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Iranian Elections Series IA-Forum Interview: Dr. Judith Yaphe

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International Affairs-Forum: First off, where do you see the current opposition movement going? Will it (a) eventually escalate into full-scale revolution, (b) force more moderate evolutionary changes in the way the Iranian government operates, or (c) simply be crushed by the regime before any real changes can come about?

Dr. Judith Yaphe: I would discard (a) and (c). Nothing’s going to happen in the short term. There’s not going to be a revolution, and there’s not going to be regime change either. But I don’t think the opposition has been so repressed that it will simply shut down. There is a lot of deep-seated anger and most people that I talk to—who are either scholars on or are from Iran—seem to think that what has happened has fundamentally changed two important things: respect for the Supreme Leader and the idea that Iran can be a democracy responsible to the people and an Islamist state accountable only to G-d or his Agent, the Supreme Leader. I think that in the short term, the regime is fairly secure because it controls the instruments of state power—and oppression—and the opposition is weak and disparate. I don’t know that there is a real center to it. I don’t know, quite frankly, what the “Green Movement” is. I know what they say it is, but I don’t really know enough to say that this is a singular, unitary movement with an organized structure, and that its goals are such and such.

From my point of view, I wonder if their goals have changed since the protests first began. In the 1970’s, the opposition didn’t start out calling for revolution, at least not publicly. It eventually became a revolutionary movement. I don’t think that the opposition movement in June 2009 was “revolutionary.” I think that there had been hope, going back to Khatami’s election. When he called for reforms, people felt that there was hope—that they didn’t need, nor did they want, a revolution. They didn’t want to live through that again. People instead felt that change was coming from within.

Fast-forward to 2009, after the election—it’s an entirely different game. Some people are still talking about change and are very hopeful, but that doesn’t last very long. You have some that are still very determined to bring about that change—I have no idea how many. But I think that what is developing—and this is where it is like Iran in the 1970’s—that over time and through networking and the traditional family support structure, in the long term, there could be some similarities to Iran before the Shah fell.

But that revolution took years to make—a lot of different disparate elements, a lot of different ideas. Everybody thought it would achieve something different. I mean, if Khomeini had in his mind what Iran would look like after that revolution, he didn’t tell anybody. He promised lots of things. “Yes, everything will be wonderful! No problems! Yes, it’s going to be this, it’s going to be that.”

And then they woke up and the Revolution occurred, and what they saw was this predictable pattern that we see in lots of revolutions: They are circular. In the end you wind up where you were in the beginning. You have the old regime, you have its collapse, then you have a moderate take over; these moderates are from the old regime but also want to make reforms. But they are quickly pushed aside by the extremists, who take over, purge everyone disagreeing with them (real or imagined), a reign of terror follows, and a period where the Revolution turns on its own and eats its children, so to speak. In the end, the revolutionary fervor burns out and revolutionaries become the establishment.

Iran fits perfectly into that pattern, which is based on the Russian Revolution, the American Revolution and the French Revolution. When I look at the Iranian Revolution, that’s exactly what I see. The Shah is the catalytic force; everyone hates him. Opposition to him brings people together—from the Left, from the Right, from the center, from the bazaar, from the clerics. That’s what made it such a powerful force, and those at the center of the movement (the radical political clerics around Khomeini) knew exactly how to manipulate that force to get what they wanted. It builds as they use certain tools to bring about revolution, including the arba-een (the days of mourning that occur forty days after protesters are killed at previous demonstrations, during which more people are killed, and a larger arba-een demonstration takes place). This cycle really begins around 1977. It acts as a force-multiplier. But who knew what would happen afterwards?

Khomeini comes back and he’s a great national hero. Over time—and aided by the Iraqi invasion—he is able to consolidate power and authority in the hands of these loyal, hard-line political clerics. I say “political” because Khomeini is a real cleric with credentials but nobody else around him is, except for Ayatollah Montezari. Montezari was, in the early days, Khomeini’s chosen successor to be Supreme Leader. But sometime in the mid-1980’s Montezari decides he doesn’t like Velayat-e faqih (“guardianship of the Islamic jurists”), that he doesn’t believe in it. So Khomeini gets rid of him—puts him under house arrest that lasts for the next twenty years, so that he is an enemy of the state, almost.

My point is that, who would have envisioned this type of radical takeover? Yet this is a pattern that we see in the French and Russian revolutions, where enemies from outside allow the leadership to say, “we have to come together to defend ourselves. We can worry about the other stuff later.” The eight-year war with Iraq was a total drain, but it also helped to consolidate the position of the Islamic Revolution and the so-called Islamic Republic. There were some things that were unintended consequences, for example the fact that there were so many men at the front and so many casualties that women, who were supposed to quit their jobs and stay home and live a proper conservative, female Muslim life, had to work. So that tended to take some of the edge off what otherwise might have been an Islamicization that would have been so unpopular that it would have made more people question it. So the war helped to push aside those questions for long enough to enable the new government to consolidate its power, because the people see it as a work in progress.

But what happens when it stops being a work in progress? When you fast-forward to last year, before the election, there were indications of unhappiness—a lot of people felt that Ahmadinejad was worsening relations with the world, that he has pushed the powers of the president to places they are not supposed to be according to the Constitution, there was a lot of purging going on of scholars, academics and politicians deemed unreliable—but a lot of this began before his first election. There was a lot of unhappiness with Khatami, who the politicized clerics and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) did not like. They thought he was much too liberal, and when there were student riots in 1999, IRGC commanders published a letter in the press warning that they didn’t like how Khatami was handling the crisis. This was very unusual. Was it a wakeup call? It probably should have been.

So then we have Ahmadinejad elected, who the clerics support, yet the clerics themselves are very unpopular. When you come to 2009, you don’t really have a revolutionary movement, but you have people who really want evolutionary change, and I think that all hope was lost with the election. As more and more things come out about how that election was blown, I think that two very important myths are shattered. One is the role of Velayat-e faqih. The other is can you really have an Islamic republic or democracy? In a democracy or a republic, power comes from the people, but under the rule of Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader, all power comes from God, and the clerics are his agents on Earth whose job it is to govern until the Twelfth Imam returns.

A lot of Iranians don’t believe this stuff, and they don’t like the fact that the Supreme Leader got so involved in the politics, which he’s not supposed to do, and the fact that they announced the results of the election before the polls even closed. Can you imagine in Iran, an election in which the results of the election come out the same day as the election occurs? This is impossible in a place like Iran. It was just so clumsy, and then you had the heavy-handed repression, which had been going on before, but which got much worse. So that helped to clarify the issue for people who may not have been sure who or what they wanted at first but were probably swayed against Ahmadinejad after seeing all of this.

So basically, I don’t think we have a pre-revolutionary situation in Iran right now, but over the long term, I do think it could turn into an organized movement. You know, I’ve heard Iranians living outside Iran talking about this being a revolution, about the great and heroic things being done by the “Green Movement,” but I just don’t think it’s enough of an organized movement right now to force real changes, at least at the moment. So I choose choice (b)!

IA-Forum: Some have argued that the Islamic Revolution was as close to a true expression of collective will as possible—that it was a diverse and inclusive movement that all or close to all sectors of society participated in. Can the same be said of today’s opposition movement, or is today’s movement a more homogenous movement of young, college educated, urban elite?

Dr. Yaphe: That is a really good question, and I don’t think anybody truly knows the answer. During the Revolution, the Shah was just so unpopular that you had a coalescence of bazaaris, clerics, students, women, etc. The Shah tried to force modernization and a strong centralized and secular society, he put so much money into weapons, he’s repressive…and everyone thinks that they will get what they want after the Revolution. Women did much better under the Shah. Students didn’t do well after the Revolution—universities were closed for two years during the war with Iraq while the curriculum was rewritten and teachers fired. The different groups all found that what they were left with was this group of hard-line clerics who were forming a revolutionary government with Khomeini as the Supreme Leader. I really don’t think people understood what they were in for.

Now, if you fast-forward to last year, I think people are a lot smarter in a way, but they are still left with a system that they can’t deal with, that still controls the means of power—the military, security, and police. Of course that in itself raises an interesting question about who is really in control in Iran. Is it the clerics? It doesn’t sound like it anymore. There are fewer clerics in the parliaments elected in the past 2 decades than there ever were in the decade of the Revolution. On the other hand, whose representation has risen? The IRGC, the military and security services. You’re now into the second generation of the IRGC. Who are these people? These aren’t the ones who staged the revolution. Their political education, if you will, comes out of the Iran-Iraq War. So you have more positions in the government being taken over by people who are of the same profile as Ahmadinejad, who fought in the Iran-Iraq War, was and probably still is a basij, etc. So that’s the new profile—that’s who he is putting in place and who controls many of the levers of power in that country.

One of the reasons why the protests were so bloody last year was the ability of the IRGC forces to really crack down and to use intelligence gathered through monitoring the social media (YouTube, cell phones). There are many prisoners—we don’t know how many—thousands, possibly. Who knows? The regime has made a real effort to frighten not only Iranians, but also dual-nationals—people like Haleh Esfandiari at the Wilson Center, who used to go back and forth all the time to visit her elderly mother. The last time she went, they arrested her when she tried to go to the airport to leave the country. The IRGC forced her cab off the road, confiscated all her documents, and ultimately placed her in solitary confinement in the notorious Evin Prison which is controlled by the Intelligence Ministry for three to four months. She was interrogated and forced to make a televised confession, but for a women who is only about four-foot-eight and weighs about eighty pounds, she has a will of steel. It’s scary. There are lots of people in prison for all kinds of reasons.

What this means for the opposition is that it needs to be careful. The regime is punishing people through their families—Rafsanjani’s children, for example, were arrested and could be tried. People like Khatami are being prevented from leaving the country. Intimidation holds a lot of things in check. Will it still be the same two or ten years from now? I can’t say, but I don’t think it’s going to be the same as now.

Now, some argue that we should be helping the opposition, or that we should be helping to bring about regime change, but first of all, we don’t do that well, and second, Iran is not Iraq. The conditions are different, and the opportunities are different. This is a country that is three times the size of Iraq, with complicated geography, and ten million basij throughout the country as a perfect kind of local guerilla force. So while there are ways of helping the opposition, talk of bringing about regime change is misguided.




Dr. Judith Yaphe is an Adjunct Professor in the Institute for Middle East Studies in The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and is Distinguished Research Fellow and Middle East Project Director in the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. Before joining INSS in 1995, Dr. Yaphe served for 20 years as a senior analyst on Middle Eastern and Persian Gulf issues in the Office of Near Eastern and South Asian Analysis, Directorate of Intelligence, CIA.

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