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Iran’s Future Unclear Following Presidential Election

June 12, 2009 at 6:15 PM EST
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President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his main challenger, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, both claimed victory in Iran's election Friday. Analysts examine the impact of the heated contest.
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MARGARET WARNER: So, what should we make of news from Iran and this election campaign? To help us sort things out, we’re joined by Afshin Molavi, a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of “The Soul of Iran,” and Cliff Kupchan, the director of the Europe and Eurasia Program at the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm.

Welcome to you both.

So, Afshin, let me begin with you.

What do you make of what happened today. Hours before anyone was supposed to come out and talk about results, first, you had Mousavi come out and say, “I know I won.”

And then you had the election commission come out and say, “Oh, no, Ahmadinejad is way ahead.”

AFSHIN MOLAVI, fellow, New America Foundation: Well, you know, Margaret, this is very common in Iranian presidential elections.

In the 2005 elections, you had four or five candidates declare early victory. So, in a sense…

MARGARET WARNER: But the election commission?

AFSHIN MOLAVI: That’s right.

The election commission has — I mean, has pointed out that, of the 45 percent of the vote, Ahmadinejad is ahead. This is what is different from the 2009 — the 2005 elections. Because, in 2005, they just announced the election results early in the morning. They didn’t do this kind of rolling results.

And this is what many of Mousavi supporters feared. This is why we are seeing some rioting already.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you make of it?

CLIFF KUPCHAN, Europe and Eurasia program director, Eurasia Group: I think both sides were trying to set the tone of the day.

But the tone of the day was set by what looks like some controversial results emerging. We are at a very early point in that. The great fear is that Supreme Leader Khamenei looked at Mr. Mousavi, who is a moderate, and was fine, looked over his shoulder, and saw Khatami and a lot of kids who don’t necessarily believe in the system.

'Unexpectedly intense' election

Afshin Molavi
New America Foundation
The televised debates were absolutely spectacular to watch. They were more like a smack-down than debates, with candidates hurling insults at each other.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you have to explain who Khatami is.

CLIFF KUPCHAN: Former President Khatami of Iran, a real liberal.

So that the real fear now is that the leader got scared about what he saw when he look over Mousavi's shoulder.

MARGARET WARNER: Meaning that Khatami, the former leader, the former president, had been -- is a big supporter of Mousavi.

So, you think that the possibility is that you have -- you have seen some government interference here?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: I think, so far, not so good. Now, it's really early, and we don't know.

But the fear is that the establishment didn't like what they were seeing.

MARGARET WARNER: And -- and I know you are making a point that are you're not speculating here, just that's the fear among Mousavi's supporters.

Either way, whoever wins this -- and we, of course, may have a runoff next Friday -- fair to say this has been an incredible campaign, an unexpectedly intense one.

AFSHIN MOLAVI: Absolutely, probably the most polarizing presidential election in Iran's 30 year post-revolution history.

The televised debates, Margaret, were -- were absolutely spectacular to watch. They were more like a smack-down than debates, with candidates hurling insults at each other. Essentially, Ahmadinejad also opened a whole file in which he called his opponent members of a corrupt business elite.

And when these elections are over, those accusations are going to hang in the air as an albatross over the entire system of the Islamic republic.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you think explains, Cliff Kupchan, the intensity of the crowds who particularly turned out for Mousavi? I mean, it was considered -- it was believed that the young people and a lot of the reformists had become apathetic, even cynical, apolitical.

CLIFF KUPCHAN: The Iranian elections start about two weeks before the election, not like in our country, two years.

I think what happened is, a lot of people said, when faced with a choice, can I take four more years of Ahmadinejad? They said no. That is the first point. The second point is that the former President Khatami, in a sense, in essence, delivered the youth vote to Mr. Mousavi.

So, you got this -- this wave of excitement created by the youth, for ideological reasons and for generational reasons.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you think explains it?

AFSHIN MOLAVI: You know, I think -- I think Cliff has -- has made a good point, in terms of the youth vote.

But I think, you know, at the end of the day, when these elections are over, I -- I am willing to make one prediction here. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will still be the most powerful man in Iran. He has virtual veto power over all matters of state.

He clearly leaned in the direction of Ahmadinejad in these elections. And the state apparatus clearly leaned in the direction of Ahmadinejad in -- in this election as well.

Some 'unprecedented breakthroughs'

Cliff Kupchan
Eurasia Group
There were a number of very unprecedented breakthroughs. I mean, we saw debates. We saw rallies. I mean, it looked a lot like a normal campaign.

MARGARET WARNER: But didn't this also expose some fissures in the conservative class...

AFSHIN MOLAVI: Absolutely.

MARGARET WARNER: ... and among the clerics?

AFSHIN MOLAVI: Absolutely.

You know, Ahmadinejad's challenge to the old-guard revolutionary elite was absolutely very important, because it exposed this rift. Ahmadinejad comes from a second-generation revolutionary elite. They cut their political teeth in the fight against Iraq, whereas the old-guard elite cut their teeth in the fight against the shah.

These two are at each other right now. That is going to have ramifications beyond the election.

MARGARET WARNER: The other thing you saw here, Cliff Kupchan, is the middle class, who have been pretty apathetic, suddenly turning out, a lot of women turning out at these events, making demands on all the candidates.

CLIFF KUPCHAN: Mm-hmm.

MARGARET WARNER: That's new, isn't it, or new in -- in the last four to five years?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: Certainly new since 2005, when middle class, when women got alienated, got apolitical, got turned off from politics.

I think the participation of Mousavi's wife was a first. It was a real breakthrough for an Iranian campaign.

MARGARET WARNER: We saw her in that tape.

CLIFF KUPCHAN: Right, just a Ph.D., an academic, a very accomplished woman.

So, there -- there were a number of very unprecedented breakthroughs. I mean, we saw debates. We saw rallies. I mean, it looked a lot like a normal campaign.

MARGARET WARNER: And, speaking of -- of Mousavi's wife, this was one of the key moments in that -- that debate.

CLIFF KUPCHAN: Yes, it was.

MARGARET WARNER: Right? Ahmadinejad, what, holds up a folder about her, supposedly?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: Yes, he -- he held up a file claiming that she had faked her entrance requirements to get her Ph.D. He accused former President Rafsanjani of corruption.

He accused Nateq Nouri, a very close adviser to the leader, of a lavish lifestyle. That turned off a lot of people. It -- it -- there is still a sense of personal space of -- that you can't really get into in Iran. And he kind of cracked into that and offended a lot of people.

'Economic mismanagement' a factor

Afshin Molavi
New America Foundation
Many people flocked to [Mir Hossein Mousavi] as the vessel with which they would dethrone Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad enlisted equal parts love from his supporters and detest from his detractors. And Mousavi became the anti-Ahmadinejad candidate.

MARGARET WARNER: So, if we think about the difference between these two men on the issues, what was the key one? What is the key one...

AFSHIN MOLAVI: I think...

MARGARET WARNER: ... or two?

AFSHIN MOLAVI: I think, largely, this election was a referendum on Ahmadinejad.

Mir Hossein Mousavi, his main challenger, is essentially a moderate technocrat. He's not a man of great political gifts or charisma. He was not even a well-known figure among the youth, because he made his name as prime minister in the 1980s.

But many people flocked to him and -- as the vessel with which they would dethrone Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad enlisted equal parts love from his supporters and detest from his detractors. And Mousavi became the anti-Ahmadinejad candidate.

MARGARET WARNER: But you said, Cliff Kupchan, at the beginning of this discussion that you think a lot of voters looked at the choice and said, "Can we take four more years of Ahmadinejad?" and said, no.

CLIFF KUPCHAN: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: Why? What is -- what was it about the last four years that you think so turned off at least some voters -- enough voters that this became a referendum on him?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: This is a very proud, sophisticated, intellectualized country. They don't like being under U.N. sanctions. They don't like to wear that yoke.

Mousavi very effectively played the economic mismanagement card. I mean, look, Ahmadinejad has appointed his cronies, you know, his buddies to run major ministries. It hasn't worked out. Inflation is as 24, 25 percent. He's made a mess of it.

So, I think it was a matter of pride. I think it was a matter of, are you better off today than you were yesterday? The answer was no. And they didn't like it.

MARGARET WARNER: So, partly, it's the economy, stupid, but, also, their standing in the world?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: No, it's the economy, stupid, to a bunch of smart people. That doesn't play.

Many moderate Iranians

Cliff Kupchan
Eurasia Group
[Ahmadinejad's] base is about 10 to 12 million. And that's what we need to look for in coming days. If his vote turns out to be 18 million, somebody has got to tell us where they came from.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you think about the standing-in-the-world issue or the relations with the rest of the world?

AFSHIN MOLAVI: I think the standing-in-the-world issue is very important for particularly Iran's modern middle classes.

You know, Iran has this large moderate majority that bristles at the kind of foreign policy theatrics of Ahmadinejad, the -- the Holocaust denial, the accusations that U.S. soldiers were trying to kidnap him when he was in Iraq. In fact, these are often the butt of a lot of jokes among this moderate majority.

MARGARET WARNER: There are a lot of jokes...

AFSHIN MOLAVI: You have traveled to Iran. You -- you know that Iranians are very moderate. And, in fact, when they have asked if they would like to restore relations with the United States in independent polls, consistently, 70 to 75 percent say yes.

MARGARET WARNER: But he has a big -- Ahmadinejad has a big base in the rural areas, right, Cliff?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: His base is about 10 to 12 million. And that's what we need to look for in coming days. We don't know.

But, if his vote turns out to be 18 million, somebody has got to tell us where they came from.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, we have to leave it there.

Thank you both.

AFSHIN MOLAVI: Thank you.