"Khamenei has never seen a crisis like this"

This week's protests in Iran are truly unprecedented, says Iran expert Afshin Molavi

By Gregor Peter Schmitz
June 19, 2009 3:20PM (UTC)
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This week's protests in Iran are truly unprecedented, says Iran expert Afshin Molavi in the following interview. The demonstrators come from all walks of life and from across the country. Discontent with Tehran's hardline leadership is widespread.

Afshin Molavi is an Iran expert with the New America Foundation in Washington D.C. A former reporter for Reuters in Dubai, Molavi has written extensively about Iran, including the book "Persian Pilgrimages: Journeys Across Iran" which was published by Norton in 2002. Molavi was born in Tehran but grew up in the West and once held a job at the World Bank.


On Thursday, a million people demonstrated in the streets of Tehran. Are we witnessing a revolution in Iran?

What we are witnessing on the streets is truly unprecedented in the history of the Islamic Republic. We have seen protests in Iran over the past years, such as student protests or teacher strikes. The world only sees the demonstrations in Tehran but they are taking place all over the country.

Who are the demonstrators? What part of society do they come from?


We are witnessing the return of the Iranian middle class to the political space. This middle class is vibrant, modern, wired, eager to engage with the outside world, hungry for more social and political freedoms, and for better economic management. Many members of Iran's urban middle class -- and its important to remember that Iran is 70 percent urbanized -- chose not to vote in the 2005 election, disillusioned with the failures of the reform movement led by (former Iranian president) Mohammad Khatami. They are returning in full after four years of Ahmadinejad and demanding that their votes be counted...

...because they feel cheated. Were they?

That is the main reason people went out onto the streets. They felt that they were a victim of massive fraud -- that their vote did not count. They did not go to the streets for a revolution. The case for a massive fraud is overwhelming. Let's make no mistake: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has a base. But on election day, the results of 40 million ballots were announced within an hour of polls closing. Hand counting 40 million ballots? In addition, security services surrounded the offices of Ahmadinejad's main opponent Mir Hossein Mousavi. They shut down Mousavi Web sites. They jailed hundreds of Mousavi supporters the next day. However, as the crowds grow, so do the demands, and what started out as protest with the slogan "where is my vote?" has morphed into something larger, reflecting a generalized discontent with the order of things.


It also seems as though it is no longer just like a battle of the people against the regime, but also a battle within the regime itself.

The analysis in Tehran is that this was a coup perpetrated by supporters of the "new guard" of revolutionary elite, many of whom hail from the security and intelligence services. Over the past four years, Ahmadinejad has appointed former Revolutionary Guard members and former security officials to key positions. Facing them is the "old guard," consisting of influential figures like former President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Mousavi. The clerics are divided, too. Rafsanjani already went to talk to the major clerics and likely warned them that the current turmoil is highly dangerous for the country and for them personally. The interesting thing is: Rafsanjani is also chairman of the Assembly of Experts, 83 clerics theoretically authorized to appoint or remove the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds a strong grip on power. This internal struggle is the most serious ever faced by the Islamic Republic.


How does Mir Hossein Mousavi fit in to all of this?

Pre-election Mousavi was seen by many as the "anybody but Ahmadinejad" candidate. He is not a man of great political charisma, nor a bonafide reformer. Post-election Mousavi, however, is an entirely different character. Before the election, he was largely just an interesting candidate for voters who wanted to avoid four more years of Ahmadinejad at any price. Now he has become a political martyr, a hero to many Iranians. That is why Barack Obama's statement on Tuesday evening (Eds. note: In which he said "the difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as has been advertised") failed to appreciate the reality on the ground. Mousavi is by now not just a leader, he is also being led by the Iranian people.

But the power in Iran still resides with the Supreme Leader Khamenei. So far, he has declared Ahmadinejad the winner of the election. Will he change his mind?


The Supreme Leader likes to have power without accountability, as Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace points out. He likes to cultivate this image where he stays above the fray of politics, and he will only intervene in times of crisis. The idea of a bold, ambitious coup as apparently orchestrated by Ahmadinejad's people is uncharacteristic of him. There are questions whether he was even told about it. Then again, Khamenei tends to side with the conservatives -- but he has also never seen a crisis like this.

Does that mean that he might even call for new elections should the protests not subside?

It would be an enormous U-turn if he called for new elections as the Mousavi camp is demanding. That would be a real blow to his credibility. There is also the fear that the authorities are preparing a Tiananmen Square-style crackdown. That is why they are shutting down Web sites and throwing out the foreign journalists. They don't want to do it in front of the world public. My only hope is: As the crowds get larger, it is getting harder to clamp down on the protesters.


U.S. President Barack Obama has remained largely silent thus far. Is that a politically intelligent move or rather cold-hearted?

I think the Obama administration should not actively take a political side in the internal struggle. However, it should speak out against egregious human rights violations. Their initial reaction has been a little too tepid. But in my view, it is not just about Obama: I get the sense from Iranian cyberspace that they are very keen on hearing from global civil society. They want people around the world to stand in solidarity with them. One idea floating around is that people from Berlin, Paris, London, Cairo, or Washington, or wherever in the world, do one simple thing: wear green, which was the color of Mousavi's campaign, and has become the color of justice for Iranians. I think global civil society will have a far bigger impact than Obama could.

This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon. For more from Europe's most-read newsmagazine, visit Spiegel Online or subscribe to the daily newsletter.

Gregor Peter Schmitz

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Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Middle East