Peyman Jafari: ‘Iranians realize that in order to change their country, they have to hit the streets.
Yet six months after the dubious reelection of the presidents, the Iranian opposition movement lead by Mir-Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi still fails to bring the regime onto its knees. Supported by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, President Ahmadinejad remains firmly rooted in power.
Peyman Jafari talks with MO* about Iran’s turbulent resistance. Jafari fled Teheran in 1987, and came with his parents to the Netherlands two years after. He studied political sciences at the University of Amsterdam and is currently preparing a PhD on the relation between political change and socio-economic structures in Iran at the International Institute for Social History.
During the religious festivities of Ashura, demonstrations in the streets of Teheran were brutally suppressed. Did the demonstrations of Ashura trigger a new phase in the protest against the regime?
Peyman Jafari: The protests radicalized, that’s for sure. On the one hand, the government coalition -President Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Khamenei and the commanders of the Revolutionary Guard- is adopting a harder stance. On the other hand, the opposition movement, too, is changing its tone.
Six months ago, the protests focused on free elections and the refusal to recognize President Ahmadinejad’s government. The past few months, however, the protesters are questioning the authority of Supreme Leader Khamenei, too.
Yet the toughening of the opposition movement does not mean that the protests are attracting new support. In the weeks after the election, in June last year, millions of people hit the streets. Today, there’re only a few hundreds of thousands.
Do the protests target the Islamic Republic, in addition to the Supreme Leader?
Peyman Jafari: Every social movement is divers and unites people from different backgrounds and social classes, with different political and religious ideas. Some demonstrators want to break with the Islamic Republic, and put a secular democracy in place. Others want to replace Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei or reduce his power.
Yet there are people who would just be happy with reforms within the Islamic Republic, by giving elections a bigger role and offering the press more freedom. There are many different opinions.
Many for example support Mousavi, the presidential candidate who is opposition leader today. There are people on the other hand, who deliberately keep a distance from him.
No matter if we like it or not, the Islamic Republic has deep roots in certain parts of Iranian society. It’s not like the entire population is opposing the Islamic Republic. One part of society is facing the state and another part of society. A complicated process.
Do these different groups within the green movement agree on which direction the protest needs to take in the future?
Peyman Jafari: Mousavi and Karroubi want to use the pressure of the green movement to create more space to maneuver within the political establishment. On the other hand, some people within the movement –especially younger generations- want to terminate the Islamic Republic. An important question therefore, is how these different groups are represented within the movement. I believe that right now, reformers like Karroubi and Mousavi are having the upper hand.
The movement is looking for reform, but in a different way than how this happened ten years ago, when reforms were being asked for, too. Back then, people believed in change from within, and counted on President Khatami to change the system. That experience, and the disillusion about Khatami’s policy, made many conclude that political leaders can’t be trusted. People have the feeling that they have to hit the streets themselves, have to put pressure and put their own demands forward.
Is it correct that Ahmadinejad is mainly supported by poorer segments of society, while the green movement by richer parts of the population?
Peyman Jafari: The heart of the green movement lies with the modern middle class of professionals, students and ex-students. But people from lower classes, too, take part in the protest, religious and non-religious. This is an important issue, because many debates in the West give the impression that the ones protesting on the street are anti-religious or areligious. Many of the demonstrators consider themselves Muslim, but believe in a democratic state.
Within the lower classes, too, many are displeased by Ahmadinejad, since his general economic policy has only increased poverty. Inflation has risen explosively during the past two years, and unemployment rates are floating around 25 percent.
Ahmadinejad has distributed huge amounts of money, but not as a general measurement against poverty and inequality. He used a kind of clientelistic policy, through which he tried to tie a part of the population to his government. Those with access to the state and religious institutions were systematically favored.
Is the Ahmadinejad’s coalition a unified group?
Peyman Jafari: Up until now, President Ahmadinejad, Supreme Leader Khamanei and the Revolutionary Guards have been one group. Their main problem, however, is that they govern through a state of emergency, whereby power is more and more militarized. Because the Islamic Republic has always been a combination of democratic and nondemocratic institutions, huge pressure arises on Ahmadinejad’s coalition.
The legitimacy of the regime is disappearing with great speed. The more violence it uses against the population, the less legitimate it becomes. Some people even use quotes from Ayatollah Khomeini against Ahmadinejad, when the former said that only the voice of the people can legitimize a government.
Furthermore, the efficiency of the state is affected negatively by the military regime. The Iranian state has a huge bureaucracy, which runs nationalized companies and controls all kinds of institutions up into the villages. Because the regime has been reduced to a limited group within the political elite, it doesn’t succeed in efficiently governing the state, creating mostly economic problems
Is Ahmadinejad’s growing isolation translating into growing support for the green movement?
Peyman Jafari: The majority sympathizes with the green movement, but does not participate in active resistance. Enormous strikes, like during the revolution of 1979, are unheard of today. That might happen in the future though.
In any case, time is on the opposition’s side. The longer tension maintains, the more discontent will rise, even within Ahmadinejad’s conservative coalition.
Many conservatives realize they can’t keep the country under a state of emergency for a long time to come. Many are inclined to reach some kind of agreement with Mousavi and the others.
Last week Mousavi released a statement with five demands for the regime. With this statement, he implicitly acknowledged Ahmadinejad’s government. A tactic move, since the statement has divided Ahmadinejad’s coalition even more. One of the moderate conservatives announced for example that Mousavi’s concession has to be cheered and national reconciliation is again a possibility.
What did Mousavi demand?
Peyman Jafari: The most important demands were honest elections, freedom of the press, release of all political prisoners and freedom of organization. The movement wants both political and social freedom, to do in public what you want, as a women, as a young person. Therefore I wouldn’t describe the opposition movement as a revolutionary but as a social movement.
Off course, there’s no Chinese wall between these things. When tensions would grow in the next months, when the legitimacy of the regime would further decline and economic problems would increase, I do see a revolutionary situation emerge.
What consequences bears the recent death of Ayatollah Montazeri for the green movement.
Peyman Jafari: The green movement turned Ayatollah Montazeri’s death into an opportunity to protest, and the same pattern will emerge on the fortieth day after his death – when according to sji’a traditions the dead person is commemorated. Beyond any doubt, Ayatollah Montazeri was a source of inspiration for parts of the green movement. This shouldn’t be exaggerated though. For the past few years, he lived in isolation and he regained prominence only because of his resistance against the government. The figure of the ayatollah is important though, because he exemplifies the diversity within the clergy. There are several ayatollah’s who don’t agree with Ahmadinejad.
A second name which is frequently named, is that of Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi.
Peyman Jafari: Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi is President Ahmadinejad’s spiritual father. A deep-conservative man, who is unprepared to reconcile. He wants to preserve the dominance of the clergy within the political system and will do anything to keep the conservative coalition together. This man is mainly important because of his huge influence on the neoconservatives within the regime. With the Iranian population, other ayatollah’s are more popular. I think that only 15 to 20 percent of the population considers him a reference.
How do the protests affect Ahmadinejad’s international policy?
Peyman Jafari: Because the regime is less divided – Ahmadinejad’s opponents are removed from power- power is concentrated in the hands of the president and his supporters. This makes it easier for them to negotiate with the US and other countries.
On the other hand, the elimination of his opponents has weakened Ahmadinejad’s position and foreign powers are aware of this. It will mainly depend on how the US positions itself in the future, if an agreement is reached on Iran’s nuclear power.
In an interview with de Volkskrant, you said that international pressure on Iran is helping the current regime
Peyman Jafari: Iran’s experience during the last century with foreign intervention –Russia and the British in the beginning of the twentieth century, the US during the Shah- has created a sort of historic awareness with many Iranians, that independence of foreign powers is extremely important.
Every time a foreign power is increasing its pressure on Iran, either through economic sanctions or military threats, the population fears to lose that independence. At that point, it reduces its opposition to the regime.
The regime is using the excuse of foreign intervention to convince the population that the country is threatened and that there’s no room for opposition in that situation. It’s a stick in the hands of the Iranian conservatives.
Therefore, I plead to erase all foreign intervention and economic sanctions. That’s the only thing that will strengthen the position of the democratic movement and weaken the position of the neoconservatives.