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Struggle within Iranian elite continues

Large number of protestors in streets as Rafsanjani calls for unity and challenges Supreme Leader

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Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network, coming to you today from Toronto. And today in Tehran, Ayatollah Rafsanjani delivered the Friday prayers—a moment of great significance: people were awaiting whether Rafsanjani would comment directly on the outcome of the election, what had happened with the protests. And in fact he commented on both. To help us unpack what happened today in Iran, we’re joined by Nader Hashemi. He teaches Middle Eastern and Islamic politics at the University of Denver. Thanks for joining us.

NADER HASHEMI, PROF. OF MIDDLE EAST AND ISLAMIC POLITICS, UNIV. OF DENVER: Glad to be with you.

JAY: So, Nader, first of all, tell us what happened today.

HASHEMI: Well, this was the long, much-anticipated sort of public commentary and discussion of one of the senior players in the Islamic Republic of Iran. It was an extensive commentary, discussion, and critique of the status quo. Rafsanjani tried to play a middle position by balancing himself between the two factions that are clashing—the reformist faction, headed by the former prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi and the former president Khatami; and Ahmadinejad on the right end of the political spectrum. And so, while he called for unity, he called for reconciliation, he also was quite critical of the political status quo in Iran over the last month.

JAY: For people who have not been following this story, just quickly tell us who Rafsanjani is and why it matters what he says.

HASHEMI: Well, Rafsanjani is one of the leading members, founding members of the Islamic Republic of Iran, former influential speaker of the Parliament, a two-time president, and now heading two important institutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran. He’s an incredibly wealthy man, an influential player behind the scenes, a close ally of Ayatollah Khomeini, and someone who carries a lot of political weight in the system. So his views and his opinions matter greatly, particularly at the elite level, in terms of revealing how united or disunited the political elites in Iran are at this moment.

JAY: So before getting further into what Rafsanjani said, what happened on the streets of Tehran today?

HASHEMI: Well, there was a huge turnout at the Friday prayer sermon. A lot of supporters of Mousavi showed up, in part because Mousavi himself was present at the Friday prayer sermon. So was the other leading opposition figure, Mehdi Karroubi, who was actually roughed up and jostled by plain-clothes Basij sort of policemen. There were slogans that were shouted against the supreme leader, against the stolen election, in support of Mousavi, in support of the—calling for freedom of political prisoners and a general condemnation. There was tear gas that actually flowed into the Friday prayer service and brought tears to many of the people who were congregated there listening to the service. And so it was another, I think, very revealing show of force and, I think, a clear indication that the discontent that exists in Iran today is still very strong against the election, against Ahmadinejad, and against the supreme leader.

JAY: So give us the highlights of Rafsanjani’s sermon, I guess you can call it.

HASHEMI: Yeah. Well, while calling for unity, I think in many ways he was deeply critical of Ahmadinejad, of those people who were claiming victory in the June 12 election. And also, I think most revealingly, implicitly very critical of the supreme leader. While not mentioning his name, he took a decidedly different track in terms of interpreting the June 12 election. And I think to understand, you know, this sermon and its significance, one has to compare and contrast it with the sermon about a month ago that was delivered by the supreme leader, where he basically said the elections were basically free and fair, the debate is over, everyone should accept the results. Rafsanjani actually did not do that. Completely provided a contrasting picture. He said that there’s a lot of discontent, the country’s still in a state of crisis. He was very, very critical of those people who ran the state television, saying that they had been unfair and presented a biased picture. Called for open debate, explicitly called for the freedom of political prisoners, and blamed the overall crisis in Iran on internal developments and on decisions that were made by key players in the regime, not on the United States and Israel and foreign powers, which is the line that’s coming out of the Ahmadinejad camp. So I think it was quite a significant speech, and it basically was an insight, a deep insight into the ongoing deep fissures that exist at a senior level within the Islamic Republic of Iran.

JAY: Now, Rafsanjani has been described by many as not only one of the richest people in Iran, but a lot of people talk about corruption in different levels of the theocracy, and Rafsanjani’s name often comes up. Some people have suggested one of the reasons Ahmadinejad did as well as he did—and whatever the vote count is, certainly he did get a lot of votes—was that a lot of people don’t like Rafsanjani and saw Ahmadinejad as a kind of reformer against this sort of corrupt, old-guard Rafsanjani. So how true is that? And how is that seen today when he speaks?

HASHEMI: Well, I mean, that’s a line that comes out of some quarters of the political left here in the West, where you have this populist sort of Chavez-like figure against the old, established, you know, capitalist guard. Look, there’s elements of truth to that, but I think it completely ignores much more pressing and much more important issues like basic human rights abuses that are taking place, have taken place, and that continue to take place in Iran, the absence of political freedom, the narrowing of political space, and how the fundamental, I think, axis of conflict in Iran today is really over the question of democracy: are the people fundamentally sovereign? Does their vote count?

JAY: But the point I’m raising is that—internally in Iran, is Rafsanjani’s words have influence, or do—certainly the people that support Ahmadinejad don’t like Rafsanjani.

HASHEMI: Right. It really depends on who you ask. I mean, people on the, I think, pro-Democratic side of the debate, people who supported Mir-Hossein Mousavi, look to Rafsanjani as an ally. And I think his sermon today will confirm that. He didn’t go as far some people wanted, but I think he clearly was very sympathetic to the grievances of the opposition. Now, of course, the Ahmadinejad faction don’t like Rafsanjani, and they’ll invoke, you know, his wealth, they’ll evoke sort of the corruption. But, then again, when you’re talking about corruption in an authoritarian system, you know, anyone who’s been in political office does not have a clean track record, including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and many of the allies that he has in the political system. So, you’re right; you know, there are people who support, you know, Ahmadinejad and who are on the political right who do not like Rafsanjani, both in the past and particularly today, but these are some of the, you know, political alignments and factional divisions that exist in Iran.

JAY: So some of the concrete things he called for: he called for the people who had been arrested during the protests should be released. Is there other specific things he said that Ahmadinejad’s side will take issue with?

HASHEMI: He was very critical of the state television. And it was interesting. I believe that this sermon was not broadcast on state television, only on the radio. He called for free and open debate over the results of the June 12 election. He called for reaching out to the population to try and restore their confidence in the Islamic Republican system, which he stated had been shaken because of the way things were handled. He’s basically—you know, took a decidedly different track and interpreted events in Iran in a different way than the supreme leader did, and then completely different than what we’re seeing on the political right in Iran, who have fallen back on the easy attempt to blame sort of foreign powers for stirring up, you know, discontent.

JAY: Why does he get to deliver this sermon? Who decides who delivers the Friday prayers?

HASHEMI: Well, it’s a good question. I think the senior leadership of the country decides, and he’s one of the senior leaders. You know, there’s a handful of, I think, senior clerics who are deeply influential, and they rule the system based on a consensus. And Rafsanjani is one pillar of the system. The supreme leader is another pillar. There’s other senior ayatollahs. So I suspect that behind the scenes there was quite a bit of debate and agitation as to whether he should be allowed to give the Friday sermon. But I think he’s just too influential, too powerful to simply ignore and write him off. There are people, I think, who are trying to do that, but he has a lot of clout in the Islamic Republican system.

JAY: The speech sounded like a call for compromise. Mousavi has said the supreme leader’s leadership is no longer legitimate. He says Ahmadinejad’s election is illegitimate. Mousavi’s rhetoric has taken him over the line. Rafsanjani wouldn’t go over the line and seems to be saying, let’s make up now—let the protesters out of jail, allow a certain amount of dissent—and let’s kind of get on with things. He’s not calling, for example, that Ahmadinejad shouldn’t be the president.

HASHEMI: That’s correct. He hasn’t gone that far, because if he were to do so, that would put him in direct and clear conflict with the supreme leader. It would be an open clash, and no one knows how that would be resolved. He did call for unity; he called for compromise; he called for openness. The question, really, here is whether the opposition, particularly Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and the former president Khatami, who now act as a troika in terms of, you know, leading the opposition, whether they’ll be content with the speech and whether they’ll, you know, agree to still work within the framework of the law to address their grievances.

JAY: Rafsanjani did something else, apparently, that Ahmadinejad’s group didn’t like. One of the cabinet ministers of Ahmadinejad was also, if I understand it correctly, a member of the Council of Experts that Rafsanjani has, and now he’s saying as long as he’s a cabinet minister, he can’t be a member of this council. What’s the significance of that move?

HASHEMI: Yeah, I haven’t heard that. But, I mean, assuming that that’s the case, I think it suggests sort of greater elite-faction rivalry and an attempt to sort of block people from assuming key positions of the state as Ahmadinejad tries to form a cabinet and senior figures like Rafsanjani try to exert influence and to block appointments that will have quite a bit of influence in the Islamic Republic.

JAY: I’m not sure if I saw this correctly, but today, apparently, also, the head of the Iranian Atomic Agency resigned. Do we know if there’s any story behind that?

HASHEMI: Well, he resigned, and it was a major development given the importance of that post, because the person who resigned was a long-standing sort of senior member of the foreign policy establishment in Iran. He served under many administrations, very loyally under Khatami, the reformist president. I suspect—I can’t prove this, but I suspect that his resignation is sending the signal that he is on the reformist side of this debate, he’s unhappy with the status quo, and he feels that the elections were not free and fair. And I think it’s a way of demonstrating [inaudible]

JAY: But we’re not sure that’s the reason.

HASHEMI: We don’t have any independent confirmation. But usually when you resign, you’re upset about something. I mean, it could be many things. It could be for personal reasons. But, I mean, if one had to guess, I think it would be a sign that he has thrown in his lot with—.

JAY: With Rafsanjani’s delivering the prayers today—and clearly Mousavi’s been considered an ally of Rafsanjani—it suggests that the Revolutionary Guard is not acting with Ahmadinejad as a kind of dictatorship that we might have seen, I don’t know, during the 20th century. They’re allowing a certain amount of the process to unfold, and they’re not just putting Rafsanjani in jail at some point, which was a question even as recently as a couple of weeks ago.

HASHEMI: No, you’re right. And if that were to happen, it would signify a major shift in power and consolidation in the hands of the political right, the extreme political right in Iran. I mean, to try and put Rafsanjani in jail would cause a huge internal crisis, because he has a lot of cards to play and a lot of influence. So, you know, even up until today, as authoritarian as Iran’s political system has been and is after the June 12 election, there is still competing factions that are, you know, at each other’s throats, but still nonviolently. And that creates political space and it creates an opportunity. I suspect that Rafsanjani was allowed to give the sermon today and the Revolutionary Guards have not tried to block him or to arrest him because Rafsanjani still has an alliance with the supreme leader, and that hasn’t been broken. It’s been severely damaged, I think there’s clear tensions, but there’s still a working alliance to preserve the functioning of the Islamic Republican system.

JAY: So in terms of the movement on the streets and the demands of people for more rights, what are we likely to see over the next few days? Do you get an indication of that?

HASHEMI: Well, I think something to watch for would be in early August when Ahmadinejad is going to be sworn in as the official president. I think that could be something to watch for in terms of street protests, possibly members of the parliament staging a protest and walking out. But in the foreseeable future, there’s going to be many key anniversaries of senior revolutionary figures, religious holidays, that will allow people to gather in public spaces, and you can expect similar types of protests that we saw today, that we saw last week, where people expressed their frustration, chant slogans, clash with the police, are tear-gassed, some are arrested. So this is, I think, an ongoing cycle of attrition that will likely play itself out well into the future.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Nader.

HASHEMI: Appreciate it. Thanks.

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

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Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.