Arrest of ‘Happy’ Dancers Reflects Power Struggle in Iran

May 21, 2014

Iran conservatives trying to weaken President Rouhani's nuclear negotiations by fighting "western culture"

Iran conservatives trying to weaken President Rouhani's nuclear negotiations by fighting "western culture"



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Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

The six Iranian youth who danced in a YouTube video to the song by Pharrell Williams “Happy”, who were arrested by Iranian authorities, have now been released. But the director is still being held in custody, according to news agency reports.

Well, what is all this about? Why are these six kids arrested? They certainly didn’t expect to be arrested, or one thinks they wouldn’t have made this YouTube video. So there’s something going on within the Iranian regime, or some force within it decided to make a symbol of these kids.

Here’s a little bit of the video that has caused all the commotion.

Okay. Now joining us to try to unpack the motive behind the arrests of these young people is Trita Parsi. Trita is founder and president of the National Iranian American Council. He is an author. His books include A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran and Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S.

Thanks very much for joining us, Trita.

DR. TRITA PARSI, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL IRANIAN AMERICAN COUNCIL: Thank you so much for having me.

JAY: So, apparently President Rouhani’s Twitter account–I don’t know whether it’s him or somebody who Tweets for him–tweeted in response to these arrests that happiness is a right of Iranians. He’s been promoting more use of the internet. I think at some point he Tweeted that the access to the internet is an actual right for Iranian youth or for Iranians in general. But these kids get arrested. Clearly someone’s trying to send a message. What’s all this about?

PARSI: Well, there is a major conflict going on in Iran, of course, and it’s been ongoing for some time. And there’s essentially also a dimension of it is that there’s a cultural war.

Now, what is happening in this situation is that many of the conservative forces that are opposed to Rouhani are primarily opposed to him because they don’t want Rouhani to be able to gain greater political standing in the country and start taking them on on the cultural issues. And as a result, they seem to be challenging him on this, because they know very well on the nuclear issue he has protection, and he has been very successful precisely because he has protection and the supreme leader is, currently, at least, backing him.

On cultural issues, however, Rouhani does not have this backing. But Rouhani did promise when he was elected that he would take on these forces and that he would open up Iran and they would break the atmosphere of security, the securitized atmosphere in the country. Well, this is part of it. A lot of youth have started to challenge the red lines of the society. They have taped videos like this. And I don’t believe a video like this would have been done three, four years ago under Ahmadinejad. And I think this is now a reaction to that, in which some of these forces are trying to intimidate the rest of the youth [incompr.] the population by making an example of these guys.

But it seems to have backfired, because it caused a Twitter storm and Rouhani realized there was actually a lot of support for what the kids were doing. And then he also then came out and indirectly lent his support to them.

JAY: So, within the country, what is your sense of where public opinion is? Is it–. When the Green movement was at its height, there was a lot of talk that this represented more upper middle class, urban young people, not so much rural people and not so much working-class people. In fact, that was a matter of debate if that was even really true. But when it comes to these cultural issues, where is Iranian public opinion? Does Rouhani have support for reform? Or is there more support for the conservative faction?

PARSI: He certainly has support for reform. He would not have been able to beat six other conservative candidates in the election and finish it off in the first round if he didn’t have support.

But there is some frustration. There is a frustration that things are moving slower than what people had expected or hoped, and that so much is now hinging on nuclear talks. But reality is it seems to be Rouhani’s strategy to put all of his efforts in making sure that there’s a nuclear deal. Succeed at that and then use the political maneuverability and the new political capital that he will gain from that success in order to take on other issues, whether it is the cultural war issue, whether it is human rights or other domestic problems of the country.

But right now he has remained rather silent on most issues until they reached this level of attention-grabbing as the dancers’ case had done.

And we should not forget the outcome of the nuclear talks will have a decisive impact on the future political balance inside of Iran. It will determine whether moderate forces like the reformists and Rouhani will gain political ground or if they will lose political ground and if they will be able to define the direction of the government not just on nuclear issue, not just on foreign policy, but also on these domestic issues [incompr.] That’s why we should not forget that the nuclear issue, at the end of the day, is going to be about so much more [snip] centrifuges and enriched uranium.

JAY: Well, if that’s true, then are the conservative forces looking for ways to sabotage these negotiations?

PARSI: Well, that’s where they have a problem, because the negotiations have been insulated in an unprecedented manner. They have the backing, the negotiators have the backing of the supreme leader. So it’s very difficult for them to challenge the negotiations directly. But they can still challenge Rouhani on a whole set of other issues, including on human rights, as well as on this issue. And it seems like they’re jumping on the opportunities to do so precisely because they can’t take on Rouhani on the more all-encompassing or the more dominant issue of the nuclear talks.

JAY: Well, the conservatives seem to have a very strong ally in their strategy, and that’s much of Congress, because much of Congress seems to want to sabotage these negotiations, and they seem to be in a better position to do it than the Iranian conservatives.

PARSI: Certainly. It’s an interesting situation, in which one of the negotiators (I won’t say for which country, because it’s actually true for both of them) said that they were more worried about the negotiations that they have in their own capital between conservatives and moderates, between the White House and Congress than they’re concerned about the negotiations between the U.S. and Iran. I think that’s a very interesting statement that shows that those who want a deal, in some ways, even if they’re on the opposite side, in the sense that they’re in two different countries, may have more in common right now than those–than with their own countrymen if those countrymen are opposed to the deal.

And there are many in Congress now, unfortunately, are very eager to sabotage this. But there are also many in Congress that actually would like to see this succeed and would like to have a role in helping it succeed. But so far, much of their frustration is because they’ve been kept out. And they’ve been kept out for good reasons. It’s not easy to negotiate with six other countries to begin with. But it’s even more difficult to negotiate if you’re sending not one negotiating delegation but every 535 member of Congress is going to be a secretary of state in their own right. That’s not going to work.

JAY: Now, the negotiations themselves seem to have reached a serious obstacle. They’re getting very close to the six-month deadline. And the most recent round of talks, there seems to be a fight over just how much domestic enrichment the Iranian nuclear program’s going to be allowed. And this whole issue of not–according to the way the Americans position it, they don’t want Iran to have what’s called a breakout capacity, that they’ll have enough enrichment that maybe it doesn’t get weaponized right now, but it wouldn’t take that much to get there, so argues the Western point of view. The Iranians are arguing you need a certain level of enrichment or you can’t have a domestic nuclear industry. How real is that fight? Or how much is that a reflection that both sides need to be able to sell this domestically, particularly the Americans?

PARSI: Both of what you said are correct. This is a real fight, and both of them are concerned that they were going to come back and have a deal that they can’t sell at home. I mean, that’s going to be a major problem. It’s going to be a killer, in fact.

But at the same time, we should also remember: this is a negotiation, and no negotiation follows some sort of a linear path towards success. There’s going to be drama. There’s going to be setbacks. There’s going to be ups and there’s going to be downs. And this is just a natural rhythm of a nonlinear negotiation.

I’ve seen nothing yet from the round that occurred last week in Vienna that gives me so much concern that I think the prospects of getting a deal has shrunk. I don’t think that’s the case. It was expected that in this round they would be running into some difficulties, because the previous rounds had actually focused on the much easier issues. They’re getting to the tougher issues right now. That’s going to make the negotiations tougher, it’s going to make the noise coming out of the negotiations be a little bit less pleasant. It’s going to be less huggy-huggy than it was before. But it does not mean that they’re actually not advancing towards a final deal.

JAY: I mean, if Obama doesn’t come out of this with a defendable deal, he doesn’t have a heck of a foreign policy legacy.

PARSI: I think that’s absolutely correct. For President Obama this is the last best chance to create a significant legacy for himself. If he manages to resolve this issue, this is going to be tremendously important, again, because it’s not just about the nuclear issue. This could very well turn into an opportunity to reorient much of Iran’s foreign policy on many different issues, particularly on regional matters. And that’s going to be quite positive for the United States. So he has a lot at stake. And he doesn’t have a lot of other prospects. There’s not a lot of other issues that he can say, well, you know what? I’m going to take a loss on this issue and focus my energy on this other issue instead.

Similarly, on the Iranian side, Rouhani has essentially bet his presidency on these negotiations. His foreign minister certainly has bet his career on these negotiations.

JAY: Now, speaking of the Iranian foreign minister, he was just in Saudi Arabia, correct? Or is he–I [incompr.] mixing this up–he’s about to be in Saudi Arabia?

PARSI: He has been invited now, publicly.

JAY: Now. Some people are making a big issue of this because the Saudis essentially were really the ones leading the charge for American military intervention. I mean, is this visit significant? Or is this kind of sort of more routine diplomacy?

PARSI: If the visit takes place, in and of itself it will be significant. The outcome, of course, will determine further how significant it is. The fact that the Saudis have now shifted their position and are publicly inviting Zarif–they apparently have not sent a formal invitation yet, but nevertheless, if that happens, it’s an indication that the Saudis are also coming to terms with the fact that there is a good likelihood that there will be a deal. And Saudi Arabia will be worse off if it resists the deal [incompr.] to sabotage the deal to the end. It’s better off if it tries to position itself in such a way that it maximizes its benefit from a post-deal environment.

And that means that Saudi Arabia needs to find and work hard to try to come to terms with Iran. Almost every other GCC state [snip] in Iran, and they’re starting to patch things up. And that’s a good thing. It’s not a good thing for these conflicts to continue to fester and get worse and worse when we finally have diplomacy that is working.

JAY: That would take–to really have a patch-up, that would mean a serious reversal of positions on Syria. They’re completely at odds. Can you imagine–.

PARSI: Not necessarily. I mean, yes, they’re completely at odds. There’s no doubt about that. But it can also be that they have [incompr.] diplomacy, not necessarily to become best friends, but [incompr.] will determine [where] they will continue to oppose each other and how, and the areas in which they will have to come to terms with each other and perhaps even collaborate. I don’t foresee in the future a complete shift-around in which these, the Saudis and the Iranians, would become allies, but there’s no need for them to be on this path towards a complete confrontation in the region, which primarily tends to take place in other countries–Syria [incompr.]

JAY: We’re having some–we’re having a few audio–Trita, we’re having a few audio difficulties. I’m going to apologize to everybody. Maybe you could just repeat that last sentence.

PARSI: The last sentence, I essentially was saying that I don’t foresee the Saudis and the Iranians necessarily becoming best friends in the region, but there’s no need for them to be at odds with each other at the extent that they are today, in which they’re clashing with each other. And those clashes are primarily taking place in other countries–Syria, Lebanon, and in the past also Afghanistan and in Iraq.

JAY: Well, and still in Iraq.

But, I mean, you can say there’s no need, but they certainly perceive a need, and certainly the Saudis have perceived a need. That seems to be their number one foreign policy objective, to isolate or get the Americans to do a regime change in Iran.

PARSI: I don’t question that. I agree with you that that is very much what the Saudis have been pushing for. But there has been some changes in the Saudi leadership as well, and those have been quite significant.

JAY: This is Bandar being removed as head of their National Security Council.

PARSI: [incompr.] Bandar [being removed, but] others as well, within the military and other very critical posts, and particularly mindful of the fact that those efforts to get the U.S. to bomb Iran, to get the U.S. to bomb Syria have failed. It also means that there is a limitation to the extent to which the Saudis can continue to push a losing strategy.

JAY: Okay. Well, we’ll continue to follow this, and we’ll come back to Trita.

Thanks very much for joining us.

PARSI: Thank you for having me.

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

End

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