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Babak Yektafar: Silence of many clerics and Mousavi’s defiance shows struggle within elite is fierce

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, coming to you from just outside Washington. And in Washington, DC, is Babak Yektafar, editor-in-chief of, which focuses on US and Iranian affairs. Thanks for joining us again, Babak.


JAY: So in the first segment of our interview we talked about some of the historical origins of the current conflict. Now let’s talk a little bit more about what’s happening now. In the year 2000, Al Gore, after a partisan Supreme Court in many peoples’ eyes more or less stole an American election, Al Gore looked into the abyss and decided not to go there. He decided he wouldn’t take any steps that might “shake the pillars of the system,” to quote Mousavi in Iran. But Mousavi seems to be willing to shake the pillars: he’s calling people back into the streets; he’s questioned the election; he’s questioning the very authority of the supreme leader. Why is he going so far here? Because he is potentially threatening the whole Islamic revolutionary system.

YEKTAFAR: Well, Paul, I think more than anything it really has to do with the future of the Islamic Republic. I think we’ve previously talked about this, this notion that now, after 30 years, there’s a whole generation of the original revolutionaries who are now kind of passing on to the upcoming generation. And I think for a number of them and for a number of reasons it’s very important to know where this regime is going, first and foremost that it would kind of remain in the way that it was originally envisioned and that it would remain healthy and, you know, with whatever direction it’s going. But I just do want to point about the 2000 elections in the United States. Of course, as you know, one of the big differences here wasn’t necessarily that there were disputes about the number of votes and whether or not there was, you know, a higher percentage at one polling place more so than those who were eligible to vote or not. Essentially I think we’re talking about the fact that you have an extremely uneven ground. And even though it was kind of known at first there was a challenge, still people like Mousavi, people like Mr. Karroubi—these are the two challengers who are more affiliated with the more reform-minded sect—they still decided that they would go through it to see whether or not they can manage something. But if you have a supreme leader who is an ultimate arbitrator coming out in favor of one of the candidates before the elections, when you have a body, the Guardian Council, that is supposed to be in charge of these elections, vetting the candidates and counting the votes and all that, a 12-member where 8 of the members have come out in favor of one candidate; when you have a military apparatus that essentially shoots off a warning a week before the election, saying that anything that resembles any kind of a velvet revolution is going to be dealt with severely (and we know who they’re backing); and the media, which is state-controlled, but it’s in the hands of the incumbent; when they all are kind of colliding together and creating an extremely uneven feel, I think more than anything that’s what Mr. Mousavi and Mr. Karroubi are protesting against. And that’s one aspect of it. And of course the other one is that after a while, after the first week of protests by the people, I think it kind of went beyond the issue of rigging the votes and irregularities; I think it went to the point where people had this notion that even though this is an oppressed society, they were offered these levers that would give at least the perception that somehow they are in charge of their future. Maybe they can’t choose a supreme leader, but at least at the presidential level someone who’s supposed to deal with the day-to-day running of the country and maybe be in charge of their economy and their well-being, that supposedly they had a say in that, and even that turned out to be a mirage. And so, overtly, essentially, it was kind of thrown back at them that, hey, it doesn’t really count; even if you try hard enough and if we have an 85 percent turnout for the voting, it just doesn’t mean anything.

JAY: But they kind of knew that going in. What I’m asking is they know the authoritarian nature of the supreme leader. It’s built right into the Constitution how much power he has. But they seem willing to defy it in a way no one has in the past 30 years. What has brought them to the point they’re willing to go there?

YEKTAFAR: Exactly. And that’s why, more than anything, the fact that the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, came out and essentially said the president has been elected, it’s Mr. Ahmadinejad, and stop at the rallies, you know, his mode of operation, modus operandi, his MO, essentially, for the past 30 years as the supreme leader, has been if it really gets hot, if it gets to the point that he feels some sort of a threat, he will come out and say and would acknowledge there is a problem, let’s solve it; you know, “So-and-so, solve it amongst yourself,” and he would step back out. And that’s essentially how he has been able to survive for the past 30 years without necessarily sticking his neck out in favor of one issue over another or one candidate over another. But this time it was completely different. And I think people, even though they are familiar with the nature of this regime, I think, be that as it may, there were some who were willing to go this route, who were willing to exercise this right (at least what was perceived as right) that they were given, to make sure. Again, I’ll go back to 1997 and the election of President Khatami. That was something that nobody thought that would happen. They did not expect it to happen. So I think some of the residuals of that were still being carried into this particular election. And, also, within the ruling elite there was a major rift. There were a number of conservatives who were not willing to support Mr. Ahmadinejad, who were very much against Mr. Ahmadinejad. And it’s very interesting that even now only two, I think, major ayatollahs from Qom have supported Mr. Ahmadinejad. Nobody else has said anything, any kind of congratulatory note or anything, in regards to his election.

JAY: Mousavi’s actually made a point of this by—he says with their silence all these clerics are more or less supporting his position.

YEKTAFAR: Exactly. And I think that’s very important. So the fact that there was such a rift within the ruling elite and because of some of the historical background with the election of Khatami, I think people were willing, despite knowing that they had, you know, major hills to climb, they were willing to go ahead and participate and see what [inaudible]

JAY: So the question I have: is the fact that Mousavi’s not been arrested yet, even though he is speaking—and according to some of Ahmadinejad’s supporter-clerics’ words, they’re essentially accusing him of treason; on the other hand, he’s not been arrested. Does that suggest and is there any evidence that there might be some split in the Revolutionary Guard about all of this?

YEKTAFAR: Well, there is a split, although I think that those who are controlling the levers in the Revolutionary Guards and other elements affiliated with the guards still are pro-Ahmadinejad and are kind of pulling the strings. But be that as it may, there are divisions with all of these entities that we’re talking about—among the clerics, among the security apparatus, the military, and so on and so forth. That exists. And that’s really—some people, like Mr. Rafsanjani, Mr. Mousavi, Mr. Karroubi—these are all the so-called challengers—are counting on that. And I think there is still a lot of heavy, heavy negotiation that’s going behind the curtain. I want to remind you again that Mr. Rafsanjani, you know, a major king-maker, powerbroker, one of the pillars of the Islamic regime, is still the head of the only body that legally has constitutional rights over the office of supreme leadership. They can push them out or they can—you know, they have that; that’s the only body that legally can do that.

JAY: Does he control a majority of votes on the council?

YEKTAFAR: That’s the problem; no, he doesn’t. And he has been trying to lobby it ever since he became the head of that body two years ago. And I think that’s one of the many, many, you know, personal conflicts that’s being played out. And what we’re seeing right now is that Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader, saw a real challenge to his post, his position, his prestige after he saw that Mr. Rafsanjani was trying to manipulate that body and trying to lobby to get some support behind him. And I think that’s one of the, again, many plots, or subplots, I should say, to the events that we’ve been witnessing.

JAY: Now, the Revolutionary Guard and the Iranian army, how independent a political role might they play? And what I mean by that, if, for example, the supreme leader loses a vote to Rafsanjani’s council or looks like they might, does the army follow the, quote-unquote, “civilian rule”, or does the Revolutionary Guard have its own interests here?

YEKTAFAR: No, no. The Revolutionary Guards—and, ironically, they really came to prominence more so by the way that both Mr. Rafsanjani and Mr. Khamenei got them involved in terms of building them up as an entity that can have its own income and can become an entity that could have some influence on the politics of the country. They are always kind of sort of compared with Turkey. In Turkey, you know, the government—and right now you have a sort of an Islamic government. You have had it for the past five, six years. And it’s this uneasy relationship between the two. But any government coming in has to have the support of the military in Turkey, and they’re always kind of full of this notion that maybe, if they’re not doing the right thing, they might get overthrown through a coup or something like that. It’s a similar situation, but sort of in reverse in Iran. Even though the Revolutionary Guards have the power to take over, they still need the legitimacy of a cleric, a major cleric, behind them. Otherwise, they know and they feel that that opens up the floodgates for massive uprising by the people, led by these major clerics, and they see it as something that happened 30 years ago during the Iranian revolution against the Shah and the monarchy. So they’re very fearful of that, Revolutionary Guards are. So they know they need some sort of a backing. So it’s this alliance of the Revolutionary Guards and a major clerical player, be it right now the supreme leader or some others who are behind the supreme leader, that they can do that. However, that has not stopped the Revolutionary guards to shoot out some declarations against those that they perceive as a threat to the Islamic regime or to the supreme leader, or, I would say, at some point even pressuring the supreme leader to take a path that he may not have done it on his own. So they have that kind of a power and they have that kind of influence, and they’re mostly there to guard the Islamic state, more than anything else. In fact, that’s their title: they’re the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution; even though people kind of refer to them as the Revolutionary Guards, the actual translation is “Guardians of Islamic Revolution”. So that’s really their mandate.

JAY: There’s been a lot of talk about the role of the US in all of this, the West. There’s people have talked about how the CIA is trying to instigate various things here. Is there any evidence of what the CIA or Western powers might be doing in all of this? And to what extent is it a factor?

YEKTAFAR: Well, we know even during President Bush’s administration that there have been a number of programs and initiatives where a number of agents have infiltrated Iran. There have been a great deal of financial backing for various entities that are opposed to the Islamic regime, be it the radio and TV stations in California or anywhere in Europe or the Gulf states. So, yes, a lot of the ethnic uprisings that we’ve witnessed in the past year and a half or two years—the Arabs in the south of Iran, the Baluchis in the southeast of Iran, and maybe even Azeris up north—a lot of people will tell you—and Kurds as well—that it’s partly the work of the CIA and maybe even MI6 and other security entity, foreign security entities. It’s sort of tragic as far as the Islamic regime is concerned, is that because of their nature, because of the way, of the secretive, opaque way that they go about doing things, even when they do have a case, I mean, yes, of course, nobody can deny that a CIA or MI6 or any other entity, though, or various governments don’t have a hand in some of the stuff that takes place in these countries. So even if that is really the case, you’re always faced with the possibility, well, how much of it can be true if you can’t trust this particular regime? And, you know, I think that’s sort of an ironic aspect of such an opaque regime such as the Islamic Republic of Iran.

JAY: And I think the other point is if the internal conditions for the combustion don’t exist, you can’t ignite it just because you throw some money at it.

YEKTAFAR: Exactly. Exactly. And, again, that, you know, I do want to emphasize the fact that what we saw in Iran—an important thing is that, again, this particular movement, you know, we talked about this being the 10th anniversary of the student movement that took place in 1999. That was strictly in Tehran, and it was essentially, basically, one group, the students. But what we’re talking about right now, we’re talking about, you know, it kind of runs the gamut of the Iranian society. And it wasn’t just exclusively in Tehran; it took place in a number of major cities—in Isfahan, in Shiraz, in Yazd, in a number of other major cities, in Tabriz. So I think that’s very, very important to note.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Babak.

YEKTAFAR: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And let me say one more time: there’s a donate button above. If you become a member of The Real News and donate, you make sure we keep covering this Iranian story with the kind of uncompromising, independent point of view I think we have shown. Thank you very much for joining us on The Real News Network.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Babak Yektafar, Editor-in-Chief of Washington Prism is a graduate of Farleigh Dickinson University with a B.A. in Communications. From 1999 to 2005, Babak was a producer with C-SPAN network’s national live morning program, Washington Journal.