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What’s Going on in Iran?

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Additional funding is provided by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.

Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg. President Bush has proclaimed Iran a member of the Axis of Evil. The Islamic State has come under international scrutiny for its alleged development of nuclear weapons and for its long-standing support of terrorism. From within, Iran’s leaders are the focus of a growing protest movement, demanding major reforms. Might there be a revolution? Is Iran a global threat? Or is it on the verge of transformation?

For some insight, Think Tank is joined by:
Shaul Bakhash, a Professor of History at George Mason University and author of Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution
And Mahnaz Afkhami, a former minister for women’s affairs in the Iranian government and author of In the Eye of the Storm: Women in Post Revolutionary Iran.

The Topic Before the House: What’s going on in Iran? This Week on Think Tank.

MODERATOR: Welcome Mahnaz Afkhami and Shaul Bakhash to Think Tank. Thank you for joining us. I wondered if we could begin perhaps with you, Shaul and then Mahnaz. When did you leave Iran and under what circumstances?

BAKHASH: Well I left Iran about eight months after the overthrow of the monarchy in December of 1979. And in my career I’d been a journalist primarily but I’d also taught at university and both these institutions had been taken over by the government. And my family was already abroad so it seemed time to go.

MODERATOR: Right. How ‘bout you Mahnaz?

AFKHAMI: I actually came to the United States prior to the revolution – just before the revolution in November of ’78 in order to finalize a contract with the United Nations to set up a research center – a UN research center for women in development in Tehran. And uh, it took a little longer than anticipated as UN negotiations often do and by the time we were finished they told me not to come back because the revolution was under way and uh, having been very much involved with women’s affairs I was not a very popular uh, candidate for returning to Iran because one of the main problems uh, that the revolutionaries had with the previous regime was the very high-profile, visibility and uh, achievements of women in Iran.

MODERATOR: Right. Um, there have recently been demonstrations by students in several major cities. Uh, Mahnaz, how significant are these um, demonstrations that we’ve heard about and how widespread are they?

AFKHAMI: Uh, I think they’re quite widespread. We hear that not only in Tehran but on the – but also in the various cities there are demonstrations. They – they’re not very large but they are rather um, strong expressions of sentiment by the [unintelligible] and also uh since there’s about one million students and uh, the majority of the population - actually five out of every six Iranian is below the age of thirty – so it’s not only students but youth uh, that is involved in – in the expression of discontent that’s going on in the country.

MODERATOR: In – in – your judgment either one of you, or both of you, please, is – is Iran ripe for another revolution?

BAKHASH: Discontent is very widespread but I don’t think we are yet in a pre-Revolutionary situation. As Mahnaz just said you know, the demonstrations although significant were not very large and although some members of the non-student population participated again, those numbers were limited. I don’t think we see the signs yet of mass – a mass movement that would really be a threat to the regime.

AFKHAMI: I – I feel a little more strongly about the uh, the strength of this movement uh, and uh, where it is now. Uh, I – I feel that the kinds of limitations that are being placed uh, by the government on the young people uh, they are causing widespread discontent and there doesn’t seem to be any way that the government can deal with them because they – they are related to the infrastructural foundations of this government – this bureaucracy. And uh, on the other hand – on the other side they deal with the every day ordinary needs of young people...the simplest needs. How to dress; uh, how to appear in public; what to listen to in terms of music.

MODERATOR: The - the pictures we see on television, they look like pretty hip kids.

AFKHAMI: They’re very hip kids.

MODERATOR: But they have to still wear a headscarf?

AFKHAMI: That’s the whole thing. You see there is a very archaic form of government. Super – super-imposed on the very sophisticated, young, civil society. Uh, so, they’re on the internet; they’re on web-logs expressing their wishes; they’re listening to the latest music; they’re – they’re very uh, “with it” kinds of young people and yet they’re expected to not talk among each other uh, between genders, hold hands, they can’t appear in public together, they can’t go to movies, public places are segregated, dress is controlled, cultural activity is very much controlled, so all of this makes things political that are not normally political, that is cultural life of the young which is usually not considered a political matter, and the Islamic republic is very much at the center of politics and at the center of the discontent of youth and to that of course you can add the problems of unemployment; the problems of economic discontent and so forth.

MODERATOR: How – how bad is unemployment now?

BAKHASH: Oh, it’s very – it’s very widespread and large numbers graduate from the universities every year and they can’t find really good or gainful employment and the measures the government has taken to try and increase jobs in the last few years have not really succeeded. So it’s a very serious problem.

MODERATOR: Iran is a Shiite country, is that right?


MODERATOR: Is Shiite the majority of Muslim?

AFKHAMI: Ninety percent.

MODERATOR: Prior to the Shiite revolution, did Iran have a more secular and multi-religious tradition?

BAKHASH: Yes. I mean, the – the – the – the - you might say lip-service was paid to Islam but under the monarchy the...

MODERATOR: Of the Shah...

BAKHASH: Yeah, under the Shah’s...

MODERATOR: Whose name was Reza Pahlavi...

BAKHASH: Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Um,...

MODERATOR: I come close.

BAKHASH: Um, I think it was largely a secular regime. Obviously respect was
paid to religion and to the mosques and to the clergy, but Iran under the monarchy was a
secular country and under the Islamic revolution naturally has become a very uh, Islamic one. At least according to the interpretation of the clerics that try to run it.

MODERATOR: Under the Shah and under the table Iran and Israel had a pretty close relationship.

BAKHASH: Yes, they did. A very close one and quite a bit of cooperation in both in their economic field and military affairs and perhaps even intelligence. Uh, under the Islamic republic Israel is considered one of Iran’s great enemies and in fact the official position of the Iranian government is that the state of Israel is [unintelligible] has no right to exist.

MODERATOR: But what was the – I mean, the Shah was a pretty tough customer also. I mean, the SAVAK was – was well known for its uh, [hesitates] barbarity of its own right. Is that correct?

AFKHAMI: Yes, SAVAK was an organization that was very harsh...

MODERATOR: That’s the secret police, and it was very harsh you say.

AFKHAMI: But, um, there’s no comparison with what is happening now. Uh, you know, as I said before there was a really uh, huge, uh, areas of – of – of freedom of action for the people and also for the minorities of all religions...almost any kind of lifestyle that one wished to follow was uh, not only tolerated but – but – but uh, quite accepted. Uh, unfortunately the situation is – is – is – quite different now.

MODERATOR: How has Iran changed since the 1979 revolution? What actually happened?

AFKHAMI: we were uh, the women of Iran were right before the revolution one of the most advanced uh, women in the entire region. They uh, participated in ever area of political uh, life of the country. We had senators, we had uh, high level people in the uh cabinet, uh, under-secretaries of mines and industries, let’s say for instance – labor and so forth where women – we had governors, ambassadors, and even at the grass-roots level we had uh, women participating in local counsels and um, all – all – all – all areas of endeavor. And legally we had for instance one of the – the best of uh, uh, personal status codes in the Muslim world which even now today after quarter of a century that old set of laws – that old legislation was better than anywhere in the Middle East right now except with the exception of Turkey, perhaps. So...

MODERATOR: Under the Shah?

AFKHAMI: Yes. So, once the revolution happened, the first target were women. Uh, they were – veiling was imposed on them. The personal status code was abolished, which really you know, for instance has to do with a woman’s right to divorce. Minimum age of marriage for instance, which was eighteen for women; now it’s become nine. Uh, multiple wives for instance. Four wives, endless numbers of temporary wives. Permission to...

MODERATOR: And – and – and yet the birthrate in Iran is way down. It’s down very close to the replacement level.

AFKHAMI: That’s right. Right now it is. But right after revolution of course they...

MODERATOR: Well, it’s a sign of modernism.

AFKHAMI: Well, actually right after revolution the government uh, tried very hard to have uh, put limits on family protection – I mean on family planning, which was very uh, advanced during the uh, previous regime and that’s why the population doubled in a decade.

MODERATOR: What is the effect on Iran from outside on people inside Iran. For example there are those uh, pirate satellite TV broadcasts coming from Iranian/Americans in – in America. What – what do you think about that? And you are both naturalized Americans, is that correct?

BAKHASH: Yes. Well, you know Iran isn’t – I mean the people of Iran are certainly not cut off from the world. As Mahnaz said earlier, you know, there’s – there’s contact through satellite dishes, email, um, telephones, correspondence, travel...which is not very restricted in Iran. So Iranians are very aware of the outside world and there’s a great aspiration among all segments of the population I would say to be integrated with the international community. So these Iranian radio and television stations in Los Angeles, which you mention and where there’s a large Iranian community are listened to...

MODERATOR: Westwood One or something is that what it is?

AFKHAMI: A number of them.

BAKHASH: There’s a number of them, yes. I mean, they’re certainly watched
and listened to in Iran and they have a good audience. People can call in uh, in – in –
call-in programs to express their opinions. They do so quite freely and openly.

MODERATOR: On their cell phones.

BAKHASH: Uh, on their cell phones. They can call from home. They – they identify themselves. They are not afraid to do so. And they often express strong sentiments against the government. So, yes, I mean, these stations do have an impact uh, both by providing an outlet for opinion but also as we saw recently by encouraging people say to come out in the street and demonstrate against the regime.

MODERATOR: Uh, uh, if there was a regime change in Iran, what would likely happen?

BAKHASH: Well, obviously a lot depends on how the regime change takes place. I think the general sentiment of the people is for much greater openness, greater political freedoms, greater freedoms in social affairs...

MODERATOR: But – but they have in Iran elections now.

BAKHASH: Yes, there are elections. There, you know, not everyone can participate and uh, in fact candidates can be bettered by a council made up principally of clerics. Uh, so there’s – it’s got limited openings but uh, uh, and you know, when – when President Khatami was first elected in 1997 as the head of a reform movement there was great hope in the population that this would mark the beginning of reform.

MODERATOR: How - how – how does that strange system work between the Ayatollah and the President? How does that work?

BAKHASH: Well, you have a supreme leader. The Ayatollah Khomeini who has enormous powers both...

MODERATOR: Who we pronounce here Khamenei, not Khamenei. You pronounce it your way; I’ll pronounce it mine.

BAKHASH: Right. And uh, the constitution vests enormous powers in the hands of the supreme leader and these powers have been enhanced in practice and by claim. And interpretations of the constitution. And then there’s a president who runs [unintelligible] the executive. I mean he is the head of the cabinet and he runs the government. But real power is vested in the supreme leader and in the clergy as a class.

MODERATOR: He’s sorta like a king over elected president.

AFKHAMI: But different. The Vatican is the only other place. It – it – it’s in fact ruled only by the priest so this is uh, something that is uh, impossible to sustain anywhere and especially with the limitations that are placed on not really political – in the previous regime we had limitations. But in every other way people were free to do to whatever they wanted to. In this regime they tell you what to eat, how to dress, where to go, what to see, what to hear. There is you know, a blanket uh, reduction of rights in every area. Not that they can implement in every area. Obviously people just, you know, for instance you know, they say young girls and boys are not supposed to talk to each other. But then they go to the park, they sit with their backs to each other but they talk on the cell phone, you see. Or they send emails to each other. You can’t stop young people from interacting with each other or – or listening to what they like or reading what they like.

AFKHAMI: in terms of elections, you know, uh, you can only basically uh, choose among people who are already been uh, determined faithful to the regime and have uh, credentials that are suitable in terms of a bureaucracy so a secular person would have no chance of standing for office. Uh, so the elections, although once the candidates are determined then you’re free to choose among them. That’s why for instance Khatami was so very much supported because among the choices that were in existence he seemed more – the sort of a nicer, the gentler kind of government.

MODERATOR: Are – are – are there real distinctions within the government? We read about it between moderates and conservatives and reformers.

BAKHASH: Yes, I think there are. And I know some people...

MODERATOR: And what would some of those issues be?

BAKHASH: I know some people who would disagree and say they’re all the same but it’s simply not the case. I mean, then – then you have within what was called the reform movement. Those who wanted much greater political openness; much greater protection for the individual rights of Iranians; greater freedom of the press; uh, better relations with the international community and the outside world and in fact you know, for the first three years or four years of President Khatami’s uh, uh, first term in office there was an extraordinary flowering of the press, of political associations and parties of elections. Though limited, people participated in large numbers. So, yes, I think there is a real difference at least in intent. The reform movement proved far weaker than uh, it appeared in the beginning.

MODERATOR: Iran – let’s talk a little bit about policy now. Iran does two things that have given it this [unintelligible] axis [?] of evil status. Uh, it supports terrorism and it is believed to be attempting to gain nuclear weapons. Uh, I wonder if you could speak to that.

BAKHASH: In the nuclear weapons program I think it is generally agreed – or the nuclear energy program, it is generally agreed is far more advanced than anyone supposed. Now, the Iranians haven’t weaponized yet, but that’s the great concern. Uh, it is an issue I think to which the government and the regime is committed so kind of weaning Iran away from the nuclear program would be very difficult. Uh, and...

MODERATOR: I mean, there case would be twenty-five other nations have it or whatever...

BAKHASH: Well first of all the government doesn’t admit that it’s pursuing nuclear weapons. It says it’s pursing nuclear energy and that they have a perfect right to do so under international treaties.
MODERATOR: Do we believe that?

BAKHASH: No. And I think ...

MODERATOR: Do you believe that?

AFKHAMI: Well, I would think that they are very concerned about the neighbors such as Israel, Turkey – I mean Pakistan, not Turkey – having nuclear weapons and also on the other side, the Soviet border.

All around Iran you see there’s uh, almost a full circle of – of nuclear uh, arms and so Iran one would assume would be uh, wanting to move toward in that – that direction although we don’t have any particular information as to how far ahead they are. But – but, one would assume that they would uh, want to go in that direction.

MODERATOR: Um, tell me each of you about Iran’s known support of terrorism and believed support of terrorism.

BAKHASH: Well, it’s of two kinds. I mean, in the past the regime has been involved in assassinating dis – Iranian dissonance abroad. It uh, was involved in the support of groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon, which carried out terrorist acts such as the bombing of the Marine barracks in the early 1980s.

MODERATOR: And against Israel.

BAKHASH: And against Israel. Um, and then you know the other kind is it continues to support groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and perhaps gives support to Islamic Jihad on the West Bank which engage in – in acts of terrorism. Now the Iranian governments position is that Hezbollah is involved in legitimate uh, kind of liberation struggle but the fact is that uh, this is a regime that often gets itself into trouble not only through its own acts but through the allies it chooses.

MODERATOR: From a policy level, looking ahead and admittedly you have to be somewhat speculative. Um, what do you think Iran would be most responsive to: containment, engagement or the threat of force?

BAKHASH: Uh, well I would say in a way all three in – in the following sense. I mean, clearly people in the Bush administration who believe that uh, the regime is about to collapse and therefore nothing should be done to engage it or to give it credibility.

MODERATOR: Is that what you believe? Is that what you believe?

BAKHASH: No, I don’t, in fact. I mean I don’t think it’s – it’s a regime that’s on the verge – verge of collapse.

MODERATOR: Mahnaz, what do you think?

AFKHAMI: I think it is um, not immediately but it’s closer to the end. .

MODERATOR: That it’s a process, not an event.

MODERATOR: How – how could you have an ultimate regime change in Iran without it being stigmatized as American-led rather than homegrown Iranian?

BAKHASH: Well, - well you – you theoretically...

MODERATOR: Or can you?

BAKHASH: Well theoretically you could if there was an internal upheaval. But I – I must confess, I think people who talk blithely of regime change - I’m certainly not suggesting you’re doing that. But who don’t you know, think about the consequences of another huge political upheaval in Iran. And I recall during the Islamic revolution there were people who believed that uh, if the Shah was overthrown nothing else could change. And – and would say, perfectly sensible people, who would say, “Anything is better than the Shah”. Well it turned out that things could be much worse than the Shah. Uh, and again I think you know, to talk about putting the Iranian people through another revolution [pause] uh, you know, one must be a bit more cautious about the price and the consequences of violent change as against a more gradual transformation.

MODERATOR: What do you think about what Shaul just said? How can there be a uh, a regime change without it being apparent that it was an American plot?

AFKHAMI: Because there is actually a movement inside the country. There is an authentic, indigenous movement and if the United States does not intervene overtly I think that there’s no reason why it should be perceived as an American phenomenon. And uh, I think that the people wouldn’t want that, but uh, the Iranian people have a lot of admiration for the United States. The United States needs to stand for its own fundamental, infrastructural values, you know. Democracy...

MODERATOR: Its own civil society.

AFKHAMI: Its own ideas about freedom of expression; about human rights; about democracy. Duration of these and support for these ideas have no problem I don’t believe, at all. Uh, But they – there should be no overt intervention or interference. Uh, the people will take care of. I share Shaul’s concern about sudden revolutionary change. Uh, but I think that what people inside are trying to do is to move toward uh, institutions which are more democratic; that are toward freedom of expression and so forth. The problem is that the state does not allow that type of thing and that is the uh, uh, thing that is cause for concern...that is if there were permission for people to congregate; if there were permission for people to express themselves; to develop political institutions; to develop parties. Now there wouldn’t need to be a violent upheaval. But the problem is that this government does not allow this. And this is where I think possibly pressure uh, that is political from the outside world, from the international community helps. If the international community including the United States would push for such things as asking the people what they want; letting the people speak, you see. I think that that would be a process through which change could happen without uh, violence and – or at least without disruptions of – of – of uh, the country. That would be dangerous, of course.

MODERATOR: Okay, on that note Mahnaz Afkhami, uh, Shaul Bakhash, uh, thank you very much for joining us and thank you. Please remember to send us your comments via email. It’s what makes our program better. For Think Tank, I’m Ben Wattenberg.

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Funding for this program is provided by...
(Pfizer) At Pfizer, we’re spending over five billion dollars looking for the cures of the future. We have 12,000 scientists and health experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion. Pfizer, life is our life’s work.

Additional funding is provided by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.

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