Iran’s Political Crisis Far From Over

A leading Iranian expert, Shaul Bakhash, says a speech by former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and a call for a referendum by former President Mohammad Khatami have given new life to the opposition

July 21, 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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A leading Iranian expert, Shaul Bakhash, says despite the crackdown against the Iranian opposition, "the crisis isn’t over" in Iran. Bakhash says what had been a fairly cautious speech by former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, as well as a call for a referendum from another former president, Mohammad Khatami, have given new life to the opposition. He says "the reaction [to Rafsanjani’s speech] has been quite electric and perhaps unintentionally, he reopened the whole debate." As for U.S. policy, he says he supports the Obama administration’s expressed desire to negotiate with Iran, but "what the administration has advanced is clearly now problematical. How do you sit with representatives of a government that hasn’t won a legitimate election and which has brutally suppressed peaceful demonstrations and protests?"

On Friday, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former Iranian president, and an influential opponent of the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, gave the Friday prayer sermon, in which he seemed to support strongly those who have claimed that the June 12 presidential election was a fraud.  It was very long and was quite significant, wasn’t it?

Yes. He had some very significant things to say about the outcome of the elections. First of all, he acknowledged that the country faced a crisis of confidence and of credibility of the system itself. He called for a freeing of all political prisoners, those who were arrested during the demonstrations following the June 12 elections. He called for freedom of press, and particularly, for the national media and television to allow all voices to be heard. And he called for national reconciliation. So unlike the supreme leader, [Ayatollah] Ali Khamenei, who in a similar Friday prayer session on June 19 condemned the protestors as foreign agents, or worse, he supported them. So the mere fact that he could understand the opposition, quite contrary to the position taken by the supreme leader, was significant. This is very unusual in Iran.

However, Rafsanjani’s speech had its limitations. He seemed to be saying, "This action is done, let’s move on, let’s try to heal the wounds." He was cautious, but the reaction has been quite electric and perhaps unintentionally, he reopened the whole debate. He strengthened the hand of the opposition and kept alive the claim that the election was tampered with and is in some ways illegitimate. And on Sunday former President Mohammad Khatami called for a national referendum on whether the result of the elections is legitimate or not.

Now the Iranian press is heavily censored, so there can’t be much open discussion?

Television and radio are a state monopoly. The government has many newspapers that support and speak for it. And the opposition papers are strongly curbed. So discussion in the media is limited, but nevertheless it goes on. One thing they haven’t closed down is the websites of the opposition leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the presidential candidate whose supporters believe was robbed in the official election, and also the other [reformist] candidate, Mehdi Karroubi. So they can make their views known on their websites, not in published newspapers.

And what has Mousavi said?

[Rafsanjani] strengthened the hand of the opposition and kept alive the claim that the election was tampered with and is in some ways illegitimate.

Mousavi has been relatively quiet in the last couple of days, but he and Karroubi did attend Rafsanjani’s Friday prayer. It is his way. One, perhaps, of the failings of Mousavi as a leader is that he doesn’t always lead. He is not always in the front line of these protest movements. At the moment he seems satisfied to let Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Karroubi do the work for him that he should be doing himself.

Now, let’s talk a bit about Rafsanjani because he is a bit of a mystery. He is a former president. He was very close to Ayatollah Khomeini [supreme leader from 1979-1989]. He is a respected senior cleric, yet he was attacked by Ahmadinejad as corrupt in the preelection debate. What is he trying to do?

He has two considerations. One is his own standing and reputation. President Ahmedinejad’s attack on him and his family for financial corruption upset him very deeply. In fact he wrote a letter to the supreme leader complaining about this charge, to which he got no reply from the leader, who is close to Ahmadinejad. Secondly, he is genuinely concerned about what many regard as a stolen election. He has always been a man of the middle, a pragmatist in reaching out to try and heal the wounds and bringing everybody together again. Again, he is in many ways playing the role he has played in the past. Ahmadinejad, who has now been the president for the last four years, has proven to be one of the most divisive figures in the history of the Islamic Republic ever since the earliest days of the revolution. The way Rafsanjani is siding on this occasion with Mousavi and the opposition reflects his concerns about the direction the country has been taking since Ahmadinejad assumed the presidency.

Why didn’t the supreme leader allow Ahmadinejad to be defeated if, in fact, the election results were against Ahmadinejad?

There has been always a much closer meeting of minds between Ahmadinejad and the supreme leader than many observers thought. And many of the things that Ahmadinejad said about the Holocaust, about the United States, about Israel recall positions that the leader has taken in the past. Secondly, as the campaign showed mounting support for Mousavi, the regime panicked. And the regime feared that if they allowed this to continue, for example, into a second round of the elections, the support for Mousavi might grow [in the Iranian electoral system, if a candidate does not win more than 50 percent of the vote, a second election is held]. And in the course of the campaign, Mousavi took positions on Iran’s foreign policy, on relations with the United States, on domestic issues of freedom, which were at odds with the government’s policy. So this panic led to the decision not only to hand Ahmadinejad what many believe to be an undeserved victory but to give him such a huge margin, which many Iranians found totally incredible and [this] outraged them in such a way as to bring them out in the streets.

The U.S. government has been sympathetic to the protest but really has not taken a very strong stand on it and still holds out a hand to Iran for negotiations. Do you think the United States should take a tougher position?

I see no reason to rush into discussions with Iran and not wait for the dust on the election results to settle.

President Obama was right not to involve the United States in the elections themselves or the disputes that occurred over the election results because as he himself noted, he did not need the United States to become an issue in the election itself. This Iranian government likes nothing better than to criticize and attack the United States for alleged interference in Iranian elections. But this policy of engaging Iran, which I favored and I have always favored and which the administration has advanced, is clearly now problematical. How do you sit with representatives of a government that hasn’t won a legitimate election and which has brutally suppressed peaceful demonstrations and protests? I understand the rationale for the desire for the United States to pursue engagement with Iran, but perhaps this is not the moment to do that. And I see no reason to rush into discussions with Iran and not wait for the dust on the election results to settle.

Ahmadinejad appointed Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei as the new first vice president. This has now caused a big stir in the conservative camp. Tell us about that.

The first vice president really runs the day-to-day affairs of the government for the president. And Ahmadinejad chose an individual who in the past has said on one occasion that although Iran and Israel are hostile to one another, Iran is a friend of the Israeli people. That comment caused great controversy in Iran and subjected this gentleman to criticism at the time.

Editors note: The appointment of Mashaei continues to create controversy among the conservatives. According to the Iranian press, the supreme leader ordered Mashaei’s removal in a letter sent to Ahmadinejad. The Los Angeles Times reported on July 22 that Ahmadinejad was defying the "order."


Does this indicate a kind of liberalization of Ahmadinejad’s policy?

I don’t think so. That statement in the past by Mashaei that Iranian and Israeli people are friends was something he must have said in a moment of inattention. There is no other indication that Ahmadinejad is easing up on Israel and the outside world in general. On Thursday, on the day before Rafsanjani delivered his Friday sermon calling for reconciliation, Ahmadinejad made a speech which to my mind was very harsh and continued that line that you hear from leaders like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela about the hostility of the entire world towards the Islamic revolution in Iran.

What is going to happen in the next month or so?

Both Rafsanjani’s Friday sermon and Khatami’s call for a referendum on the election results show that the opposition has refused to remain silent. Now at the same time we know that the repression is brutal. After all, hundreds of people were arrested and some of them are among the leading political figures identified with Mousavi and the opposition and they haven’t been let go. So there is on the one hand a very severe repression and on the other hand, this protest movement. The outcome of this confrontation will depend a great deal on how much leadership and intelligence the opposition shows and how willing people are to continue coming out in the street and risking arrest and being beaten over the head with clubs. Clearly the crisis isn’t over.


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