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Iran Remains on Edge as Election Recount Begins

June 16, 2009 at 6:15 PM EST
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Iran's Guardian Council agreed to a partial recount of votes from the disputed presidential election, leaving the future political direction of the country in new doubt.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: A nervous government in Tehran, a cautious government in Washington. We assess the latest developments on the Iran story with Geoffrey Kemp, the director for regional strategic programs at the Nixon Center. He served as special assistant to President Reagan for national security affairs and advised the president on Iran policy.

And Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian-American Council, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization promoting dialogue between the United States and Iran. He’s the author of “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel, and the United States.”

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us. Trita Parsi, I’m going to start with you. How do you read today’s events, the announcement by the Guardian Council that they are going to permit a partial recount and the fact that there’s been this clampdown on the news media?

TRITA PARSI, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies: I think this is a test of wills from both sides. I think Khamenei wanted to go forward with this partial recount by the Guardian Council because he wanted to calm things down and he wanted to win time. And he wanted to see five, six, seven days from now, will the protesters be as determined, will they be as angry as they are today, and see if he can get a better situation a couple of days from now?

The opposition seems to have agreed to this, as well, because, A, they want to also gain some time and regroup. They did not have a plan on how to react to this, because this took them by surprise, but also because they want to show that they are not anti-revolutionaries.

Because it’s critical for them to be able to get support from various elements of power inside of Iran in order to be able to win. But if they come across as if they’re actually going for the complete collapse of the system, that will make it very, very difficult for them.

Using technology to organize

Geoffrey Kemp
The Nixon Center
There have never been demonstrations like this ever before, not since before the revolution in 1979.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you expect of this recount, I mean, which votes, which parts of the country, any idea about that?

TRITA PARSI: I don't think there's a lot of expectations on the recount. I think what is happening right now is that they're getting some time to be able to see if they can get a deal behind the doors.

And the question is, can they do that? And can they convince the protesters, who may have very, very strong demands -- Mousavi himself said that he does not accept the recount, he wants to see a revote -- will they be able to convince them?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Geoffrey Kemp, how do you read today's events, including the fact that these protesters were able to nimbly organize another rally after the government tried to shut them down?

GEOFFREY KEMP, The Nixon Center: Well, look, you've got essentially a 20th-century authoritarian regime trying to counter 21st-century technology. And I think this has taken the regime by surprise and that the extraordinary mobilization that has been possible on Twitter, Facebook, the Internet, cell phones, this is, I think, a new development that the regime really didn't count on.

And I don't know where it's going to stop. But what I would say is that this is a fundamental watershed for the Islamic republic. There have never been demonstrations like this ever before, not since before the revolution in 1979. So whoever comes out on top, this isn't going to be anything other than a watershed.

Split among clerical leaders

Trita Parsi
National Iranian-American Council
The elements from the opposition are trying to see how many grand ayatollahs and people of the clergy can they get to their side to put pressure on Khamenei and vice versa.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, separately from all this, Trita Parsi, we know that a couple of ayatollahs -- I guess it's connected to what both of you have been saying -- several ayatollahs have come out and challenged the election results. How serious is this division, this split inside the clerical leadership of the country?

TRITA PARSI: It's extremely important, because this is what's taking place behind the scenes. The elements from the opposition are trying to see how many grand ayatollahs and people of the clergy can they get to their side to put pressure on Khamenei and vice versa. Khamenei is also going out and trying to make sure that he has consolidated his support.

That's going to be critical, because this can potentially end up that Rafsanjani, who is the head of the Assembly of Experts and who is a supporter of Mousavi, would use the authority of the Assembly of Experts to unseat Khamenei. This has never been tried before; no one has ever even threatened it before. But according to the constitution, that is one recourse that can be pursued.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that a scenario you see as realistic?

GEOFFREY KEMP: I think it's more likely that the hard-liners in what I would call the second generation of revolutionaries, the Ahmadinejad class who fought in the Iran-Iraq war and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, will at some point assert their authority in a more firm way than we've seen to date.

And at that point, I would think that the supreme leader's power base may be eroded. And I think what we could see is the emergence of a more nationalist authoritarian regime with non-clerics taking more powerful positions. And that does not bode well, quite frankly, all along the front.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, spell that out a little bit more.

GEOFFREY KEMP: Well, the original people who participated in the '79 revolution who took power were all clerics. They have dominated Iranian politics really since then.

But the election of Ahmadinejad four years ago was the election of someone who'd fought in the trenches, who fought in the Iran-Iraq war, and brings with him a lot of support from the foot soldiers. And I don't think they're happy with the way the clerics have been behaving, either. They do see the corruption and the wide disparity of income between rich and poor.

So there is a grassroots sort of moment there that may assert itself, and it has the guns. And don't forget, it has the power.

President Obama's response

Geoffrey Kemp
The Nixon Center
[I]f this does become a really bloody Tiananmen Square-type situation, then President Obama is going to have to weigh in very strongly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And meanwhile, Trita Parsi, we have President Obama -- we heard a little bit of what he said a few minutes ago. He also said today in an interview that he doesn't see much difference in the views of Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Mousavi. He said -- either way, he said, you have a government hostile to the U.S. How do you read that? And what do you make of the administration's response?

TRITA PARSI: Well, he's trying to make it very clear that the United States is not supporting any specific candidate. The United States may be supporting the process of a democratic election or making sure that it's fair, but it doesn't have a candidate in that race.

And I think it is important, because the president wants to make sure that the United States does not become an issue in what is going on in Iran. It's about the election and potential election fraud, not the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that a risk here, Geoffrey Kemp?

GEOFFREY KEMP: Oh, yes, certainly it is, I mean, easily, if President Obama said the wrong thing, if he weighed in too heavily as some on the right want him to, I think this could be badly interpreted in Tehran. I think the president has handled it just right.

But having said that, there's only so far he can go. If there is more violence, if this does become a really bloody Tiananmen Square-type situation, then President Obama is going to have to weigh in very strongly, along with our Western European allies and others, condemning the violence and essentially putting the regime on the carpet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was interesting. There was a report today that the State Department asked the Web site Twitter to keep operating on Monday, which was yesterday, a crucial day, in all of this rather than shutting down for routine maintenance. Trita Parsi, what are you watching for at this point over the next couple of days?

TRITA PARSI: I think one very important indicator particularly for the supporters of Mousavi is to see, will they be able to sustain protests over the next couple of days to show that their strength and their will is strong enough that they're not going to be forgetting about this, that they're not going to be walking back from some of their demands.

At the same time, from their end, it's going to be critical that they keep this nonviolence, that they are not provoking and that they try to refrain from using violence, because the more violence that's being used, the more hardened the positions will be, and the more difficult it will be for the opposition to be able to find differences within the Revolutionary Guards, within the Basij, which is going to be critical for them if they are seeking to be able to win people over from that side.

Danger of system collapse

Trita Parsi
National Iranian-American Council
[T]he more that [violence] is taking place, the more there's going to be people in Iran who are going to be fearing that this will lead to the complete collapse of the system.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that a concern for them, that they could overstep -- and are you saying, Trita Parsi, they've done that?

TRITA PARSI: Well, no, I'm not saying that, but we're seeing violence, and we're seeing a lot of violence today, as well. And the more that is taking place, the more there's going to be people in Iran who are going to be fearing that this will lead to the complete collapse of the system.

And that will cause them probably to side with Khamenei. So that's going to be one of the concerns that the Mousavi supporters will be having right now.

GEOFFREY KEMP: Yes, I mean, I think the big fear is that the militia and the military move in at some point if these crowds do not disperse. And there are going to be agents provocateur put into the opposition by the regime to try to create trouble.

I think this is very dangerous. It's led to sort of essentially a slowdown of anything going on in Tehran and Shiraz.

But, remember, Judy, while this is happening, those centrifuges at the enrichment plant in Natanz are still whirring, they're still continuing with their nuclear program. Nothing has stopped along the lines that we wanted to see stopped. And, therefore, the issue for the United States remains as serious as ever.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A story we are all watching. Geoffrey Kemp, Trita Parsi, thank you both.

TRITA PARSI: Thank you.