My friend Matteen Mokalla is an Iranian-American SIPA (Columbia School of International and Public Affairs) grad who is writing a book drawing on his travels in Iran over the course of several months last year. I trust his opinion about Iranian matters greatly, and so decided to interview him via email today with some questions to deepen my understanding not just of the scale of the protests — we are all aware of that now — but their underlying issues and significance. Matteen has offered to answer any follow-up questions from readers, so please post them to the comments section.
1. How should Obama respond to the protests? How can he and other Western leaders avoid poisoning the opposition with the appearance of Western backing?
Although it is difficult for many in the West to see, the Iranian revolution that deposed the despotic Shah also brought a limited Democracy to Iran. The Republic’s democracy created a constitution, political parties, and most importantly solid oppositional leaders. This is why Iran has had the emergence of political elites as vastly different as Mousavi and Ahmadinejad. Had this form of home-brewed Democracy been imposed by the West it would never have had any sort of legitimacy and hence we would never see today people going to the streets demanding their rights. It will be sometime before similar movements emerge organically from other nations such as Syria and Egypt.
This is important to keep in mind as world powers determine how best to deal with the situation with Iran. With the memory of the American and British led 1953 coup against Mohammad Mossadegh still etched in the minds of Iranians everywhere it is vital that the United States and Europe stay out.
At most, world leaders should call on an end to the violence stemming from the state apparatus. When all this is over, and if Mousavi and his followers prove to be victorious, America and Europe’s decision not to mettle with the internal aspirations of the Iranian nation will surely be remembered. The same goes if Ahmadinejad and his camp win. It just might be part of the behavioral change that Iranian leaders have been calling for from the West for a long time.
2. The official tallies for the election give Ahmadinejad more than 65 percent of the vote. What’s your impression of what his actual support is like?
The official tallies from the Iranian Interior Ministry have claimed an 85 percent turnout, the highest turnout in the 30 years of the Islamic Republic. More importantly, shortly before the closing of the polls the Interior Ministry announced that the sitting president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won the election over the reformist candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi with 65 percent of the vote.
As many skeptics have said, this would mean Ahmadinejad would be the most popular President in the history of the Republic. To many Iran observers, this is simply an impossibility. In addition to this and the suspicious behavior of the Interior Ministry many have pointed out the unlikely victory of Ahmadinejad in urban centers including Mousavi’s home base of Tabriz where his fellow ethnic-Turks turned out in massive numbers to cast their vote for Mousavi. Prior to the election Mousavi’s camp had predicted they would win close to 70 percent of the vote nationwide.
Unwilling to accept these results, the Mousavi campaign and various Iranian political elites declared the election a fraud, with some going so far as to call Interior Ministry’s announcement a political coup. The results of this have been the massive protests that have captivated the world over the past week.
No one can clearly articulate what exactly is going on in the streets of Iran today. To do this will take some time and the skill of better historians, but here is what we do know. The massive protests have been met with sporadic state violence. This is not just the angry outburst of bitter Tehrani hipsters with nothing better to do. The Mousavi supporters (the self-declared “Green Wave”) have included prominent clerics, including Ayatollah Montazerri and former President Mohammad Khatami. Contrary to early reports the protests include men and women of all ages and all social classes. It is widely believed that the sole counter rally on behalf of Ahmadinejad was put together by bussing in his supporters from the provinces.
3. What do the protestors want? (A recount? A revote? A power-sharing agreement?) How much of a chance do they have of obtaining it?
Many rumors have spread throughout the blogosphere and via twitter that the protestors have seven demands: the resignation of Supreme Leader Khamenei, the resignation of Ahmadinejad, the transfer of the Supreme Leader’s responsibilities to Ayatollah Montazerri until a committee can re-evaluate the legitimacy of this constitutional position, the recognition of Mousavi as the rightful President, a new constitutional convention, the unconditional release of all political prisoners, and finally the dissolution of all secret organizations designed to oppress the Iranian people including the “morality police” and the para-military Basij militia.
Although many of these points are among the dreamed changes of the Iranian reformist camp, the Mousavi’s campaign to this day has only demanded one thing; another election only this time with certain guarantees of transparency.
4. What are the key issues dividing supporters of Mousavi and Ahmainejad? If Mousavi were to somehow take the presidency, would Iran stop pursuing nuclear power, start being friends with Israel and the United States and give up Islam as the guiding set of principles for the state?
Many observers have wondered what changes and what doesn’t if Mousavi and his people were to win Iran and lead the country. First and foremost, you will see an Iranian populace that will no longer tolerates not having a major say in their government. Secondly, there will surely be an improvement in human rights, freedom of speech, and a drastic reduction of irksome social restrictions that regulate public and private life in Iran.
On an international scale, Iran’s state interests will largely remain the same. It will still be flanked by the American military in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It will still face the challenge of a bellicose Israel governed by the right-wing Likud party. Moreover, Iran will still be geographically located in a region where rivals and potential rivals such as Israel, India, and Pakistan keep large nuclear arsenals. Iran’s nuclear ambitions – whether for peaceful purposes or not – will carry on.
5. What does the world risk if Ahmadinejad retains the presidency? Is it true that, as Gary Sick has argued, the fixing of the election is an unintentional gift from the clerics to the neocons?
The “election” of Ahmadinejad can be seen as a gift to American neocons and the Israeli right. Still, it remains my firm opinion that an Ahmadinejad-led Iran poses no existential threat to any nation, including Israel. And I still encourage individuals to interpret Ahmadinejad’s more inflammatory comments, as unacceptable as they are, vis-à-vis the Muslim street and Iran’s strategic desire to wield influence with it. That said, one might imagine it being much more difficult for American neocons and the Israeli right wing (I often wonder if their is a difference between the two) to convince the world that military action is needed against Iran if Iran were lead by Moussavi, who has condemned Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial and has called on better relations with the West.
For now the revolt all across the streets of Iran goes on…