10th anniversary of Iran’s student uprising
Babak Yektafar: The roots of current crisis are found at the very beginning of the Islamic Revolution
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Hi. Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, coming to you just outside of Washington, DC. And from our studio in Washington DC is Babak Yektafar. Thanks for joining us, Babak.
BABAK YEKTAFAR, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, WASHINGTONPRISM.ORG: Thank you for having me, Paul.
JAY: Babak is the editor of Washingtonprism.org, which focuses on US and Iranian affairs. So bring us up to date. What’s going on in Iran now?
YEKTAFAR: I think the situation is still very tense. Of course, we’re talking just on the 10th anniversary of the student uprising of 1999 during the presidency of Mr. Khatami, the reformist. And that itself, that’s an event that took place for two or three days. Pretty much kind of sent a bit of shock waves throughout the foundations of the Islamic regime. And I think it’s, for the lack of a better word, interesting that 10 years later we see something that’s shaking them even harder.
JAY: Now, are we likely to see students and others back in the streets again?
YEKTAFAR: Well, I’m not sure. If they find any way that they can get out, they will. If there is a call and they know that there is a way that they can gather, get together, and then form a rally from there, they can. The problem is that right now, for the past couple of weeks, after the first week and a half of massive rallies, the security apparatus of the Islamic Republic of Iran have been pretty much taking over major arteries, major cities, major areas, and buildings. It has made it very difficult for anyone to actually gather if they see anything that resembles—.
JAY: Has Mousavi called for a demonstration or not?
YEKTAFAR: There has been. Well, Mr. Mousavi on a number of occasions has called for the continuation of these kinds of protests. There hasn’t been an official rally called. However, if you look at some of the online social sites and twitter and things like that, there are talks of gatherings for the occasion that I just mentioned, the 10th anniversary of the student uprising, and the fact that in Iran there is a three-day holiday.
JAY: Tell us a little bit about what happened 10 years ago, why and what.
YEKTAFAR: Well, essentially, it really all started, you know, before the need of a more open society, especially after Mr. Khatami became president, two years after he became the president, and there was a hope, a new hope for them. There was the issue of a major newspaper, a very popular reformist newspaper that was shut down, two of them in a row. And then that was kind of coupled with an attack on what is known as the street for university students—they call it [inaudible] and an attack by some Basij members and some other security apparatus, a violent attack that resulted in one or two deaths, if I’m not mistaken, and massive beatings. And then the students essentially took to the streets—this was mostly in Tehran, though—took to the streets. And it lasted about two days or two and a half days. And that was the first time, actually, since the revolution, where the regime was facing a major dissent and a bit of an uprising.
JAY: If you go even further back, to the time of the revolution against the Shah, I think a lot of people don’t understand what the mix of forces were that overthrew the Shah. It’s often, I think, seen in the West as simply—was an Islamic revolution. But if I understand it correctly, the forces at play at the time of the overthrow of the Shah were quite broader than that. Tell us a little bit about that period.
YEKTAFAR: Well, first and foremost, I think it’s very important to take notice of this fact, that you have this major disconnect between the ruling elite, the monarchy, essentially, and your average Iranian. That was the fertile ground for this kind of dissent to occur. And I think what’s ironic when we see what just took place, I think we’re seeing the widening of that chasm between the people and the ruling elite, particularly after Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader, for the first time, in an unprecedented move, came out essentially backing elected president and kind of against the will of people. So that was a very important factor 30 years ago. But it was a combination of leftist Marxist, of the more religious-minded, the clerics, the union workers. And one of the reasons that I think that what took place 30 years ago was so effective was this combination that allowed not only for this sustained protest by the people in the capital city of Tehran, but also in all major cities throughout Iran, but also allowed for things such as striking. I mean, one of the main reasons, I think, that what happened 30 years ago was so effective—.
JAY: Babak, just to be clear for people that may not know the history, what we’re talking about is the fall of the Shah, who had been, to a large extent, put in power with a CIA-organized coup before that. And we’re talking about this mass protest that brought down the Shah 30 years ago. Go ahead. Keep going.
YEKTAFAR: And, of course, at the time, another aspect of it was the charismatic, if you want to call it, leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, who had been sent into exile 15 years prior to the revolution of ’79. He resided in Iraq. Of course, at the time, it’s Saddam Hussein used Ayatollah Khomeini because of his confrontations with Iran. But then, once Saddam and the Shah signed a pact together, one of the requirements was that Saddam would send Ayatollah Khomeini out of Iraq. And he ended up being in France. And that kind of—combined with what we just mentioned, kind of expedited all the movement, all that was going on against the Shah’s regime regime and monarchy as a whole. So, yes, there were a number of dynamics that came together that allowed for the revolution. And then eventually, because of a number of factors, the Islamists, with the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, took over, basically took over, filled the void, and beating up other elements that were helping them.
JAY: Well, they essentially killed off the leadership of the secular opposition, did they not?
YEKTAFAR: Yes, basically. There were some mass executions, rain of terror, as usual. I mean, in all honesty, what happened after the revolution is not that much—in Iran was not that much different than any other classical revolution that we’ve seen. I think that there were two major factors that impacted it greatly, and leading to what we have right now. One was the hostage crisis,which damaged the relations between this new regime and the United States being one of the superpowers. And that has had ramifications that we still see. And the second thing was the Iran-Iraq War, which shaped the mind of a whole generation, who are now in the leadership and are extremely suspicious of the West because of the support that the majority of Western countries gave Saddam Hussein and his Iraqi regime.
JAY: We’ve seen the pictures of Don Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam.
YEKTAFAR: Exactly. And that has remained. And one of the things that, for example, people like Ahmadinejad and people who grew up with him and a lot of—of course, Mr. Ahmadinejad himself did not fight [inaudible], but a number of others who are now with the military and security apparatus who were involved are like-minded. They’re extremely distrustful of the West.
JAY: So if you want to go back 30 years ago, you know, if you want to talk in class terms, the working class, the trade unions, some of the secular organizations that represented those interests—
YEKTAFAR: A lot of intellectuals. Yes.
JAY: —and intellectuals were all part of this broad front to overthrow the Shah. Afterward, the Islamists essentially defeat them and kill many of them.
JAY: To what extent is what we’re seeing now a reassertion of those class interests trying to, you know, have more influence, trying to get back into power?
YEKTAFAR: Well, in some ways it is. I mean, after 30 years, as I said, that whole younger generation that was involved in the revolution has now reached a point where they have to kind of pass off the baton to the next generation. And I think what you’re seeing right now, more than anything else, particularly in the past couple of weeks, is those people kind of in this conflict about the future path of the Islamic state. There are many talks about some of the ideology behind, for example, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s mentor, who’s a man, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, who you may have heard of him. He’s a bit of a radical. And essentially he’s someone who says that there is no need for elections—that is just a Western invention, and this has nothing to do with the system that Iran is ruled by, being velayat-e faqi, or the rule of jurisprudence. And he says these things are just—you know, you you don’t even need to use the word "Republic", in the title of Islamic Republic of Iran.
JAY: Well, clearly, the elections are meant to settle differences amongst the top tier of the elite. Given that there were hundreds of potential candidates and they only allowed four to run, they really wanted the elections to resolve the differences amongst the senior clerics, it seems. It was never meant to be something that ordinary people would have much to say about.
YEKTAFAR: Well, you know, you may, we may think that, but I don’t think an average Iranian actually thought that. I don’t think a good portion of the 85 percent who turned out to vote on June 12 thought that. I think most of them were not naive enough to know that they had a major hill to climb. But, then again, that would refer back to 1997, where out of nowhere a candidate who was not necessarily a kind of candidate that the regime would back somehow, because of this mass turnout, got elected. Obviously, the regime at the time didn’t think that such a thing would happen. They didn’t put that much effort into using influences, if you will, to try to manipulate the outcome of the elections, and they got stuck with someone called Khatami. And that really started a sort of splinter group among the ruling elite that was unified in some ways, be it a more open society, more open country towards the outside world, or even more in terms of its economic reform. So, again, they thought otherwise.
JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about the current struggle within the elite, which is not subdued. Mousavi has come out and continued his challenge, he says, to the system itself. And the question is: why is he taking it so far? So in the next segment of our interview with Babak Yektafar, that’s what we will pursue. Please join us.
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