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Opposition Ferment and Fragmentation in Iran

Interviewee: Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
December 21, 2009

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CFR expert Ray Takeyh says Iran's opposition forces remain fragmented, despite ongoing large anti-regime demonstrations, the latest to mark the death of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. Takeyh says Iran's opposition movement lacks a "nerve center; it doesn't have a structure as it did in 1979. It's local and it's sporadic." He also says the nuclear deal worked out with the West in October, and then withdrawn by Iran, could still be viable. He says President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad believed the deal, aimed at curbing the country's uranium enrichment program, "could mitigate his domestic problems at home." But when it fell apart, his problems worsened. "That's why I think he's trying to resurrect some aspects of that deal that make it acceptable to the international community," Takeyh says. "I don't know if it will succeed."

In the Iranian city of Qom on Monday, there were massive demonstrations honoring Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who had become the leading opposition cleric, and who died over the weekend. What do you make of it?

It reflects the fact that the opposition is trying to turn almost all commemorative occasions into protests against the regime. That sort of echoes 1979 [when the Islamic Revolution began] when ordinary occasions, religious rituals and so forth, were politicized. Those same kinds of demonstrations are happening today. Montazeri had become a sort of symbolic presence in Iran's opposition for quite a while. And his life reflects the trajectory of many revolutionaries. In the 1980s he was stridently anti-American. He definitely was on the radical fringe of the regime both in terms of his domestic practices and international relations. And then he found out the limits of dissent within the elite structure of the Islamic Republic when he was evicted from the power base and began to make an intellectual journey to become a valued and important voice of dissent.

[Iranian authorities] believe that the Western powers in conspiracy with internal civil society groups and so forth are determined to overthrow the Islamic Republic, as took place in the so-called colored revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine.

He at one point was the heir apparent to Ayatollah Ali Khomenei, right?

Yes, that's right. By the late 1980s he objected to at least one specific incident, where in 1988 there was a wholesale execution of around six thousand prisoners that belonged primarily to the leading opposition group, MEK [Mujahedeen-e-Khalq]. And he objected to that on the grounds that these people had been sentenced and some of them had already served their sentence, and therefore it would essentially be a violation of religious law to engage in such arbitrary executions. And he objected to several other practices of the Islamic Republic at that time. Essentially he proved to be a problem for Khomeini at that time, and he was displaced.

This nuclear agreement that had been worked out in October with the Western countries, in which there would be a tradeoff of Iran's low-enriched uranium [LEU] for enriched processing in Russia and France, has now seemingly fallen apart. The West is talking about new sanctions if there is no deal by the end of the year. What's changed in Iran?

Well, first the deal. In Tehran, no deal ever dies. So it's entirely possible that the LEU export proposition could be resurrected, not with the specifications of the October 1 deal, which called for the shipment of 1,200 kilograms abroad, but there may be 400 today, 400 tomorrow, 400 next Thursday. Something like that can still evolve. I wouldn't suggest an obituary on the LEU deal should be written; a lot of variation may be plausible, who knows. As to the ruling powers in Iran, there obviously has been a restructuring of the Revolutionary Guard and the security services who have focused on a nonexistent conspiracy. They believe that the Western powers in conspiracy with internal civil society groups and so forth are determined to overthrow the Islamic Republic, as took place in the so-called colored revolutions in Georgia [the Rose Revolution] and Ukraine [the Orange Revolution]. That is an interesting proposition if you think about it, because it further diminishes the rationale for Iran's nuclear program. A nuclear program, or nuclear weapons if you want, are designed to deal with an external threat from outside. If you don't fear that, then the utility of nuclear weapons diminishes. But nevertheless, that's where the regime sees its primary threat consideration, and it's restructuring itself to meet with those threats. The problem with trying to disarm a nonexistent conspiracy is that it will never end. You'll never actually find the evidence that you need and the conclusive proof that you require and the personnel that are behind it, so you constantly have to be looking. This is a perpetual process without an end in sight.

In Iran itself today, is there great discontent?

I don't know the scope and extent of the opposition. There's certainly discontent--discontent about the political manipulation that took place, discontent about the economic difficulties that are being compounded by the regime's mismanagement at home and belligerence abroad. But the problem at this point is that there is sort of an incohesive opposition. It doesn't have a nerve center; it doesn't have a structure as it did in 1979. It's local and it's sporadic. I don't know if there's a whole lot of central planning behind it. There was in the 1977 to 1979 period. I don't know if it's going to peter out or not. I suspect what happened in June has created a festering wound.

Where does President Ahmadinejad stand? He obviously was humiliated by this nuclear agreement that got disavowed so quickly.

Well, he became a diminished figure in the aftermath of the June elections because of the way it unfolded and the unwillingness of many inside Iran to accept the results. And then, for better or for worse, probably for the worse, he's always been the principal proponent of dialogue with the United States. And the LEU deal was a way of generating that dialogue based upon the perception that if you can have some sort of diplomatic success abroad, that could mitigate his domestic problems. And as that fell apart, you began to see this situation for him get worse. So that's why he's trying to resurrect some aspects of that deal that make it acceptable to the international community. I don't know if it will succeed.

There's certainly discontent--discontent about the political manipulation that took place, discontent about the economic difficulties that are being compounded by the regime's mismanagement at home and belligerence abroad.

President Obama of course came into office talking about wanting to have a genuine dialogue with the Iranians. So far that dialogue hasn't really gotten anywhere. Is that completely the Iranians' fault?

There was a combination of things. First of all, there were the usual Iranian suspicions. And they found the possibility of engagement somewhat unsettling in terms of its impact on their revolutionary identity and so forth. And then came the sort of unfortunate nature of their electoral calendars. There was an election on June 12, and there was a paralysis before then because everyone was getting ready for election, and there was a paralysis after that because the aftermath of the election proved unsettling. So it was a combination of these two things that happened. But as I said, the possibility of dialogue remains. I'm not suggesting that it will be successful, but at some point with the external pressure and internal dissent not quite evaporating, the regime may view dialogue abroad as a sort of lifeline. Now they may come into it with cynical purposes, trying to prolong a dialogue as a means of relieving pressure abroad in order to suppress dissent at home, which was their initial going-in position. But from there, where it goes, who knows. It will probably have its own dynamic should it take place.

Talk a bit more about the Montazeri demonstrations Monday. There were a lot of people. Is this because he was such a high-ranking cleric that the authorities could not prevent this?

There is some aspect of that.

Even Khamenei sent his condolences.

Sure, he would certainly offer his condolences. On the one hand, from the perspective of the regime, Montazeri's a thorn that's no longer there. They no longer have these persistent declarations from his office in opposition to the regime. So there will be some demonstrations in the next day or so, but then the more longer-[term] problem of Montazeri has been removed. The other aspect of it is that his death will continue to serve as a symbol because he has had so many declarations on the record that you could always resurrect those. So it's kind of a difficult situation, and they probably didn't know exactly how to deal with it, and they opted to try to contain the situation as opposed to going for overt suppression of it.

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