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Hamid Dabashi: Threat of war makes Iran more of a “garrison” state as sanctions hurt ordinary people

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

Last Friday, parliamentary elections were held in Iran. Now joining us to unpack those is Hamid Dabashi. Hamid is a professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York and is the author of the upcoming book The Arab Spring. Thanks for joining us again, Hamid.


JAY: So President Ahmadinejad’s allies didn’t do so well in the parliamentary elections, we are told. What is all that about?

DABASHI: Well, as you know, this is a midterm election for the Islamic Consultative Assembly, as they call it, the Majles-e Shorâ-ye Islami. It has 290 seats, and it is one of the major components of the structure of power in the Islamic Republic. And the key element in the most recent election was that the reformists had boycotted, led by Mr. Khatami, the former president. And drama right now that Iranians are facing is the fact that for all these past few months, Khatami, as the representative of the reformists, said that he would not vote and they should not vote, but then he went ahead and he voted. So Iranians are trying to come to terms with that.

The other two oppositional figures, Mousavi and Karroubi, who, as you know, have been under house arrest for more than a year, representative of the so-called Green movement since the last contested presidential election, were also not present. So the confrontation emerged between the pro-Khamenei forces—the supreme leader—and the pro-Ahmadinejad forces. This was a sideshow, in my opinion, that was created in the aftermath of the presidential election of 2009 to detract attention for that massive uprising that obviously had nothing to do and had no interest and had collectively boycotted this parliamentary election.

Now, this election, of course, is conducted under duress. It is done under circumstances that Iran is under crippling economic sanction imposed by U.S. and European Union, and also by constant threat of military strike. As early as yesterday President Obama in his speech with AIPAC very emphatically—over the past few days, in fact, before the election, even—emphasized that the military option is not a bluff and he has it on the table. The ruling regime in the Islamic Republic of Iran took full advantage of that military strike. And, in fact, in the campaign slogans in the streets of Tehran and other cities, the Iranian electorate were led to believe that if there is anything under 50 percent participation of the eligible voters, that would be a signal to the enemy, as they call it, for a military strike.

So, lo and behold, in the aftermath of the election, the officials have now come out and said that upwards of 64 percent have participated in the parliamentary election. Nobody believes these figures. Islamic Republic is notorious of manufacturing these numbers. But the fact is that there are, there have been people inside Iran very wary of the possible military strike, and they didn’t want their dissatisfaction with Islamic Republic to be misinterpreted outside Iran as a signal for any military strike.

So the situation remains still dire. People are under severe economic—crippling economic sanctions. They are not—the possibility of a military strike is still there.

But within Iran what we are witnessing is, first, systematic elimination of meaningful dissent, represented by Mousavi Karroubi, then shifting of the contestation between Ahmadinejad faction and the Khamenei factions, the two right wing of the Islamic Republic, as it were, the principalists, as they call them. And they fought the battle, as it were, the contestation, on that right wing of the field and completely disregarding the serious contestation. That’s where we stand now.

JAY: But are there not some issues of substance between the—in the fight between Ahmadinejad and the supreme leader? Just what is this, you know, competition over?

DABASHI: In my judgment there is no substance. They’re both on the same side. There was some contestation between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, so far as the range of his authority, namely, the president’s authority, is concerned. And Khamenei had no time or patience for that and put him on his place.

What is—also probably is happening, Paul, is that the weakening of Ahmadinejad’s position in the rest of his term over the next two years or so could also be a prelude of eliminating the office of presidency altogether. And Khamenei has hinted at that in a recent visit to Kurdistan a few months ago, that the possibility of a parliamentary system that the people who get the most of the votes get into the Parliament, then the speaker of the house will become the prime minister. Right now the speaker of the house, the man who had most of the vote, is a man named Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, who has a family relationship with Khamenei as well—his daughter is married to Khamenei’s son Mojtaba Khamenei. So because—I mean, not entirely because of the pressure that is coming from the outside, but also because of the internal insecurity of the system, we are witnessing a condition in which Islamic Republic is cleaning its own turf in order to be able to resist the possibility of a military strike.

JAY: Now, to some extent in the media the fight between Ahmadinejad and the supreme leader is being positioned as Ahmadinejad’s kind of more for the people and is more, you know, for the poor versus sort of wealthier elites. Is there anything to that?

DABASHI: Not really. Even Ahmadinejad’s sister didn’t get elected in her home town. No, none of them are for the people. This is a battle for power, which is becoming very, very scarce. And the economic sanctions are putting extraordinary pressure on ordinary people, but not on the regime. The regime keeps selling the oil. Eighty-five percent plus of Iranian economy’s oil-based. And in the black market there is no way that any kind of economic sanction can control selling of the oil in the black market and to the Japanese and the Chinese and the Russians and so forth.

So the income is coming towards the military apparatus and security apparatus and intelligence apparatus of the Islamic Republic. So they have become even—the condition of a garrison state that it has always been has become exacerbated because of the economic sanctions and because of the military strikes. And the effect of these warmongerings and talks of war, beginning with President Obama, extending all the way to the Israeli authorities, etc., is to make Islamic Republic even more of a garrison state than it is, with unbelievable harsh consequences for ordinary people.

JAY: And what debate is there going on in Iran about the response of the Iranian government to the IAEA and to all these threats? If you set aside the threats for a moment, the IAEA came out today and yesterday, the new head of the IAEA, saying that Iran is enriching more uranium than they would need for a civilian program, and he’s kind of raising exactly what the Israelis would like to hear right now, but, at any rate, saying that the—you know, this—he can’t confirm that there aren’t military aspects to the nuclear program. Is there a debate in Iran about how they’re dealing with the IAEA and these issues?

DABASHI: If there is debates, Paul, there is no way of knowing it. That is, the press in Iran is under severe control, state control. Independent journalists are in jail. In fact, Iran is ranked among the worst country in the world so far as independent journalism is concerned. Outside Iran, by Iranian expatriates, yes, there is a debate. Some are saying that Iran should suspend its enrichment of uranium. Others are saying that we need a unified and identical set of principles. How can Israel point a finger at Iran when itself sitting on massive stockpiles of nuclear warheads? But inside Iran we don’t know it.

And what we know is—of course, the propaganda position of Islamic Republic is that this is for peaceful purposes. And there is no possibility of any debate within it. If there is, my guess would be also that the nationalist element of Iranians, entirely independent of their position vis-à-vis Islamic Republic, will kick in and will remind them of the 1950s and Mossadeq eras and the nationalization of oil that yet again foreign powers with duplicity are trying to establish criteria for them. So that’s the condition where we are at.

JAY: And when the supreme leader says that it would be anti-Islamic to develop weapons of mass destruction, develop nuclear weapons, how seriously would you take that?

DABASHI: I mean, I take it at its face value. The nature of Islamic law and Islamic jurisprudence is that he can say one thing today, and tomorrow he changes opinion and come up with a different set of rationalization. I don’t think international relationships or regional relationships can be established on religious edicts of one sort or another.

All the indications are (including the two intelligence reports of United States, one in 2007 and one most recently in 2012) that Iran is not developing the necessary steps towards the building of a nuclear bomb. And as we have said in the previous occasions, if Iran remains 100 percent within its limitations and obligations to Non-Proliferation Treaty, it would be weaponizable within six months. But they don’t want it to—I mean they meaning United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia—they don’t want Iran to be even operating within NPT. Now, coming from Saudi Arabia that to the best of our knowledge doesn’t have this capability is understandable and their fear is understandable, but coming from Israel is a joke.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Hamid.

DABASHI: Anytime.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He received a dual Ph.D. in Sociology of Culture and Islamic Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 1984, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University. He wrote his dissertation on Max Weber's theory of charismatic authority with Philip Rieff (1922-2006), the most distinguished Freudian cultural critic of his time. Professor Dabashi has taught and delivered lectures in many North American, European, Arab, and Iranian universities.
Professor Dabashi has written twenty-five books, edited four, and contributed chapters to many more. He is also the author of over 100 essays, articles and book reviews on subjects ranging from Iranian Studies, medieval and modern Islam, and comparative literature to world cinema and the philosophy of art (trans-aesthetics). His books and articles have been translated into numerous languages, including Japanese, German, French, Spanish, Danish, Russian, Hebrew, Italian, Arabic, Korean, Persian, Portuguese, Polish, Turkish, Urdu and Catalan.