Iran’s Clash of ’Titans’ May Not Resolve Itself Soon

Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert, says powerful forces are arrayed on both sides of Iran’s electoral dispute and that a resounding victory by either side is unlikely.

June 22, 2009

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Elections and Voting

Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert, says the country’s post-election unrest has revealed not only cracks between Iranians and the state but among the country’s powerful revolutionary elites. Farhi says chief presidential challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi has so far succeeded in inspiring mass protest by drawing on the ideals of the Iranian revolution, including justice and the rule of law. But the supreme leader, as well as declared President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, also have considerable support, she says. Given the powerful forces arrayed on each side, Farhi says,  "To assume that this will lead ultimately to a victory of one over the other is unrealistic as well as dangerous because it may come at the cost of tremendous violence." She also says the moderate statements made by U.S. President Barack Obama so far are "absolutely" correct.

When we last talked in May you said there might be efforts to cheat, but that "massive fraud was unlikely." Now it looks as if there might well have been "massive fraud." How did this happen, and if so, why did the authorities do it?

First of all, I was very surprised that this happened. It was a shocking event to watch; those were also the words used by Mir-Hossein Mousavi. The shock that the whole population felt after hearing the results was a very, very important element in ultimately getting so many people into the streets. This kind of manipulation had not occurred in the past. The feeling in the past had been if this did happen, there would be such tremendous reaction on the part of the people that it would prevent such fraud from occurring. Given the result, it was not a totally unreasonable expectation that there would be such reaction.

Why did this happen? We really don’t know why they decided to go that route. There is a possibility they were planning to win this election and they thought that there would be only 60 percent participation. If there was 60 percent participation coming up with these kinds of results, suggesting that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won by 60 percent would not be seen as so shocking to the world and the reformists. The expectation was that the reformists would not have a chance to win unless they could mobilize a very large number of people.

When you say "they," you mean Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Ahmadinejad and their staffs?

I am not in a position to figure out who planned this from the beginning. What we do know is that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are on the same side in terms of accepting the results of the election. Whether or not Khamenei was involved from the beginning in this fraud, I’m not in a position to say. All we know is that he has made clear that he is happy with the results. One can make the presumption that he or his staff was involved. And some have suggested that his family members were involved. That’s one possibility on why fraud occurred on such a massive scale.

Obviously there is also a crack in the leadership of Iran and it is that crack that has kept a space open for public demonstration.

Another possibility was that once they saw this massive participation, they started realizing that Mousavi might win and they became concerned, especially Khamenei, that Mousavi, having this kind of massive support, would be a much stronger president than he might like. Therefore it was because of this massive participation that the decision to go for this major manipulation of votes occurred.  Khamenei in his Friday prayers said that surely in the Islamic Republic there can be some fraud but you cannot engage in such massive fraud with an 11 million vote difference. They were worried that if the results were closer they would be challenged, and therefore they decided to go for a clear statement of victory to avoid the challenging. In that strategy they miscalculated badly.

The street protests seemed to die down on Sunday; today is Monday and there are no reports of anything unusual. Do you think the public part of the protests has been squashed?

There was shocking violence against the population, and this had a dampening effect. However, it is also possible that the opposition has decided that they need to sit down and look at what is happening and change their strategy in terms of how to behave in the face of the violence that has ensued. I would not assume that the protests have died. The format may change. There are reports of e-mails to everybody that on a certain day all the cars should turn their lights on. Obviously at night people are still going on their rooftops and shouting. With this kind of dynamic you would think that the decision to go one way or another in terms of protest might change. It is usually improvised in relationship to the possibilities that are available to the population to express their point of view, yet at the same time not face the kind of violence that the government has imposed on them.

The opposition has made their commitment to nonviolence clear, and therefore it has to adjust to the circumstances that have brought violence to them. The reason I do not think it’s going to die away that easily is because these disagreements that we see in Iran are not only between the people and the state. Obviously there is also a crack in the leadership of Iran and it is that crack that has kept a space open for public demonstration. Today, for example, someone close to [Former President Akbar] Hashemi Rafsanjani has called for a united front for all of the opposition to Ahmadinejad’s government. Now if that happens, clearly, it takes us to a different state. And it suggests that the opposition to Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Khamenei is serious about the continuation of this fight, and is looking for ways to buttress its power.

Talk about Rafsanjani for a minute. There were reports on Sunday that four or five of his family, including his daughter, were arrested and then released. What was that all about?

Timeline: U.S.-Iran Relations

Mr. Ahmadinejad and his supporters have made it clear that they consider Mr. Rafsanjani to be the person who is trying to coordinate all the opposition forces against Mr. Ahmadinejad. During the campaign it was clear that Mr. Rafsanjani’s family is supportive of Mr. Mousavi. His daughter was participating in the campaign as well as in the demonstrations [after the election]. So at this time in Iran there is a sense among the population that Mr. Rafsanjani is a key player in pushing back this authoritarian tendency that has taken grip in Iran.  For the Iranian population to feel that Mr. Rafsanjani is still powerful enough to actually work behind the scenes in an effort to prevent complete domination of the state by the hard-liners is very important. And for them to get the news that his daughter and family members had been arrested was very disheartening, because it suggested that Mr. Rafsanjani did not have the kind of power that they presumed he has. This is very much part of the psychological game that is being played by both camps in Iran. But the ability of Mr. Rafsanjani to get his family out of prison in such a short period of time is itself a reflection that Mr. Rafsanjani continues to maintain his power and it’s not as easy as Ahmadinejad’s supporters think to contain his power.

There has been some debate in Washington about whether President Obama should speak out more forcefully. He obviously wants to leave his options open for eventually negotiating with the Iranian government about the nuclear program and other issues.  Do you think what Obama has done so far is OK?

Absolutely. He has calibrated and spoken very carefully, something that American presidents haven’t done for long periods of time. It is important to understand what Mr. Obama is trying to do, which is to separate precisely what you’re suggesting, the long term and important direction which needs to happen in relationship to Iran’s nuclear program and the reality that the United States really cannot do anything productive through words or actual interference in this internal dynamic that is going on in Iran.

Mr. Obama is very aware of how American words, not actions even, can be used as a pretext to undermine the popular protests against the government of Iran. So he has spoken very wisely.

The United States has a tortured history in its relations with Iran. Many Iranians blame the United States for many things that have happened in Iran since 1953 [when the United States and Britain conspired to help overthrow the Iranian prime minister]. That tortured history dictates a kind of careful response on the part of the United States. In addition, Mr. Obama seems very much aware that the hard-liners in Iran are waiting for a pretext to make an argument that what is happening in Iran in terms of popular protests is essentially instigated by the Americans. In fact Iranian television is constantly making claims that many of the people who have been arrested have confessed that they received phone calls for example from the British, perhaps even the Americans. Mr. Obama is very aware of how American words, not actions even, can be used as a pretext to undermine the popular protests against the government of Iran. So he has spoken very wisely.

Let’s talk about Mr. Mousavi a bit more, the leader of the opposition. Has he attracted a great following now?

Obviously it looks like it. Estimates were that the largest demonstrations were as high as 3 million people in Tehran--this is an amazing number, comparable to the numbers that occurred during the 1979 revolution. Now Mr. Mousavi is an unlikely candidate to generate that kind of enthusiasm. When I wrote about him earlier when he was first beginning to run for president, I described him--and many other people have also described him that way--as not very charismatic. He is sort of an introvert, and not necessarily an eloquent speaker like President Mohammad Khatami was. However, circumstances have created the conditions so that in fact he has become the charismatic leader of this outpouring of political emotion in Iran, essentially because he has taken a stance that is very similar to the stance taken by the population--a state of shock and a refusal to accept what he, and many Iranians, consider to be an unfair election. The major campaign issue after the election has become a simple sentence--"Where is my vote?"--and it is within that frame that he has been able to draw on the ideals of the Iranian revolution--justice, fair play, the rule of law, an end to arbitrary rule--and turn them back against a government in Iran that has become authoritarian and is engaging in the kind of practices that presumably the revolutionaries fought against thirty years ago.

Summing up, what should we look for in the coming weeks?

No one is making the argument that Mr. Khamenei or Mr. Ahmadinejad do not have support among the population. They do. It’s not the majority, but they do have support. They also have the resources of the state--both financial and military. So that makes them quite robust. On the other side you have other leaders that have come together, and they are a powerful bunch--Mr. Rafsanjani, Mr. Khatami, Mr. Karroubi [presidential candidate], Mr. Mousavi--these are stellar revolutionaries that also have the support of a large part of the population. So we have these robust contenders--titans in some way--in a confrontation. To assume that this will lead ultimately to a victory of one over the other is unrealistic as well as dangerous because it may come at the cost of tremendous violence. My hope is that the path is opened to some sort of a compromise that allows, for example, a backing down on the part of Mr. Khamenei, perhaps some sort of a truth commission or a reelection, while at the same time he can maintain power, perhaps reduced power. [In this situation,] no side [would be] purged from the political system in such a way that they ultimately decide to engage in violence, or extreme violence, and the compromise would be the only way they can assure their survival.