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As Unrest Shakes Middle East, Will Iran’s Opposition Movement Gain Traction?

February 15, 2011 at 6:35 PM EDT
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As President Obama urged leaders not to use violence on protesters, hard-line Iranian Parliament members called for anti-government demonstration leaders to be executed. Jeffrey Brown discusses whether protests there will lead to reforms with the New America Foundation's Afshin Molavi and U.S. Institute of Peace's Robin Wright.
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GWEN IFILL: Now, for more on that resurgent Iranian opposition movement, we go to Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I’m joined by Afshin Molavi, senior fellow at the New America Foundation and author of “The Soul of Iran: A Nation’s Journey to Freedom,” and Robin Wright, longtime reporter and now a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Her latest book is “Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East.”

Welcome to both of you.

Afshin, step back before yesterday’s demonstrations to last — the last couple weeks in Egypt.

The Iranian government reaction to that was at first very congratulatory, right? Explain — explain what was going on.

AFSHIN MOLAVI, New America Foundation: It was, indeed.

In fact, the Iranian government was trying to frame the Egyptian uprising as kind of an Islamic awakening. That was the language they were using. And they were trying to depict it as similar to the 1979 revolution against the shah, in which, ultimately, an Islamic republic was created.

The opposition was framing a different narrative. And they were saying that this — protests in Egypt in 2011 were similar to the 2009 protests, which followed the elections in the summer of 2009 in Iran, which many Iranians viewed as fraudulent.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that how you read it, Robin? And did in fact what — what happened in Egypt push the opposition back into the streets? Because we have not seen that for over a year.

ROBIN WRIGHT, U.S. Institute of Peace: Well, one of the ironies is that many Egyptians were quite inspired by the 2009 protests in Iran. This was, after all, the first expression of people power, the first time we saw this tectonic shift that we’re now seeing across the region, where people are challenging traditional elites, in Iran’s case, the clergy, to share power and demanding that they provide accountable government, free and fair elections.

And many in Egypt then decided it is possible and were inspired to try their own course, again using the same kind of instruments, Facebook, the Internet, cell phone, texting, to mobilize people on the ground.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, the Egyptians were looking at 2009 in Iran, and — but now the Iran opposition has reawakened because of Egypt?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Absolutely. And the whole region is. I mean, this is something that, because Ben Ali in — the president of Tunisia and President Mubarak in Egypt have been ousted in very short periods of time, people see that peaceful civil disobedience is actually an effective tool.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, in Iran, this is an opposition that was badly beaten down, right, lots of arrest, lots of killings. So, who is the opposition now, how organized, how — what kind of leadership?

AFSHIN MOLAVI: Well, you know, the opposition has become kind of this amorphous group known as the Green Movement that have many different demands, many different aspirations.

There are a few de facto leaders of the opposition, one of which is a fellow by the name of Mir Hossein Mousavi, one of the presidential candidates in the 2009 elections, another one, Mehdi Karroubi. Both of them are under virtual house arrest. Both of them regularly have their phone lines tapped.

And in fact, the Parliament in Iran today demanded that both of them be executed for sedition. So, the level of crackdown that we have seen in Iran in 2009 and over the past year-and-a-half makes Hosni Mubarak almost look like a dictator-lite, in a sense.

In the past month-and-a-half alone, there has been one execution every nine hours in Iran. Iranian authorities say these were drug dealers, these were, you know, people involved in crimes. But — but some were political dissidents. And, clearly, the authorities in Iran, one thing they understand is, as Robin knows — Robin has covered the Middle East and covered the Iranian Revolution — they understand revolutions because they came to power in a revolution.

And they understand street politics. You don’t give concessions. You crack down. You crack down hard.

JEFFREY BROWN: But just picking on the today aspect of it — we saw it in that shot in Parliament — how — how likely, what are the prospects for arresting those leaders you just referred to? Why hasn’t it happened up to now, and how likely now that they would be tried and — and — and jailed?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, in the immediate aftermath of the protests in 2009, the government did arrest hundreds of — well, thousands of people. And it put hundreds of them on trial in mass trials that were Stalinesque in their scope.

And the — it was a message clearly to the opposition leaders and to the young followers: Look, there are no limits to what we will do.

And they were a former vice president, a former — several former members of Parliament were among those put on trial, given long sentences. So, in some ways, what’s interesting is Egypt, President Mubarak tried to pull an Iran in the early days through the use of force and found that it didn’t work.

And the question is at what point, you know, do the Iranians go back on the streets? Are they willing to do what the Egyptians did? Because they’re likely to pay a far greater cost than the Egyptians did.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, but, in saying that last phrase, you’re agreeing that the Iranian government shows no signs of concessions, no signs of anything, and perhaps, having watched Egypt is if anything, tougher?

ROBIN WRIGHT: But one of the interesting things is the dynamic among the security forces.

And we talk about the Revolutionary Guards in Iran as all-powerful. And it is clear that the regime has militarized. It is increasingly reliant on this body, very powerful body that is now integrated into the economy, into politics as well.

But they are also divided in the same way the Egyptian military was, in that there’s a generational divide. There are conscripts in Iran, just as there are in Egypt. And many of the young people have brothers and sisters and cousins and uncles who are out on the streets. And for them to be used to open fire — even that’s true among the young paramilitary vigilantes that are dispatched — that that becomes — you know, you’re firing at your own people.

And that’s the point at which we don’t know when Iran might crack.

JEFFREY BROWN: You raised the 1979 narrative at the beginning of this discussion.

AFSHIN MOLAVI: That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, there are a lot of people watching Egypt and wondering, might Egypt become what we saw happen in Iran in 1979? But remind us exactly what happened.

AFSHIN MOLAVI: Sure. Sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, what is worth — what comparison is worth thinking about here, or not?

AFSHIN MOLAVI: Yes.

And no, I think that the notion that Egypt could devolve into an Islamic republic of Egypt I think is farfetched. And I think, when we look back at the 1979 revolution, there were many elements that took place there that were not present in Egypt.

First of all, there was a charismatic religious leader by the name of Ayatollah Khomeini, who was really one of the main leaders of the 1979 revolution. And he didn’t hide his desire for an Islamic republic.

The other thing that was going on is, there was a wide variety of different groups. You had communists. You had Islamic Marxists. You had varying degree of leftists. But the intellectual class in Iran in the 1970s indulged Islamist thoughts and Islamist politics in a way the intellectual class of Egypt does not do today.

So, I think that that’s the most significant difference, that there is no Ayatollah Khomeini in Egypt today.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, lastly, Robin, I want to bring you again right to today. We saw President Obama with some pretty tough talk, right? Is this — does this look like a strategy, a new strategy, by the U.S. administration to deal with Iran?

ROBIN WRIGHT: It’s a clear shift.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

ROBIN WRIGHT: The administration back in 2009 was very reluctant to come out and say decisively, we are for the protesters, and the Iranian government must be accountable and stop these brutal practices.

President Obama and several administrations since last Friday, since President Mubarak left in Egypt, have used striking language that has changed the tone of U.S. policy. Back in 2009, the U.S. still hoped to engage Iran and wanted to balance policy. Yes, we’re on the side of human rights, but we didn’t want to alienate the regime, because they wanted to get together to talk about Iran’s nuclear program.

Today, because two — there have been two rounds of diplomacy over the nuclear program. Nothing has happened.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

ROBIN WRIGHT: And the administration clearly has come out…

JEFFREY BROWN: Made a decision that they’re — they’re not even going to try.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, I think they may still try again, but they’re — but, particularly because of the language that was kind of forced out of them after Egypt, they’re now taking a much firmer position on Iran. And it’s very striking.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Robin Wright, Afshin Molavi, thank you both very much.

AFSHIN MOLAVI: Thank you.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Thank you.