Interviewee: Farideh Farhi, Affiliate Graduate Faculty and Lecturer, University of Hawaii at Manoa
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
Iran’s leaders are worried about contagion from the pro-democracy revolutions infecting the region, and those concerns are affecting jockeying for power in parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012 and 2013, says Iran analyst Farideh Farhi.
Farhi notes many Iranians were pleased by the overthrow of presidents in Tunisia and Egypt, hoping that these would give the Iranian opposition greater support in the Arab world. But Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei tried to reframe those events as an extension of the Islamic revolution, says Farhi, and the government has cracked down on important opposition figures, notably by placing former presidential candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi under house arrest.
The government banned any publication of news about demonstrations and violence in Syria, Iran’s top Arab ally, says Farhi, and has responded ambivalently to events in Libya, at once saying Qaddafi should go but protesting United States and NATO efforts to overthrow him. However, Fahri cautions, “Iranian politics have become so opaque” that it’s difficult to predict what will happen next or even determine what is going on in the country.
Former presidential candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, who claim the presidential elections in June 2009 were rigged to allow Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be reelected, have been placed under house arrest with their wives in Tehran. Why? Also, former president Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, a moderate, recently stepped down from his chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts. Was that significant?
Protests continued for several months after the June 2009 election. Then there was a period of quiet. But on February 14 major street demonstrations (Reuters) were called by Mousavi and Karoubi ostensibly to give support to the protest movements in the Arab world. There is much evidence that the government was surprised by the extent of the demonstrations. Since then, the government has reacted harshly, and since that day Mousavi and Karoubi and their wives have effectively been detained. For a time, people did not even know where they were. Their children did not have any access to them. Now, apparently, they are back in their homes, but all outside connections have been stopped. What is going on in Iran now is stepped-up security within the political system. This has increased polarization in the country, because the leadership has reacted in such a harsh manner.
In the process, individuals like Rafsanjani–who have tried to maintain the middle ground and have called for some sort of reconciliation to reduce tension–have been placed in a difficult situation. Rafsanjani, who has had a history of being both pragmatic (NYT) and maintaining a middle position, has been pressured to take sides, but he has refused to do so. As a result, he was pushed out of one of his major positions, which was the chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts. The argument made was that he actually did not lose his position to hardliners, but another cleric, Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani–an important figure in the early years of the revolution who is considered to be conservative but not hard-line–was asked to take his place in order to maintain the image that the Assembly of Experts is not one-sided. But it was clear the hardliners wanted at least a symbolic victory against Rafsanjani.
Rafsanjani still heads the Expediency Council, to which he was appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his term in office will be up soon. So the question of whether or not he will be completely purged from the Iranian political system will come in the next year or so. At the end of March, Mousavi’s father passed away. The government prevented a proper funeral for Mousavi’s 103-year old father, and did not allow Mousavi to attend. Rafsanjani made it a point to send a letter of condolence to Mousavi, underscoring that he will not abandon his middle ground. He was heavily criticised for his letter in the official press.
Ahmadinejad cannot run for a third term. Is there a likely successor to him?
There is much speculation. But before we get to the presidential elections, which will occur in 2013, there will be a parliamentary election in March 2012. In that election, some of the political outlines of what may happen in the presidential election will become clear. Given the increased polarization of the Iranian political system, the reformists will probably run a few candidates, but the major competition will not be between the reformists’ camp and the so-called “principalists” camp, as it has been for the past decade. The fight for control of parliament will essentially be within the conservative camp. A coalition of groups will compete essentially as a pro-Ahmadinejad force. Against them will be a coalition of groups that will try to run on a more conservative orientation. Inside Iran, Ahmadinejad is considered more centrist than many of his opponents on the right. That is how they will represent themselves because many people have argued that Ahmadinejad and followers have pursued a policy that attempts to monopolize the political process and push out the competition. The parliamentary elections will demonstrate whether the supporters of Ahmadinejad will do well or not. If they do, then that will give us hints about individuals that may run in the presidential elections.
One of the people mentioned as a candidate is Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, but he is extremely controversial (PBS) within the conservative camp. Some people have suggested he’s a reformist at heart. He has antagonized quite a few people. Some people have also accused both Ahmadinejad and Mashaei of pursuing a policy that purges clerics out of the political process in Iran. It’s not even clear if Mashaei will be allowed to run as a presidential candidate, given the Iranian system in which candidates have to be vetted by a special commission. The public positions Mashaei has taken in support of traditional Iranian pre-Islamic holidays, like Nowruz, suggests that what he–or someone else from that camp–would like to do is attract voters who in previous elections voted for reformist candidates. So, they are people who are trying to expand their base because otherwise they may not have a lot of support within the population. Iranian politics have become so opaque and so difficult to predict that it is hard to tell what is going on.
Is the Iranian government concerned about what is happening in the Arab world? Are the leaders worried that the revolution might cross their borders? The February crackdown suggests they are.
They do watch events in the region. Not only because of what might happen inside Iran, but also because of their own geo-political interests in the region. They’re quite happy about some developments, and in other cases they have tremendous concern. Like the United States, the Iranian government looks at what is happening in the Arab world in a very differentiated manner. When events began to open up democracies in Tunisia and Egypt, the Iranians had quite a bit of concern about implications inside Iran. In fact Ayatollah Khamenei gave a Friday prayer speech that was partially in Arabic, and many people in Iran thought that was an attempt to try to reframe the events that were going on in Egypt and Tunisia as an extension of an Islamic revolution rather than a democracy protest movement.
But at the geopolitical level, Iranians judged that the sentiment of the Arab public will ultimately be more along the same lines the Iranians have taken in terms of their positions on the Arab/Israeli conflict. So, democratization in Egypt and Tunisia is something that Iranian leaders see as positive. On the other hand, the Iranian leaders have approached the Libyan crisis with ambivalence. They have condemned Qaddafi, [but] they have serious concerns about American and NATO’s military involvement in Libya and have tried to frame the American involvement in terms of oil interests and compare that to lack of attention on the part of the United States in terms of the suppression in Bahrain [where a Shiite majority has been subjected to repression by the ruling Sunni monarchy]. They have tried to highlight hypocrisy that they consider to represent American foreign policy. On the other hand, they’ve been very quiet about what is happening in Syria. You hardly can find any reporting of Syrian protests because, obviously, any change in Syria–an important ally–represents a major concern to Iranian interests. Like everyone else in the region, they really do not know where all these things are going. The fluidity of the situation makes the coming year for Iran very important, because the Iranians are trying to figure out how these major regional changes will impact Iran’s regional interests as well as its domestic politics.
After holding out offers of friendship to Iran when Obama first became president, the administration now seems to have changed its policy and seems much tougher on human rights issues and critical of the Iranian leadership. Is the relationship frozen now?
It looks like it. Obama in his first New Years [Nowruz] message to Iran in 2009 spoke not only to the Iranian people but to the leader of the Islamic Republic, in effect acknowledging the legitimacy (WSJ) of the Islamic Republic. In his New Year message last month, there was no talking to the leaders of the Islamic Republic. There was direct conversation with the Iranian people, a statement that the United States stands by them, [but] no references to United States’ respect for religion and Islam, [and instead] a reference to the glorious history of the Persian Empire. The policy orientation toward Iran has become much more hard-line. The Obama administration still maintains that its objective is to change the behaviour of Iran and not change the regime. But Obama’s language was ambiguous in that regard.