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U.S. Should React Cautiously to Iran's 'Stolen Election'

Interviewee: Gary G. Sick, Executive Director, Gulf/2000 Project, Columbia University
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
June 14, 2009


Gary G. Sick, who worked on Iranian affairs for three U.S. administrations, says the reelection of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad amounted to an internal political coup that stole victory from Mir-Hossein Moussavi. Sick says that it would be wise, however, for the Obama administration to say as little as possible about the election right now, so as to not undercut the Iranian opposition. "No matter what was said or done by the administration, it would be interpreted as intervention and would actually undercut severely the position of the reformists as they would be tagged as 'tools of the West,'" he says. He says it remains important over the long run to engage Iran in negotiations on making sure its nuclear program remains peaceful.

The events in Iran over the last several days surprised almost everybody.  Almost everybody in the country thought it would be a very close presidential election with the chief challenger, Mir-Hossein Moussavi, having a good chance of winning.  The announcements of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's "victory" seemed to come before the votes could have been counted. Do you think this was an internal political coup?

I agree with you. I really do believe that the talk during the election campaign by Moussavi's people of a Green Wave was beginning to be interpreted as a Green Revolution.  And Iran and its leaders have been absolutely paranoid in the last several years, demonstrated by the arrest of several people who have been accused of having associations in the West and allegedly seeking something like a "Velvet Revolution" [term used in Czechoslovakia to mark the collapse of the communist government in 1989].  The fact that they've cracked down so hard in the last couple of days is a clear indication that they were worried about things moving outside their control. It was a huge gamble on their part and they didn't realize that this has been tremendously unpopular in the rest of the world and that it reduced their legitimacy.  They were really very foolish but it seems that they were willing to gamble because they were more concerned about their own power structure than about the way they are perceived in Iran or in the rest of the world.

Only time will tell what the implications are within Iran. I suspect that many of the clerics who are not enamored of Ahmadinejad are very upset at this development, don't you?

The fact that [Iran’s leaders] cracked down so hard in the last couple of days is a clear indication, I think, that they were worried about things moving outside their control.

We really haven't heard from the senior clergy thus far. There are reports that Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani [a former president] who is a powerful figure in his own right, and somebody who was supporting Moussavi, and who was on the attack against Ahmadinejad when the elections took place, has gone to Qum to talk to the senior clerics. If so, this would be an attempt to accumulate support from that quarter. There are many senior clerics that have never been that happy, first of all, with the whole idea of an Islamic Republic but also about Ahmadinejad in particular.  He was snubbed by them after he became president.  They don't like his sort of pop spiritualism. They don't like the idea that he sets an extra place for the Mahdi [under Shiite tradition, the Twelfth Imam, a messiah figure] at the table to return. And if Rafsanjani is doing what the reports say, it would be understandable as a way of mobilizing support in an area that really matters to the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei and also to Ahmadinejad.

Why do you think Khamenei moved like this?  He had to have given his approval to this whole internal coup.  Do you think he himself was scared of losing power?

The role of the Supreme Leader is deliberately shrouded in mystery. It's one of those things that people in Iran speculate about. There are all kinds of conspiracy theories that perhaps Khamenei didn't know about this, or that he was accidentally behind it and so forth. We never know the truth. And he keeps his counsel to himself. Several of Khamenei's supporters have come out publicly-people like Ali Larijani, who is the speaker of the Majlis [parliament], and who, though a bitter opponent of Ahmadinejad, has now gone public in support of the election. This is probably not so much about what happened in the election as it is a reiteration of Larijani's position that he supports the Supreme Leader. And if that is the case-if he is in fact making this statement even though he personally is opposed to Ahmadinejad-that suggests that the Supreme Leader wanted this to happen and is requesting that his closest lieutenants back him up on this. So on the basis of the evidence we've got so far, my reading is that it couldn't have happened without Khamenei's knowledge; it was much too orchestrated and premeditated, and now that it's over, supporters of Khamenei are coming in to support him.

It looks like the votes were never really counted, they just decided to announce a victory, right?

The timing of the thing suggests if in fact there was a record turnout, 85 percent to 86 percent of the population voting, the fact that they could announce the results about the time the polls closed or not very long afterwards, obviously, even if they had the world's best voting machines, they would not have been able to do that. And they don't use voting machines-they have people dropping their ballots into boxes which have to be opened and counted. The fact that this was a stolen election is not in doubt at all. The kind of information they put out-and then the fact that as the polls were closing they deployed police and military forces and paramilitary all over Tehran-they surrounded the Interior Ministry-they closed down Facebook sites, Twitter, mobile phones were all turned off, and regular news sites were blocked.  Those things don't happen instantly-they had to be planned, they had to be organized. And the reality is that they were expecting a severe reaction, which is what they got, and they were fully prepared to meet force with force. And that is what they have done.

Starting back in the Ford administration, you were on the National Security Council staff dealing with Iran and other issues. If you were on the National Security Council staff today, what advice would you offer the current administration about proceeding with its announcements that it wanted to have a direct dialogue with Iran.  Should this lead it to have second thoughts?

First of all, if I were on the NSC, my first piece of advice would be to do as little as possible. There is a battle going on inside Iran. This is an issue that is going to be fought out by Iranians-there's nothing to be gained by external forces coming into this or trying to influence the outcome. That would be a terrible mistake, and no matter what was said or done by the administration, it would be interpreted as intervention and would actually undercut severely the position of the reformists as they would be tagged as "tools of the West." So basically "do nothing for now" is not a bad piece of advice.

It’s clear that the task of [the United States] starting some kind of discussion or negotiations with Iran is going to be infinitely more complicated than it was before.

As regards to where we come out on this in the end, it's clear that the task of starting some kind of discussion or negotiations with Iran is going to be infinitely more complicated than it was before. It wasn't easy from the beginning-and anybody who thought it would be an easy task didn't understand the problem.  But now after this internal coup and all the coverage it has received, those people in the United States and particularly in Israel who really opposed the idea of having negotiations with Iran-who favored a pressure strategy to build up more sanctions and so on-are now going to use their clout in Congress and elsewhere to slow down or stop the process. So it's not that we can't talk to the Iranian government-obviously it's going to be harder to talk to an Ahmadinejad government after it's stolen the election-but the real problem is a domestic one. The administration is going to have to overcome a whole series of domestic hurdles which previously had been in abeyance.

And of course the administration is still committed, as are the Europeans, to getting Iran to suspend its nuclear enrichment program.

That problem has not changed. The problem has been and remains preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. The fact is we've tried a pressure strategy for more than ten years going all the way back to the Clinton administration. Now after more than ten years of putting pressure on Iran they have far greater capacity than they had when we started. This has to tell us something about the policy. So the real question is what will work? What can you do that will actually have an effect? And the fact is that the only thing that's remaining for us to do is to actually talk to Iran about what we want, what they want, and look for common ground. It's not going to be easy. But it hasn't been tried, and the other things we've been doing haven't worked.

People who say we haven't been tough enough with our sanctions are completely missing the point. Every time we've imposed sanctions, at whatever level, however stringent, Iran has upped its program not reduced it. We need to be aware of that and think of what we can do. We probably will have to accept Iranian enrichment in one form or another. The trick is how do you monitor that and control it and get Iran's cooperation in insuring that the low-enriched uranium they are producing is not transformed into high-enriched uranium, and into nuclear weapons. That's the objective and that's still something we can talk about with Iran. They have an interest in finding some kind of agreement with the international community and we have a strong interest in getting them to back off and basically agree to a form of surveillance or monitoring that we've not had thus far.

Do you think the events of June 12 and 13 will be remembered by Iranians as they still remember the events of August 1953 when Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh was overthrown in a coup that was backed by the United States and Britain?

I really do see this as a kind of historic turning point. A commentator from Iran just today sent me a note saying that the Islamic republic is dead, that basically it was based on a concept of listening to the people and having the support of the people for Islamic programs. That was the nature of the Islamic constitution and it's what [Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi] Khomeini [Iran's first Supreme Leader] said he wanted to do. In effect now they are saying "forget about the Iranian people-we don't care what they say or what they think. We're not going to listen to them." Basically it means that Iran is moving from what had been a decent experiment of being an Islamic Republic to being a totalitarian dictatorship. Now it isn't at that point yet but it is a step in that direction which is going to be unmistakable to a lot of people in Iran and they will remember this. How will it resonate fifty years from now, I don't know.  But it clearly demonstrated to many, many people in Iran that they were simply ignored. They had been asked to go out and vote; they had been allowed a certain amount of freedom to say what they thought. There were demonstrations, there was great excitement. Then the regime simply thumbs its nose at them and says, "OK, that was a mistake, now we're going to tell you what you need to do."

To me it would seem to be very important what happens to Moussavi. Right now he hasn't been heard since he issued his statement saying that the election is a farce and that it had been stolen from him. Do you think he will be put in a kind of exile in the country?

In answer to your question about how will this be remembered, a lot of whether this will be remembered or not depends on what happens next. For instance, Mr. Mossadegh in 1967 died in internal exile. Will Moussavi be treated the same way?  People look at the events of 1953 and say "well that took away what was a potentially democratic process and imposed a dictatorship of the Shah." And that's what they remember. Will that be what they remember about this, that it took away what little voice the people had in Iran and instead put in place a dictatorship?  If that is the way it's perceived, then yes there's a real chance that many years from now this will be recalled as a turning point.

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