TOPICS > Politics

Unrest in Iran

June 18, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner has our Iran story.

MARGARET WARNER: For more than a week, university students in Iran have been staging nightly protests. At first, the issue was rising college tuition costs. But before long, thousands in Tehran and elsewhere were shouting for democratic reforms. Some clashed with riot police. Some called for the death of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme religious leader. Still others denounced Iran’s elected president, Mohammad Khatami. On Sunday, President Bush, who once identified Iran as part of the axis of evil, endorsed the students’ protests.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I believe that some day freedom will prevail everywhere, because freedom is a powerful drive for people to… and it’s the beginnings of people expressing themselves toward a free Iran, which I think is positive.

MARGARET WARNER: That same day, 248 Iranian intellectuals and clerics issued a statement saying Ayatollah Khamenei’s claim to absolute power “is a clear heresy towards God and a clear affront to human dignity.” Tehran blamed the protests on anti-regime Persian-language satellite TV shows broadcast by Iranian exiles in the U.S. Tehran also accused Washington of encouraging the turmoil.

HAMID REZA ASEFI, Foreign Ministry, Iran: (Translated ): Unfortunately the Americans have displayed their animosity towards our people very vividly. There were different statements from American officials, which are outstanding examples of irresponsible intervention in the domestic affairs of the Islamic republic of Iran.

MARGARET WARNER: There’s been tough talk from Washington too. After the bombing of western compounds in Saudi Arabia, Bush officials said Iran was harboring the suspected al-Qaida masterminds. Bush officials also say Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons.

COLIN POWELL: Iran is a problem. It continues to support terrorism. It continues to develop, we believe, the capability to produce nuclear weapons, and this is troublesome.

MARGARET WARNER: The U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, recently accused Iran of concealing its efforts to import uranium and to develop a heavy-water reactor. Monday, IAEA head Mohamed El Baradei urged Tehran to allow more intrusive inspections. Iran says its nuclear program is for civilian use, and accuses the U.S. of stirring up the IAEA.

ALI AKBAR SALEHI, Iranian Representative to IAEA: We have been hearing for the past three months from the officials of the United States so many statements that would indicate a kind of pressuring of the IAEA or influencing the decisions to be made in the IAEA.

MARGARET WARNER: But today, President Bush indicated he plans to keep up the pressure.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We will not tolerate the construction of a nuclear weapon; Iran will be dangerous if they have a nuclear weapon.

MARGARET WARNER: The president also called on the Iranian government to treat the protesters with the utmost respect.

MARGARET WARNER: And for an assessment of what the Iranian protests mean and how the U.S. should handle Iran, we turn to four Iran watchers. Daniel Brumberg is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He’s been taking part in a series of non-governmental talks with influential Iranians. Manouchehr Ganji was minister of education in Iran under the shah, from 1976 to 1979, when he fled. He heads the Flag of Freedom Organization of Iran, a group promoting democratic change in Iran; Shaul Bakhash, a former journalist in Iran and now a history professor at George Mason University. And Michael Ledeen, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington; he’s a member of the Coalition for Democracy in Iran, a neo conservative group seeking to encourage a democratic revolution there. Welcome to you all.

Mr. Bakhash, starting with you, what are these demonstrations about?

SHAUL BAKHASH: Well, they’re very significant because they’ve continued for several days. They have spread to other cities. The slogans the students were crying out with not only called for democracy but, as your clip showed directly attacked Iran’s leader. Members of the middle class joined the demonstrators by honking their horns and causing traffic jams, and there’s every likelihood that these demonstrations will continue and perhaps spread.

Also the government showed how worried it was about them by sending out its thugs to beat up the students with chains and clubs and even knives. So I think it’s a source of serious concern for the regime but perhaps not yet the indication that the regime is about to fall or that we’re witnessing regime change.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me just stay with the demonstrators for another minute, Mr. Ganji. What is it they’re so angry about?

MANOUCHEHR GANJI: Condition of life; 25 years, nearly a quarter of a century, this regime has been in power. Look at the life conditions in Iran. The economic conditions; lack of employment; 500-600,000 of them each year go to universities don’t find jobs. About 200,000 of them leave the country and come to the western countries in search of jobs. They see — per capita consumption of meat in Iran is an ounce-and-a-half per day. Per capita consumption of bread is seven ounces per day. This is the condition and also human rights violations. The arrests, torture, imprisonment, stoning women to death; discrimination against minorities, against women in particular – the youth of Iran, the vanguards, have been of freedom and democracy in Iran. Their number is now 70 percent of Iranians are below 30 years of age and over nearly 60 percent below 25 years of age.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Mr. Brumberg, how indicative are these student protests of wider unrest in society. Of course so much of the society, as Mr. Ganji pointed out, is young. Are these just students in the street or something deeper going on?

DANIEL BRUMBERG: There is something much deeper. Students are a part of the protestors but there are other social groups that are linked to it. In fact, what is interesting is that while the protest started with students, it’s expanded to other groups. The students and those who are supporting them from professional middle classes, some workers, other groups as well, they’re basically fed up with not only the economic conditions but with a regime that force feeds religion and dogma.

In that sense they’re expressing the discrediting of an entire regime in the eyes of many Iranians. Having said that, we have to be careful about not exaggerating the political implications because I think that while many Iranians are fed up with the regime, the vast majority are not willing at this point anyway to come out in open support, in active support of the students.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with that, Michael Ledeen, that assessment? And if so, why aren’t other sectors of society coming out in support of the students?

MICHAEL LEDEEN: Well, they don’t enjoy getting beaten up or attacked with chains and knives and acid and all the various other things that the thugs, so well described by your other guests, are using. So people are frightened. Terror has an effect. What they’re looking for right now in the evolution of revolutionary movements, they are now at a moment where each side is trying to gauge the strength and the will of the other to see where it’s going to go.

My own feeling is that these demonstrations now are qualitatively different from things that have happened before. It’s not just that they’ve involved all classes of society but also that it’s spread throughout the country. Even in Qom last night, the holy city of the mullahs, there were demonstrations against the regime and calling for separation of mosque and state and so forth. So it’s a very deeply based and broad based phenomenon. Where it will lead, nobody knows because you just have to wait and see. A good deal may depend on how the rest of the world reacts to it.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Bakhash, you sounded to me that you didn’t think it was quite as deeply based.

SHAUL BAKHASH: Well, as I said, I think it’s very significant, but the fact is that the numbers other than students who have joined the demonstrations so far have been limited. You haven’t really had workers joining the protests in any large numbers. And perhaps even more striking has been the silence of the reformist parties, at least so far. They’ve been on the whole very timid, as we know from the last two years. But I think you need, you know, organized political groups and parties to participate in these protests before you can say that you have a really serious movement underway that is threatening to the regime.

MANOUCHEHR GANJI: Do you know this is… Iran saw a revolution 25 years ago. What is happening in Iran today is exactly… because I lived it. I was in the midst of university; for ten years I was there and I saw how the demonstrations had started. The revolution in Iran started exactly the same way in the universities and the schools. Then teachers joined. Then it was at the end that the oil workers joined, so it went on for about eight months to ten months or a year and, of course we had– I’m talking before this regime– we had demonstrations constantly not only at the end we had it but at the end it was… you saw it snowballing. And now that’s what is happening in Iran.

Definitely you have right now workers in certain sectors have joined the students, have come out in favor of the students and you have it all over the country nearly, you have it in Shiraz; you have it in Tabriz; in Esfahan, in Gomez, you said, Michael said and in other parts of the country. They are not letting go. What has happened is that Iraq and Afghanistan on the two sides of Iran, the fact that they are no longer controlled by Saddam and by Taliban, that has had a tremendous effect on the morale of the people.

MARGARET WARNER: But in ’79 there were also the clerics to provide the organization, were there not, Mr. Brumberg?

DANIEL BRUMBERG: Well, there were. Of course some young clerics have supported the reform movement. But I think it’s important to note that even among those kind of dissident clerics some of whom are in the madrassas, who are linked to the reform movement, Shaul is absolutely right, there has been a noticeable silence from the mainstream political organizations. Unless there’s a linking up of these students with the mainstream political organizations in the parliament, unless there is an opportunity to link up with dissident clerics this is not by any stretch of the imagination a popular revolution on the order of 1979.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Michael Levine, let’s shift now to the U.S., how the U.S. is handling this. Do you think it’s helpful or counterproductive for President Bush to encourage or voice his support at least for the demonstrators?

MICHAEL LEDEEN: Well, I think the United States should support democracy movements everywhere in all ways so this is not a particular problem for me. I think it’s what we stand for and I think it’s what we should always do. I mean Iran, I don’t see why the Iranian people are any less worthy of support than say the Filipinos were the Yugoslavs were the Poles during solidarity. I think it’s what the United States should stands for and should always do.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think it’s helpful, Mr. Bakhash?

SHAUL BAKHASH: I think it’s marginally helpful. I wouldn’t go on to say that it’s a very significant element in precipitating or encouraging these demonstrations.

MARGARET WARNER: But I mean we saw both the government and the clerics join together and issue a statement very critical of President Bush and say that this showed that the White House was trying to influence or orchestrate this. You don’t think it’s counterproductive at all?

SHAUL BAKHASH: I don’t think it’s counterproductive. It’s naturally the regime would like to blame the demonstrations on some outside factions, but I don’t think we should exaggerate the importance of the impact of these statements on the part of the administration on the protests themselves.

MARGARET WARNER: So Mr. Ganji, you of course very much want change there. What else could the U.S. do, given the fact that it also has another agenda with Iran everything from nuclear weapons to what’s going on in Afghanistan and the war on terror.

MANOUCHEHR GANJI: Let me just say that clerics in Iran are not homogeneous. That is all clerics are not supporting the regime. There are many clerics like Taheri, like Montazeri, like Sesehathumi, and many others who are against the regime. So there are clerics who are sympathizing with the students. But coming to President Bush’s statement, certainly it has helped, these statements, but it is rhetoric. U.S. hasn’t had a policy on Iran, although the U.S. has been acting and behaving very much in favor of freedom movement in Iran all along and is showing sympathy towards the Iranian people. But the fact remains that the United States has not had a policy on Iran. And still today the U.S. doesn’t have a policy on Iran.

MARGARET WARNER: Would you agree with that, Mr. Brumberg?

DANIEL BRUMBERG: I think that’s absolutely the case. We have several policies. We have a policy of engagement, of talks, of discussions coming through the State Department, the pragmatists. We have a policy of confrontation, axis of evil, which seeks to bring down the regime coming from the neo conservative movement. I see a battle within the beltway now between these various streams of thought. It’s far from clear who will come out on top.

MARGARET WARNER: I noticed that just last week Donald Rumsfeld said we shouldn’t talk to the clerics or to the reformers because they’re both doing things counter to the Iranian people. Just yesterday Secretary Powell said just because we cut off talks after the Riyadh bombing doesn’t mean that’s forever.

DANIEL BRUMBERG: That nicely describes the different streams of thought. I believe that for the hard liners in the administration, whether you’re a former hard line in Iran it doesn’t make a difference, whereas for the more pragmatic thinkers in the administration being a reformist does mean something. Being a member of the madrass , being a reformist is politically significant.

MANOUCHEHR GANJI: All the reformers today are opposing the students. Who is reformer? What reformer? All of them have to have the approval of the ayatollah Khamenei and the god representative on earth. Who is reformer?

MARGARET WARNER: Let me get Michael Ledeen back here. Do you think President Bush can walk this line once appearing… encouraging democratic change in Iran and yet still maintaining an ability to engage on other issues? Or do you think, as Secretary Rumsfeld does, that he shouldn’t engage?

MICHAEL LEDEEN: Look, I think engagement has been tried and failed. We talked to them and talked to them and talked to them and nothing comes of it. The reason is that the people we talked to are either impotent or part of a regime that hates us and is dedicated to our destruction. I think the president has been absolutely consistent on this and Secretary Powell said the same thing, which is we don’t like this regime. It’s an evil regime. It supports terrorism. It’s an integral part of the terror network. We don’t believe in the reformers. The president has said that explicitly and we support the Iranian people. That’s where the United States is. It’s what any normal American would say and feel.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask one other American, back to Mr. Brumberg, if that is the approach, or were to be approach then how do you deal with the nuclear issue?

DANIEL BRUMBERG: First of all, speaking as a normal American, I don’t share all of Mr. Ledeen’s ideas but I do believe that we have to take a hard line on the nuclear issue. My concern is, because it’s quite clear that Iran is moving in the direction of having weapons of mass destruction. My concern is that there may not be a military option. I’m by no means an expert on this subject. But I really think when it comes to engaging this issue we’re in a very tight spot because Iran is not Iraq. It may be a member o axis of evil but we don’t have the kinds of options that we had with Iraq in terms of dealing with the Iranian regime. I’m concerned about bridging the gap between our rhetoric and what we can do about the situation.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Gentlemen, all four, thank you all for joining us.