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In Iran, Disputed Election Fuels Ongoing Political Unrest

June 18, 2009 at 6:05 PM EST
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With election protests continuing in Iran, the nation's 12-member Guardian Council has agreed to hear the grievances of Mir Hussein Mousavi and other candidates. Analysts discuss the unfolding developments.
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JIM LEHRER: The Iranian president made a gesture toward the opposition today. It came in a recorded statement aired on state television.

Earlier this week, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the protesters were like angry soccer fans, or even “dust.” Today, he said, “I only addressed those who rioted, set fires, and attacked people. Every single Iranian is valuable. We like everyone.”

And in Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs addressed criticism that President Obama has not been tough enough on Iran.

ROBERT GIBBS, White House Press Secretary: I think the president has spoken to, in many ways, the causes and concerns of many that are marching in Iran by demonstrating, one, that he shares their concern and the international concern about the way the election was conducted. Secondly, he believes that there is a universal principle of demonstrating without the fear of harm.

JIM LEHRER: Judy Woodruff continues our lead story coverage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on unfolding events from Iran, I’m joined by Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian studies program at Stanford University and co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution.

And Joe Klein, a columnist for Time magazine, he was in Iran last weekend to report on the election and its aftermath and wrote this week’s cover story on the vote, “Ten Days in Tehran: What I Saw at the Revolution.”

Thank you both for being with us. And I want to start with you, Professor Milani. What’s the latest you’re hearing? I know you’ve been talking to a number of people today about today’s demonstration.

ABBAS MILANI, Stanford University: Today’s demonstration apparently was the largest, it was completely peaceful, and it was organized in spite of the government’s very serious effort to disrupt the mobilizing network that people have been using.

The telephones, for example, the mobiles were shut down for a couple of hours just before the beginning of the demonstrations so that people cannot tell one another where the meeting is going to commence. Many people are afraid to come out singly in the streets because the thugs are reported in some of the neighborhoods to catch people who are alone and beat them up.

So in spite of these efforts, the people came out, and they came out in large numbers. I think the most important change that today occurred is that both campaigns, Mr. Mousavi’s and Mr. Karroubi’s, changed their mind. They had earlier asked their supporters to converge on the Friday prayer tomorrow and find a physical way of showing their support for the opposition. They both rescinded that order and asked their supporters to stay out, lest there be a confrontation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so why is that significant?

ABBAS MILANI: I think it’s significant in a sense that they are obviously trying to still not have a confrontation with Mr. Khamenei himself. Mr. Khamenei was reported to be delivering the sermon. He rarely does this. It has become a very important moment in these sermons for him. I think this is like an extraordinary State of the Union message that he has chosen to give.

And had the opposition shown up, I’m sure the regime would have also attempted to bring out its forces and the likelihood of a confrontation would have increased. And I don’t think anybody wants to increase the level of violence on either side yet.

Protests 'have been peaceful'

Joe Klein
Time Magazine
The crowds are chanting "God is great." They're not chanting "Mousavi is great."

JUDY WOODRUFF: Joe Klein, you were in Iran until Monday. Tell us what you were seeing then and then how you sense things have changed just in the three days since then.

JOE KLEIN, Time Magazine: Well, I was out in the streets on Saturday and Sunday and saw confrontations between the police and the green revolution sort of demonstrators. They were rushing those people, tried to clear us away from Mousavi's headquarters.

And I think that, you know, in talking to my Iranian sources over the weekend, there was a general feeling that this was -- there were going to be two or three or four days of protests and then the expectation was that it would die out.

What's happened is completely different. It surprised everybody. It's gotten bigger and bigger day by day, and it's very significant what Professor Milani just said: It has been peaceful.

The crowds are chanting "God is great." They're not chanting "Mousavi is great." And you see here a lot of the same people who were involved in the 1979 revolution against the shah are protesting this government and this election result.

So now it becomes a question of whether or not -- how much of the government, how many of the religious leaders are opposed to Ahmadinejad and the supreme leader, and that's a developing part of the story.

Complaints to the Guardian Council

Abbas Milani
Stanford University
I think the Guardian Council is trying to bring attention to its own deliberation. They have been very clear so far that they are only going to consider recounting some ballots.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor Milani, back to you. We had the report today that the Guardian Council, this legislative group, which reports to the supreme leader, they say they have received 650 different complaints about the way the election was conducted. Is that a significant development?

ABBAS MILANI: I don't think so. I think the Guardian Council is trying to bring attention to its own deliberation. They have been very clear so far that they are only going to consider recounting some ballots.

This is already a dead issue. I think the opposition categorically has rejected this. Certainly Mr. Mousavi has rejected it. Mr. Karroubi has rejected it. And the third candidate, Mr. Rezaei, is inching ever closer to rejecting it, as well.

Rezaei did something very interesting. He announced a Web site and said, "Whoever has voted for me, come on this Web site and write your name." And within 24 hours, 900,000 people have signed up on that list already. And he was supposed to have gotten 300,000 votes.

These are efforts that show clearly that the level of the cheating is so egregious and that some of the statisticians who have argued that the numbers are simply concocted numbers is gaining more and more credibility.

But two important developments today in terms of the regime's response. One is the speaker of the parliament, Mr. Larijani, has spoke rather sternly against the police who have beaten on these demonstrations.

And, secondly, I think Mr. Ahmadinejad's halfhearted apology was a response to a criticism of his talk by Asgaroladi, who is a very important, pivotal figure, in showing the support of the bazaar and the traditional conservatives for the government. He chastised Ahmadinejad for his "dust and dirt" comment.

JOE KLEIN: You know, we can get very dizzy very quickly talking about the various parts of the Iranian bureaucracy. They have two or three of everything. They even have two armies, a civilian army, the Iranian army, and then a religious army, the Revolutionary Guard Corps.

But there are elements of this government, like the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council, that are different and that are not in the complete control of the supreme leader and President Ahmadinejad.

The Guardian Council that you were talking about before is essentially controlled by the supreme leader. And if there's going to be a big change in Iran, the thing to look at is whether these other elements, the Assembly of Experts, a very heavily religious body, which is very moderate right now in its statements on this election, whether they turn against the supreme leader and the Expediency Council, as well, and also the elected parliament, the Majlis.

Watching Khamenei's reaction

Abbas Milani
Stanford University
Mr. Khamenei, I think, made probably the most serious error of his political career when he jumped all too quickly to support Mr. Ahmadinejad.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you and I were talking earlier and you were saying that's what the Obama administration is looking at right now?

JOE KLEIN: Yes, I think that they're looking very, very carefully at the White House to see just what the breadth of this movement is. You see the people out on the streets. We get some inkling that members of the political establishment, like Mousavi and Hashemi Rafsanjani, are opposed to this election. The question is, where is the business community, the bazaaris? And where is the military?

Rezaei, the candidate that Professor Milani was just mentioning, is a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards. And I was supposed to interview him on Monday, and everything fell apart.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He was one of the challengers to Ahmadinejad. What are you watching, Professor Milani, over the next day or two?

ABBAS MILANI: I will be listening tomorrow to the speech that Mr. Khamenei will give.

Mr. Khamenei, I think, made probably the most serious error of his political career when he jumped all too quickly to support Mr. Ahmadinejad. In fact, he went against the tradition; he went against the law. The law requires him to congratulate the leader -- the president only after he's been certified.

Now he has to walk back. He has to basically try to create for himself a move to maneuver and potentially get rid of Ahmadinejad if he doesn't want to suppress this movement.

It will be interesting to see whether he keeps with his adamant support of Ahmadinejad, in which case I think we are headed for many more confrontations, or he tries to gradually step off that rather unusual position and try to reconcile himself that Ahmadinejad is no longer a tenable president.

The White House's stance

Joe Klein
Time Magazine
The sense in Iran of the United States, from the reformers to the Ahmadinejad government, is that we're meddlers, that, you know, we supported the shah, we supported Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, we called them part of the axis of evil.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that the same thing you're looking at, Joe Klein? And in talking -- again, we talked about the Obama White House reaction. We heard Robert Gibbs today. Is there anything this administration could say one way or another?

JOE KLEIN: Listen, you know, I spoke with all of the leading reformers, and they are aggrieved. The sense in Iran of the United States, from the reformers to the Ahmadinejad government, is that we're meddlers, that, you know, we supported the shah, we supported Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, we called them part of the axis of evil.

And if the president had been more demonstrative, it would have been an excuse for the supreme leader and Ahmadinejad to send out the tanks, kill a lot of people, and then say, "It's only because the Americans were trying to foment a revolution here."

The administration's position, I think, is the appropriate one.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fast-moving developments. Thank you both, Joe Klein and Professor Abbas Milani. We appreciate that.

ABBAS MILANI: Thank you.

JOE KLEIN: Thank you.