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Part 2 of Nader Hashemi on Iranian Grand Ayatollah Montazeri’s fatwa

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network, part two of our interview with Nader Hashemi. He teaches Middle East and Islamic politics at the University of Denver. Thanks for joining us again, Nader.


JAY: So in the first segment of our interview, we talked about this statement by Ayatollah Montazeri, which was quite a confrontation to the supreme leader. We left off in the first segment discussing the kind of influence this statement would have. Does he have much influence within the Revolutionary Guard itself?

HASHEMI: That’s a good question, and no one knows exactly how influential he is. But if we’re going to assume that the Revolutionary Guard is comprised of a deeply pious and deeply religious supporters of the current Islamic Republican system and that they’re motivated by a religious set of convictions, then if that’s the case—and I think, you know, it is certainly the case for a significant segment of the Revolutionary Guard—then Ayatollah Montazeri’s statement is very significant, because he has huge moral and religious authority in Iranian society. So he’s a force that can’t be ignored. And to the extent that the Revolutionary Guard are aware of his statement, then I think it would have a significant impact on the political and religious thinking of many of the members of the Revolutionary Guard.

JAY: How fast does stuff travel on the streets in Iran? If a statement like this is made, word-of-mouth, does it get around pretty quickly? Or is the regime able to repress something like this?

HASHEMI: [inaudible] they’re able to suppress the official sort of state television, but, you know, people have access to satellite TV, to faxes, to text messaging. Word gets around pretty quickly. You’d be surprised. Not as quickly as it does here, instantaneously, but I would argue that within 24 hours word has spread. And it’s a very politically volatile and anxious time for many people. And so Ayatollah Montazeri’s intervention, and this actually being his second intervention since the June 12 election, is—and given the substance of what he’s saying, I suspect that this will get a lot of traction.

JAY: Some people have depicted the rebellion, the uprising, the demonstration as the term that was coined the “Twitter Revolution”. Some people have said these are people fighting for the right to wear blue jeans and have more Western customs. But here’s part of the Ayatollah’s statement appealing to very religious people to get out on the streets. And here’s what he had to say: “God expects the learned people, especially those who are informed about the religion, not to be silent about oppression. Of course, taking action [against oppression] entails paying a heavy price, but will also be rewarded greatly [by God].” So if he’s talking to pious people, to what extent were pious people part of the masses that we’ve seen on the streets, as opposed to what we thought were a more secular force?

HASHEMI: Well, see, I think that’s a misreading, to simply view this green movement in Iran as a battle between the forces of secularism versus theocracy. Even those people who are deeply secular, I would argue that they are secular politically in terms of wanting a political separation between the institutions of religion and religious leaders and the institutions of the state, but in terms of their personal convictions, there’s still quite a bit of what I would argue are philosophical sort of attachments to religion. And so even the people who are on the streets, they may look and dress western, but they have religious convictions. Iran has not experienced—despite 30 years of political repression in Iran in the name of religion, it hasn’t experienced a massive upsurge in atheism and a complete sort of repudiation of any and all manifestations of religion as, for example, Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens would wish it to be. And so when someone like Ayatollah Montazeri speaks, of course he appeals to those people who are more deeply religious and deeply passionate, but I would argue that he acts as a moral and ethical reference point, and his ideas would even resonate and touch upon those segments of society who may not be particularly excessively pious in terms of how they live their lives, but they’ll still look to him as a religious authority figure and someone who, you know, has done what very few ayatollahs have done up until this point—really speak out in a bold and a very forceful and a principled and an uncompromising way.

JAY: Does he play a bit of a Bishop Tutu kind of a role?

HASHEMI: Yeah. I mean, that’s, I think, an analogy that’s pretty good, you know, a Bishop Tutu, someone who, you know, was really a moral figure. And he’s had a consistent track record. And also, you know, he has a track record before the revolution in opposing political tyranny. He was very much part of the revolution. And this is something that I think a lot of the people in the West still don’t understand is that the Islamic Revolution, in terms of its ideals, still has a lot of resonance within Iran among large segments of the population, within the leadership of the reform movement certainly. But nobody is calling for a return to the days of monarchial, pro-Western sort of despotism pre-1979. And so in that sense, you know, Montazeri has very good credentials to speak out and to be taken very seriously.

JAY: Now, a lot of polemics are going on in the West about the role of the West in this situation. You see on the left particularly, although to some extent on the right, but accusations of CIA involvement, that what’s going on is kind of a destabilization program. People point to something close to apparently $4 billion in the Bush budget for such a plan.

HASHEMI: There’s no question that there has been deep Western interest in trying to foster some sort of regime change in Iran and that money has been budgeted to foster that goal. But the political reality inside Iran is that these demonstrations, these protests, their roots are fundamentally internal; they’re not happening from outside of Iran. And there’s one simple sort of, you know, argument that one can make to sort of prove this case. One of the key sort of desires and one of the key axioms of Iran’s pro-democracy movement over the last 100 years is a complete rejection, repudiation, and a deep sense of grievance against external intervention in Iran’s internal affairs. Now, Iran has been deeply victimized by the great powers over the last 150 years, and no serious pro-democracy activists or, I would argue, Iranian intellectual or citizen wants to see Iran return to the days when it was effectively a client state of a foreign power. So even if the United States were to spend or were to budget, you know, $10 billion to foster pro-democracy movements [inaudible] no one in Iran of any credibility would want to touch that money, because it would violate one of the key axioms of what it means to be an Iranian nationalist, what it means to be an Iranian pro-democracy activist. So those people who, I think, are pointing to CIA manipulation, they’re more focused and they’re more obsessed on the machinations of US foreign policy, which I want to argue are very serious issues to be concerned about, but they do not help us understand what’s taking place in Iran over the last month.

JAY: To what extent has US foreign policy and increasing threats from Israel—do people take all of this seriously? And how does that affect the domestic politics?

HASHEMI: Well, actually what it does is it actually strengthens the authoritarian elements within Iran and undermines the activity of pro-democracy activists and human rights activists, who’ve been very critical of US foreign policy, particularly under the Bush administration and prior to that. Their whole argument is that this tough talk of trying to play hardball with the Iranian regime, describing them as the “Axis of Evil”, focusing exclusively on the nuclear question, it simply reinforces those deeply authoritarian tendencies within Iran who actually welcome this type of language. And I would argue that there is, within Iran today, elements who would welcome a military strike from Israel that would not decapitate the regime or destabilize it but would perhaps, you know, provide a convenient excuse for them to say, “See? We told you so. We don’t need more democracy, freedom of the press. Our fundamental threats are coming from outside. Anyone who opposes us is an agent of the United States or Israel. We’re experiencing a state of national emergency,” etcetera, etcetera. So this whole sort of policy, particularly that manifested itself, I think, in its worst years under the Bush administration, has actually undermined the internal struggle for democracy in Iran. And that’s not just me saying it. If you speak to, you know, leading lights of the pro-democracy movement—the Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi; Akbar Ganji, political dissident—everyone across the board sort of subscribes to that position. Now you are having calls right across the political spectrum, you know, in Iran, at least among the pro-democratic movement and forces, for a boycott of the Ahmadinejad government. They do not want the international the international community to recognize the Ahmadinejad government. But at the same time, there’s a lot of interest and pressure externally to engage with Iran.

JAY: Who’s calling for a boycott not to recognize the government?

HASHEMI: Oh, right across the pro-democracy spectrum in Iran. Every single person of credibility, from Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, to Akbar Ganji, to Mohsen Kadivar, to student groups, to women’s groups, everyone is saying, look, if you were to engage in negotiations with Ahmadinejad’s government, you will legitimize an illegitimate election and you will offend the sentiments of the vast majority of the citizens of Iran. So that’s actually—there’s almost complete unanimity within Iran among intellectual opinion, among, you know, youth opinion, among pro-democratic opinion, that any engagement with this government at this particular point would be viewed as a political disaster and a huge setback for democracy in Iran.

JAY: So how do they jive that with the sort of anti-war opinion that exists outside Iran that any attempt to isolate Ahmadinejad plays into the kind of pro-war, pro-Israeli Likud kind of faction that wants a more aggressive policy?

HASHEMI: It’s a good point, Paul, and there’s a big tension here, because the people that I just mentioned within Iran were very much in favor of negotiations between the United States and Iran prior to June 12. They thought that their argument was—and I think it’s an argument that’s still valid—people certainly haven’t worked through the issue, but the argument is that the more there can be a de-escalation in tensions between Iran and the international community, a de-militarization of the Middle East, the more that will work in the favor of the internal struggle for democracy. But there is a tension here among those people who support democracy in Iraq and at the same time are in favor of peace and justice and a dialog between Iran and the West. So there’s no clear answers in terms of what the way forward is. And I think some people, as you mentioned, the pro-Israel hawks, the Republican Party, are going to try to use recent events to argue that, look, we can’t deal with this regime; it’s totalitarian. But I would argue conversely that what we have seen over the last 30 days is actually a repudiation of the arguments that come out of the conservative right and the pro-Israel community in the United States that Iran is simply Ahmadinejad, and it’s a totalitarian nightmare, and there’s no prospects of internal transformation. I think there is a deep sense of good prospects for internal transformation, not immediately, but I think within the short term. And I think US and Western policy needs to be calibrated with a specific focus on how to bring about the conditions that could foster a pro-democratic sort of democratic transformation, not by intervening internally. Sure, any Iranian that’s serious is going to reject any internal Western intervention in Iran’s domestic affairs.

JAY: Thanks for much for joining us, Nader.

HASHEMI: Pleasure.

JAY: And thank you 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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Nader Hashemi is the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He is the author of "Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies" and co-editor of "The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Democracy in Iran" and most recently "The Syria Dilemma".