TitleAn interview with Scott Peterson

“Iranian system will collapse by its own mismanagement”

24 Jun 2011

■ Ehsan Abedi
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Let the Swords Encircle Me is one of the numerous books through which after-election events in Iran have been described, but maybe it is one of the bestsellers in this case; a book that has been reprinted many times, acclaimed by Middle East and Iranian studies scholars and written by an American journalist, Scott Peterson. According to the Amazon website, more than seven thousands reviews have been written on Peterson’s book, which was also chosen by Publishers Weekly as the book of year.

Peterson was in Iran during the strange exciting days of the presidential elections and could witness and feel everything. Nevertheless, his book cannot be considered only as a simple report on Iranian protests. The writer has tried to find the origins of the events by searching the history of contemporary Iran and showing a future perspective by considering the present situation of the country; as the secondary title of the book, Iran – A Journey Behind the Headlines also shows.

Peterson has been engaged in the case of Iran since 1996 and has written many detailed reports and articles on the issue.

About two years ago, in your book Let the Swords Encircle Me, you discussed the start of an irreversible decline in Iran regime. Do you still think so? Or do you think that the regime has been able to overcome the post-election crises?

I think events of the last two years have only shown how the Islamic System in Iran is in great crisis, and since the 2009 an irreversible one. Though the hardliners and the ‘osulgaran’ or principalist faction, to which Ahmadinejad belongs, have declared victory of one kind or another virtually every day since that stolen vote, in fact even though they have succeeded in pushing the Green Movement and reformist leaders out of public view, they have demonstrated the deep divisions that exist among factions at the highest level of the political system. What struck me in 2009 during the street battles was the clear belief, among the enforcers, that old-school tactics work today as well as they did decades ago: truncheons, beatings, arrests. That belief told me that mindset of the enforcers was archaic and therefore, in this day and age, incomplete. It may have APPEARED to the enforcers that they “won,” by eventually snuffing out street protests. But do they really believe they also CONVINCED people of their cause?

You are among the journalists who witnessed the events after the 10th presidential election in Iran and praised the Green Movement. Now, it has been sometime since those large demonstrations last happened in Iran. Has the Green Movement been weakened? How do you totally consider its situation now that the election has just had its second anniversary?

The Green Movement has certainly been very weakened by the removal of many of its means of communication, and means of public demonstration of its strength and power. But the Green Movement – in all of its various shades and manifestations – still very much exists. And it exists very widely. As a proof, witness the fact that even two years after the vote, not a single day goes by without some senior official talking about it. They are obsessed. No one doubts the presence of the sun on a cloudy day; neither should anyone doubt the existence of the Greens.

It has been sometime since the Green Movement leaders, Mr. Mousavi, Mr. Karroubi and their wives have been under house arrest. What is its effect on the circumstances of struggles in Iran? May it cause the circumstances to go toward radicalism?

The fate of Mr. Moussavi and Mr. Karroubi tells us how weak and voiceless they have currently been forced to become, thanks to powerful anti-democratic, anti-republican forces in Iran. But it also demonstrates very clearly how important these men remain, as a perceived danger to Iran’s hardline factions – and the impossibility of erasing their ideas, complaints, and plans for reform of the political system. I think their house arrest has had a radicalizing influence on the pro-democracy movement, because instead of hearing the voices of these men for moderation and reform of the Islamic system – in a way that preserves that system – people now have every right to believe that it is impossible to reform that system from within. Therefore, only radical measures should be used – such as violence – to deal with radical aims like removing the velayat-e faqih.

The house arrest of Mousavi and Karroubi had a radicalizing influence on the pro-democracy movement

You wrote on the recent disagreements between Mr. Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei as the “worst storm” of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s presidency. Do you think that Mr. Ahmadinejad and his supporters can resist against Iran’s supreme leader? Which group will benefit from balance of power in future?

I don’t believe that Mr. Ahmadinejad can prevail against the supreme leader, mostly because he has so little political support from the factions that these days matter most in Iran, and also because he has angered so many during his most divisive time as president. Both men have been diminished as leaders by this fight. Ahmadinejad has been shown to be petulant, and overly ambitious, and sometimes recklessly oblivious to the impact of his actions. Now his attackers feel free to criticize the “deviant trend” that they perceive among the president’s closest allies, and even describe it as the most “dangerous” threat to the political system since the Islamic Revolution – which is saying a lot, indeed. But at the same time, Khamenei has been shown to have misjudged mightily the man he backed for president as a “divine assessment.” He has stepped in to micro-manage this crisis, and found that his traditional role as the one above politics, who can balance competing factions, has been undermined. Because both camps have been diminished, this shows a fundamental weakness in an Islamic system that Khomeini once called the “Government of God.” The question people ask, of course, is: if this is God’s government, how could be possibly be so messy?

Throughout your book, you have shown that Iranian educated and young people’s desires and wishes differ from the ones of the regime. What are the roots of this division and the results it may cause?

There are many reasons for the gap between the desires of many Iranians – especially the young and educated – and those of the regime, which so often seems caught in a time warp, as if the clocks stopped during the Iran-Iraq war. Many of the early, strongest reformers were hardline radical supports of the Revolution in the early years, people who toppled the Shah and fought the “infidel” Saddam in Iraq, and believed in all the tenets of the Revolution that called for justice and freedom. Those reformers thought the Revolution needed to evolve, and thereby carry Iran’s huge youth population with it. But for those ideologues frozen in time – those were unwilling to see any change at all, and who prevailed in the late 1990s and ever since – they have lost huge portions of Iran’s population who want to engage with the outside world, and show Persia to still be a place of unique ideas and culture.
The fact that Iran’s cinema is regaled around the world – often using techniques that directors learned watching the war-time work of Morteza Avini and the Revayat-e Fath series of war films – tells much about what rich culture exists in Iran. And the fact that so many of Iran’s finest directors are now in exile, or jailed, or ordered not to make films for 20 years – says much about the decrepit thinking that prevails among Iran’s leadership today.

A chapter of your book has concentrated on the cultural approach of Mr. Khatami administration. How do you consider the function of his administration? What were the effects of his reforms on Iranian society?

There were no secrets about how Iranian culture blossomed during the Khatami era; it was enough to simply remove some of the government-imposed restrictions on people’s lives, and permit some freedoms. Iranians don’t need to be told what do to, and they grabbed that loosening very strongly. Of course, he was a man who adhered to the law, and many Iranians say he was too much of a gentleman to step into the rough-and-tumble of Iranian politics. And of course, his problem was that his opponents did not respect the law, and were happy to use violence and force to intimidate and kill, and to make their point.
Again we come back to this unsustainable calculation on the part of the hardliners and regime enforcers, like Ansar and other militant groups: a fundamental belief that you can beat people into submission; that you can “win” by using force, and make people change their minds and support you. But as we can so clearly see, in Iran this is no longer the case. And in fact, I think it is not wrong when Mr. Mousavi describes how the real lesson of Imam Hossein for Iranians is not for the most devout – who often wield the clubs and chains in God’s name – but is for the reform/Green Movement. Because it is all about resistance to tyranny, resistance to the use of force, resistance to being forced to believe anything that you know is not right.

You showed that in spite of Iran official propaganda, most of Iranians are pro-American people. Don’t you think that the U.S. sanctions against Iran may cause Iranian people to change their mind about America? Do such sanctions cause anything other than harms for Iranian people?

I am not sure how US sanctions against Iran affect views of Iranians toward the US. There are so many issues between these two countries, and yet Iranians respect very much the rhetoric of American democracy and freedom, if not how it has been practiced in recent decades in Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other places. Many Iranians have been affected negatively by the sanctions on the personal level, which is a very big problem for the American policy-makers who say: “We are not targeting ordinary Iranians.” And yet, it is those very ordinary Iranians who have very limited opportunities for banking abroad, or even booking a holiday in another country. So the sanctions have had those drawbacks. They have also given the political system an excuse to blame the US and UN for their own economic problems, and have forced the Sepah (army) and other regime organs to become much more self-sufficient, on everything from defense manufacturing to the nuclear program. But on the other hand, the sanctions have also raised the pressure on the regime in many ways. Will that “change behavior” in Tehran, as Washington wants? I doubt it. But the strain has been great.

Iranians respect very much the rhetoric of American democracy and freedom

What could be the effect of the region developments on Iran? Will the results be for Iran’s regime or against it?

I believe that one of the biggest problems for the Iranian political system in the coming years will be the fallout from the anti-regime revolutions sweeping across the Arab world, the so-called “Arab Spring.” For three decades, Iranians boasted that it was they – the Persian, Shiite Iranians – who had the courage to topple their regime in a popular and total revolution, while the Sunni Arabs sat and did nothing against all the dictators, monarchs and autocrats who ruled for so long across the Arab world. Then we had the 2009 election and pro-democracy protests, which have so far failed to dislodge or improve the Islamic Republic. And now we have the Arab example of “uprising.” And not just one, but Tunisia, Egypt, and almost certainly soon Libya and Syria and Yemen, and possibly Bahrain. Will all these Arab activists not re-invest the Iranian street with a feeling of life and potential for change? Of course it will.
Which is why I think it has been so dangerous for the regime to embrace these changes as an “Islamic Awakening,” as Ayatollah Khamenei has done. Of course, he wants to appear to be on the right side of history, on the right side of “revolution.” But having reported on these revolutions in the Arab world, and knowing the divisions and hypocrisy in Iran that have diminished Iran’s reputation across the Arab world as a “model” of anything, I believe that the Islamic Republic will not be able to avoid the flow of change for long. I am not sure that this means that, five years from now, the Islamic Republic will have been “erased from the face of time,” but I expect that this system will no longer persist as it is currently configured. That won’t be the result of any definitive outside intervention, I believe, but from the mismanagement and misjudgment of Iran’s own hardline leadership.

Tehran Review
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