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After Disputed Vote, Iran’s Leaders Face Continued Protests

June 15, 2009 at 6:05 PM EST
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Analysts discuss Iran's disputed presidential election and how protests by supporters of reform-movement leader Mir Hossein Mousavi will shape the country's political future.
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JIM LEHRER: Gwen Ifill has more.

GWEN IFILL: For a closer look at what’s happening in Iran and what it all means, we’re joined by Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He formerly worked in Tehran for the International Crisis Group and was there during the last Iranian election in 2005.

And Gary Sick, a former National Security Council staffer who dealt with Iran policy under Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan, he is now a senior research scholar and professor of international affairs at Columbia University.

Professor Sick, I want to start with you. You’ve watched this kind of ups and downs and protests in Iranian politics over the years. How significant were today’s protest?

GARY SICK, Middle East Institute at Columbia University: I think this is a real turning point. The whole idea of the Islamic Republic was to have a mixture of Islam and Islamic rule, but with the voice of the people, a form of democracy, republicanism. That has broken down.

Today, the people simply don’t trust the government, and the government — I think it’s clear — does not trust the people. There’s a fight going on, and the fight is getting very nasty, indeed. I think it’s gone further than the ruling elite ever thought that it would.

GWEN IFILL: Kareem Sadjadpour, we saw these pictures apparently five miles long, these protests. Did you see that they felt, as Gary Sick says, do they feel different to you today?

KARIM SADJADPOUR, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Absolutely. I think this is really an unprecedented moment in the 30-year history of the Islamic regime. And the sense of rage and injustice you saw on the streets today in Tehran and throughout the country was really palpable.

And what’s different about this time around is that, in the past, all of these demonstrations have been the people against the regime. And this time, you see unprecedented fissures amongst the revolutionary elite themselves. Someone like former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was one of the founding fathers of the Islamic Republic, is now in the opposition.

Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has impeccable revolutionary credentials, who was the prime minister during the 1980s, is now part of the opposition. So we’ve never seen these types of fissures before amongst the political elite themselves.

Unrest goes deeper than election

Karim Sadjadpour
Carnegie Endowment for Intl. Peace
I think that there was a combination of a lot of factors: economic malaise, social discontent, political discontent. And I think this insult of the elections was simply the last straw for many people.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you -- and I'll ask Gary Sick this, as well -- is the reason for this discontent because of the outcome of the election? Or is this something that was brewing leading up in to this?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I think this has been brewing for many years, and this was simply the last straw. I think that, you know, many people believed that this was not an election, this was simply an election.

I was based in Tehran in 2005, and I covered Ahmadinejad's election very closely. And I can tell you, the people whom I spoke to who voted for him, his mandate was very clear. It was to improve the state of the economy.

You fast-forward four years now, and this is one of the most profoundly mismanaged economies in the world. Despite its tremendous oil resources, Iran has one of the highest rates of inflation in the world, tremendous unemployment, tremendous underemployment.

And I think that there was a combination of a lot of factors: economic malaise, social discontent, political discontent. And I think this insult of the elections was simply the last straw for many people.

GWEN IFILL: If, indeed, people are so discontent, Gary Sick, does that rule out the possibility that this was an election that was actually the will of the people?

GARY SICK: Well, you know, part of this -- I mean, I see this as a coup, as basically a blow to attempt to intimidate the opposition and send them off. I think they failed.

And that was an attempt -- basically, it's a fight over who actually runs policy in the Islamic Republic. And it's not just Mr. Ahmadinejad. It actually relates to, you know, Ayatollah Khamenei himself, the leader, and his role and his authority in running the government and running the country.

And I think this is the direct challenge to him. And it started in the election process, but the election is a secondary thing to the actual contest for power at the very highest levels.

An election investigation

Gary Sick
Middle East Institute, Columbia Univ.
I think it's clearly meant to quell the crowd. The Council of Guardians is...an extraordinarily conservative group which in the past has, in effect, disqualified hundreds and hundreds, even thousands of people, from running for office.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you about that, because Ayatollah Khamenei has asked for an investigation from the Guardian Council, the council of leaders. And I wonder whether that investigation of the election outcome is something that's real or is it something that's just meant to quell the crowds?

GARY SICK: Well, I think it's clearly meant to quell the crowd. The Council of Guardians is an organization that basically responds, is appointed directly or indirectly by the leader himself, and is an extraordinarily conservative group which in the past has, in effect, disqualified hundreds and hundreds, even thousands of people, from running for office.

So they've got a track record that is very clear. It's very unlikely, since they're responsible for the election itself, that they're going to find that they were guilty of throwing the election.

So, basically, I think the opposition is smart not to quit at this point, not to say, "OK, we will wait and see what the investigation proves." They've got to insist on having a -- they've got to have a voice in this. They've got to be there watching the process. And I think that's what the argument is going to be really about.

GWEN IFILL: Having a voice, Mr. Sadjadpour, is one thing; being able to overturn the outcome of this election is another. Is that a possibility?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I think it's within the realm of possibilities. We'll have to see how things play out in the next week or so.

I agree very much with Gary that the Guardian Council is not an objective entity. The Guardian Council is simply another arm for Ayatollah Khamenei. And I think this was a tactical move for him to buy time without ceding authority. He still has the, you know, jurisdiction over the Guardian Council essentially.

So I think they're hoping within the next few days or so the crowds will somewhat quell, the momentum will die down a little bit, and they'll be in a better position.

But I think, again, the sense of injustice is palpable in Tehran and throughout the country. I've never seen it like this before. And I really can see it within the realm of possibilities that it will continue.

Khamenei's history with Mousavi

Karim Sadjadpour
Carnegie Endowment for Intl. Peace
In the 1980s, Mousavi was prime minister, and Khamenei was president. Khamenei was Mousavi's subordinate or at least they were equals. And I think Khamenei did not want to see a president like Mousavi who would challenge him.

GWEN IFILL: If Mousavi had won, is it possible that anything fundamental would have changed? I mean, his view about nuclear empowerment in Iran is not that different in many ways.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: It's true, Gwen, that at the end of the day the most powerful official in Iran is the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, although even that is being challenged right now. But the institution of the presidency in Iran is not a negligible institution.

Compare current President Ahmadinejad with former President Khatami. Khatami was known for calling for a dialogue of civilizations. He tried to ease political and social freedoms within Iran, whereas Ahmadinejad is known for denying the Holocaust and trying to go back to the revolutionary ideals of the 1980s.

So certainly it's not a negligible institution, institutional presidency, and there's an interesting history here between Mir Hossein Mousavi and Ayatollah Khamenei. In the 1980s, Mousavi was prime minister, and Khamenei was president. And in many ways, Khamenei was Mousavi's subordinate or at least they were equals. And I think Khamenei did not want to see a president like Mousavi who would challenge him, who not be his subordinate, like Ahmadinejad has been.

GWEN IFILL: Gary Sick, we've been watching Western governments respond to this. It's mostly been kind of muted, especially here in the U.S., where the president's press secretary, the secretary of state or her spokesman have all said we're watching -- and the vice president have said we're watching with concern, which isn't very strong language. What is that about?

GARY SICK: I think they realize -- at least I hope they realize -- that this is a domestic problem in Iran. This has to do with Iranian domestic politics. And it's a fight that is going on over who will actually run Iran from here on out.

And they have no role in that. The U.S. government cannot even express an opinion or get involved in that struggle without having a very, you know, unconstructive reaction on the part -- the Iranians will say, "You're interfering in our domestic politics," which would be true. And that would skew everything and probably in ways that would not be favorable to us at all, regardless of what we said.

So I think the government is very smart to stay basically silent about this and let nature take its course in Iran.

And one of the things that we've seen in Iran right now, which is really astonishing, is the opposition has adopted the tactics that were used in the revolution, back in the days of the revolution, standing on your rooftops and shouting, "Allahu akbar," "God is great."

These are the kinds of things that were done by the revolutionaries themselves to overthrow the shah. And this "Death to the dictator" sounds very much like "Death to the shah." It really is, in some respects, turning the clock back to 1979.

Defining 'revolution'

GWEN IFILL: So the word "revolution," do you think, is too much of a word to use, Karim Sadjadpour?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I would say it is too much of a word, simply because in 1979 you had the population against the regime -- it was a wholesale revolution, a wholesale change of regime -- whereas this time around, as I said, you have fissures amongst the revolutionary elite themselves.

Certainly, someone like Hashemi Rafsanjani is committed to the continuation of the Islamic Republic, Mir Hossein Mousavi, as well. But I think we may -- there's a serious challenge to the legitimacy of the Wilayat-e-Faqih, the system of the supreme leader, the Khomeini system of government, which is truly unprecedented. And I think if these crowds continue, we may see some type of an evolution of the Islamic Republic, but I wouldn't predict a revolution.

GARY SICK: Could I just...

GWEN IFILL: Well, it certainly bears watching. Karim Sadjadpour, I'm sorry, Gary Sick, thank you both very much.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Thanks, Gwen.

GARY SICK: Thank you.