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2009-06-17

Protests Continue in Iran; Government Cracks Down on Foreign Media

Guests

Arang Keshavarzian, Associate Professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. He has just returned from Iran, where he spent the last three weeks following the election campaign and its immediate aftermath. He serves on the Editorial Committee of MERIP, the Middle East Research and Information Project, where he helped edit the Spring 2009 special issue on "The Iranian Revolution at 30." He is the author of Bazaar and State in Iran: The Politics of the Tehran Marketplace.

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Thousands of Iranians took to the streets Tuesday as reformist politicians, including defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, rejected the Guardian Council’s offer of a limited recount of the disputed votes in Friday’s election. Both critics and supporters of President Ahmadinejad staged competing rallies in Tehran Tuesday, while Iranian security forces arrested at least three prominent reformists, including former Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi, Saeed Hajjarian, as well as leading human rights lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Thousands of Iranians took to the streets Tuesday as reformist politicians, including defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, rejected the Guardian Council’s offer of a limited recount of the disputed votes in Friday’s election. Both critics and supporters of President Ahmadinejad staged competing rallies in Tehran Tuesday, while Iranian security forces arrested at least three prominent reformists, including former Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi and Saeed Hajjarian, as well as leading human rights lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani.

The Iranian government has also revoked press credentials for foreign journalists and banned coverage of rallies from the streets. But information about the protests and the crackdown continues to travel out of Iran through videos posted on the web showing unauthorized demonstrations in cities across Iran, confrontations between students and pro-government militias, moments of camaraderie between demonstrators and police, and some very graphic images of demonstrators and students who were beaten and killed. At least twelve demonstrators and several students have reportedly been killed, and the Los Angeles Times reports that upwards of 1,500 people were arrested and released with warnings since Friday.

President Obama said Monday that he was, quote, “deeply troubled” by the violence since the election. On Tuesday, the President urged against the repression of Iranians who want to see more openness, debate and democracy.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I stand strongly with the universal principle that people’s voices should be heard and not suppressed.

AMY GOODMAN: Over a hundred university professors have reportedly resigned in protest over the deaths of students. And Iran’s leading dissident cleric, Ayatollah Hossain Ali Montazeri, also called for three days of mourning for the dead. His public letter on the election reads, quote, “No one in his sane mind can accept these results.”

Meanwhile, the Supreme Leader met with representatives of all four presidential candidates and called for national unity but didn’t address the question of a new election.

As Western European leaders continued to voice concern over the election and the ensuing violence, conservative parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani rejected international concern over the elections.

    ALI LARIJANI: [translated] In the current circumstances, all the nations have hastily come to a conclusion and taken a stance on recent events and have been trying to present a different picture. Americans had better not worry about Iran and its election. Today, you need to be worried about how to clear your political and security scandals of the past in the region.

AMY GOODMAN: For analysis on what’s happening in Iran, we’re now joined in our firehouse studio by Arang Keshavarzian, who has just returned from Iran, where he spent the last three weeks following the election campaign and its immediate aftermath.

Arang Keshavarzian is associate professor at the Department of Middle Eastern Studies and Islamic Studies at New York University and on the Editorial Committee of MERIP, the Middle East Research and Information Project, where he helped edit the Spring 2009 special issue called "The Iranian Revolution at 30." He is also author of Bazaar and State in Iran: The Politics of the Tehran Marketplace.

Welcome to Democracy Now! You’ve just come back. Your assessment of what’s happened and the results of the election?

ARANG KESHAVARZIAN: Yes. Thank you for having me, Amy.

Yes, I mean, it’s obviously a tumultuous few days, but what I want to stress is that these events that we’ve witnessed the last few days have really been built on the basis of a lot of political activism and political events of the previous two, three weeks. So let me just, you know, move back slightly, give us a larger — move the lens back to these earlier events, which seem to have gotten lost while everyone has been focusing on the protests and demonstrations the last two, three days.

In the buildup to the election, in my opinion, two important events happened. One was these nationally televised debates that, in my opinion, exposed the deep cleavages and conflicts amongst the establishment, the political establishment. And second, during the two weeks before the elections, the Mousavi campaign really illustrated that it was able to mobilize the enthusiastic support for the reformist agenda.

Let me elaborate on both of those points. In terms of these nationalized debates, this was an unprecedented event, where, for the first time in Iran, you had all the candidates debating one another. And in these debates, both sides really, you know, quite bluntly expressed their views and criticisms of one another. The opponents of Ahmadinejad — Mousavi, Karroubi and Rezaie, the three opposing candidates — criticized his performance, criticized his policies, economic, social and in terms of foreign policy. While Ahmadinejad defended his performance, in particular he named names of people that he thought, he believes, are behind the high levels of corruption in Iran over the past thirty years, so very high officials of the Islamic Republic, such as Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former speaker of the parliament Nateq-Nouri, for instance. So, for the first time, Iranians witnessed the establishment not in consort, but in fact in deep debate. I feel that this, in a sense, has emboldened some of the Iranians over this past three, four days, because they realize that just amongst the establishment there’s a lot of dissent.

The second point I wanted to make is that the campaign, the Mousavi campaign — and, it should be said also, the Karroubi campaign — really illustrated that it had a well-organized, well-funded, it seems like, as well, set of personnel who organized peaceful, enthusiastic, energetic rallies and events in Tehran and all the major cities, such as Mashhad and Esfahan, throughout the week before the election. I think this illustrated to ordinary Iranians that Mousavi was a viable candidate. When I arrived in Tehran in late May, most observers, including myself, didn’t imagine that Ahmadinejad would be defeated. As time went by and we get closer to Friday’s election, more and more people began to imagine the possibility that Mousavi would win. On the flipside of that, I fear, I wonder, that Ahmadinejad and his inner circle saw this quite public display of support for Mousavi as a threat, and this may have contributed to their response to the election results, and their quite harsh response, in that sense.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Let me ask you about the — obviously the big question of all the allegations of fraud. And while there has been no direct proof at this point, there are questions. For instance, Karroubi, in his hometown, got about four-and-a-half million votes in the last election but only 500,000, supposedly, in this election, which would definitely raise questions, especially if you are saying that he had such an energetic and well-organized campaign.

ARANG KESHAVARZIAN: Absolutely. I mean, some of the election results are problematic. The one you referred to, Karroubi’s, is significant. He won four-and-a-half million votes in four years ago, and now, as he himself put it, he ended up fifth out of a list of four candidates. He had fewer votes than the spoiled ballots, which seems quite odd. And in his hometown, he was, in fact, defeated. So there were a number of — the results exposed the irregularities.

But I want to stress that, for many Iranians, it’s not simply about whether — who won and who lost this debate, but it’s about the basic procedures and laws related to the election that were violated. So, let me give you a couple examples to illustrate that. Before the election, people pointed to the fact that there were, if I’m not mistaken, about 14,000 mobile polling booths. These are polling booths that were designed to move around different areas. And people wondered why so many mobile polling booths were needed. Obviously, this makes it difficult for election monitors to follow them to observe who exactly is voting. So that was a suspicious kind of issue. A second fact, issue, that people discussed before the election was that a large number of ballots, an extra number of ballots, were printed, more than that was necessary. People wondered why so many ballots were printed.

On the night of the election, Friday, Friday evening, two events really came to the fore. One was Mousavi’s election headquarters, and one of his main election headquarters was ransacked. And then, secondly, typically in Iran the election results take quite a while to be calculated, tabulated and so forth. But the results came out extremely quickly. This shocked many Iranians that I talked to on — for instance, on Saturday morning, that how quickly these results were tallied. I even talked to a couple people who told me they voted for Ahmadinejad, for instance, who also wondered, that they, you know, questioned the actual procedures that were followed. And finally, maybe the most important part, is that the representatives of Karroubi and Mousavi were not allowed in the room that actually tabulated these final results. They were kicked out of the room.

AMY GOODMAN: And the comments of people like Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, their piece called “Ahmadinejad Won. Get Over It.” And they’re saying, “Without any evidence, many US politicians and ‘Iran experts’ have dismissed...Ahmadinejad’s reelection [on] Friday. [...] They ignore the fact that [his] 62.6 percent of the vote in this year’s election is essentially the same as” the one he received in 2005, when he “trounced” Rafsanjani. “The shock of the ‘Iran experts’ over [the] results is entirely self-generated, based on their preferred assumptions and wishful thinking.”

ARANG KESHAVARZIAN: Yeah, I’m slightly — I’m familiar with this article. I find it based on some very problematic assumptions — one, that nothing has changed in Iran over the last four years. So, just because in 2005 these election results were similar, this is, I think a very problematic assumption. What I was trying to point out earlier is this election campaign was quite unique. For the first time, both, not only the incumbent, but also the opposition candidates, demonstrated a willingness and ability to mobilize support across various social lines, cleavages, class lines, and so forth.

AMY GOODMAN: And the deaths? We just have fifteen seconds.

ARANG KESHAVARZIAN: And the...?

AMY GOODMAN: Deaths, the killings.

ARANG KESHAVARZIAN: Yeah. Obviously, I’ve heard many reports, and it’s quite — the brutality of this has added to the fuel of the anger of many ordinary Iranians towards the handling of this election. So, as the brutality increases, and more and more Iranians suffer, especially students, but also just ordinary Iranians.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the protests will increase?

ARANG KESHAVARZIAN: I’ve been impressed with Mousavi’s campaign of, you know, steadily upping the ante. I fear that it will come to a screeching halt, but so far Mousavi’s campaign has worked very hard to continue the pressure.

AMY GOODMAN: Arang Keshavarzian, I want to thank you very much for being with us, of New York University and the Editorial Committee of the Middle East Research and Information Project, MERIP.

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