TOPICS > Politics

Tensions Flare Anew in Iran Over Disputed Election

July 17, 2009 at 6:05 PM EST
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Major new protests erupted in Iran Friday in the wake of last month's disputed presidential election. Experts join Judy Woodruff to assess the ongoing tensions in Tehran.
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JIM LEHRER: And to Judy Woodruff.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on today’s events, we go to two analysts who have both worked as journalists in Iran. Hooman Majd was in Tehran in the lead-up to the election last month. He’s the author of “The Ayatollah Begs to Differ.”

And Afshin Molavi is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of “The Soul of Iran.”

Thank you both for being with us. Afshin Molavi, I’m going to start with you. We’ve got Friday prayers, people in the streets, tear gas, the speech by former President Rafsanjani. What are we to make of all this?

AFSHIN MOLAVI, New America Foundation: This is a hugely important moment, Judy. I mean — and it’s important historically, not just in the context of today’s events.

Here you have Hashemi Rafsanjani, a lion of the revolution, a man of the system, standing forward in this importantly symbolic venue, the Friday prayer hall, and saying, “Something has gone terribly astray here.”

And then he’s also speaking for the voices of millions of Iranians who did feel that these elections were rigged.

So the ultimate takeaway from this is, Rafsanjani did not take the wind out of the sails of the protestors. He did not offer a conciliatory speech, as some thought, and he said that this political fight will last another day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hooman Majd, what do you see as the significance of today?

HOOMAN MAJD, Author-Journalist: Well, I think I would agree with Afshin generally. It’s very important to understand that Rafsanjani is the number-two most powerful man in Iran.

The one thing I would add to what Afshin said is that it also should be remembered that the Friday prayer leader of Tehran, actually, is the supreme leader himself. And this speech would not have been made unless the supreme leader had at least some inkling of what was going to be said.

And I think that it was neither a slap nor really a kiss.

I lost you. I lost you. I’m sorry. OK, you’re back.

It was neither a slap nor a kiss. I think they’re trying to find a way inside the leadership to make this crisis go away or to solve this crisis. But, certainly, Afshin is absolutely right: It certainly gave the protesters and the opposition new wind in some ways.

Support from on high?

Afshin Molavi
New America Foundation
Rafsanjani did not take the wind out of the sails of the protestors. He did not offer a conciliatory speech, as some thought, and he said that this political fight will last another day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Afshin Molavi, do you see it the same way, that it would not have been possible for Rafsanjani to give this speech unless the supreme leader had given the green light?

AFSHIN MOLAVI: Well, you know, Hooman is right in the sense that the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, ultimately endorses the Friday prayer speaker in Tehran, but all across the country. And not only that, they give them talking points.

But Hashemi Rafsanjani is a man not without his own means. He is a man who's, as I said, a lion of the revolution. He is not someone who's always deferential to Ayatollah Khamenei, so he could have even pushed his way into this Friday prayer speech without the endorsement of Ayatollah Khamenei.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What did Rafsanjani say, Hooman Majd, that was most significant to you?

HOOMAN MAJD: Well, I think the fact that he said that the people -- I mean, he acknowledged that the people did not believe the vote. He himself did not say the vote was rigged. But by acknowledging that the people believe that, and that that's a huge fault of the system, and it's something that needs to be corrected -- he also criticized the Guardian Council, which is very, very significant. I mean, nobody in the top leadership has ever criticized the Guardian Council, including Rafsanjani himself.

I think those two things are very significant. I think his calling for the protestors to be released, political prisoners to all be released, that's significant. There are a number of very significant things that he said.

I don't know that he would go much further than he did. It was about as good as one could expect, if one is with the opposition, in terms of the kind of speech that someone like he would make. And there also must be remembered that the Ahmadinejad supporters in Iran despise Rafsanjani. They really despise him.

So I think that he was never going to satisfy them. But he was going to at least give some, a little bit of conciliatory message, some sort of a conciliatory message to the leadership in general, by saying that we're all in the same family, that we're calling for unity, we have to get through this crisis. It was still very much about the Islamic republic, not about a revolution.

Political divisions at the top

Hooman Madj
Author and journalist
It was about as good as one could expect, if one is with the opposition, in terms of the kind of speech that someone like he would make. And there also must be remembered that the Ahmadinejad supporters in Iran despise Rafsanjani.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Afshin Molavi, it's confusing to outsiders who don't understand how the Iranian system works, because, on the one hand, he does give this speech, he calls for the protestors, the people who've been arrested in the opposition, to be released. He makes these other statements. And yet the majid (ph), the militia is out there beating people. How are we to understand this?

AFSHIN MOLAVI: Well, I think the important thing to remember is, you have two battles going on. You have one battle between kind of the people versus the regime, and we've seen that before in student protests in 1999 and 2003.

But what we're witnessing right now is the regime versus the regime. There are serious political cleavages at the very top of the Islamic republic, and this speech was almost a culmination of those political cleavages.

And so the Basij militia support the hard-line supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and to some extent, you know, Rafsanjani's speech reminded me a bit of what Stalin said when he was told that the pope opposes him. And he said, "Well, how many divisions does the pope have?"

The instruments, of course, of force are still in the hands of the supreme leader, Khamenei, but the people have something else. They have the winds of history at their back. This is a 100-year struggle. It didn't start last month.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hooman Majd, do you see it the same way, that there are significant cleavages, as Afshin just said, inside the government?

HOOMAN MAJD: Oh, I think it's absolutely clear. Oh, it's absolutely clear. I think there have been for a very long time. This is the first time it's really public. And today was the first time it was officially public.

Everybody in Iran knew there were cleavages at the top of the regime, certainly with Rafsanjani. I was at the last -- at the Friday prayer the very last time that Rafsanjani gave his sermon, which was about seven weeks ago in Tehran, and it was a very different sermon last time. He was attacking the United States; he was attacking Great Britain. There was chants of, "Death to America."

But he was also giving tacit support to the opposition by saying people should come out and vote, come out in big numbers, reminding people that in 2005 basically he lost because of a low turnout.

So I think it's the first time that he's made it really public. Now it's clear that there are major disagreements among the top clerics in Iran who rule the country.

But he was also trying to be a little conciliatory, I think, in trying to say that we do need unity, we do need to come together, we're all in the same family, because it is, after all, in his interest to preserve -- Rafsanjani's interest to preserve the Islamic system. I think he does recognize that it could get away from them a little bit.

Protestors push for reform

JUDY WOODRUFF: Given that, Afshin Molavi, where do things go from here?

AFSHIN MOLAVI: You know, I think that, you know, Rafsanjani said that this political fight is not over. But I think Hooman is right: Rafsanjani is ultimately a system man.

And what is happening is an interesting dynamic, Judy. Figures like Rafsanjani, even Mir Hossein Mousavi, are men of the system, insiders of the Islamic republic who are calling for reform.

But the people out on the streets, they're taking it further. They're chanting, "Death to the dictator." They're calling this a coup d'etat government. And so, in some ways, the crowds are driving Mousavi and Rafsanjani even more so than they're driving the crowds.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We didn't hear today the government respond to what Rafsanjani said, Hooman Majd. What do we look for the government to say now and to do? When I say the government, I mean the supreme leader.

HOOMAN MAJD: Well, the supreme leader wouldn't react. I don't think he would ever react to what Rafsanjani says at the Friday prayer. He's not going to put himself in that position.

I think Rafsanjani is part of the government. I mean, it's hard to say what the government is. If we're talking about Ahmadinejad and the levers of power that he controls, if you looked at today's front page of the state broadcasting network, front page of their Web site, there was no mention of Rafsanjani's speech. There was a big picture of Ahmadinejad in Mashhad where he was giving a speech.

So it's clear that the things that he controls, he's not going to react to Rafsanjani. But Rafsanjani is very much a part of the system, as is Khatami, as is Mousavi. And the danger here for them, I think they realize, certainly Rafsanjani does, is that the whole thing could get away from them.

And I think he's trying to bring the message back, back to the idea of the protestors who protested the vote, the vote was rigged, or at least they think it was rigged.

Ali Larijani, who's the speaker of parliament and a very conservative close ally of the supreme leader, said essentially the same thing. He said most people in Iran don't believe the election results.

So I think inside the leadership there are these questions that have to be answered. And I think Rafsanjani was calling for them to be answered.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we will continue to watch. Hooman Majd, Afshin Molavi, thank you both.

AFSHIN MOLAVI: Thank you.

HOOMAN MAJD: Thank you.