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Pepe Escobar: Two camps locked in fierce struggle, as Revolutionary Guard stages an election “coup”

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m coming to you from Washington, DC, And joining us from São Paulo, Brazil, is a Pepe Escobar. Thanks for joining us, Pepe.

PEPE ESCOBAR, SENIOR ANALYST, TRNN: Thanks, Paul. Thanks for having me.

JAY: Pepe Escobar writes for Asia Times Online, is a regular contributor to The Real News Network, has been in Iran often, has covered Iran for many years, and, as you can tell by the fact that he hasn’t shaved, he’s been up all night monitoring the events in Iran as they have unfolded in the last few hours. So, Pepe, bring us up to date.

ESCOBAR: Well, let’s cut to the chase. What happened in Iran was basically a military coup. It’s not by accident that some bloggers, Iranian bloggers, are twittering that, you know, this looks like Chile, Pinochet 1973. The difference is the coup was applied by the Republican Guards with the connivance of the supreme leader. So what we have here is a war at the top between two very strong factions in an extremely complicated and fluid Iranian political system. On the side of [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, we have most of all the Republican Guards, who are now poised to, I would say, control most of the country. So we can say this is more or less a takeover over of Iran by the Republican Guards. Now they are state power. Allied with them they have the basiji militias. These are the volunteer militias that sprang up after the Iranian Revolution in ’79. They are volunteer, they are not regulated, and they respond directly to the supreme leader. In Iran, people tell you that they are called the “Army of 20 Million”—there are supposed to be 20 million. That’s not true. They are several million, let’s say 4 or 5 million. But a few months ago, a plan was structured in Iran to bring them to the level of 13 million people. So every basiji had to recruit at least four or five basijis. So how do they do this recruiting? In the rural provinces this is very easy. Unemployment in Iran—not official unemployment, real unemployment—is from 20 to 30 percent, at least for young people. So if you are a basiji, there’s the ethos of being part of, let’s say, a glorified gang. You are covered by the official state powers. You are enforcing the principles of the Islamic Revolution. So they are considered, as people say it in Iran, “principlists”, or “hardcore Khomeini-ists”. All these people, by the way, are Khomeini-ists. We are always under the framework established by Khomeini in ’79. So the basijis, the Republican Guards, Ahmadinejad forces, the police establishment as a whole, and the Ministry of the Interior (that’s very important), which is controlled by the Ahmadinejad faction. On the other side of the divide, very few people in Iran, I would say, two months ago, or even a month ago, were expecting the Green Revolution conducted by [Mir-Hossein] Mousavi. When the debate started, television debate started, that was the catalyst, because the first big debate was Ahmadinejad against Mousavi, and Ahmadinejad was—a lot of people in Iran in the blogosphere are saying he looked deranged. And it’s very easy for us to see it. We can watch on YouTube the whole debate in Farsi. Even without the English subtitles or with an English translation he looks crazy. And cool, calm, possessed, very poised Mousavi, he was saying, well, he is lying about the unemployment and inflation figures. He did not accuse Ahmadinejad of being a dictator. He is saying that, look, the policies implemented by Ahmadinejad and his factions are leading towards a dictatorship.

JAY: Break down the other side. You gave us a sense of the Revolutionary Guard and the political alignment around them. Now talk about [Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani and Mousavi and the alignment of forces around them.

ESCOBAR: When Ahmadinejad and the Ministry of the Interior, because they monitor what happens in Iran 24/7, when they saw this groundswell in the streets, especially in the big cities, not only Tehran—I’m talking about Tehran, Isfahan, Tabriz, Mashhad, Shiraz, all the big cities in Tehran—there was, okay, this guy, he was a former prime minister during Khomeini. Everybody knows that Mousavi was outside of the equation for more or less 20 years, but they remember that he was a very competent manager during the ’80s. During the Iran-Iraq war, he kept the Iranian economy more or less balanced in the most difficult—in the beginning of the revolution and at war with Iraq. And they also remember that when he was prime minister, he was a kind of balancing act between Khomeini and Khamenei, who was president at the time. So Khomeini was more or less using Mousavi to control Khamenei as president. And Mousavi, because he was in the middle of the whole thing, he could play Khomeini against Khamenei and implement, more or less, sound economic policy, which is—in the Islamic Republic terms, you can imagine what was during the ’80s. You know, they were under sanctions, they were at war, and the country did not collapse. So when Ahmadinejad saw the groundswell of the Green Revolution and the Ministry of the Interior, his tactics changed, because he started to accuse Rafsanjani directly during the debates. And this is very, very important for popular sentiment in Iran, because Rafsanjani is a billionaire. He’s the richest man in Iran. He is probably the most powerful man in Iran apart from the supreme leader. He controls the Council of Guards and the Council of Experts. He is the guy who could in fact choose the next supreme leader if he has enough votes with the Council of experts.

JAY: Or become that leader himself.

ESCOBAR: Or become—probably not himself, but have his man to be the supreme leader. It’s much better. Rafsanjani is the typical Machiavellian player. He prefers to be in the background. And, in fact, when he was president, he was not as good as when he’s, you know, scheming in the background like a Cardinal Richelieu. You know. And these attacks by Ahmadinejad against Rafsanjani, they work very well on a popular level. That’s why in one of the stories I did for the The Real News—the last one, in fact—I was saying that one of the reasons that Ahmadinejad won is, yes, he has a lot of support in the working classes, with the peasants in the rural countryside. But one of his main themes is corruption. And people on a popular level, if you go to a mosque, a bazaar, or a tea shop in a provincial town in Iran, they talk about Hashemi, as they Rafsanjani, as a corrupt billionaire in Tehran. He doesn’t understand our problems here in the countryside. So this worked very well. By reading the blogosphere and our sources in Iran, this was not enough for Ahmadinejad to win the election by an almost two-to-one margin. And that’s where the whole operation at the Ministry of the Interior comes in. How did they steal the election? And I think more or less we can establish a more or less pretty faithful timeline of what happened between 10 p.m. in Tehran on Friday night and 2 a.m. In four hours, they consolidated the victory, which is absolutely impossible. These votes are hand votes. They were counted by hand. You cannot count 46 million votes in four hours. It’s absolutely impossible. And the legal provision for elections in Iran, you have three days to do the counting, you have to certify them, you have to send them to the supreme leader, the supreme leader approves it, and then you announce it live to the whole country and to the world. They announced it four hours later, as we all know. By 2 a.m., Ahmadinejad was a victor with 62 percent of the votes, which, by the way, never changed when they were counting the other provinces, including the province of Mousavi. He’s from Azerbaijan, he’s Azeri, and he lost four-to-one in his own province, which is absolutely impossible. And every Iranian knows that and dares say that in the blogosphere. And by 3 a.m., we had basijis in motorcycles and convoys of 30, 40 jeeps and armored cars in the middle of Tehran, followed by the basijis on motorbike with the Iranian flag, saying that Ahmadinejad had one. And then the Green Revolution started to see what—you know, they finally identified what was happening. And then they were trying—yesterday, Saturday, they were trying to piece together how the election was stolen. So more or less everybody knows what happens during these four hours. And the interview with the director Mohsen Makhmalbaf that is on The Real News website, it’s very important, because around 11:30, midnight, in Tehran time, he got that famous phone call from the Ministry of the Interior.

JAY: He being Mousavi’s headquarters got the phone call.

ESCOBAR: Exactly. And he became a sort of—now he’s the official post spokesman of—.

JAY: Makhmalbaf, yeah. He’s in Paris now, ’cause as he’s able to speak. Yeah.

ESCOBAR: Exactly. And what he says in his interview is absolutely crucial. The Ministry of Interior called and said, “Look, you won, but you cannot say that to the rest of the country because we are afraid of displeasing the huge Ahmadinejad masses. So hold on while we steal the election, maybe.” And that’s what happened by 2 a.m. So they had four hours to do the whole thing. What we don’t know, what nobody knows, and Iranian bloggers, Iranian analysts, how did they do that? Was it long-term planning? Was it very short-term planning? Or was it last-minute planning? That’s what nobody knows.

JAY: So what you seem to have is you have one section of the elite—Ahmadinejad, the supreme leader, the Revolutionary Guard—whose social base is to rally people in the countryside, to some extent the urban poor behind them, and they do that often did by just handing out money. I know Ahmadinejad has this thing which is “Write the president,” and millions of people—I think they say they’ve had as many as 7 million letters come in, and they have an army of people that open these letters from people from the countryside, and they send them little bits of money directly from the president’s office, which of course builds up a great allegiance to Ahmadinejad. Then you have the other section of the elite around, of course, Mousavi and Rafsanjani, and they’re mobilizing the urban youth with promises of liberalization on the cultural front. But is it not really two clash of big economic interests here? There’s a lot of money at stake—not oil money, but all the industrial wealth of Iran well, and these two sections, including the Revolutionary Guard, who, if I understand it correctly, are very involved in businesses—they’re not just, like, an armed force that we’re used to in our countries. Talk a little bit about this clash of economic forces.

ESCOBAR: Absolutely. In fact, our military coup, if we go along those lines, means that the Republican Guards are going to run the economy, basically. They’re already a very powerful force. They have airline companies, airports, and factories, industries, very—parts of the bazaar belong to the Republican Guards as well. So now they are taking over the economy as a whole. So it’s crazy, because remember that the United States declared the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist entity. So now they got that on a plate, a terrorist entity controlling a great Middle Eastern power. So this is how it’s going to be read, of course, by some sectors in Washington and by Israel, of course. But the economic thing in Iran is extremely complicated, because it’s a mix of state and private. It’s a semi-socialist economy. Let’s put it this way. Or semi-Brezhnev-Russia style economy.

JAY: Or a state-capitalist.

ESCOBAR: Private initiative is very, very—it’s key. Like, it’s still a bazaar economy, basically, and the bazaaris, they used to be aligned with Ahmadinejad in 2005. Not anymore, because of high inflation, high unemployment, of course the effects of the sanctions, and the utmost incompetence of Ahmadinejad’s economic managers. They, the bazaaris, are suffering as well. So, you know, a lot of foreign journalists were talking to people at the Tehran bazaar, which is the most important, these past few days. They have been saying exactly that: the bazaaris, they switched their vote. Okay, look, we need a well-managed economy. We’re not even thinking about more cultural liberties. We want to make money again. And with this economic incompetence, absolutely impossible. Only countryside is different, because the Ahmadinejad policies, you cannot—some people are comparing them to [Hugo] Chávez, Chávez handouts even, as well. It’s different. Some of these handouts, in fact, are very sound policies. One example. There are 3 million women in Iran making carpets. They were not insured, didn’t have Social Security, didn’t have any protections. Ahmadinejad installed protection for women weavers all of the country, which is a huge industry. They export a lot of carpets all over the world. It’s a source of foreign income. So let’s protect these workers. So some of the initiatives are sound. But the overall way they manage the economy is crazy, because when oil was $140, $150 a barrel last year, they were getting this—what?—$70 billion a year in oil money, for instance, and they [inaudible] handouts and pork, basically.

JAY: Now, pork’s an unfortunate use of term in Iran. But just in case anybody doesn’t know it, it’s the American term of handing out money to buy votes, more or less.

ESCOBAR: Forgive me the analogy, of course. But, okay, handouts. But some of these handouts were to infrastructure stuff, like building roads in Sistan, Baluchestan, for instance. They need it because it’s a desert; it borders Pakistan and Baluchistan; it’s a sensitive area. But some was to “Okay, let’s give some money to this guy over there, because he can get us a—what?—50,000 basijis in three months.” So he was, you know, buying political influence in the remote parts of the country. It’s a very populist regime, but basically it’s economic incompetence. So people, the upper-middle-class segment of the revolution—the globalized, the women’s vote, the students—of course they know that Ahmadinejad is not the bogeyman that, let’s say, Bibi Netanyahu would paint him, but they know everything about his incompetence, because they feel this in real life. And on top of economic incompetence, who is the total absence of civil liberties. Like, you know, in the election, 2005, I remember I was in Tehran at that time. And the overall feeling after Ahmadinejad was elected was there’s going to be a major cultural crackdown. And that’s exactly what happened—crackdown on women, more basijis persecuting women everywhere, closing down reformist newspapers, you know, very vigilant over the Internet, YouTube, Internet [inaudible]

JAY: Pepe, let’s do another segment of the interview. And in the next segment, let’s talk about where this open civil war in the elite might lead and what US policy, how it affects it, and what it might be in the future. So please—.

ESCOBAR: Yeah, that’s the quick key question.

JAY: So please join us for the next segment of our interview—Pepe Escobar on the events in Iran.


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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Pepe Escobar, born in Brazil is the roving correspondent for Asia Times and an analyst for The Real News Network. He's been a foreign correspondent since 1985, based in London, Milan, Los Angeles, Paris, Singapore, and Bangkok. Since the late 1990s, he has specialized in covering the arc from the Middle East to Central Asia, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has made frequent visits to Iran and is the author of Globalistan and also Red Zone Blues: A Snapshot of Baghdad During the Surge both published by Nimble Books in 2007.