavi orders a halt to further demonstrations, will they still continue? Is it even about them anymore? An anonymous Iranian photo-journalist on the ground provided perhaps the most telling answer in an interview with blogger and filmmaker Parvez Sharma this morning, when asked if Mousavi was the only hope:
"I don't think he is the only hope and the best option but I do think that's what these people want and need right now. They can't aim for a huge change and [start] marching against the Islamic republic of Iran, but they can get [where they want to be by demanding changes to the existing system of government]. Plus I think right now the issue is more how they've been treated and lied to and... So they want [their rights] back more than anything and in this process Mousavi has suddenly become the face and the leader. They voted for him and now they want their vote to be realized. I also think he is a bit different now, not that his way of thinking or ideas has totally changed [such that he is now a] super open minded person but he has changed, and I strongly believe his wife is the power behind all that.
If she sounds unsure, it's because she probably is. Sharma points out that the interview was conducted just prior to Khamenei's speech.

Those in Iran who don't know yet if this is just about the election or something bigger will probably be struggling for an answer tonight, before Saturday afternoon's scheduled demonstration -- the first after Khamenei's defiant and threatening speech. This will be their real test.

The rest of us will only know where this is going once they do.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The One Thing 39 Million Iranians Decisively Voted For

There has never been any reliable polling data that has come out of Iran. Even when opinion polls have been conducted, restrictions on what the Iranian people can and cannot say have made it practically impossible to figure out what they really think.

Are they more pro-theocracy or pro-secular? Pro-US or anti-US? Pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear? How do they really feel about the idea of an unelected Supreme Leader being the head of their national media networks? No one really knows for sure.

But voter turnouts of over 85% cannot lie.

Most Iranians knew that this election wasn't really going to change anything, thanks to the dictatorial leadership of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Still, out of 46.2 million eligible voters, a staggering 39 million came out to vote, making a strong, unequivocal statement:

Iranians value democracy. A lot.

At this point, the results of the election should be considered irrelevant. These protests -- of, by, and for the people -- are about a much bigger picture, shaped by history and rooted in the kind of idealism that hundreds of thousands of Iranians have decided is worth risking their lives to try and rejuvenate. This is the culmination of a powerful grassroots dynamic that has been bubbling for decades, and has finally boiled over.

Since 1979, elections in Iran have never truly been elections, and democracy in Iran has never truly been democracy. Most Iranians know that the elected president has always had little power to influence anything of significance beyond economic policy. It is the Supreme Leader who commands the armed forces, drafts foreign policy and national security policy, runs all national media services like radio and television, acts as the supreme judiciary, selects candidates eligible to run for president through the Council of Guardians, and (as we all now know) certifies election results.

This Supreme Leader is an unelected figure who operates under the Velayat-e-Faqih theory in Shia Islam, mandating guardianship of an Islamic jurist over a population. Since the revolution of 1979, only Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei have held this position.

Even though Khomeini was a charismatic leader with widespread popularity and legitimacy, the selection of Khamenei as his successor was controversial, and thought by many members of Iran's clerical establishment to be politically motivated.

According to Iran's Constitution at the time, the Supreme Leader had to be a marja'a, the highest rank in the Shia hierarchy of religious and spiritual scholarship. Only a marja'a was worthy of the title of Grand Ayatollah, and Khamenei wasn't quite there yet. So, three months before his death, Khomeini -- unsatisfied with the list of marja'as available to potentially succeed him -- revised the Constitution to allow for Khamenei to be eligible, and also promoted him to an Ayatollah virtually overnight from his more junior rank of Hojjat-ul-Islam.

This wasn't the first time Khomeini had tweaked his own rules for Khamenei. Khomeini had initially expressed an opposition to having clerics in the office of President, but conveniently relaxed his opinion when Khamenei successfully ran for the position in 1981. He served until Khomeini's death in 1989, when, as per Khomeini's selection, he became Iran's second Supreme Leader. At the same time, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, another powerful founding father of the revolution, became President.

Rafsanjani is a reformist who also ran in the 2005 election (losing to Ahmadinejad), and has conspicuously showed his support for the protesters over the last week. He has always been a vocal critic of Ahmadinejad, and one of Khamenei's fiercest rivals. Ahmadinejad, in turn, has always been an ardent supporter of the Supreme Leader, who Iran's powerful Assembly of Experts has the constitutional power to remove. And the chairman of the Assembly? Rafsanjani.

So Khamenei has several good reasons to be worried.

Because of the somewhat sketchy politics surrounding his selection as Supreme Leader in 1989, Khamenei has always had some rivals in Iran's clerical establishment. To add to that, the massive uprising against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can comfortably be looked at as an uprising against Khamenei, or maybe even against the whole idea of a Supreme Leader. Although calling this a revolution is a little premature, this is clearly the result of much more than a single election. This time, it's not just the people that are deeply divided; the rift within the clerical establishment has also been exposed, more prominently than ever, with the Supreme Leader himself now seriously vulnerable.

The last time Iran had an election with an 80% turnout, Mohammad Khatami, a reformist candidate, won 70% of the vote. Shortly before he completed his two terms as president in 2005, he wrote a 47-page "letter for the future" expressing his frustration at the hardline clerical establishment's obstruction of his attempts to reform Iran's theocracy, warning of the dangers of "religious despotism". The parliamentary election that year had demonstratively played that warning out. The Council of Guardians, headed and appointed by Khamenei, had barred over 8000 candidates, most of them moderate, many of them allies of Khatami, from running. (They still have the authority to do this.) Knowing that this would be a selection, not an election, many pro-reform voters stayed home, clearing the way for Ahmadinejad's subsequent 2005 victory.

In the four years since, Khamenei strengthened the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, army, and secret police in unprecedented ways: members of the Revolutionary Guard held most of the top government posts, and consequently gained significant control over the economy, one of the few areas that the elected president once had some latitude with.

Thus, Iranians watched their country go from a theocratic state to a virtual military dictatorship.

They may have hoped that their votes would allow them to have some say in how their government should deal with at least some limited domestic issues like rising inflation and unemployment (estimated at close to 20%), but in the end, they knew it wouldn't really matter.

Yet, they still came out and voted. Over 39 million of them. Over 85% of eligible voters. And now they are out on the streets, passionately expressing their will to express their will. Why?

The answer has very little to do with either Ahmadinejad or Mousavi. The Iranian election of June 12, 2009 wasn't just a referendum on Iran's political process, but on democracy itself.