Tehran, Asharq Al-Awsat – In this interview, Asharq Al-Awsat speaks to Ebrahim Yazdi, head of Iran’s banned Freedom Movement, in the aftermath of Iran’s presidential elections.
Shortly after this interview, Yazdi was detained by security agents whilst he was in a Tehran hospital undergoing medical checks for a stomach problem. He was released a day later.
Yazdi served as foreign minister in Iran’s first government after the 1979 Islamic revolution that overthrew the US-backed Shah, but was sidelined as religious hardliners took over.
The interview proceeded as follows:
Q) Are you surprised at the reaction of supporters of the reformist current who have taken to the streets of Tehran in protest against the results of the recent election?
A) I must admit I was surprised. I did not expect the reaction to be this big and that protests against the violations that took place in the elections would spread so far. There are some very important signs and we should take note of two things in particular: firstly, that over 80 per cent [of eligible voters in Iran] voted in the elections and this has never happened before in Iran. I believe that it is the first election in Iran where voter turnout has been so high; all the streets and roads were crowded. Secondly, I did not expect the reaction to the electoral irregularities nor the magnitude of the protests that are still taking place. The public’s reaction in the first few days was spontaneous and only natural giving the other presidential candidates, [Mir Hossein] Moussavi in particular, the grounds to take action and challenge the results, which forced officials to announce that investigations would be carried out into [claims of] electoral irregularities. The Supreme Leader congratulated [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad immediately without waiting for the opinion of any other party so people took to the streets as we saw.
The truth is that the way that the election campaign was carried out, and the accusations and the insults that Ahmadinejad directed at some of the most senior politicians such as Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammed Khatami and even Natiq Nouri – who is one of the most senior advisers to the Supreme Leader whose children Ahmadinejad accused of accumulating wealth illicitly – not only deepens divisions between different branches of the government but also brought these divisions into public view for the first time and in an unprecedented manner. We always knew there were divisions, but what Ahmadinejad did, in the way he carried out his campaign, was to bring these divisions into view for everyone to see.
In Rafsanjani’s letter to the Supreme Guide that was published by the Iranian press, he complained about Ahmadinejad and how he went too far [in his attacks] against Rafsanjani’s family. In the letter, Rafsanjani requested that Khamanei break his silence but what happened on Saturday morning, a few hours after the elections, and even before the final results were announced, was that Khamanei rushed to congratulate Ahmadinejad and endorsed the results.
That was not normal at all because usually after elections the Council of Guardians and the Ministry of Interior await complaints that may be raised by parties taking part in the elections, expecting there to have been irregularities. Presidential candidates have the right to raise complaints before the results are verified but the Supreme Leader did not wait for this process to take place and he quickly congratulated Ahmadinejad who in turn called on his supporters to celebrate in Vali Asr in Tehran and Iranian state television began to broadcast messages of congratulations from various leaders and presidents to Ahmadinejad on his reelection. Within these 48 hours the protests were beginning to spread, not only in Tehran but also in Meshad, Tabriz, Shiraz, Kerman, Esfahan, and other cities. Because of these unexpected demonstrations, the head of the Council of Guardians was forced to come out and state that whoever had complaints about the elections should come and raise them. So if the results weren’t final and the candidates could raise their complaints how could the Supreme Leader declare his support for the results? The Supreme Leader’s behavior caused a lot of serious questions to be raised by the grand Ayatollahs in Iran and members of the Assembly of Experts headed by Rafsanjani, which has the right to dismiss the Supreme Leader according to the Constitution. It raised many questions about the Supreme Leader’s validity.
In Qom, Grand Ayatollah Saanei issued a fatwa prohibiting working with the Ahmadinejad government based on the consideration that it is an illegitimate government. He considers this “religiously prohibited.” Therefore, amongst grand Ayatollahs and members of the Assembly of Experts questions are being raised about the “validity of the Supreme Leader.” So the Assembly of Experts’ priority now is to be sure about the Supreme Leader and if they find that he is not valid then it has the right to dismiss him from his position. That is what the constitution says.
Q) Do you believe that Rafsanjani, in his capacity as head of the Assembly of Experts, has the power to take such action and that he would want to take this radical step?
A) Constitutionally he has the power to do so and personally he does have the will and the desire…but taking this step is another issue.
Q) Have all ties between Khamanei and Rafsanjani been cut?
A) No, not all ties have been cut completely. They are trying to save face during this unprecedented crisis but the issue is a very difficult one. Regarding this point, I believe that we must wait a while. What I will say is that these elections have not only deepened divisions between the nation, the government and the authorities; they have also deepened divisions between effective elements of the ruling elite in Iran. Hashemi Rafsanjani, the head of the Assembly of Experts and of the Expediency Discernment Council, who has significant political weight, was president for two terms so he has influence within the elite. [Mohammad] Khatami was president for eight years. [Mehdi] Karroubi was Parliament Speaker. All of these people are standing against Khamanei and Ahmadinejad. What I will say is that the divisions within the ruling elite in Iran are not only deepening; they are taking place openly for everyone to witness.
Q) Is there any chance of reconciliation between the parties? What’s the solution?
A) I doubt it. We must wait and see. We must await the results of investigations into electoral irregularities. The Interior Ministry is now obliged to present every voting card from every constituency and province and it should have observers and officials carefully examine these cards. Therefore, if there is a constituency where 100,000 people are eligible to vote but 150,000 people voted for example then it will show that something is irregular in this constituency. In the 2005 elections between Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad, people spoke about violations taking place but the Interior Ministry was not forced to present any cards or detailed information about the electoral process. Today, because of the current pressure, the Interior Ministry has been forced to reveal some voting cards, and despite the uncertainty until now, it shows that Moussavi was ahead of Ahmadinejad. What I would like to say here is that it is a very crucial time for Iran for two reasons; firstly, the protestors will continue to demonstrate. They have demonstrated in Azadi Square, Inqilab Square and Vali Asr. I believe that gradually we will reach a point where nobody will be able to control the demonstrations. Surprisingly, the beatings and the aggression will not stop the demonstrations. On the contrary, restrictions will lead the demonstrators to confront the police forces. My fear is that if there is no wise and rational response to the crisis the leadership of the reformist movement, and even Mir Hossein Moussavi himself, will not be able to control the protestors. Moreover, there are specific groups that want violent clashes to occur. This is very scary. Violence will not benefit us in any way and we must keep composure and continue to protest peacefully and not give in to provocation. The second reason that it is a crucial time for Iran is that there are important decisions to be made by the Iranian authorities. There are statistics that show that Moussavi won the elections and that Karoubbi came second and Ahmadinejad third. This means that there must be some kind of settlement behind the scenes between governing parties in Iran to take the elections to a second round between Ahmadinejad and Moussavi. This is the only way they could save face.
Q) Do you believe that the Supreme Guide could be forced to take this option? Do you think he has the ability to agree with the Iranian public?
A) Having the power to do something is one thing…having the “ability” to do it is another. There is a big difference in the power game between “power” and “ability”. There is a very good example of this. Years ago, when a North Korean ship attacked an American ship in international waters close to the North Korea borders, North Korean forces came and took the ship to one of their ports and arrested over 200 people who were on board. The United States had the power to confront North Korea but it did not. What I am trying to say is that Khamanei has the power and the Revolutionary Guards (Sepah) have the power but circumstance does not allow them to use the power that they have.
Khamanei committed a major error. Ahmadinejad misjudged the crisis by attacking Rafsanjani. Khamanei did not rectify the situation. Hashemi Rafsanjani wrote a letter in which he complained [about Ahmadinejad] and the Supreme Leader chose to remain silent. Straight after the elections the Supreme Leader did not hesitate to congratulate Ahmadinejad and to endorse the elections. Now, everybody is crying foul, even the Mullahs in Qom. They are wondering why Khamanei did this. For this reason, there are indications that the authorities are shifting from their positions. If the Council of Experts is saying ‘raise your complaints’ then this means that the Supreme Leader was wrong to congratulate Ahmadinejad so quickly. I believe that the one way to solve this situation is by accepting a compromise to hold a second round of elections between Ahmadinejad and Moussavi. In this round, nobody would dare interfere with the voting and there will be more supervision over the voting process and Moussavi will win.
Q) Do you think that the authorities will say that it has conducted investigations into claims of electoral irregularities and then say that there were minor violations but Ahmadinejad still won?
A) The Iranians would not be satisfied with that; they would not accept it. Moussavi would not accept that. That would be suicide for him as from day one he has said that he won the elections and that he will stand his ground and Khatami responded by saying: stand strong and we will stand by you.
Q) In this moment in history are you optimistic or pessimistic?
A) I am optimistic for a number of reasons; firstly, God says that despondence is equal to disbelief. Secondly, at this age (78) I have seen enough ups and downs in Iran’s history to be hopeful. Thirdly, the Iranian revolution in 1979 changed Iranian society fundamentally and permanently. In these demonstrations we have witnessed in Azadi and Inqilab squares, most of the demonstrators were under thirty years of age, and many hadn’t even reached twenty. They were not alive during the revolution let alone the Shah’s regime. Where did they come from? Who taught them about politics? My answer would be that during the Iranian revolution women left their homes and took to the streets side by side with the men. They did not stay at home. What happened to those Iranian women? They have been politicized of course, by the Mullahs and not by the thousands or tens of thousands. All classes of women, from the most conservative to the most liberal. Since that time they have been politicized. Those young women who protested on the streets of Tehran thirty years ago are today mothers of this generation that has come out in their hundreds of thousands in Iran over the past few days. This is the great change that has taken place after the Iranian revolution. The public has been politicized. This is something that cannot be eliminated. Some Western observers cannot appreciate the magnitude of radical change in Iranian society after the revolution. These elections and these demonstrations clearly show the depth of change in Iran thirty years after the revolution.
Q) Some people say that if Khamanei is the absolute ruler in Iran and the executive president then why is he eager for Ahmadinejad to win?
A) The answer is “weakness for power”. After their experiences with absolute authorities, Western societies reached the conclusion that regardless of who is in charge the following must be guaranteed: the ruler is not given absolute power – and this is where idea of separating legitimate, executive and judicial authorities stemmed from. Secondly; do not let him rule all his life – and this is where the idea of four-year terms and then another four year term if elected came from. Why? This is the nature of man. When Khamanei was the president of Iran in the 1980s, when Khomeini was still alive, Khamanei could not do anything he wanted because Khomeini used to stop him. Khamanei used to deal with those around him in a unique way. When somebody would ask for something from Khamanei or suggest something to him that he did not like he would say, ‘You do not understand,’ and would tell him to be quiet. When Khamanei was reelected to presidency for the second term, he did not want Moussavi to serve as the Prime Minister of his government however Khomeini insisted. The problem is that Khamanei today is working whilst at odds with Rafsanjani, Khatami, Moussavi and grand Ayatollahs.
Q) But he has the support of the Revolutionary Guards, which in turn support Ahmadinejad. Isn’t that a source of power for him?
A) If we look back on the history of the Middle East, including my country Iran, there have been instances when the military itself has submerged the king’s head under water.
Q) If there is no second round of elections and Ahmadinejad remains president for a second term, will we see the same Ahmadinejad who we have gotten to know over the past four years or will he be more moderate? For example will there be dialogue with the US during his tenure?
A) He will not be more moderate; he will be more pragmatic. This is the change that will take place. If we get past the current crisis with the least amount of losses to Iran possible, then many people would have learnt a painful lesson.