TOPICS > Politics

Political Unrest May Widen Rifts Among Iran’s Clerics

June 19, 2009 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Iran's supreme leader defended the results of last week's disputed election Friday, and warned opposition supporters against further rallies. Analysts offer insight on the role of Iran's clerics in the dispute.

JIM LEHRER: In Washington today, both the U.S. House and Senate voted to condemn Iran’s crackdown on dissent. And President Obama told CBS News Iran’s government should “recognize that the world is watching.”

Now Ray Suarez continues our lead story coverage.

RAY SUAREZ: For more reaction to the supreme leader’s speech, we turn to Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He’s studied and written about Iran’s supreme leader.

And Reza Aslan, an assistant professor at the University of California-Riverside, he’s the author of “How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror.”

Professor Aslan, did Ali Khamenei’s address today clear the air, end all speculation about where he and some of the top clerics stand?

REZA ASLAN, author: Yes, it did. I think we all expected that he was going to come out and speak somewhat forcefully for Ahmadinejad, but I don’t think anyone expected him to really throw down the gauntlet the way that he did. He essentially has made a not-so-veiled threat: Either go home or you’ll be shot.

Now, the interesting thing about this, of course, is that neither Mousavi nor Karroubi, the two main opposition candidates, who had been summoned to the Friday prayers by Ayatollah Khamenei bothered to show up. And I think that right there is the answer to whether this is going to die down after this or whether it’s just going to kick back up.

RAY SUAREZ: Karim Sadjadpour?

KARIM SADJADPOUR, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: I actually wasn’t surprised, Ray. I’ve been studying Khamenei for a long time, and this has long been his modus operandi as Iran’s leader. You never compromise under pressure. Never compromise when you’re under siege, because that’s going to project weakness and invite even more pressure.

So I think that, you know, what’s interesting is that Khamenei has the hindsight of having been a successful revolutionary himself 30 years ago. And one thing that the senior elite of the Islamic republic sometimes talk about is that, when 30 years ago the shah of Iran came on television and conceded past transgressions, conceded past sins, and said, “I have heard your revolution,” he thought that was going to pacify the crowds and appease the crowds.

But on the contrary, the revolutionaries smelled blood, and they pounced. So I wasn’t surprised at all that Khamenei didn’t cede any ground today.

Mousavi and the demonstrators

Reza Aslan
This puts the clerical regime in a bit of a bind, because it's not like we're in 1999 any longer, the last time that there was an uprising like this, when the regime cracked down very hard on the protestors.

RAY SUAREZ: So to what effect? What does this speech do? Does it land a fist down on the top of the resistance?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, I think the weight of the world is really on the shoulders of Mir Hossein Mousavi now. And what we've seen in the last week or so is that there's a very symbiotic relationship between Mousavi and the demonstrators.

The strength of the demonstrations allow Mousavi the political capital to remain defiant. And Mousavi's defiance strengthens the demonstrations, as well.

But if either of these two equations change, either Mousavi doesn't want to risk the slaughter of people by going out into the streets or the crowds are intimidated by the Basij and Revolutionary Guards, I think we may see the opposition move -- I think, significantly curtail in its strength.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, you agree, the ball now in Mousavi's court?

REZA ASLAN: Well, I do agree that it's a do-or-die, all-or-nothing moment. I do think that it's important to recognize that the rally scheduled for tomorrow is being put together by former President Khatami, not by Mousavi. And, indeed, it's the first of the seven or eight days of non-stop rallies that actually has the permission, the legal permission to form.

By all accounts, the information that I have been receiving from people in Iran is that both Mousavi and Karroubi will be there along with Khatami in this rally.

Now, this puts the clerical regime in a bit of a bind, because it's not like we're in 1999 any longer, the last time that there was an uprising like this, when the regime cracked down very hard on the protestors.

These are not just kids. These are not college students. These are the very pillars of the Islamic republic, the people who actually brought the republic to fruition. You cannot open fire on Khatami.

So it's really -- I think tomorrow is going to be that moment. You know, we've been talking, Ray, over and over again about, when are we going see the tipping point in this? I think tomorrow is that tipping point.

A turning point

Karim Sadjadpour
Carnegie Endowment for International Pea
If they see that their political leaders are flinching and they're not calling for rallies and they're starting to make concessions, I'm not sure what happens to the strength of the crowd. I see the crowd then starting to subside.

RAY SUAREZ: A turning point in all of this?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I think Reza makes a very good point. But I would imagine, Ray, that what the supreme leaders office has sent publicly -- I'm sorry, privately, behind the scenes, to Mousavi, to Khatami, to Mehdi Karroubi and others is that we're prepared for a massive crackdown, we're prepared for a major bloodbath, the regime is, and are you prepared to send your supporters out into the streets and risk this massive bloodbath? That's going to be on your conscience.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, there's been so much spontaneity, people texting each other, creating quick smart mobs in the streets of Tehran. In each individual household, where people are looking at their phones and finding out that people are getting together, does the calculus change? Do you now head on to the streets knowing that the supreme leader has threatened you with violence?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Listen, I don't think people's sense of outrage, people's sense of injustice, people's sense that they were wronged in this election changes. I don't think people's anger and rage subsides.

But if they see that their political leaders are flinching and they're not calling for rallies and they're starting to make concessions, I'm not sure what happens to the strength of the crowd. I see the crowd then starting to subside.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you agree, Professor, that now the risk changes, the calculus changes for every individual protestor?

REZA ASLAN: I think the calculus does change, but I don't think that this is going to in any way -- I don't think the crowd is going to be kowtowed, for a couple of reasons.

One, this has gone way beyond Mousavi. In fact, on a number of occasions, Mousavi has called off rallies only to see them form in hundreds of thousands and then show up in order to kind of ride the wave of the spontaneous rally that's already been formed.

The other thing, too, I think it's important to understand is, let's go back to Khatami. Ten years ago, Khamenei gave then-President Khatami the same choice: You can either call off the protests or I will release my forces and you will be responsible for the bloodshed. And Khatami called off the forces.

And it was a real moment in which a lot of Iranians felt betrayed by him. Well, he's had 10 years to think about that moment. And I do think that he did truly decide that he wasn't going to push the students into a revolution because he felt that he had nobody standing behind him.

Well, now he does have a lot of people standing beside him. He actually has a good part of the establishment standing behind him. And he's had 10 years to think about that decision that he made 10 years ago, and I'm not sure what he's going to do. This is sort of a new opportunity for Khatami.

And, by the way, he's a much more -- ironically, a much more powerful force in Iran now than he was when he was president.

Splits among the leadership

RAY SUAREZ: Are these push-backs against the supreme leader exposing splits in both the clerical leadership and the political leadership that might not have been fully exposed before?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Certainly among the clerical leadership, this is unprecedented, the types of rifts we're seeing now. Someone like Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was one of the founding fathers of the Islamic republic, he was Khamenei's kingmaker. Without Hashemi Rafsanjani, Ayatollah Khamenei would have never become supreme leader.

The rumor is that he's been agitating against Khamenei in Qom, that he's trying to, you know, assemble coalition of...

RAY SUAREZ: But hasn't he already also declared this election fraudulent?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: He has declared it fraudulent. This is the point is that, you know, Khamenei and Rafsanjani, who are kind of two of the pillars of the revolution, are now neck and neck. And you have senior grand ayatollahs whose clerical standing is much higher that Khamenei's issuing a fatwa against the results of these elections, saying they were fraudulent.

So certainly amongst the clerical elite, there's always been rifts behind the scenes, but what this election has done has accentuated these rifts.

RAY SUAREZ: Karim Sadjadpour, Reza Aslan, thank you both.