The Elections in Iran: A Conversation with Ervand Abrahamian

There'll be cracked heads but it won't be a revolution

By Metta Spencer (interviewer) | 2009-10-01 12:00:00

METTA SPENCER: Would any of the presidential candidates have taken Iran in a different direction in terms of foreign policy and their nuclear program?

ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: Yes, you have to read between the lines. Officially, all the candidates and the government say that Iran is not interested in nuclear weapons and that their nuclear technology is for peaceful purposes. But the fact is, three of the candidates -- Mousavi, Karroubi, and to some extent Mohsen Rezai, the conservative candidate -- were talking about trying to improve relations with the United States. And to do that, they'd need to give guarantees that they are not interested in nuclear weapons.

Ahmadinejad has always been much more in-your-face on this issue. He says it's Iran's right to have a nuclear program and no one is going to dictate to us. I surmise that when it comes to giving guarantees, he'll be more reluctant to do so. Soon we'll see. The US has offered to negotiate and they want a response by the end of September. If that doesn't come, I think the US would start to tighten up sanctions in the UN.

SPENCER: I have heard of two different proposals: that the enrichment program be continued, but under international control and not under Iran's exclusive control. The other is that it be done in Russia. But I've not heard that Iran responded favorably to either of those proposals.

ABRAHAMIAN: I think they would insist that it be in Iran. The question is, under whose supervision -- and what supervision means. If it's just an international program in Iran I don't think that would be acceptable, but some people like Mousavi would have accepted, I think, a program under Iranian supervision with monitoring by the United Nations. That's what ElBaradei suggested.

SPENCER: A poll was done before the elections in which about 77 percent of the Iranians said that they wanted better relations with the US. If so high a proportion of Iranians actually want to improve relations, is it possible for any government to ignore that and simply forge ahead?

ABRAHAMIAN: The way Ahmadinejad has framed it is that Iran wants nuclear technology for peaceful purposes and the US is trying to prevent that. When you present it that way, the majority of the Iranian public would insist on Iran's right to a nuclear program. But when it's posed as the question, "Would you like better relations with the US, such as more trade?" the vast majority wants better relations. That's not new.

SPENCER: Of the candidates, it seemed to me that Karroubi sounded the most liberal - more so than Mir Hussein Mousavi. Is that correct?

ABRAHAMIAN: He favors less government involvement in the economy, but on social issues there isn't much difference between the two. Most practical reformers gravitated toward Mousavi rather than Karroubi, mostly because Karroubi has been a bit of a loose cannon. He was a militant cleric and then he became an outspoken critic of the regime. Mousavi is more cautious and more of a heavyweight politician.

SPENCER: Did Obama's speeches about Islam influence public opinion before the election?

ABRAHAMIAN: Yes. Before Obama was Bush, of course, and in 2005 Ahmadinejad ran his campaign against two people: One was against his main rival, Rafsanjani, who was seen as rich and corrupt, and also against Bush because of the "Axis of Evil" speech. That helps explain why Ahmadinejad won the 2005 election. Now in 2009 he wasn't running against Rafsanjani, although he argued that Mousavi was a stalking horse for Rafsanjani. And then he really couldn't attack Obama because Obama had made all these overtures to the Muslim world. That took the wind out of Ahmadinejad's sails.

SPENCER: I have heard the people here who want to believe that Ahmadinejad won, claiming that the rural voters were in his camp. Could that explain anything? And do you think the election really was stolen?

ABRAHAMIAN: The original argument was that Mousavi had a lot of middle class support but that Ahmadinejad's support was in the poorer areas of cities. But that argument fell flat because so many Western journalists were in the poor areas and could see that the voters were coming out for Mousavi there too. So the government apologists shifted the argument and said "Ah, but if you go to the countryside, the peasants are supporting Ahmadinejad."

Well, there isn't much empirical evidence, but what evidence there is shows that farmers were supporting the reform candidates. Reports from the countryside -- and they are not government spokesmen -- show that the rural areas were not very different from the cities. About 25% of the rural population are staunch supporters of Ahmadinejad because of the benefits the state gives, but 75% were disillusioned with Ahmadinejad, especially his broken promises, and voted against him. They were outraged when the election results were announced, saying that they had voted for Ahmadinejad. This fits with previous elections in 2005 or 2001 or 1997, when the countryside was not very different from the cities. Iran is a national society. People watch the same television programs, they watch the same debates.

SPENCER: That poll - I understand that it took place before the ten-day campaign began. I believe they projected a win by Ahmadinejad, but I heard that there was a big turnaround during the campaign.

ABRAHAMIAN: Yes. The people who took the poll were projecting an easy victory for Ahmadinijad, but it was, as you say, taken a few weeks before the campaign started and there was a major shift in public opinion. The people who took the poll actually admitted after the election that their poll didn't reflect public attitudes at the time of the elections.

The US government was eager to negotiate with Iran, whoever the president would be. That's why Obama was reluctant to get involved with the election or with the oppressive means used to crush the opposition. It's just a matter of practical politics. If you're going to negotiate with the government, then you have to accept the government as it is.

SPENCER: Before the election, Russia supposedly told Ahmedinejad that the US was planning a color revolution such as happened in the former Soviet Union. What evidence may there have been? But after the election, Ahmadinejad did not particularly point his finger at the US, but more at Britain.

ABRAHAMIAN: Yes. Actually, before the election Ahmadinejad wasn't accusing the United States and there wasn't much talk of a velvet revolution. Ahmadinejad invited any foreign journalist to come and cover the election campaign. He expected it to be sort of a coronation. For the previous four years he had not been generous in giving visas to foreign journalists, but then suddenly anyone could get a visa, so 400 foreign journalists came. When the election didn't go his way, the journalists were there to cover what was going on. Ahmadinejad miscalculated. When things got out of control the 400 were quickly scurried out of the country. The issue of the velvet revolution came up after the outrage because of the rigged elections.

Now going back to what the American government wanted, it was to negotiate with Ahmadinejad. The last thing they wanted was the disputed election and demonstrations. I don't think it was part of their scheme to have a velvet revolution.

SPENCER: That's interesting! That would go against what I read by George Friedman of Stratfor. He sees some new relationship developing between Iran and Russia. His evidence was that the anti-Ahmadinejad people were shouting "Death to Russia!" which was a new slogan. And then Ahmadinejad went off to Russia just a day or two after supposedly winning the election.

ABRAHAMIAN: Yes but people were shouting that in the Friday prayer meeting in reaction to the fact that the Russian government had endorsed the election and accepted Ahmadinajad. It was a reaction to the Russian legitimizing of the election. And then China came up because of the riots against the Muslim Uighurs. If the state is supposed to protect Muslims, how come it does nothing about the Muslims in China who are being killed in the street? This became a way of challenging the government.

SPENCER: I see. Maybe I should not read too much into this new alliance between Iran and Russia but I have heard that Russians are irritated by Biden's comment that in the long run, they will be a weak country.

ABRAHAMIAN: The Russian motivation is quite clear - that as long as the US is messing in their backyard or, I would say, pissing in their front yard, in Georgia, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, and Poland, their way of getting back at the United States is to protect Iran in the United Nations. If the US wants tough sanctions through the UN, it has to get the Russians' approval. They will give it if they get what they want from the US, which the US being more careful in Ukraine and Georgia. If the US doesn't do that, then the Russians will continue protecting Iran. Maybe they'll just not be there on the day when the resolution comes to a vote in the Security Council.

SPENCER: George Friedman in his Stratfor newsletter was speculating that Iran could increase its capacity to mine the Strait of Hormuz. Russia could give them mines that could be activated at a distance and only when Russia unlocked them. One could imagine such a thing happening if Israel bombed Iran's Natanz installation. In fact, Israel would have to eliminate Iran's capability of mining Hormuz before bombing because otherwise Iran could shut down 40 percent of the world's oil supply and raise the insurance costs for oil tankers. Could this be a strategy that is being planned between Iran and Russia? It's just speculation, but I'd be interested in hearing what you think.

ABRAHAMIAN: I don't think the US is thinking about war. It's talking about economic pressures to get Iran to negotiate.

SPENCER: But Israel isn't shy about saying that they want the option of bombing Iran.

ABRAHAMIAN: Yes, but even under Bush the US told Israel not to do it. If they do it they'd have to do it on their own and that's not going to be a success. Israel doesn't have the capability. The US does, but so far the US is not considering it.

Now let's say there is a war situation. There is no doubt that Iran can stop the shipping in the Hormuz. It's a very narrow strait and disrupting it, whether by mines or otherwise, is feasible. But that is not a long range answer because the US Navy is so powerful that within a few days or weeks it can clear it. The last time the US and Iranian navies collided, the US was able to destroy the Iranian navy in four hours. This was a "war within a war" that no one noticed during the [1980-1988] Gulf War.

SPENCER: I didn't know it myself. I never heard this.

ABRAHAMIAN: This was while Iran was fighting Iraq. The Iranian navy is basically fast motor boats in the Gulf and a few submarines that are not very useful because the Gulf is shallow. The US navy could easily lick the Iranian navy. The Russians have been cautious about selling Iran equipment. Iran has been eager to buy anti-aircraft missiles to defend their nuclear installations and the Russians have dragged their feet about that. They are using it as a bargaining chip. If the US becomes too aggressive in Ukraine and Georgia, they can do that. Also, the Russians have been building a nuclear installation in Bushehr, but have been dragging their feet over two decades. They are always finding excuses not to finish the nuclear site. So it's a bargaining issue with the United States.

SPENCER: So what do you think will happen in the future?

ABRAHAMIAN: Internally, the government is strong enough to silence the opposition. I think their legitimacy is lost, but as long as the state controls the means of violence, they are basically stable. So I think the opposition against the vote rigging has been neutralized. There will be show trials, people put in jail, and if there are more demonstrations there will be cracked heads, but it's not going to be a revolution.

In foreign policy there are two different scenarios possible. One is that Ahmadinejad and Khamanei might do sort of a Mao Tse Tung somersault and decide that the best thing for the regime would be to settle differences with the United States. That would bring in a lot of investment to develop the economy.

Or, the more dangerous alternative is that they would be more intransigent about negotiations. That would lead to a collision with the United States -- probably not military but harsh economic sanctions to try to bring the regime down.

SPENCER: One notion is to ban the sale of gasoline to Iran.

ABRAHAMIAN: Yes. Iran produces oil but has to import refined gasoline from India. The US could twist arms to get the Indians to stop selling gasoline to Iran. People's sentiments might be with Iran, but they would have to decide what is more important to them: an economic future with the US or Iran?

SPENCER: Which scenario would you bet on? A Chinese somersault or more intransigence?

ABRAHAMIAN: My intuition about their personalities is that they will escalate the crisis.

SPENCER: Is there a route Obama could take that would make a difference?

ABRAHAMIAN: Obama has made major concessions. His policy is so different from Bush's - if Iran doesn't reciprocate then there is nothing more he can do. Iranians realized that so much depended on this election. If the situation does not improve, then the problems in Iraq and Afghanistan are going to deteriorate. You know, you're going to get a lot of angry responses to this interview.

SPENCER: We're used to that. We don't mind. Thank you.

Ervand Abrahamian is a professor of history at Baruch College, City University of New York.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2009

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2009, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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