Hashemi: Some members of revolutionary guard support reform, but fierce repression likely to follow
TEXT ON SCREEN: “Tens of thousands of Iranians backing the country’s rulers rallied in central Tehran on Wednesday, calling for the death of anti-government protesters and opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi. The rally was in response to a weekend of large-scale anti-government unrest coinciding with the religious holiday of Ashura. Iranian officials condemned the earlier protest as part of a foreign-backed plot to weaken the Islamic Republic.” (LA Times, December 30, 2009) The following interview with Nader Hashemi was taped one day before the pro-government rally.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington, and joining us again is Nader Hashemi, coming from our studio in Toronto, although Nader teaches at the University of Denver, teaching Middle Eastern politics. Thanks for joining us again, Nader.
NADER HASHEMI, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR, MIDDLE EAST & ISLAMIC POLITICS: Glad to be with you.
JAY: So what’s going on within the Iranian elite? This whole recent protest movement that began around the time of the elections was partly something that was happening on the streets, but to a large extent it was a power struggle within the aristocracy of Iran, if you will—Rafsanjani and Mousavi, Ahmadinejad, the supreme leader. Where is all of this at now? The Revolutionary Guard has dug its heels in. Where are people like Rafsanjani and Mousavi now?
HASHEMI: Well, Rafsanjani’s been silent for the last several weeks. He’s been silenced because he’s fallen out of favor with the core group of supporters that have allied themselves with the supreme leader. There’s perhaps an opportunity somewhere down the road that he can play some sort of mediating role as things unfold in Iran, but there is a deep level of uncertainty, anxiety at the senior regime level over the recent street protests. I think they’ve taken the regime by surprise, and they’ve proven that despite the intense human rights crackdown that has been visited on the opposition in recent months, that that has not scared or cowed them into submission. And you still see the protests taking place. And what you’ve seen recently in these protests, the ones on Sunday, is that people are actually taking the battle to the police and to some of the Basij forces and, you know, really fighting back. And you also see the protests spreading to different cities. So I think that has sent a very dangerous, a very strong signal to the regime that their policies of oppression have not been working.
JAY: The Basij forces, for people who don’t know, although I think probably most our viewers do, are these guys you see riding around with batons on motorcycles, and they’re kind of a civilian pro-government militia, I guess you could describe them.
HASHEMI: That’s pretty accurate.
JAY: Now, how is Iranian public opinion, as far as you can observe through the press and people you’re talking to, reacted to the deaths of 7, 9—we’ve even heard the number 15—of the protesters?
HASHEMI: Despite the concern over the human rights crackdown, the death of protesters, I think one point that needs to be made and that your listeners need to, I think, really appreciate is that at the same time, there’s an incredible amount of enthusiasm, excitement, and optimism that Iranians around the world are feeling at this moment over the prospects of a possible democratic transition. Everyone knows that the struggle for democracy in Iran is not going to happen without sacrifices taking place, and there’s a general sense that these are historic moments that the country is passing through, and there is a lot of cautious optimism that if the protests continue, if the leadership remains strong and incorruptible and it doesn’t sell out, that there could be better days ahead for Iran and a serious democratic transition that would really shake up the politics of the entire region.
JAY: What is the leadership? It’s not clear from the outside that there is a leadership, unless you’re talking Mousavi, but I don’t think that he is leading this, is he?
HASHEMI: Officially, there is a leadership, in the sense that the Mousavi, Kharubi, and Khatami leadership—really a troika that continue to speak out. It’s a mild leadership—I think one has to acknowledge that. And it’s also a leadership that still is committed to working within the framework of the Islamic Revolution and Khomeini’s political theory, broadly defined, arguing that the current rulers have misinterpreted, corrupted, and developed an authoritarian interpretation of that political theory that they want to recapture and re-democratize. So the leadership is a mild leadership. But what’s really interesting about these street protests, and I think it’s worth noting, is that there doesn’t really seem to be any effective leadership that are calling people into the streets. I think it’s very dispersed and it’s really people using modern technology, the Internet, word of mouth to call people on the streets. And that’s what made it very difficult to crush these protests, because there isn’t a unified sort of structure of command. I mean, the regime has tried to do that, they’ve arrested the senior reformist leadership, but the protests continue, and that speaks that these protests are really taking place at a local level, they’re spontaneous reactions, and these protests are spreading. So the leadership is, broadly speaking, at a political level, a very mild leadership, but the actual street protests are taking place as a result of deep-seated frustrations and organizing that has taken place at a very local level in various districts around the major cities and now into some of the smaller towns and villages.
JAY: I asked you how Iranian public opinion was reacting to the deaths of the protesters. You talked about internationally. But domestically, Ahmadinejad in the last elections probably at least got something like half the vote or close to half the vote. Even if—you know, if one doesn’t believe the official figures, even unofficially most people think he must’ve gotten somewhere in the 40s, if not close to 50. That means, you know, somewhere, like, half the country, if not more, supported him. How are they reacting to this? Is this changing the way they feel? Or are they kind of accepting the government position on this that these are, you know, foreign-inspired protests?
HASHEMI: Well, I think what’s happened, even those—I mean, I would disagree with your figures. I would say Ahmadinejad’s support, maybe, at best, is in the 30s rather than in the 40s. But I think those people who voted for Ahmadinejad and who are loyal to the regime, for whatever reason, either ideologically or for reasons of political expediency or material interests, are tied to the survival [of this regime], those supporters of Ahmadinejad and the supreme leader, I think, have really been shamed and embarrassed by the way the regime has responded to these street protests over the last six months. I mean, the level of human rights repression, the credible reports of torture, of rape, of the arrest of innocent people, many of these people deeply pious, you know, Iranians, people who are loyal to the Revolution, that has embarrassed many people who were, I think, previously supporters of Ahmadinejad, and it’s either cowed them into silence or has resulted in many of them, you know, having greater sympathy for the opposition when they see and respond to the brutal crackdown that has taken place.
JAY: The Revolutionary Guard, in the final analysis, is the final analysis in the sense that the real power in the government is the Revolutionary Guard, if I understand Iranian politics that I have come to know over the last year or two. Is there any sense that this is shaking the Revolutionary Guard, that there’s any kind of division within their ranks about all of this?
HASHEMI: It’s a very closed organization, so we don’t have any, you know, credible and exact reports. There is indication that those elements in the senior leadership and the senior officer corps who are willing to express loyalty and devotion to the supreme leader are being elevated in the ranks and some of the more long-standing senior commanders are either retiring or withering away. So we don’t have any credible reports about, you know, internal divisions, but there is one fact that’s worth noting: about ten years ago, when the reformist movement first made a showing in Iranian politics and Mohammad Khatami was first elected, there were credible reports that 70 percent of the Revolutionary Guards actually voted for the reform movement. And so I think that suggests that the claim that this is a unified, deeply ideological group that will obey orders to shoot protesters if given the order may not come to fruition if ever we get to that point. So I think there’s a lot of interesting things developing within the Revolutionary Guards. They are running the politics of the country right now, but under the close supervision and guidance of the senior clerical leadership, particularly the office of the supreme leader. But I would argue that there were probably, at the lower ranks, quite a bit of anxiety and concern among some of the lower-ranking members of that Revolutionary Guard over the state of the country and where things are headed.
JAY: Montazeri was one of the most outspoken senior clerics who was critical of the government. Now that he’s died, is there anyone at that level that might take his place?
HASHEMI: There are several leading clerics who have a lot of religious and moral authority. None to that stature, because he was really a unique figure in the sense that, you know, he spent 60 years really fighting established power in Iran, and he was one of the really senior grand ayatollahs, who by virtue of his erudition has distinguished himself as a religious scholar. But there are a number of senior ayatollahs who have been very outspoken over the last six months. Just yesterday, a very famous ayatollah from the town of Shiraz issued a statement calling on other clerics to break their silence, to defend the rights of the people. And the reports were that the paramilitary Basij force surrounded his home, attacked it. So that suggests that there are other figures, not of the same level in stature and prestige of Montazeri, who have been speaking out, who have been championing the grievances of the masses, and particularly the opposition, and that, you know, are continuing to resist and issue defying statements in support of, you know, democracy and human rights in Iran.
JAY: So, finally, where do you think this is all headed?
HASHEMI: Well, no one knows for certain, and anyone who claims that they do know, I think, are lying. There’s a lot of unpredicted—we’re really in uncharted waters, as they say. But I think there is a hard core within the regime, the deeply loyal, the deeply xenophobic, who have a totalitarian conception of Iranian politics, that are pushing the regime and the senior leadership to arrest Mousavi, Karubi, and Khatami, and also to clamp down really hard. And one of the things that I hear, that if these protests continue, that we might be faced with another Tiananmen Square type of massacre situation where the regime calls out its most loyal shock troops to simply massacre street protests and put an end to the face of oppositional activity—and I think that’s definitely within the realm of the possible, and I certainly hope that I’m wrong that that might be a possibility in the coming weeks.
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Nader.
HASHEMI: Glad to be with you.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.