Iranian American independent filmmaker and journalist and a part of the Big Noise Film collective. He has filed several reports from Iran over the past four years for Al Jazeera English, Press TV and Current TV.
Iran’s powerful Guardian Council has admitted that voting irregularities took place in at least fifty cities and that the number of votes cast exceeded the number of voters by a difference of as many as three million ballots. This comes as reformist presidential hopeful Mir Hossein Mousavi has called for another round of big street protests after a brutal crackdown this weekend. We speak to Iranian American independent filmmaker and journalist Kouross Esmaeli. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: Iran’s powerful Guardian Council has admitted that voting irregularities took place in at least fifty cities and that the number of votes cast exceeded the number of voters by a difference of as many as three million ballots. But the head of the Guardian Council also insisted the discrepancies were not against Iranian law and countered charges that similar irregularities had occurred in 170 voting districts.
Meanwhile, Iran’s Foreign Ministry has accused Western governments of undermining Iran’s stability by backing protesters.
Reformist presidential hopeful Mir Hossein Mousavi has called for another round of big street protests after a brutal crackdown this weekend. Iranian state media reports that between ten and nineteen people were killed in clashes Saturday. One of those killed was an unarmed young woman named Neda Sultan, who was reportedly watching the protests with her father when she was shot by a member of the Basij. Graphic video of her death is circulating over the internet, and authorities have reportedly canceled memorial services for her at a mosque.
AMY GOODMAN: Iranian state radio reports 457 people were arrested on Saturday. According to Reporters Without Borders, some two dozen journalists and bloggers have been arrested since the protests began over a week ago, including, most recently, Newsweek reporter and filmmaker Maziar Bahari, a Canadian citizen.
This weekend’s clashes with security forces followed the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s stark warning Friday that demonstrators would face consequences if they continued to protest election results.
AYATOLLAH ALI KHAMENEI: [translated] Struggling on the streets after elections is not acceptable. It diminishes the electoral process and democracy. I call on all sides to put a stop to such actions. These are not correct actions. If they do not stop these actions, then any consequences will be their responsibility.
AMY GOODMAN: For more on the situation in Iran, we’re joined here in our firehouse studio by Kouross Esmaeli. He is an Iranian American independent filmmaker and journalist and a part of the Big Noise Film collective. He has filed several reports from Iran over the last years for Al Jazeera English, Press TV and Current TV.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
KOUROSS ESMAELI: Good to be here, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the latest developments over the weekend.
KOUROSS ESMAELI: Well, the most important development over the weekend was, of course, the Supreme Leader’s Friday sermon, where he came down quite hard on the demonstrators and on the — and the reform movement that he said — that he claimed was going to be held responsible, if these disturbances continue. And he came down quite starkly, as well, for the election results, claiming that even if there were some discrepancies, as is natural in any election, the elections overall were fair, and they were proof of the Islam Republic’s continued quest for democracy and people’s sovereignty.
And that resulted in huge clashes on Saturday. People were not convinced by his words whatsoever. And the presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, in a response to the Friday sermon, encouraged people to continue to fight for their right to have free and fair elections. Saturday saw the highest number of casualties. By some numbers, it was called ten by the official news agencies, and some people have put a number at fifty. That’s as high as I’ve seen be reported.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, but in terms of the street protests, they don’t appear to be as massive as they were in the early days, right? A lot of it now is — are street battles that are occurring between protesters and either security forces or the Basij. Is there any sense that there will be more huge protests coming up this week?
KOUROSS ESMAELI: Well, on Saturday, the reason why the protests were not huge is because the security forces did a very good job of dividing the people who were trying to gather together at the Revolution Square, which is the place where usually these demonstrations happen. So it was an effective use of the military and the paramilitary forces that divided the crowds, and it dwindled into a riot situation.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the killings.
KOUROSS ESMAELI: Well, the killings — the official news agencies have said that at least seven were killed on that day. And the word is that the majority of the killing is being done by the Basij, by the paramilitary group that is un-uniformed and that has been within the Islamic Republic ever since the days of the Iran-Iraq War in the early ’80s.
By my accounts and by people who I’ve spoken to in the streets, the way that the killings have happened have been through knives, largely, which means basically that the Basij, which has lost its arms —- in a few years ago, they asked the Basij to turn in their guns. So people know that the Basij carry knives and other form of ammunition with them. And that is the way the majority of the killings have happened.
The most famous killing, the killing that has become most sort of renown across the world, has been with Neda Sultan, who was killed by a sniper. And that could very well have been a Basij who had not turned in his guns, or it could have been done by -—
AMY GOODMAN: This is the young woman.
KOUROSS ESMAELI: The young woman, who we showed.
AMY GOODMAN: Who was there with her father watching what was happening.
KOUROSS ESMAELI: Yes, yes. That could very well have been the official — the uniformed military forces in Iran.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, is there any indication — there have been some reports that there may be a rift developing between the regular army forces and the Basij or the other paramilitaries.
KOUROSS ESMAELI: From what I — there are rumors, and none of those have been confirmed, and no one that I’ve talked to has said that.
During the demonstrations the past week, there were instances where the demonstrators, who had done a very good job of protecting the police, they would disarm the police when they were — the police would come to attack them, but they would protect them. And there was an affinity that the crowd quickly made with the police. And there were stories that the police and the uniformed military was, at certain points, protecting the demonstrators from the un-uniformed or the Basij forces that might have attacked them. So, that did happen, and there were eyewitnesses that I’ve spoke to that actually saw that.
As far as a formal rift within the military, that has not been talked about yet. The formal rift right now is coming down within the leadership of the Islamic Republic. The way that the Supreme Leader has called for calm and called for everyone to accept the results of the elections has not been accepted by the leaders of the reform movement, and they continue to lobby within each other and to speak out openly about the elections not being fair and basically defying the Supreme Leader’s call for accepting the results.
AMY GOODMAN: What about this, the Guardian Council saying for the first time there may have been irregularities in the voting count?
KOUROSS ESMAELI: Well, I think what’s going to happen in the following weeks, the Guardian Council and the leadership of the Islamic Republic is going to put out more and more numbers, that that’s going — that they’re going to try to calm down the protesters, to say, “Yes, we see that there were problems. We’re going to look into them. Just please, let’s all look at this within a legal framework.”
Ali Larijani, who’s the head of the Parliament, who’s one of the most senior conservative politicians in Iran, he had a very important interview with state television yesterday in which he basically criticized the Guardian Council for seeming as if they’re supporting one candidate over another. And criticizing the Guardian Council is next to criticizing the Supreme Leader for siding with the one of the candidates against the other. So this came out openly on Iranian television. And so, there are these voices that are trying to bring calm and sanity and trying to be critical from all sides at this point. And there’s reports right now from the parliamentary website for — that Larijani is trying to get an interview with Mousavi himself on national Iranian television.
AMY GOODMAN: Kouross, we’re going to break. When we come back, we want to play for you what Obama said over the weekend, what the President said, the right-wing criticism of him that he should be acting more, the arrest of Rafsanjani’s daughter, very significant, and more. This is Democracy Now!
We’re speaking with Kouross Esmaeli. He is an Iranian American independent filmmaker. Stay with us.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you about the statement — President Obama is now under fire from the right for not speaking out more forcefully on behalf of the Iranian protesters. He responded to this charge in an interview on CBS News Friday.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The last thing that I want to do is to have the United States be a foil for those forces inside Iran who would love nothing better than to make this an argument about the United States. That’s what they do. That’s what we’re already seeing. We shouldn’t be playing into that. There should be no distractions from the fact that the Iranian people are seeking to let their voices be heard. What we can do is bear witness and say to the world that the incredible demonstrations that we’ve seen is a testimony to, I think, what Dr. King called the “arc of the moral universe.” It’s long, but it bends towards justice.
JUAN GONZALEZ: That was President Obama on Sunday. Kouross Esmaeli, Iranian American journalist and filmmaker, your response to the criticism of President Obama from the right, in terms of his inaction on the issue of the election in Iran?
KOUROSS ESMAELI: What is interesting about the criticisms that are coming from the right is that it’s been coming primarily from Senator John McCain. The Iranians know Senator John McCain as the man who sang "Bomb, bomb Iran" during the elections of last year. The man holds no credibility as far as supporting Iranians or seeming like he’s got the best interests of the Iranians at heart. And that, for Iranians and for this issue, that discredits him altogether and discredits this whole attack on President Obama.
President Obama’s stand, I think, has been the most sensible, and it’s amazing that the President of the United States is taking such a sensible stand. And that — everyone I’ve talked to in Iran has said the same thing, that we do not need any symbol of Western, especially American, interference in Iran’s internal politics. And the fact that America does not have diplomatic relations with Iran really ties its hand, as far as how far he can go in really supporting Iran. So the only thing they can do is to just scream as loud as they can, which will be immediately used by the Iranian authorities.
AMY GOODMAN: Kouross Esmaeli, give us a brief history lesson. Talk about why especially the sensitivity to the United States interfering with Iran.
KOUROSS ESMAELI: The Western presence in Iran has been there for about 200 years, from the British and the Russian, who took parts of Iran under control up to World War II. And after World War II, it was the US that stepped in and started supporting the Shah of Iran as their favorite dictator in the Middle East. There was a coup d’état against a popularly elected prime minister that had come in to nationalize Iranian oil. And that has really remained within the Iranian consciousness ever since, ever since 1953, and Iranians harbor deep mistrust for the US, that was seen as orchestrating a coup against their popularly elected leadership. And in 1979, when the Islamic Revolution took place, the biggest sort of fear of the Iranian people was a repeat of the coup d’état. And that’s why the — that’s a large reason why the hostage crisis took place. They took hostages to make sure that the US does not come in, invade, orchestrate another coup again. And that has remained the dynamic within the Iran-US relations: mistrust on both sides.
And at this point that the US does not have diplomatic relations, it really makes no sense for any administration to get political points for seeming like they’re standing up with some demonstrators somewhere in order to score points with their constituents here. Over the weekend — and what’s amazing is the way the media in the US has been really helping spin this for the Republican right wing. I mean, there were images on CNN and Fox over the weekend of President Obama, I think, buying ice cream for his daughters while the demonstrators in Iran were fighting for their democracy. And they were likening that to President Bush when he was playing golf right after he invaded Iraq and equating the two. It was like, how heartless could Obama be, when he could be — I don’t know what he could be doing in order to support Iranians. I think he did the best thing he could do in order to support the Iranians.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you, in terms of the Iranian Revolution, one of the key figures in the early days of that revolution was Rafsanjani, and now the current government has detained some of his relatives. Can you talk about his role right now in Iran and in the crisis?
KOUROSS ESMAELI: Rafsanjani has held many positions inside Iran. Today, he holds — he’s the leader of two very important councils: the councils that oversee the relationship between the Parliament and the President and the council that oversees the election of the next Supreme Leader. So he holds very, very important positions. And he openly supported Mir Hossein Mousavi in these previous elections.
His family was arrested yesterday, and they were all — they were freed. They were all freed. And at this point, it seems like, in some of the reports in the Western media, that there’s going to be an open rift in which the different leaders inside the country are going to start killing each other or jailing each other — has really not happened. They’ve been able to voice their dissatisfaction with each other. Rafsanjani has been lobbying in Qom, in the holy city of Qom, where the majority of the clerics live. And he’s — and there’s back channels going on that we don’t really know about. But as far as we know right now is that there are disagreements. They’re more and more coming to the fore. They’re being reflected on Iranian television.
And disagreements — and the leaders of these — to disagreements can be said to be the Supreme Leader on one side, who supports Ahmadinejad, who supports the elections as they stand, and Rafsanjani, who supports Mousavi, who’s seen by many Iranians as being behind Mousavi, but at the same time as being the most powerful — the richest man in Iran. There’s a lot of resentment towards Rafsanjani at some point. And one of the ways that President Ahmadinejad was — used — got reelected, purportedly, is that he used some of the sentiment against Rafsanjani, some of the popular sentiment against Rafsanjani as the richest, most corrupt man in Iran, to get votes.
AMY GOODMAN: Now let’s talk a little about Mousavi, the opposition leader, who he was. He was already the leader of Iran. Talk about his significance at that time, what he represents, if he would represent something different. And, of course, that’s different after the protests than if he was just elected straight out.
KOUROSS ESMAELI: Sure. Hossein Mousavi was the prime minister of Iran during the very important periods of the Iran-Iraq War. And he was seen by many to have led internally the country in a way that he protected people’s interests at a time of war. And he’s very popular for that reason. He instituted all forms of social service networks. The welfare state, in many ways, that Iran has today, he’s credited for it.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And it was a war during which the American administration at the time backed Iraq.
KOUROSS ESMAELI: Absolutely. It was a popular war. Iranians thought it was a war that people supported inside Iran, that was seen as “we are fighting against imperialism that wants to overthrow our regime.” And Mir Hossein Mousavi was the head of the state at that time.
He went out of politics after the end of the war. After ’89, he stepped out, and he continued to be heads of various organizations inside Iran. He’s an artist. He’s an architect. And he still carried out his personal life, until this year. He had been talked about running in the previous couple of elections, but he never did. And he was tapped to run again, and many think that it was Rafsanjani who tapped him, understanding that he’s popular, that because he’s been outside of Iranian politics, he’s unsullied by the past twenty years of corruption.
AMY GOODMAN: Although he was also repressive during his time.
KOUROSS ESMAELI: At the end of his term, when the war ended, there was a bout of killings, where as much as 5,000 dissidents, who had been in jail, were killed. And he was the prime minister when that happened, so he was responsible for that. And one of the questions that did come up in these elections, people did ask him formally that “Do you apologized for doing that?” So this, again, was aired, and this issue was aired and was talked about during the elections.
AMY GOODMAN: And what did he say?
KOUROSS ESMAELI: He didn’t answer the question, as far as I know. He did not come out and take a stand on that. He did — I mean, what distinguished him in these elections, I think, was very much his willingness to talk about various issues that other people did not want to talk about. The question of personal freedoms in the street, he talked about, you know, “If I’m elected president, I will do away with the morality police. I will do away with controlling people’s lives, and I will respect people’s private lives,” which is a very, very important grievance that people have towards the way the Islamic Republic is run right now. And his wife also was credited for talking about how, you know, she believes that women should have a choice whether they should veil or not. These are very important social issues that they took on, that there’s a wide layer of Iranians who would support something like that.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And that particular point you mentioned, it’s been remarked quite often in these protests in the past few days, the high participation level of women in the protests.
KOUROSS ESMAELI: Mm-hmm.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Is that, in that sense, a reflection of Mousavi seen as a candidate that will provide more opportunities for women to participate in everyday life?
KOUROSS ESMAELI: Well, I think Mousavi’s stand on the question of women and personal freedoms is a reflection of how Iranian society has changed, the role that the women have been playing. The women were given a huge credit for the election of Khatami, of President Khatami, twelve years ago. So women have been participating more and more, and I think what the regime is realizing is that you cannot hold back this tide of — society has come to accept the public role of women and the women’s right to participate within any realm of society. And that brings up the issue of women’s personal choices, as well. So I think Mousavi rode that wave, rather than the other way around.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you, Kouross for being with us. Kouross Esmaeli is an Iranian American independent filmmaker and journalist, part of the Big Noise Film collective, has done a number of reports on Iran over the years.