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“Iran, the Green Movement and the USA”: Hamid Dabashi on the Future of the Iranian Pro-Democracy Movement

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Iranian protesters returned to the streets on Sunday to mark the deaths of two men killed during demonstrations last week. Police used batons and tear gas to break up the protests. Among those detained were Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. “On one hand, the Iranian authorities are expressing solidarity with the democratic movement in Tunisia and Egypt and throughout the region,” says Columbia University Professor Hamid Dabashi. “Then deny that very principle to their own people.” [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, anti-government protesters gathered in different parts of Iran to mark the deaths of two men killed during demonstrations last Monday. For the second time in a week, supporters of the opposition Green Movement clashed with security forces in the capital Tehran and elsewhere. According to witnesses, in some places police officers and baton-holding mercenaries outnumbered the protesters.

Also on Sunday, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, accused Iran of “exploiting” the current political unrest in the Arab world. He emphasized the Israeli government’s concern over a plan to send two Iranian warships into the eastern Mediterranean.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NEYANYAHU: [translated] I think that today we can see in what an unstable region we live, a region in which Iran is trying to take advantage of the situation and broaden its influence by transferring two warships via the Suez Canal. Israel views this Iranian step with gravity.

AMY GOODMAN: To discuss the situation in Iran and the region, we’re here with Professor Hamid Dabashi from Columbia University. His most recent book, Iran, the Green Revolution and the USA. Also he has written the book called Shi’ism.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

HAMID DABASHI: Thanks, Amy. Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you. Tell us what’s happening. What do you understand took place in Iran over the weekend?

HAMID DABASHI: I think, beginning with the 14th of February, in solidarity with the revolutions in Tunisia and in Egypt, we have entered a new phase of the Green Movement. The Green Movement went through at least two phases. The first phase was the phase of mass street demonstrations, began back in June of 2009 and continued all the way ’til to the February of 2010. The second phase is when Mousavi began to write a series of documents culminating in a charter of the Green Movement, which are extraordinary documents in the history of democratic movements in Iran. But in the aftermath of this massive, massive democracy movements from — in North Africa to Afghanistan, in fact, these events galvanized the Green Movement in Iran. And as a result, we have entered a new phase.

There are two aspects to be noticed in this new phase. Number one, the Green Movement has initiated its own calendar, that its 14th of February coincides with nothing, that is simply in solidarity with the revolutions in Tunisia and in Cairo, in Egypt, and in the course of which two young demonstrators were killed by security forces, their corpses were stolen, their identities were falsified, and they were pretended to be part of the Basij organization.

But on the seventh-day anniversary of the death of these two young demonstrators, again the Green Movement called for a demonstration, but this time around, because the entirety of the major highways and major streets and major squares of the cities were occupied by the military — in fact, the entire country was turned into a garrison — the demonstrators opted to do their work in specific neighborhoods. And also remember, the galvanizing force of Al Jazeera in the case of Tahrir Square in Cairo, Al Jazeera does not have that kind of a presence in Iran. As a result, what the kids were doing, they gathered in a specific neighborhood, and with their mobile phone, they shot 30 seconds to a minute and a half of demonstrations, send it to YouTube, and as a result asserted their presence.

AMY GOODMAN: And the response of the Iranian government?

HAMID DABASHI: The response has been not only massively a massive crackdown, but also hypocrisy, because, on one hand, Iranian authorities are expressing solidarities with the democratic movement in Tunisia and Egypt and throughout the region, and then they deny that very principle to their own people. So, with one move, the Green Movement has in fact achieved two ends: it reasserted itself in public space and forced the empty hand of the Islamic republic in terms of its rhetoric for democratic changes in the region.

AMY GOODMAN: You wrote a book about the Green Revolution, the whole Green Movement. But you thought it was dead in the last year.

HAMID DABASHI: Well, no, I never thought it was dead. I thought it was a standstill, because what we have is the power of Islamic Republic in the region, not because of how smart they are, but because of the horrors of the Bush administration and the war in Afghanistan, war in Iraq. And as a result, the Islamic Republic had emerged as a very powerful broker, for peace broker. President Obama could do nothing in Afghanistan without the help of Islamic Republic. The same in Iraq. So, while Islamic Republic was very weak domestically inside Iran — and whatever it did, it strengthened the Green Movement — in the region, it was in a negotiating position. If President Obama wanted to deliver on his promise to come out of Iraq, it needed the support of the Islamic Republic, particularly with the Shia community in the south. That standstill has actually now changed to the benefit of the Green Movement because of the democratic uprising in the region.

AMY GOODMAN: And on the one hand, you had the president, Ahmadinejad, congratulating the protesters in Egypt and then cracking down on his own.

HAMID DABASHI: Of course. That’s the hypocrisy of it. The minute that the Egyptian revolution was happening, Mr. Khamenei sent a message to Egyptians actually in Arabic congratulating them for Islamic revolution that they were about to have. Within minutes, the website of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt issued in a statement that this is not an Islamic revolution, this is an Egyptian revolution, for Egyptian Muslims, Christians and any other person. So the rise of democratic revolutions in the region is exposing the hypocrisy of the Islamic Republic.

AMY GOODMAN: Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, accused Iran of exploiting the current political unrest in the Arab world, highlighting his government’s concern over a plan to send two Iranian warships into the eastern Mediterranean. Talk about that.

HAMID DABASHI: First of all, it’s not unrest. Mr. Netanyahu should recognize this is a democracy movement. This is a massive revolutionary uprising for democracy. Mr. Netanyahu is used to dealing with Arab dictators, so when he sees democratic uprising, he calls it “unrest.” Number two, in my judgment, those who are very wary of what is happening in the Arab and Muslim world are United States, Israel and Islamic Republic, because they have entered into a old, tiring politics of despair, and they cannot tolerate the rise of democratic movements in the region. The sending of two warships through the Suez Canal —

AMY GOODMAN: First time since 1979.

HAMID DABASHI: Since 1979 — is an attempt by Islamic Republic to divert attention from the democratic movement, both inside Iran and in the region. And lo and behold, Israel, that doesn’t like these democratic movements either and calls them unrest, responds immediately. I would put that exactly next to the Obama’s administration’s obscene vetoing of this U.N. Security Council draft resolution against the expansion of settlements in Palestine, precisely because these three acts of the Islamic Republic, Israel continuing its expansion into Palestine, and United States, they are trying to pull back the politics of the region into the politics of despair, because what they are witnessing, they don’t like.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Dabashi, you have a very quick response on the part of the United States against the Iranian government for cracking down on the protesters. President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, not as quick a response when Bahrain attacked the protesters there, the home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, though eventually Obama did call. Talk about that.

HAMID DABASHI: It’s hypocrisy.

AMY GOODMAN: And Libya, as well.

HAMID DABASHI: It’s absolute hypocrisy, Amy. In fact, every time American administrations, neoconservatives, even President Obama’s administration, comes near the Green Movement, supporting it and so forth, it discredits it. And the Green Movement has actually restored its dignity by coming close to the Egyptian and Tunisian revolution. So the best thing that Obama administration can do for the Green Movement, please, don’t come near it, because the hypocrisy is so palpable that the young Tunisian who set himself on fire, in desperation because of this neoliberal economics that Ben Ali was known for, the State Department even didn’t know, let alone express solidarity with the Tunisian people. President Obama did not come to even address the issues of masses of millions of Egyptians in Tahrir Square until Mubarak was about to leave. The hypocrisy is what is exposed here. And as a result, the best thing that Mr. Obama and Secretary Clinton can do for the Green Movement, don’t come close to it. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Your latest book that’s just come out is on Shiism. What role does Shiism play in what’s being called this Arab Spring?

HAMID DABASHI: Shiism, I — the way I read it is a religion of protest, and it never belongs to people who are in power. The Islamic Republic came to power back in 1979 by banking on the revolutionary aspect of Shiism, but it is a paradox within Shiism that as soon as it is in power it loses legitimacy. And that legitimacy is now cast into people, young people in the streets, fighting against the Islamic Republic. I don’t see what is happening in the region as Sunni-Shia bifurcation at all. In fact, I see it as the retrieval of a cosmopolitan political culture that includes Islam, Sunnism and Shiism both, but is not reducible to it.

AMY GOODMAN: What do think is going to happen in Iran right now? I mean, this was not predicted, of course.

HAMID DABASHI: As I have always said, Amy, anything that the Islamic Republic does will strengthen the Green Movement, is a paradox of it. If it cracks down, it will be strengthened. If it allows it to unfold, it will strengthen it. Right now, as of yesterday, Mousavi is not only under house arrest; in fact, they have just built a metal gate in the cul de sac that leads to his house. And with that —

AMY GOODMAN: And explain more who he is, Mousavi.

HAMID DABASHI: Mr. Mousavi was the eight-year prime minister under Khomeini during the Iran-Iraq War, a very — one of the founding members of the Islamic Republic. And then, after those eight years, he went into seclusion. He’s a painter. He’s very much interested in art and so forth. His wife had a more public role, Ms. Zahra Rahnavard, as the chancellor of the university. And then, during the last presidential election in 2009, he re-entered politics with a very clear message, that this revolution has gone wrong, and we need to retrieve its ideals and aspirations. And there is a sizable Iranians who believe that he actually won the election, but the elections were rigged. And in the aftermath of that, we have the rise of the Green Movement.

His incarceration, first of all, before that, there were chants of “Death to Mousavi and Karroubi” from the parliament of the Islamic Republic, the most clear indication of the implosion of the Islamic Republic from within, when you have eight-year prime minister, eight-year president and a former speaker of the house, you’re asking for their head, not in the streets but from inside —

AMY GOODMAN: In the parliament.

HAMID DABASHI: In the parliament itself.

AMY GOODMAN: They were chanting.

HAMID DABASHI: The most visible indication of the collapse, internal implosion, of the Islamic Republic. But now they have even gone further and put him under house arrest. But putting him under house arrest means that, with that very act, the Iranian Mandela is now born, because leading uprisings, leading revolution from inside prison is the best thing that can happen to a political leader.

AMY GOODMAN: And Karroubi?

HAMID DABASHI: Karroubi is very much sort of hand in hand with Mousavi. They coordinate, as much as coordination is possible between two people who are in house arrest. He has his own constituency. He has been a very valiant, courageous — both of them extraordinarily courageous under these circumstances.

But the nature of the leadership of the Green Movement, Amy, is not contingent on one person. It is a rolling kind of leadership that can be inside Iran, outside Iran. Young people in the streets, the new media, YouTube, etc., that is where the revolution is headed, because of demography and economics, two factors that are leading the uprising.

AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, Iranian authorities briefly detained the daughter of the former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the most powerful opposition supporter inside the country’s clerical leadership, Faezeh Hashemi. She was born in 1962. Talk about her and her father.

HAMID DABASHI: I think the sins of parents should not be extended to their children. Hashemi Rafsanjani, as a political operator, in my judgment, has lost credibility in this movement. He plays too much on both sides. But that does not extend to his children, particularly Faezeh Hashemi, his daughter, who has always been an activist of women’s rights, human rights, democratic rights in the streets. And as, of course, she came out and said that “I was just out shopping. I had nothing to do with it,” but the fact the matter is that there is a sizable constituency, particularly among women, who look up to her.

AMY GOODMAN: And they said that she was protesting in the streets, according to IRNA, the news agency.

HAMID DABASHI: Exactly, exactly, exactly, exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: Overall media coverage?

HAMID DABASHI: Media coverage, nowhere near what Al Jazeera did for Egypt or, in fact, doing for North Africa, and — well, partially because there is no presence of global media, CNN and so forth. Reza Sayah, for example, is covering it from Pakistan. But I also believe this is the age of new media and a smaller-scale media — your own work and other similar smaller-scale network that have a global reach because of the internet. And also, the fact is that these young people — 80 percent of the Iranian population is under the age of 40, 70 percent under the age of 35 — they are in charge of representing themselves, by virtue of this, you know, mobile phone that they carry. They feed the YouTube. They are on Facebooks. They generate the sustained pressure not only in cyberspace, but in physical space, and as a result, they are the one that they inform the global media. That’s where they get their ideas. The combination of new media and globalized media is the best thing that can happen. But as I said, they have had to change their strategy, how to mobilize in the streets, in the absence of globalized media.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Dabashi, WikiLeaks, the trove of U.S. government cables that have come out, what have they revealed about the U.S. relationship with Iran?

HAMID DABASHI: Not — I mean, this is generated through about most of the WikiLeaks, not much that we did not know. The fact that United States and Iran have common strategic interest in the region, in the Persian Gulf area, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, is something that we have known forever. The fact that some of the Persian Gulf area potentates, they don’t like the rising power, military and diplomatic power, of Islamic Republic is also something that we have known. So, altogether, I think the ability of the people, the democratic will of the people, to generate and sustain information and globalize it is far more important than secret wheelings and dealings between the powers that be.

AMY GOODMAN: How long is Ahmadinejad’s term?

HAMID DABASHI: Four years. He is now two years into his second term.

AMY GOODMAN: Where do you predict this movement now in the streets could go?

HAMID DABASHI: I think the crisis that the Islamic Republic, the ruling elite of the Islamic Republic, faces is not just who is going to be the next president. We have the globalized discrediting of the Islamic Republic, which now it faces, number one. Number two, the democratic uprising in North Africa has exposed the hypocrisy of the Islamic Republic. So, of course, Islamic Republic for 32 years has managed to stay in power precisely by using and abusing the crisis that comes its way. It is for the first time in its 32 years that it is facing domestic and regional crisis that it cannot manage. So, as a result, every day, the brutal theocratic garrison state that it is becomes more exposed.

HAMID DABASHI: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Professor Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Among his books, Iran, the Green Revolution and the USA, and his latest is called Shi’ism.

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