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New Clashes Test Iranian Regime’s Grip on Tehran

December 28, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In the wake of weekend protests in Iran that left at least eight people dead, Margaret Warner speaks with a pair of experts about the enduring opposition movement.
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MARGARET WARNER: And for more on the volatile situation in Iran, we go to Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian-American Council, a nonpartisan organization promoting Iranian-American participation in U.S. civic life. And Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Welcome to you both.

Karim Sadjadpour, beginning with you, how significant a moment is this in this, what — well, six-and-a-half month clash between the government and the opposition?

KARIM SADJADPOUR, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: It is incredibly significant, Margaret.

A few points I would make. First, these demonstrators were warned weeks in advance that there would be severe repercussions if they attended these protests. And, yet, several hundred thousand people still took to the streets.

I think, second, some of the skeptics of the protests last June said, well, these are only the modern elitist youth of northern Tehran who are protesting. And what we saw yesterday, that were — there were protests throughout the country, not only in Tehran, not only in northern Tehran.

And if you saw some of the images, there were also a lot of the traditional clashes, women wearing the chador, the — kind of the more traditional veil, men with beards. So, six months later, this protest movement is still going very strong.

MARGARET WARNER: And you wrote on The Daily Beast yesterday, Trita Parsi, that you thought these clashes could end up proving the breaking point for the regime. How so?

TRITA PARSI, president, National Iranian American Council: Well, because I think, again, as Karim pointed out, six months after the elections, the protests are continuing, even though the government probably expected to be able to quell them only in a couple of weeks.

And, as they have continued, it seems like the moral momentum is on the side of the protesters. It was very interesting to see that the people who were covering their faces yesterday were not the protesters. Rather, it was the security people.

It’s — and also we saw, as you showed, that there were images of people who surrendered to the protesters and joined the protesters. We have seen that in larger numbers than we saw back in June.

The morale of the security forces doesn’t seem to be where they were back in June, whereas the morale of the protesters seems to be even higher than they were back in June.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you see that? Do you think it’s possible to discern whether the security forces, who really help prop up this government, the Revolutionary Guard and its militia, are fully engaged in this, or are fissures developing?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I think, certainly, in the case of the police, you can tell on their faces that they recognize that they are defending the wrong side, that they are on the wrong side of history.

I fear, however, that the regime still has plenty of brutality left in it, particularly the Basij and elements of the Revolutionary Guards. But I think, as time has passed, six months later, the ideology of the regime is diluting. I think the — certainly, the morale of the regime has deteriorated significantly. And I think the morale, as Trita was saying, of the opposition has been enhanced significantly.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s talk about the tactics each side — or, really, the strategy each side pursued here, because, as Karim pointed out, this — the fact that this would be a big day was well-known, expected, planned for in advance, this day of Ashura.

Did each side also intend to have it move up to this level of violence, in other words, police reportedly firing on the crowds of demonstrators while they were still, I think, peacefully demonstrating, but then also demonstrators going after police stations, police motorcycles, issuing threats against Khamenei, the supreme leader?

TRITA PARSI: Well, I think, in moments like this, the discipline cannot always be kept as either side wants it.

But I think it’s still very important to point out the protests are overwhelmingly nonviolent. The violence is the territory of the government right now. They are the ones killing people. They are the ones putting people in jail, raping them and torturing them.

Yes, police stations have been burnt, but you haven’t seen any looting. You are not seeing people going into the banks, stealing, et cetera. So, by and large, this is still a nonviolent movement.

Hopefully, it will be able to be kept that way. It is absolutely critical, in order not only to ensure that they can see change, but that they can see change that is going to be positive and sustainable, so that we don’t see the repeat of what happened in 1979, where one brutal regime was replaced with another brutal regime.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you see this? Whether this was deliberate — for instance, why would the government — I mean, they could have just let demonstrations go forward on this religious holiday and not interfered.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I think, Margaret, had they not interfered, we would have seen protests in the millions in Tehran. The regime does repression very well.

And Tehran is a city which is more akin to Los Angeles than, say, Manhattan. It is a vast city. And it’s easier for the government to kind of block off highways and major thoroughfares and prevent people from congregating in one area.

One, I think, interesting distinction to make or important distinction to make between the current elite of the Islamic republic and the shah’s regime 30 years ago is that, whereas much of the shah’s political elite spent their formative years studying in the United States or Europe, and when the going got tough, they could make their lives elsewhere…

MARGARET WARNER: And they had the bank accounts overseas to do it.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Overseas.

You look at the Islamic republic’s political elite, where it’s the clergy or Revolutionary Guards, they spent their formative years either in the seminaries of Qom or, in the case of the Revolutionary Guards, in the battlefront with Iraq.

So, it has long been said about them that they are not going to leave Iran without a bloody fight.

MARGARET WARNER: So, what are the options left to the government right now?

TRITA PARSI: Well, I think that actually it is running out of options. They have tried torture. They have tried intimidation. They even tried now potentially actually some targeted killings with the murder of the nephew of Mousavi.

It hasn’t worked. Six months later, the opposition is still there, and it is even growing.

MARGARET WARNER: But it did actually cause something of a lull in the protests for a time, didn’t it, the show trials, the jailings?

TRITA PARSI: I think it is important to make a difference between Western media attention given to the opposition and whether the opposition actually has had a lot.

This is an opposition that is not just going out and protesting in these type of ways. It has been continuing its defiance of the government in many different ways. Not all of them are capable to be caught on a cell phone.

But it has still been there and it is still continuing. And the strategy seems to be to simply deprive the Ahmadinejad government of any sense of normalcy. And that, they seem to have achieved.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, does the government have an option here, which is to make some sort of step toward conciliation to at least some elements of the reform movement?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I don’t think so, Margaret.

Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader’s modus operandi has long been that you never compromise in the face of pressure. That is going to project weakness and invite even more pressure, so I think essentially a zero sum game for him.

And I think one of the concerns that the regime has is that, you know, again, there’s no option left for them, whether in the international arena or in the domestic arena. They could have compromised maybe six months ago. But, if they compromise now, people are going to sense they’re weak and they’re going to pounce even more.

MARGARET WARNER: But they could impose — they could go harder. They could impose martial law.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: And I think we may well see that.

But I think one of the concerns that they have is seeing factionalization amongst the security apparatus, like the Revolutionary Guards. I’m not sure if they are confident that the security apparatus is necessarily on their side either.

MARGARET WARNER: Would actually help them enforce that.

Before we go, just a brief comment from you on how President Obama’s words today, you think, will be — will play in Iran.

TRITA PARSI: I think it will be met positively, and, in some ways, is actually…

MARGARET WARNER: By whom?

TRITA PARSI: By the protesters. And, in some way, it’s actually long overdue.

I think the president has absolutely been correct in not trying to take sides. But, at times, there has been a perception of silence when it comes to condemnation of the human rights violations in Iran. I think, in the last couple of weeks, we have seen the White House rectify that. There is more frequent and there’s much stronger condemnations of the human rights violations.

That needs to continue, so that there is no question of where the moral support of the United States is going right now.

MARGARET WARNER: But is there a danger, then, Karim Sadjadpour, that it makes it easier for the government to say, these protesters are simply an instrument, a tool of the West?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I don’t think so, Margaret, not any longer. That was, you know, the criticism the Bush administration.

But I think the Obama administration has really bent over backwards to try to engage the Iranian regime. They should continue to express solidarity with the Iranian people, and make it clear to the Iranian people that the United States is on the right side of history and the United States very much wants to see them succeed.

MARGARET WARNER: And how do you think the regime will read what President Obama had to say?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, I think the regime is always going to paint the United States as trying to foment a Velvet Revolution, but I don’t think the population believes the regime anymore.

MARGARET WARNER: So, you both predict more clashes ahead?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Absolutely. I think this protest is going to continue.

TRITA PARSI: Well, in February 11, that is going to be the celebration of the revolution. That is going to be the next big date. Every red day on the calendar is a potential protest day.

MARGARET WARNER: Trita Parsi, Karim Sadjadpour, thank you both.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Thank you.

TRITA PARSI: Thank you.