London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Asharq Al-Awsat talks to Secretary General of the Executives of Construction Party and former Mayor of Tehran, Gholamhossein Karbaschi.
Q) Will the current alliance between the Executives of Construction Party and the “reformists” headed by Mohammed Khatami continue? Or is it a relationship of temporary alliance due to the current circumstances and the desire of the two sides to elect a new president in view of their many reservations on the performance of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad?
A) No; in fact the Executives of Construction considers the reform movement as a part of it. In fact, the Executives of Construction Party is the source from which stemmed the movement for change in Iran since the late 1980s during the presidency of Hashemi-Rafsanjani pertaining to changing the circumstances, involvement in the elections, and bringing in new forces to the parliament. Before becoming independent currents and groups, the majority of the reformist forces in Iran were at first part of the Executives of Construction. The founder of the reformist movement in Iran is the Executives of Construction Party that opposed the conservatives and fielded independent candidates to run in the parliamentary elections. Before that, there were no reformists on the Iranian political landscape. They did not exist on the Iranian political arena. That is why there is no such thing as “us and them”, that is, reformists and pragmatists or Executives of Construction and Khatami’s current. Sometimes, there are more radical people who emerge among the reformists who want to distinguish themselves from the Executives of Construction. However, we are all branches on the same tree. We are all moderate in our thinking and ideologies. We try to inspire and guide with rational thoughts and logical analysis. In the 2008 parliamentary elections, the Executives of Construction rescued the reformists from fragmentation following the alliance between Rafsanjani and Khatami in response to Mehdi Karrubi when he fielded an independent list for his party National Confidence [E’temad-e Melli].
Q) What is the role that Rafsanjani will play in the upcoming presidential elections in Iran?
A) Rafsanjani is the symbol of moderation and rational thinking in Iran. At various times in the life of the Islamic Republic after the revolution, there were hard-line forces amid the conservatives that worked against him. However, some radicals among the reformist current also worked against him. In other words, Rafsanjani fought on two fronts at the same time. This demonstrates his status as the symbol of moderation and rationality. He is always trying to lead Iran towards moderation and rationality. As a result, Rafsanjani is one of the firm forces that stand against the hard-liners and conservatives that now control the executive powers in the country. The clerics and some influential people in the bazaar were not satisfied with him when he removed the billboards advertising the Iraqi-Iranian war, adopted the free market system, and opened up Iran to foreign investments.
Q) How do you recall your experience when you were mayor of Tehran when charges were made against you that led to your stepping down from your post? I heard many people say that when you were the mayor of Tehran, the city was at its best and your popularity was high on the street. What did you do during your years of tenure as the mayor of Tehran that made the conservatives to be so apprehensive about you?
A) What happened is behind us; I am no longer the mayor of Tehran. It is not good for the future to think about mistakes that were made in the past. At any rate, the reformists were popular on the Iranian street due to the general public mood that prevailed after Khatami was elected. The feeling was that the reformist movement was crystallizing and is emerging and it will bring many changes to Iran. Add to this the way we managed the municipality of Tehran. We created many job opportunities and we conducted the affairs of Tehran and of the country in a moderate and rational way. For instance, the construction, the way we managed public affairs, privatization, and the work of institutions. However, we also had opponents and critics to our approach. It is natural to have competition between the reformists and conservatives. At any rate, the ideas for modernization began to change even the conservatives. Take for example the press. Hamshari, our newspaper in the Tehran municipality, was the first modern newspaper to be printed in color in Tehran. The people used to ask us why do you insist on publishing a newspaper in color? Why do you publish it in the morning? All the traditional newspapers in Iran are published in the evening. Gradually, those that criticized for publishing in color and in the morning began to do the same thing. In fact, some of these newspapers used the same size as our Hamshari.
Q) It is often figuratively said that you are a “kingmaker” in Iran. You operate behind the scenes to project reformist faces to participate in the parliamentary and presidential elections because you cannot run in the elections due to the ban against you. But this ban will be lifted this year. Are you interested in running in the upcoming presidential elections?
A) Beside the personal angle on whether I wish or do not wish to run in the presidential elections, my personal opinion is that the president should be a symbol for national unity. The president should attract the interest of the broadest sector of the people. There are radical nominees in the reformist current that may win many votes from the reformists if they decide to run. The problem, however, is that they will have fierce opponents too amid the radical conservatives. Thus, they will not have a good chance of becoming presidents and if they do win the presidency they will face problems. The president should be the president of all the Iranian people. If the president is elected from a particular party or a specific political current the opposing party should accept him. The problem with Ahmadinejad is that there are groups, especially among the educated and the non-conservatives that are against him and against his ideas and behavior. I believe that based on all standards, he has not largely succeeded in attracting the hearts and minds of the Iranians. To a certain extent, we expressed our objections and we criticized Ahmadinejad and we have reasons for this. However, I personally am not qualified to be the president of Iran. The president should be the symbol of national unity and I know that some conservatives cannot bear the idea of me being president.
Q) Is it true that the traditional bazaar and the clerics no longer control the decision-making process in Iran? Is it true that there is a new elite class of businessmen and militarists that are beginning to have broader say and powers in the decision-making process?
A) Regarding the structure of authority, when a state turns towards the industrial stage, the sources of the traditional power and the influential classes, such as the traditional bazaar, automatically weaken and lose their influence. This happens automatically. It is also natural for the traditional economic infrastructure to change. The Executives of Construction Party that we founded with Rafsanjani emerged and rose on the basis of an industrialization economy, market economy, and privatization. We also call for industrial modernization. The traditional bazaar, however, calls for the promotion of traditional commerce only. The Executives of Construction movement was among the first that called for an economy based on industrialization rather than the traditional commercial exchange. It thus gained a popular base amid the middle calls and the technocrats. The traditional economy or the bazaar in its traditional form that is backed by the conservatives is popular among the traditional circles. Moreover, the Executives of Construction movement is not a reformist movement only in the economic field. It is a reformist movement in the ideological sense as well. As we have said, we are a democratic, Islamic, liberal party. That is why in any free elections the traditional bazaar will not vote for candidates that support a modern industrial economy. At the same time, however, Iran is undergoing changes. The new political class that supports a modern economy will hold the future in its hands.
Q) Do the recent developments in Iran reflect the weakness of the reformists or an increase in the influence of the conservatives?
A) The problem is not who is weaker and who is stronger in Iran. In the parliamentary elections last year, the conservatives were in control of the Interior Ministry and the Guardian Council. They succeeded in dissuading the people from going to the polling stations in large numbers. We reformists said that if the voter turnout is less than 60 per cent, not many reformists will reach the parliament. Nevertheless and although we did not have a real chance because reformists were not allowed to run and the voter turnout was low, the united front of conservatives headed by Ahmadinejad did not win the number of parliament seats it expected to win in the elections. As for the reformists camp, we did not have candidates in many Iranian cities; we had no more than 100 candidates in all of Iran. Nevertheless, many people voted for us and for the independents. In general, we are not the enemies of Ahmadinejad’s team or of him personally. We oppose his policies. Our problems are not with the persons but with the policies.
Q) Do you think that the relative successes that the reformists made in the last parliamentary elections can be counted upon in the presidential elections?
A) The reformists in Iran are suffering a lot of pressure. In the parliamentary elections in 2008, there were many practices against us, for instance, we were excluded from running. The official media outlets were fiercely against us. (For instance, the Keyhan newspaper accused Mohammad Reza Khatami, [former President] Khatami’s brother, of treason because they gave press interviews to foreign channels during the elections. I am confident that the number of Iranians leaning towards the conservatives is decreasing. What the conservatives really have at present is the support they get due to the current situation in Iran. The conservatives cannot really gain more than 25 per cent or 30 per cent of the votes in any free election. The ability of the reformists in overcoming the pressures on them depends on future circumstances. The media outlets, parliament, and the judicial authority support the conservatives but the people no longer support them. Our victory in the elections depends on the participation of the people in the elections and on US policy on Iran. The Americans are opposed to the reformists to gain power in Iran because such a victory would rob the United States of the excuse to make propaganda against Iran. We reformists in general cooperate with the outside world and our behavior is moderate. Thus, the Americans cannot use propaganda against us. The Americans prefer that the conservatives remain in power in Iran. We saw how in recent years, the United States voted for three times for sanctions against Iran. Thus, Washington really prefers the conservatives over the reformists because they provide it with the means to put more pressure on Iran. In the past 16 years during the terms of Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami we did not face such measures or sanctions. Perhaps outwardly, the Americans say that they support the reformists but the truth is otherwise. The idea that there is a connection between the conservatives reaching power in Iran and in the United States is correct in general. Conservatives in the White House impacts directly or indirectly on Iran. It paves the way for the conservatives to rule in Iran as well. But is it correct to say that US policy on Iran will change under a person like George W. Bush or like Barack Obama? We are not sure.
Q) What is the status of the press in Iran these days?
A) The press in Iran is not in a good condition as far as quality is concerned. The newspapers in Iran these days are either government outlets that rely on state funding or funding from the ruling regime or conservative newspapers that follow the conservative current or what we may call the yellow press. The yellow press does not care about politics. They report on accidents and subjects related to the arts. As for the committed political newspapers, they are facing a lot of harassment and pressure by the authorities. With the exception of two or three newspapers, the reformists do not have a real newspaper that speaks for them. The newspapers that are considered reformist always receive warnings and observations from the authorities. This is the situation of the reformist press, including the Executives of Construction. Our newspaper is not in a good state. We cannot expand and our distribution is low. There are also restrictions on what we write. However, we will continue our work until the current conditions change.