Iran’s electorate, Beeman says, is largely united on the need for social reform in the country and the desirability of a peaceful nuclear-energy program. But they have divided their support between three leading candidates, and a Rafansanji victory is not assured. Despite the role of the conservative Council of Guardians in selecting the presidential candidates, “there’s no question that this is a real election and it really is happening,” he says. “And this is not an election that is controlled and it’s not an election where we know the outcome.”
Beeman, whose latest book, The ‘Great Satan’ vs. The ‘Mad Mullahs’: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other, will be published soon, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on June 15, 2005.
You’ve just come back from a visit to Iran where you got a flavor of the presidential election campaign that just wrapped up. Can you give us a brief description of what you saw?
What’s fascinating about this campaign is that it is, for all intents and purposes, a very Western-style campaign. The candidates, even the frontrunner, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, have lucid [campaigning] techniques that we would think of as being essentially Western for the election. Obviously, they’re all taking the election quite seriously. Hashemi Rafsanjani has also put in his platform—in fact, all of the candidates have put in their platforms—measures that we associate with the reformist movement.
Well, for instance, for Rafsanjani, one of the more important points of his campaign is increased rights for women and attention to the needs of young people. It’s very interesting. Among his campaigners, he actually has some very powerful spokeswomen, who are out on the stump with him and are, I’d say, doing a fantastic job in representing him as a can-do candidate who can really mediate between the demands of the public—which is increasingly requiring or demanding that the government liberalize in important ways—and the traditional mullahs, who still hold significant power in the country. He also has recruited, it seems, hundreds of very young people to run the streets and hand out flyers and buttonhole people. It’s amazing to see the impression that this gives—that it is women and youth for Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is 70.
Why do you think these young people, who might normally be supporting the reformist candidate, Mustafa Moin, are supporting him?
Well, he actually trucked in [to Tehran] hundreds of folks from his native province in Iran. He comes from the area around Yazd. And it seems a lot of his relatives, and a lot of his relatives’ friends, and people who would like to see him elected from his local area have made the trip to Tehran and are doing this work. I think that it would be wrong to characterize them entirely as coming from that area, but that’s certainly where a bunch of them came from.
Have there been any reliable political polls?
Well, we’ve seen political polls. Now, it’s hard to tell whether they are reliable or not, because they’ve varied tremendously from day-to-day. Earlier, around the 8th of June, the polls suggested the second-place runner was Mohammed Baqur Qalibaf, who used to be chief of police in Tehran. And his campaign has been the slickest thing I’ve ever seen. I am astonishingly impressed with the print and media images he has been able to generate. He has been turned into an absolute glamour boy.
He also has a pilot’s license and a PhD in geography. He’s not a person without accomplishments. He was also an early member of the Revolutionary Guard in Iran, so it’s very interesting. He led a crackdown on the student population in 1999, but he also has this very, very modern image.
He’s in his early 40s, and I actually have a collection of posters of him that were really impressive. In one, he is in a pilot’s uniform next to an Iranian jet, looking like a glamorous aviator. There’s another one that’s a poster in a very untraditional format. It’s in a long, horizontal strip that simply has the upper part of his face kind of staring out at you, and it’s all black and white, except they have enhanced his blue eyes. So you see this black and white poster with these electric blue eyes staring out at you, and in Iran, of course, most people have brown eyes. There are people who do have blue eyes—they’re thought to be the descendants of Alexander the Great—it’s one of the myths people have. The poster projects an extraordinarily arresting image, and he’s attracted a lot of young people, who believe him to be, again, a person who has a kind of can-do attitude and is very powerful.
What about the great bugaboo, the “Great Satan”? Have any of the candidates talked much about the United States?
Rafsanjani has, of course, and in fact—in very coded terms—he has come out and said he is the one who can actually deliver on creating a rapprochement with what he calls “the world community,” or “nations outside of Iran.” He doesn’t say the United States directly, but I think everybody who hears his campaign material knows that’s what he’s talking about. After all, he has an extraordinary advantage in Iranian politics, in my opinion, and that is that he was involved with the Iran-Contra affair directly [in which elements in the Reagan administration secretly sold missiles to Iran and used the proceeds to fund illegal covert actions in Nicaragua]. Despite being up close and friendly with the United States at that time, he has not suffered politically at all. The great danger in Iran has always been that the person who would try to achieve some kind rapprochement with the United States would immediately be tainted politically by his enemies in such a way that would make him ineffective. In this particular case, Rafsanjani has been completely, seemingly unscathed. So he has already, in important ways, addressed particular problems politicians have had. I think he feels he can go forward.
How does this election work? Does there have to be a run-off if no candidate wins a majority?
Yes. I think everyone feels that Rafsanjani will be the frontrunner, and probably will win between 30 percent and 40 percent of the vote.
And who will be second?
Up until last week, Qalibaf was running second. But just before I left, a new poll came out, which actually put Moin, the reform candidate, in second place. So that was a big surprise and we don’t know exactly what it all means. I had a chance to chat with Moin’s chief spokesperson, who’s also a woman, and she’s a formidable lady who is quite confident he will do extremely well in the election.
And what is Moin’s background?
He’s held a number of government posts, including minister of culture, I believe. But he’s been continually involved with the government, and I think that’s one of the reasons why he was allowed into the election. The important thing is people did see him as a serious challenge. He was originally excluded from the list of candidates by the Guardian Council. When people essentially expressed dismay about this—and there was a very widespread feeling that this was too heavy-handed on the part of the Guardian Council—[Supreme Leader] Ayatollah [Ali] Khamenei personally requested that he and another candidate be included again.
During the last parliamentary election, two years ago, there was a boycott of the election. Why was that?
The reason people were trying to boycott the elections was because the Guardian Council had excluded nearly 2,300 candidates.
Is there another boycott going on?
There has been an attempt to boycott this election, but not a very well-organized one. In talking to people around Tehran, lots of folks expressed real dismay at the election, and said they were really unhappy that the candidates they feel would be strong reformists were excluded again from the candidate list by the Guardian Council. So there are a number of people who plan not to vote. Actually, though, when you talk to them—you can’t do a huge sample just talking to people informally—but I was struck by the fact that not everybody who plans not to vote was doing so out of political protest. A lot of them were just unexcited by the list of candidates. No one really seemed to fire them up. Moin, as thoughtful and important a candidate he is in terms of representing the reformers, is extremely dull.
I heard he’s a terrible speaker.
He’s quite a bad speaker. Also, what the public is expressing, as is reflected in candidates’ statements designed to attract votes, is an insistence that the reform movement go forward. And they want any candidate that will move the reform movement forward, even incrementally. A lot of people are saying, “You know, we don’t really like Mr. Hashemi [Rafsanjani]. He’s kind of a very clever, old-style politician and all that. But he is the one that is likely to be able to actually deliver on some of the points of the reform movement that we insist on. And Moin, as much as we like his philosophy—he’s not going to be able to deal with the clerics and the clerical establishment.” Qalibaf, also, is favored largely because he’s seen as a very strong figure. So the strength in these candidates actually turns out to be a very important point.
It’s interesting that all the conservatives couldn’t coalesce behind one candidate.
There’s a fourth candidate, cleric Mehdi Karrubi, who is a very interesting person. He was a speaker in parliament who ran afoul of the other clerics and he has been a rather important protest figure from within the clerical establishment. He has tried to circumvent them by wrapping himself in the mantel of the late Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeini [the Islamic Republic’s founder] in his campaigning. His campaign pieces that appear on TV—again, very slick pieces of work—start out with a big picture of Ayatollah Khomeini, and the camera pans out, and you see Khomeini speaking to a crowd, and there’s Karrubi right there next to him. So people who might be uncomfortable voting for a completely secular candidate, or who feel the flames of the revolution are still alive, might be more comfortable voting for Karrubi, even though right now the current clerical establishment is not very happy with him.
Does the clerical establishment back Rafsanjani?
Actually, they don’t. They’re backing Qalibaf. Rafsanjani has been a real political survivor. I mean, not only did he serve as president twice already, but he also headed up a body called the Expediency Council. This is an unelected post that, more or less, he created himself, and it was a council designed to mediate between the parliament [the Majlis] and the clerical establishment. It was created because, during the reform presidencies of [Mohammed] Khatami in his two terms [1997-2005], the Majlis was continually coming up with laws that were vetoed by the Guardian Council, and it really made the public furious. So there was a need for somebody to step in and try and resolve this.
There are two major international issues for Iran: the nuclear issue—which has involved the European Union and the United States—and Iraq. Do these issues come up in the campaign?
The nuclear issue does come up, but I think there is no question that the public, all the candidates, and the current establishment are completely unified on this point: Iran should be developing its nuclear industry.
Here’s one point that utterly escapes us in the United States, and I really wish people in power could understand: The discourse on the nuclear question between the United States and Iran is almost a complete disconnect. The United States, not to put too fine a point on it, thinks Iran is going after nuclear weapons in order to do some damage to the United States and its allies. To put it really crudely, as one adviser connected to the White House told me, “Look, we know Iran wants to develop a nuclear bomb to drop on Tel Aviv.” This kind of statement just utterly and completely floors me.
The Iranian side of the discourse is that they want to be known and seen as a modern, developing state with a modern, developing industrial base. The history of relations between Iran and the West for the last hundred years has included Iran’s developing various kinds of industrial and technological advances to prove to themselves—and to attempt to prove to the world—that they are, in fact, that kind of country.
The nuclear-power issue is exactly that. When Iranians talk about it, and talk about the United States, they say, “The United States is trying to repress us; they’re trying to keep us down and keep us backward, make us a second-class nation. And we have the ability to develop a nuclear industry, and we’re being told we’re not good enough, or we can’t.” And this makes people furious—not just the clerical establishment, but this makes the person on the street, even 16- and 17-year-olds, absolutely boil with anger. It is such an emotional issue that absolutely no politician could ever back down on this question. But again, the public, when you ask them about nuclear weapons, they just sort of look at you like you are crazy. Because that’s not even close to what it means to them.
Shifting gears, do you think there is any possibility the young people of Iran might attempt to spearhead a revolution against the government?
In the last 15 years, the youth of the country have now come to the fore in massive numbers. Right now, of course, we know that something like 70 percent of the population is under the age of 25. But what is really important is that, although the population as a whole is very youthful, it will be within the next five years that the majority of the voting population will have no knowledge of the revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini or anything that went on in 1978 and 1979. My prediction is that, within five to ten years, there’s going to be such a change in Iran that it will make our heads spin.
The young people are absolutely hell-bent on reform. But they’re willing to wait. The students, the really kind of intrepid students at the University of Tehran, are not interested in violence and they’re quite articulate about it. They certainly don’t want a foreign-installed government of any sort, and they said, “We’re engaged in a quiet revolution.”
And what are the main reforms they want?
First of all, they’re concerned with personal liberty. The simple fact is that, at least in Tehran, I would say everybody does just about anything they want in private. The government has absolutely stopped going into people’s houses and, in fact, private behavior is now, I would say, virtually completely free. The government has repressed people who’ve been expressing opposition opinions in very prominent places. They’ve arrested some bloggers and one student at the University of Tehran who wrote a letter to [U.N. Secretary General] Kofi Annan that got a lot of attention, and he was put in jail for a few months. But it was the government itself that released him eventually, which is quite interesting. So the young people would like the de facto personal liberties, which people have just sort of seized for themselves, to be essentially acknowledged by the government as a whole.
The women in particular, who staged a demonstration while we were there for women’s rights, want important reforms within the legal system to reach an accommodation between Islamic law and what they would consider to be a modern stance for family law, in particular. The question of whether women can participate in public life has been absolutely resolved. There is just no question. Women are there and in every way, in every area of public life, and they’re not going to go away. They are actually one of the strongest forces for reform in the country. And anybody in the United States who still believes women in Iran are somehow helpless victims of male hegemony is expressing an incredibly inaccurate and outmoded view.
They’re still required to wear head coverings. But beyond that, you see everything in the world. What it is, is modest dress. And modest dress is, by the way, incumbent upon both men and women. But what the women have done is to develop all sorts of very stylish ways to achieve that. So they’ll have a head covering that may expose a lot more hair, which is considered erotic in Iran, and maybe a very light coat that they’ll be wearing with pants. We see, for young girls, it’s evolved into kind of a head covering, a jacket over a blouse, and maybe even jeans. The whole thing has become extraordinarily fashionable.
After the election, should the United States say anything?
I think that the United States should certainly not undercut the election, whatever happens. The Bush administration has the most unfortunate habit of saying negative things just when things are starting to get better. We had an enormously important possibility of an opening to Iran after the Bam earthquake [December 2003] only to have President Bush, on New Year’s Day, come out and again make hugely negative remarks about Iran. If the administration can’t say anything nice, then they really should say nothing. Whether one likes the fact that candidates were vetted before the election or not, there’s no question that this is a real election and it really is happening. And this is not an election that is controlled and it’s not an election where we know the outcome. And if it does go into a run-off, even though Rafsanjani is now a favored candidate, it’s not clear that he would win, because the other candidates, and there are several, might throw their support to his opponent.