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Still-simmering Political Tensions Resurface in Iran

July 9, 2009 at 6:20 PM EDT
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Iranians returned to the streets of Tehran Thursday to protest a disputed presidential vote. Analysts assess the latest developments.
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JIM LEHRER: Now the views of Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He previously worked in Iran for the International Crisis Group.

And Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and author of “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel, and the United States.”

Mr. Sadjadpour, first, how do you read today’s protests? What’s the meaning of them, do you think?

KARIM SADJADPOUR, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Well, this was the 10th anniversary of the 1999 student protests, and they’re celebrated on an annual basis in Iran. And I think it underscores, again, the depth of people’s sense of injustice and people’s sense of outrage, given what transpired three weeks ago at the election results.

No one expected the scale of these protests to be similar to what we saw a few weeks ago, but still we saw by eyewitness accounts several thousand people throughout the city. And, again, I think it underscores people’s sense of outrage, but also the bravery and the great courage of the Iranian people.

JIM LEHRER: Can you add anything based on your information that you got today as to the extent of these protests, Mr. Parsi?

TRITA PARSI, president, National Iranian American Council: They seem to have been throughout the city, but in smaller numbers. What the government has done is try to make sure that they prevent people from being able to gather in very, very large numbers.

But, nevertheless, the most important point I think is that people still went out, even though they knew the consequences. They’ve seen what has been happening to other protestors.

And I think it shows that, as the president pointed out, the dust has not settled in Iran. The protest movement, the dissent of the ordinary people that believe that the elections were stolen, that has not lied down. This is not something that has ended.

JIM LEHRER: What are they protesting? You think they’re still protesting the election, or is there something more involved here, the whole rule of the government at this point?

Evolution of the protests

Karim Sadjadpour
Carnegie Endowment for Int'l Peace
Pre-election, people's demands were evolution within the confines of the Islamic system, but I think people are now asking for much more. They're questioning the legitimacy of the Islamic system itself.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I truly think it's evolved since the pre-election. Pre-election, people's demands were evolution within the confines of the Islamic system, but I think people are now asking for much more.

They're questioning the legitimacy of the Islamic system itself. They're questioning the legitimacy of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

And what's interesting to me talking to people within Tehran is that, behind the scenes, I think there's more happening than we know, given the fact that there is very little foreign media coverage in Iran.

I was talking to a friend of mine in Tehran who said that he lives in a neighborhood which is heavily populated by Revolutionary Guardsmen. And he said, at night, the...

JIM LEHRER: And these are the government guys?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Exactly, the people on the side of the government. And at night, what people have been doing is chanting, "Allahu Akbar," "God is great," kind of as a way to protest the...

JIM LEHRER: You're saying Revolutionary Guards are doing that?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Yes, this is within neighborhoods...

JIM LEHRER: Wow.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: ... inhabited by Revolutionary Guardsmen. So I think certainly the government has a monopoly over coercion right now, and the scale of the demonstrations has increased, but I think the fissures that exist behind closed doors we're still not privy to.

JIM LEHRER: Are you picking up those kinds of things, as well?

TRITA PARSI: Absolutely. And I think we've seen that, at the end of the day, just because people are not on the streets all the time fighting does not mean that the struggle in any way, shape or form is over with.

People realized rather quickly that, because of the fact that the government holds all the power and all the violence, it is not necessarily the best strategy to constantly go out and demonstrate. It's important to show that they defied the authority of Ayatollah Khamenei.

But once they've shown that once, it's enough. Now they need to use other tactics in order to be able to continue the protests, but while reducing the casualty rate.

JIM LEHRER: What other tactics are there?

TRITA PARSI: Well, they've been talking about strikes. They've been talking about other different ways that they can do so.

And we have -- and this is, I think, one of the points that really shows, this is not any type of protests that are being a Velvet Revolution or orchestrated from the outside. This is something that is genuinely coming from the inside.

And part of the evidence for that is that they're improvising. They don't have the handbooks of the Serbians or the Ukrainians or the Georgians. They are improvising the situation right now.

A hands-off approach for the U.S.

Trita Parsi
National Iranian American Council
I have not heard from anyone inside of Iran, at least not in large numbers, that they believe that there's anything in particular else that the United States should be doing at this point.

JIM LEHRER: Is it correct to say that the U.S. policy of hands-off is actually real and the United States is keeping not only its mouth shut, but its actions quiet, too?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Absolutely. Certainly, for the first few weeks after the elections, the Obama administration was very careful. They didn't want to insert the United States into this momentous internal Iranian drama which was unfolding for fear that we could potentially hurt those whom we're trying to help.

And I would suggest to the Obama administration to continue with that approach and not call prematurely for any policy of engagement, simply because I think that would be demoralize those people who are continuing to agitate against the government if they feel that the United States has accepted the outcome of these elections.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree that there's nothing to be gained by the United States encouraging whatever is going on, that we don't know about, that you all have just told us about, in Tehran and the rest of Iran?

TRITA PARSI: I have not heard from anyone inside of Iran, at least not in large numbers, that they believe that there's anything in particular else that the United States should be doing at this point. It doesn't mean that there can't be things later on.

But most importantly, what I've been hearing from people is, they want the world to see what is happening. They know very well that, if the cameras go away, if the eyes of the global community starts focusing on Michael Jackson, on other things, it makes it easier for the hard-line elements in the government to continue to clamp down and even increase its brutality.

As long as the eyes of the world are there, I think elements inside of Iran of the protestors will still feel that they have an ability to continue to call into question this election.

Imprisonment of dissidents

Karim Sadjadpour
Carnegie Endowment for Int'l Peace
The government claims that about two dozen individuals have been killed. I think I've seen more videos of individuals being killed. Unofficially, the numbers I've seen are several hundred.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of the protesters, how did you -- what did you make of the fact that the government released 1,000 people who had been protestors and had been in jail for the last couple weeks or so? Was that considered a gesture of what? What...

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, I don't -- I think that the scale of repression is still very high.

JIM LEHRER: Still there.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: We're not seeing exactly what's transpired. I personally have about a dozen friends who are in prison now in Iran.

JIM LEHRER: Still in prison?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Still in prison.

JIM LEHRER: Not one of the thousand who were released?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: None have been released from solitary confinement. The government claims that about two dozen individuals have been killed. I think I've seen more videos of individuals being killed. Unofficially, the numbers I've seen are several hundred.

So I think the scale of the repression is very high. And when there's no foreign media there to report it, as Trita said, I think the government feels they can get away with a lot more.

JIM LEHRER: Do you have friends still in jail?

TRITA PARSI: Yes, we have common friends that have been put in jail. And what's quite fascinating about it is that these are not political individuals. Some of these individuals are journalists or not even that. They're running consulting firms and dealing with economic analysis and they have been put in jail.

So I think for the government to release some of them may partly be because there's a lot of pressure on them and they realize that a lot of the violence that they views as backlash.

But part of it is also because some of the people, a large portion of the people that they imprisoned, are actually part of this government. These are elements that were part of...

JIM LEHRER: Like what? Give me an example.

TRITA PARSI: Individuals around Mousavi that have been put in jail. These are individuals who were actually there during the revolution 30 years ago...

JIM LEHRER: The leader of the opposition.

TRITA PARSI: Exactly. You had, for instance, the daughter of the former president, Rafsanjani, being put in jail. It's very difficult for them to hold individuals like that for a long period of time.

Opposition vows to press forward

Trita Parsi
National Iranian American Council
The United States' interest in the region has not changed, but there's no need to rush towards [...] negotiations at this point. As the president said, let's really make sure the dust settles first.

JIM LEHRER: What do you make, finally, of what we saw in the setup, Kwame's setup, that what President Obama said on Tuesday, that let's let the dust settle, as both of you referred to, before we decide whether to make any more moves in any kind of official relationship with Iran?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: That's absolutely right. I've always said that I defer to the leaders of the opposition themselves as to what's best for them. And now I see leaders of the opposition saying that the Europeans, the United States should not recognize this government yet. This fight isn't over yet.

JIM LEHRER: Not recognize Ahmadinejad?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Exactly, not recognize the results of this election. So I think this fight isn't over. There's still plenty of fight in the opposition.

And just as we, the United States, didn't want to tip the balance in favor of those in the government who are repressing people by coming out in favor of the opposition, I think the opposite is true, that we don't want to endorse the results of this election for fear that we're going to betray the millions of people who took to the streets.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about that?

TRITA PARSI: No, I would agree with that. And you can see that the opposition's fear is that, right now, Ahmadinejad has not managed to pass the goal line on his own. You see still these demonstrations. You see still more people from the clergy coming out and questioning the results.

The last thing they want to see is to have international community start dealing with Ahmadinejad in a manner that can help him pass and give him a push over the goal line when he cannot pass the goal line himself.

JIM LEHRER: In other words, keep your mouth powder dry, in terms of the United States?

TRITA PARSI: Yes, exactly. You know, engagement and diplomacy is still the policy. The United States' interest in the region has not changed, but there's no need to rush towards those negotiations at this point. As the president said, let's really make sure the dust settles first.

JIM LEHRER: And you agree with that?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Gentlemen, thank you both very much. Good to talk to you both again.

TRITA PARSI: Thank you.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Thank you, Jim. Thank you.