Iran: State of the Green Movement
Iran: State of the Green Movement‹ Back to the summary page for this event
Foundation for Defense of Democracies
Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Research Institute for Contemporary Iran
The Weekly Standard and The Foreign Policy Initiative
Mohsen Sazegara began by outlining the goals of the Green Movement, which include delegitimizing and exposing fissures inside the current regime, showing the strength and solidarity of the nation opposed to Khamenei’s government, and finally paralyzing the regime. Sazegara argued that the goal of delegitimizing the regime, although not entirely fulfilled, has largely been accomplished in the last several months. The Green Movement is now focused on paralyzing the regime and seeks to expand geographically and increase its support across socioeconomic lines, among labor movements, and other social groups.
Mehdi Khalaji focused his remarks on two questions: Does the Green Movement want regime change? And will the Green Movement succeed?
Regarding the first, Khalaji observed that the ideology of the Islamic Republic today is like Communism under Stalin during the purges of the 1930s—it is defined exclusively as loyalty to the Supreme Leader. Often those with the most loyalty to the 1979 revolution, those who judge Khamenei against its ideals, appear the most disloyal to the current regime. Thus, while many in the Green Movement—perhaps even Moussavi—do not believe they are seeking regime change, Khomenei’s government sees the opposition as attempting to achieve regime change.
Will the Green Movement succeed? Most probably yes, argued Khalaji, though not because the movement is particularly strong, but because its fate is ultimately in the hands of Khamenei, who has made multiple miscalculations. In addition, economic mismanagement has created opportunities for the Green Movement to fracture the regime’s base among the poor.
Sazegara proceeded to point out that the internet and satellite television were the most useful tools for organizing and coordinating the Green Movement, and encouraged the U.S. to provide technological and communications assistance. He also noted, however, that Voice of America is not at present a pro-Green Movement medium.
The U.S. should not say that we don’t want to “meddle,” Khalaji argued. Every action, even indifference, will have an effect. If the U.S. does nothing to support human rights, sanctions, and so on, people in Iran will know that the U.S. is indifferent. This will make the regime stronger, and, therefore, weaken the Green Movement.
Khalaji added that Khamenei’s rule has grown more insular, excluding other powerful political figures and clerics. This isolation from the people is a major reason why his regime will fail. Moreover, in order to maintain his grip, Khamenei has enabled the Revolutionary Guards and related groups to gain power—in order to kill and suppress dissidents and expand their business empire. As their power grows, Khamenei will inevitably lose some control over them.
Reuel Gerecht closed the panel by arguing that Iranian and Shia culture is incompatible with totalitarianism. A dictatorial police state cannot last long. Already, the regime has lost its intellectual underpinnings can only win support through economic patronage along with an increasingly crude—an increasingly unpopular—rhetoric of Islam versus the West. The “realists” who like to believe the regime is permanent should be more patient. The U.S. should “meddle” in order to support the Green Movement.
MR. FLY: Okay. I think we're ready to get started. My name is Jamie Fly. I'm the executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative. I wanted to welcome you all to our conference, "Iran: Prospects for Regime Change."
I think many of you recognize many familiar faces. I think many of you have attended some of our events before. But for those of you who may not be familiar with FPI, I just wanted to briefly tell you a little bit about our organization. We're a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to the promotion of U.S. international engagement, and we carry out that mission through conferences such as this one several times throughout the year. And we also provide various news and information about key foreign policy topics.
I would encourage you all to visit our website, www.foreignpolicyi.org, and there you can sign up for a daily news email that we send out every morning called "The Overnight Brief," and you can also find out information about our various events.
This conference comes at a key moment in the debate over how to halt Iran's nuclear weapons program. We had originally scheduled the conference for February, but had to cancel it because of a major snowstorm. But I think it's still a very timely topic, as it always seems to be, with the Iran debate.
In the last week, we have seen President Obama talk about sanctions coming through the UN Security Council perhaps in weeks, not months. But I think the -- even the Security Council debate, to a certain extent, obscures the fact that there continues to be a vibrant opposition in Iran that many of us believe deserves more U.S. support.
So, we are going to focus on that today. The first panel will discuss the state of the Green Movement. And then we are going to take a break, and then the second panel will talk about U.S. policy options.
So, I will turn it over now to Bill Kristol of "The Weekly Standard," who is also a board member of FPI.
MR. KRISTOL: Thanks, Jamie, and welcome to you all. And I guess I should thank also the Council on Foreign Relations for letting us use their palatial room here.
I should say for the record that the fact that the Council on Foreign Relations is allowing the Foreign Policy Initiative to use their facilities does mean that they entirely agree with everything that -
MR. KRISTOL: They're happy to be associated with all sentiments expressed in this room.
I am pleased to moderate this panel, and I look forward to it, mostly just so I can learn a lot about what is happening actually in Iran.
The second panel, which my colleague, Bob Kagan from Carnegie -- who is also a director of FPI - will moderate, just to advertise that. We will have Ray Takeyh, Elliott Abrams, and Danielle Pletka on U.S. policy towards Iran. That should be a very good panel. It should be the second best panel of the morning, I would say.
Let me briefly introduce my fellow panelists -- and we will run this pretty informally. They will make kind of brief, just opening remarks on what they think the situation is, and then I will sort of moderate a discussion. And we might have time for questions, too.
Mohsen Sazegara, to my right, is -- was active in Iranian politics, and in the Iranian government, I think, until 1989. Taught, after that, and was involved in magazines and editing for the next 15 years ago. Left Iran in 2005, I think, and is now president of the Research Institute on Contemporary Iran.
Mehdi Khalaji is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, studied in Iran, I think, in the 1990s, and maybe into this decade, I think, earning a doctorate there. Was also involved in various Iranian periodicals and magazines, and also worked with the Persian service of BBC and with Radio Farda and, as I say, is now at the Washington Institute here, in D.C.
And Reuel Gerecht, a long-time friend and colleague of mine, contributing editor to the Weekly Standard, the magazine I edit, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Before that, at AEI, and before that, and before that at the Project for the New American Century. Wrote a book on Iran in 1997 under the name Craig Shirley -- am I allowed -
MR. GERECHT: Edward, Edward Shirley --
MR. KRISTOL: Edward Shirley? Sorry about that. I know Craig Shirley; he's an actual real person, yes. Wrote a very good biography of Reagan. But you were -- yes. You will explain why you wrote under the pseudonym, and why I'm now allowed to say that you wrote this book. But anyway, it's a very good book about his experiences in Iran, when he was with the Central Intelligence Agency. And he has subsequently written widely on Iran, and also on the broader Middle East.
So, this is actually, I think, a very interesting panel. And, as I say, I look forward to learning about sort of the state of play within Iran now. We will talk a little bit about U.S. policy, I'm sure, but this is more to really get a sense of what is happening there, what we might reasonably expect to happen there, given that all these situations are very fluid and, by their nature, unpredictable.
And then, as I say, the second panel will focus a little more on U.S. policies.
So, Mohsen, do you want to begin?
MR. SAZEGARA: Thank you. To talk about the Green Movement, the present state of Green Movement in five minutes, which is the most difficult part, I can say that the first stage goal of Green Movement is what the people of Iran shout, "Give my vote back," or better to say to bring down the government, the coups government of Ahmadinejad, which is supported by Ayatollah Khamenei during last nine months, the leader of Iran.
To achieve this first -- we call it the first stage goal -- when I say "we," I mean the activists of the Green Movement -- this goal has been -- we have four subgoals to achieve this first stage goal: the delegitimization of the government; clearing out the government and the fissures and cracks created inside the government; strength of the solidarity and resistance of the nation, and national resistance in front of this government; and paralyzing the government. These -- every action that the Movement goes for that, helps one or two or sometimes three of these subgoals.
What happened during last 9 months, last 10 months, I can say that the first subgoal, delegitimization of the regime and the coups government, was -- I can't say 100 percent fulfilled, but was the best part of our efforts at the first stage of the Movement.
Right now in Iranian new year, which started from March 21st, for this year, this coming year, Movement is concentrated, focused on paralyzing the regime, and especially non-cooperation actions with respect to discoverment, which -- maybe in questions I can explain more about that.
What regime has done with respect to the Movement, we think that they have three goals, as well. First, the arresting the -- attacking the social networks that Movement organization is based on these networks of the society.
Second is the attack to all the connections and information broadcasting of the Movement, any -- because they understand. I mean, the regime knows that in a decentralized organization, they should ban, they should attack information propagation of the Movement.
We have two simple tools for this, for connection inside the Movement, and getting information to the people. First is Internet, and second is satellite TVs. Both of them are under attack by the regime.
And third, they try to create some fissures inside the Movement, and propagation of fearness in the society, and you know, especially, what we call it, going back to before election situation in Iraq. This is what they are doing. This is the reason that sometimes, you know, they go for something that they know that -- delegitimate them, for instance like raping. But their calculation shows that it might be helpful for them, because they create more fearness in the society, and several other actions.
The last thing that I want to say just in five minutes is the Movement is young. We think that we should -- we need more development in the Movement, in three different ways.
First is geographical growth of the Movement, geographical development of the Movement. It means that -- the Movement started from Tehran, but we should succeed to take the Movement to other cities that -- so far, so good, I can say -- to several cities of Iran, or even some villages. Of course, the main population of Iran leaving cities; urban population of Iran is now about 73 percent of whole population, 73 million population of Iran.
Second, we need the growth of the movement inside the new social and the cultural groups of the society of Iran. We need development of the Movement in -- and more connection to labor movement of Iran, teacher movement of Iran, minorities, ethnic minorities of Iran, and several other social groups.
And third, Movement needs development and growth in quality from quality point of view. When we say qualification of the Movement, we mean more knowledge of non-violent movements, which is the strategy of the Movement for the activists of the Movement and more functional organization. It is based on decentralized social network organization, but we need more work, more trained for the activists not to be easily arrested, and several other things to do.
So, this coming year will be, in the Green Movement, concentrated on achieving those four subgoals, which I explained, through the actions that are now -- the activists are working on that, and working on these three parts for these three ways of growth of the Movement.
MR. KRISTOL: Well, thank you. And hold the thought. I am going to come back later, as a prelude to Bob's panel, ask you about the Internet and the TV, and what the U.S. might be able to do to help prevent the Iranian regime from suppressing those aspects of communications among the Green Movement.
Mehdi, do you want -
MR. KHALAJI: Okay, thank you. I would like to answer to two common questions about Green Movement very briefly.
One is that -- is Green Movement looking for regime change? My answer to this question is it depends on how we define the regime. So, first, we have to define what is the regime, and then we have to ask -- we can ask whether this movement is looking for regime change or not.
Who is the best authority to define the regime? I think the regime itself. How regime defines itself, it's much more valid than any definition by its opposition or by people outside.
I think the leaders of Iran do not believe that the regime is only Islamic ideology, or it's only the constitution or even Iranian law, or -- none of that. The hard core of the regime, based on the leaders of the Islamic Republic, is the loyalty to the supreme leader. And it doesn't matter whether you are -- you have participated in Islamic revolution in 1979 or not. It doesn't matter whether you are a former official in this regime or not, from a president, from a prime minister, from a speaker or not. It doesn't matter whether you are faithful to the ideals of Islamic ideology or the spirit of the constitution or not. What matters is whether you are loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader of Islamic Republic.
So, it's very similar to how Stalin defined Communism in the period of Great Purge. So the target of Great Purge was true Communists, the Communists who believed in Communism, and they wanted to judge the behavior of Stalin based on the criteria provided by Communism.
So, Ayatollah Khamenei hates anyone who judges on him based on Islamic ideology or based on constitution. He believes that his authority is beyond the constitution. And he is the one who legitimized the constitution, he legitimized the political institutions in Iran, including the president.
Okay. Ayatollah Khamenei believes that the West is in soft war against Iran, and -- because they failed in waging a military attack against Iran, so all the military and political and diplomatic pressure against Iran failed, and West now is in the process of trying cultural war, or a cultural invasion.
And who are the soldiers of the cultural invasion, or soft war against Iran? Almost every influential living being, from writers to journalists to bloggers to women activists to movie makers to students to some clerics. So, everyone who has any sort of social influence within Iranian society, but is not loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei, is a threat to the regime.
So, it doesn't matter whether you, as a writer, you, as a journalist, you, as a woman activist, you really intend to change the regime. It doesn't matter. Regime believes that you are going to change the regime. And I think that even people who are against regime change in Green Movement, according to regime, they are looking for regime change. And I think that -- I always trust Mr. Khamenei, especially on these issues.
The second question is, is Green Movement going to succeed? Does Green Movement win? I think my understanding, from Iranian situation and from Iranian contemporary history, is that most probably yes.
Why? Not because Green Movement is very strong, it has a very consistent leadership or very consistent ideology or very good organization. No. It's just because it's -- the real leader of Green Movement is Ayatollah Khamenei, and people -- it's like Iranian revolution 31 years ago. The real leader of that revolution was not Khamenei, it was Shah. Constant mistakes of Shah regime had more -- I think had more impact in the success of Iranian revolution than what leaders themselves did.
So, now, if somebody asked me if Iran has the weapon of mass destruction, I would say I don't know. But what I know is that Iran has the weapon of self-destruction. Look at the behavior of Islamic Republic in its foreign policy. Look at its behavior regarding the opposition. And especially since June 12. Every move by Ayatollah Khamenei, without exception, was wrong, was wrong, and helped this movement to grow.
And even many people who were, at the beginning, inactive, indifferent, apolitical, not interested in politics at all or indifferent toward the result of elections, gradually they joined this movement. Look at what Ayatollah Khamenei did to the funeral of Ayatollah Montazeri, which could be a very, you know, normal funeral without, you know, any political impact. But Ayatollah -- this was Ayatollah Khamenei who made Ayatollah Montazeri a hero, a spiritual leader for this movement. And I think Ayatollah Khamenei's moves in future would help the Green Movement.
And the last point is that, yes, on June 12th the government managed to elect Mr. Ahmadinejad as a president. But it doesn't mean that the future of Ahmadinejad is granted in Islamic Republic. Ahmadinejad has a very uncertain future. There are many evidences that Ayatollah Khamenei is not happy with Ahmadinejad's policy -- at least some of his policies -- like economic policy.
And look at what Majlis, the Iranian parliament, is doing now with Ahmadinejad's budget bill or other economic bills. And, actually, this is Ayatollah Khamenei who let Majlis make trouble for Mr. Ahmadinejad. And the deputy of Ahmadinejad, Mr. -- the first deputy of Ahmadinejad, Mr. Rahimi, now is announced to be a leader of a network of economic corruption in Iran. And it was announced by judiciary. So, without tacit approval of Ayatollah Khamenei, this could not have happened.
So, I think that it's not unlikely to see Ayatollah Khamenei's discontent grow, and then reduce his support to Ahmadinejad, and let Majlis to take him down before his term ends. Thank you.
MR. KRISTOL: Thank you. I want to come back to that. I really -- let me -- I'm going to come back and ask you this question afterwards, but I want to hear from Reuel, too. So you didn't even mention the Revolutionary Guard, I think, and what is the relation of -- I mean you focused on Khamenei.
What is the relation -- you discussed a little bit his relationship with Ahmadinejad, but also what's, you know -- you've said the key question is defining the regime, which I think is a very useful beginning. And I think Aristotle says, you know, "The regime is defined by who rules."
And I guess one question that's hard for an outside to see is, well, who really rules Iran? Is it Khamenei personally? Is it Khamenei as the leading -- leader of a group of clerics? Is it Khamenei with the Revolutionary Guard? What's the relation of those? Because I think that's important to judging the internal dynamics. And you can both, I'm sure, help us think about that.
Reuel Gerecht, I just would say in the Weekly Standard magazine, wrote a piece right after the June 12th election, which I reread last night, which stands up very, very well, in which he said, "It's unclear what the success of the Green Movement will be," but that Iran -- the regime had crossed a rubicon, had crossed a line which -- it would not go back to a pre-June 12th situation. And I think that does seem to be the case, I think, whatever happens. And tell us your view of what is happening, and what might happen there.
MR. GERECHT: Well, first thing I would like to say is that I think, given the tender sensibilities of certain individuals, we should refrain from ever using the phrase "regime change," and just say "political evolution" from now on. I think that would make it easier for many people to digest.
I would like to say, I mean, in the beginning, it is an honor to be here with Mohsen. I have followed him for over 20 years, and would that I'd have given anything to have met him in my former life in the Agency. And it is always an honor to be in the presence of such a brave man.
And also, Mohsen and I have done a few events recently, and I figure -- I feel that one of my jobs in life is actually to ask him questions. So that's exactly what I am going to do.
I mean, when you listen to Ahmadinejad, who was playing on a, you know, powerful revolutionary theme when he says that, really, the best Muslims are poor Muslims, and he uses class rhetoric pretty powerfully, and it certainly appears -- and there is no way to really know this, since the election was so fraudulent -- but it does appear that the man and his kind have a certain base amongst the poor, amongst the so-called mostazafan.
Again, we do not know the solidity of that base, as we do not know the solidity, for example, of his support amongst -- in the Guard Corps.
But is there a means, and has the Green Movement really worked out a way, to take its success amongst the educated, its overwhelming success in the universities, its success amongst the middle and upper classes, and tried to move it down to the poor?
Do you actually have a strategy for trying to draw more support, and allow the regime to know that you are, in fact, cracking that revolutionary base without which I don't think they can stand?
MR. SAZEGARA: The answer is definitely yes, because we think that the situation of economy of the country gets worse and worse every day, because of the mismanagement of government of Ahmadinejad. This is what Mehdi says, that at least one of the leaders of the movement and the opposition is Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, his government and his supporters.
As you know, in these days, many of the Iranian manufacturing companies are in trouble, because of the importation of cheap Chinese goods to Iran, by the increase of the oil income during the last three, four years. And the -- last night, for instance, we had the news from another factory which was closed in -- a textile company, the sugar companies, many of the companies, and several manufacturing companies of Iran are in trouble. Most of the time three months, four months, six months, eight months, sometimes one year, the laborers don't receive any salary.
And we have tried to follow that slogan of the solidarity movement, that if you want bread you should go for freedom as well. They are related to each other. This is what Green Movement should do, to show them that to get bread, to get your salary, to get better life from economic point of view, there is no other way, to go for democracy, to go for freedom, to go for the goals of the Green Movement.
How we have -- how much we have succeeded? We think -- our evaluation shows that at the celebration the last Wednesday of the year, we had demonstrations from everywhere south of Tehran, especially the poor places in Tehran. And there, the slogans were Green Movement, pro-Green Movement, and they were against -- tougher than the north of Tehran demonstrators.
So, as I explained, a long way to go. For instance, now we are working on Labor Day in Iran. It's the May 1st. And we hope that on Labor Day -- I don't know yet -- but we hope that we can invite all the nation for at least half-an-hour strike everywhere. Because on that day all the factories are closed. And they will have some ceremonies and demonstrations, but governmental. It depends that -- how we can, you know, approach them.
The other movement that -- they are under pressure very much, but they have a very good experience in demonstrations and strikes -- are the teacher movement of Iran. We have about 13 to 14 teachers unions, different ones. Many of them were arrested, many of them were under pressure and under control. But they have very good background in fighting for their rights and for their salaries and everything.
So, what I can say is that yes, one of the -- as I said, one of the strategies of the movement, one of the targets of the movement is approaching to poor people, especially labor movement, teachers movement. But so far to go, I think. We need more time.
MR. GERECHT: Well, I am sort of curious. The -- if -- for organizing the poor, what do you see as actually the most important thing that you can have? I mean, we've just talked about before -- and I'm sure we will talk about it later -- that communications are obviously key. Is that the most important thing to reach the poor? Or is there another method?
Because, obviously, the regime can cut you off from any type of proper organizing. And what I am having a little trouble understanding is the mechanisms that you can use, where you can actually communicate to people, get people to come out, do things on certain days. Is that really just a function of communications, that you think you have the support necessary? Or is there a method that you can use to actually develop an organization amongst the poor, since you obviously can't use any of the techniques that were used in 1977, 1978, and 1979?
MR. KRISTOL: Let me -- while you're answering that, you might -- since we talked about this yesterday, I think it would be very interesting to people -- talk a little bit about the Internet and the TV situation. And we can sort of set up Bob's panel of what the U.S. might do to help there.
And then I will come back to Mehdi and talk a little more about -- we will talk a little about the Green Movement first -- and you can weigh in on that took obviously -- and then come back and talk about the regimes and -- to understand what's happening in Iran, one has to understand, presumably, what -- both sides of the equation here. And so -
MR. SAZEGARA: First of all, the communications. Our most powerful tool for communications in Iran is Internet. This is the reason -- for instance, we have recommended to our activists that they can use gmail that it's secure. And that was the reason that, before February 11th -- regime, you know, shut down the Gmail in Iran -- they didn't succeed to hack Gmail. They tried for that.
And, as you know, Revolutionary Guard, they have a special division. Its name is Cyber Army. They come from the -- for instance, they hacked my website, and they removed all my home video from -- because every night I tape 10 minutes home video and post it on YouTube, my website, and send it by Google group and Facebook. They removed all the films from YouTube. Fortunately, Google helped us, and we put them back, we post them back.
This is the reason that regime knows that whenever we are going to have a big event, a big demonstration, they reduce the speed of Internet to a very low speed, and sometimes they shut it down.
And second tool, powerful tool for our communication, is satellite TVs. We have now Voice of America Farsi, and BBC Farsi, both of them. They attack satellite signals, as well. But it is still the most powerful tool for us to inform the public for some events.
Sometimes, you know, when you live in Iran and you go, for instance, for a demonstration in a city, you have the information of that part. This is the VOA Farsi or BBC Farsi that can show you that -- what happened all around the country. And it's very important for us to encourage the people that whatever -- because regime denies that nothing happens. Sometimes, for instance, after that 3.5 million people demonstrating in Tehran, regime said that some people, around 5,000 people were on the streets.
So, because we have only an exclusive state-run radio and TV in Iran, and during last 10 months they have closed many of the newspapers, many of the magazines, and they have arrested several journalists, this is the reason that these two tools are so important in this movement. By -- especially by Internet, not only we create the communication inside the Movement, but it helps us for the organization, as well.
And this is what -- I think that one of the best support of the international community, especially the United States, is to help freedom of information by satellite, free of charge, infiltrate the high-speed Internet providing and improving especially VOA, Voice of America, Farsi. Because if you look at the VOA Farsi, for instance, they are not pro-Movement, if you look at their programs. And they are far from whatever BBC Radio Farsi did during the Islamic Revolution. So, this is the reason that it is so vital.
But the second part of the question, these are not the only ways of organizing and approaching the poor people. You know, in Islamic Revolution we had the clerics, we had the network of the mosques. It was really, really helpful, because you know, I was in those days with Ayatollah Khamenei, and I was one of the founders of those groups three years before revolution, that we went to the mosques. What we called them in those days -- to make every mosque a revolutionary base, by under cover of making libraries in the mosques. Some of our friends started to approach -- because most of the clerics in Iranian mosques, they were not revolutionary.
We don't have this network right now, not because the clerics are not with the revolution. Many of them are not satisfied with this regime. But because that -- during last 10, 20 years Ayatollah Khamenei, especially, he has controlled the mosques, he has tried to make them governmental because in Iran the Shia clerics are more independent than Sunni clerics. And Ayatollah Khamenei has tried very hard -- they have several ways -- Mehdi has explained in one of his articles how they have started to control and make the mosques of Iran governmental mosques.
This is the reason that we rely on other networks, social networks. And this is the reason that regime attacks to other networks that we have used so far. But there are, for instance, the network of the students, the network of the student graduate organization, graduate students, activist organization, the network of the women activists, the network of the labor movement, as I explained, or teacher movements.
And these days, because they have attacked many of these networks, we have to rely on some models of actions that - based on the networks that -- any regime is not able to attack them. I mean the family networks, the every town and place network. It is doable. So this is the reason that we work on the actions that can be fulfilled by these networks to wait for better situation of the security, I mean. This is what we are working on.
MR. KRISTOL: Mehdi, you want to comment on that, and then also talk a little bit about the regime?
MR. KHALAJI: Mohsen is very involved in Green Movement. I am not. I am an observer. And Mohsen has a daily video clip on YouTube. He gives Iranian practical advice on how to -- you know, every day, how to continue their protest or their opposition to the regime.
So -- but I think -- I hope everything Mohsen says works. The problem with this regime is that they are not like, you know, Shah's regime. Shah was born in a royal family, and he was sent to Switzerland when he was six years old, and he was -- grew up in a very -- luxury, had a luxurious life, and he didn't know what is revolution. But Ayatollah Khamenei and his colleagues actually -- once they did a revolution.
They know how a revolution takes place. And they know very well the underground activities, how you can build up a network. And I think right after revolution, Ayatollah Khamenei started to prevent -- started to somehow prevent any possibility of doing a coups or another revolution, you know, creating Revolutionary Guard message and institutions on everything. And then, Ayatollah Khamenei came to power, and he tried to somehow confiscate the religious establishments and, you know, have full control over mosques and, you know, clerical institutions, and so on. So, it is very difficult. It's really difficult to bypass the regime on all these networks.
But let me go back to the nature of this regime. At least since Safa Dynasty four centuries ago, the history of Iran shows that if a king could run the country based on some sort of consensus, he can prolong his political life. And as soon as he stops to rely on the -- for example, in the history of Iran -- rely on the leaders of the tribes and, you know, heads of the tribes, or the religious authorities and so on, he would somehow hasten his death, political death.
I think one of the reasons that Shah collapsed was this, that in his -- especially in his recent years, he was relying on himself. He wasn't taking any advice from anybody. He did not trust anyone, even Savak or other people.
That's what is happening now in Iran. When Khamenei came to power 20 years ago, he was not a powerful leader. He was actually very weak. He did not have political credential, religious credential, Ayatollah Khamenei's charisma, and so on. So he was trying to run the country, you know, on some sort of consensus among different political factions, military clerics, you know, the traditional businessmen, and so on.
And gradually, he succeeded by empowering revolution. He succeeded to get more power and become stronger. And first he -- you know, he got this skill of weakening strong presidents. He started by Rafsanjani, he weakened Rafsanjani, and then he weakened Khatami.
And he was very happy that, in the case of Ahmadinejad, he has a president who, for the first time in the history of Islamic Republic, bent and kissed his hand in public. So, that was very important, because he was happy that he has the judiciary branch, he has the -- Majlis was in his hand. The election became more manageable for him. And the president was, according to him, completely controllable by him.
And I think now he is very -- the term we use in Farsi, he is "drunk by power." He thinks that he doesn't need anyone, you know.
Look at what he has done to Rafsanjani, you know. Rafsanjani actually is not an opposition. Rafsanjani is one of the pillars of Islamic Republic, and Rafsanjani was the one who brought Khamenei to power from the beginning, not only as a leader. Rafsanjani was the one who suggested to Khamenei to add the name of Khamenei to the list of the council for revolution. You know, Khamenei appointed five persons, and Rafsanjani was one of them. And then Rafsanjani suggested to Khamenei that, "You can add the name of Khamenei to this list."
So, from the -- you know, the day after revolution, Khamenei was the protégée of Rafsanjani. But in recent years, Khamenei thought that he is -- you know, he doesn't need Rafsanjani, or he doesn't need Khatami. He doesn't need many clerics. He doesn't need many -- even the traditional businessmen. He relies more on -- in himself, and he -- this consensus is getting more difficult. And the circle of power is tightening more.
You know, if you look at, for example, 10 years ago, you could find many, many people in the circle of power around Khamenei who were going to visit Khamenei giving advice, you know, taking his advice. Now it's impossible for Khatami, for Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and sometimes for Rafsanjani to communicate with Khamenei.
So, I think that we are going toward a total despotism, which is very dangerous for Islamic Republic. And that's what exactly happened in the history of Iran at least in last four centuries, and led to the collapse of regime. So that's why I am very hopeful about regime change.
MR. KRISTOL: And what about the -- I mean it sounds just -- again, I know very little about this, but this does sound somewhat similar to, you know, let's say the transition from Lenin with a lot of other senior Communist leaders with their own authority, them being destroyed by Stalin -
MR. KHALAJI: Yes.
MR. KRISTOL: But Stalin had a pretty strong face of power in pure brutality and in the secret police. And I guess that raises -- does raise the question again -
MR. KHALAJI: Yes.
MR. KRISTOL: So are we looking at a Khamenei religious Revolutionary Guard regime? And how stable could that be? Or is that not so stable, because it's -- the clerics don't have the kind of moral authority to delegitimize that, or the public has the moral authority to delegitimize that? I mean -
MR. KHALAJI: Look, 31 years ago, there were many groups who were participating in the revolution. But only one group succeeded to, you know, get control over the government. And they were clerics. And we were lucky about it, that Communists, leftists, and other groups failed to come to power, because clerics inherently -- they lack system.
If you -- the traditional clerical establishment is not disordered, but it's anti-system. It resists against any system. That's why clerical establishment in Shiaism is decentralized. And we have the freedom of Ishtahar. Anyone can go study anywhere. Even you can go to New York and study, you know, if you can find a good teacher and study there, and become an ayatollah. There is no restriction in Islam, especially in Shiaism, about where you study, when you study, how you study.
As soon as you reach the point that you can understand Islamic -- the -- God's orders from, you know, religious texts and deduct God's orders from religious texts, that's enough. You are an ayatollah. So, this freedom of Ishtahar in Islam decentralized the clerical establishment. So they are against system.
Khamenei, in Islamic Republic, they failed to create a system of intelligence as we had in the Stalin era. It has lots of cracks, this, you know, intelligence apparatus of the regime. And the Revolutionary Guard, it's not a very consistent body with monolithic, you know, ideology and -- no. It's very, very -- various ideologies can be found there, and different political religious tendencies.
You know that a great number of people in Revolutionary Guard were following Ayatollah Montazeri in their religious issues? And a considerable amount of them were following and still following Ayatollah Sistani. And many of them are very -- fan of Mr. Musadi, because of, you know, the period of war and so on. So, it's not that everyone in Revolutionary Guard is just -- you know, Revolutionary Guard is not a conventional military body. So that's a good thing about Islamic Republic.
Islamic Republic is not a dictatorship or totalitarian system as Stalinism was. You know, in Stalinism, you could not publish an announcement without official permission from the government. And you know how much books, religious books were published in Islamic Republic? You cannot believe it. One of the most popular figures among ordinary people, not only philosophers or students, is Nietzsche and his books. And you cannot believe that when I was in Qum there was a bookshop -- in Qum you can find many bookshops, but most of them are traditional, there are a few bookshops that they sell, you know, the other, non-religious books -- and Michele Foucault, a homosexualist post-modern French philosopher, was the most popular author in Qum among clerics.
MR. KRISTOL: Just like Cambridge.
MR. GERECHT: I think Mehdi just proved that homosexuality does exist in Iran.
MR. KHALAJI: So, this is the system. So it's very easy to infiltrate into it, to somehow make it -
MR. GERECHT: I mean that brings up an interesting question, also to Mohsen. I mean as the Guard Corps has just exploded in size, does that actually make the fissures -- I mean it would -- by all appearances, the fissures in the Guard Corps should be growing, not shrinking. And so, the opportunities to actually sheer off parts of the Guard Corps could be quite substantial.
Now, how exactly you do that without massive street demonstrations, I don't quite understand. And I hope you can -- and we have had these discussions before -- you can continue to help enlighten me of how you actually bring pressure on the Guard Corps and accentuate those differences which exist, and may well be growing.
MR. KRISTOL: And I guess on that point, I mean, how -- I suppose one way you keep the fissures from breaking open is you buy off everyone. And obviously, they are doing that, to some degree. But I suppose that's harder if the economy is weak. And I guess one thing that I don't have clarity on is just concretely, on the ground, do people sense that they are less well off, or getting less well off, and that the prospects for the future are grim?
I think that's probably -- we who deal in the world of ideas probably underestimate sometimes the importance of that in bringing down regimes, you know, in the sense of just -- that the actual economic goods are not being delivered, which I should think would accentuate fissures in the Guard Corps as it's expanded to control so many economic enterprises.
But, yes, I would like to know what events or what conditions would cause the Guard Corps to start to break or to split?
MR. KHALAJI: I think one of the mistakes -- another mistake of Ayatollah Khamenei was that he thought if you let -- because he was weak at the beginning, he thought that if you let Revolutionary Guard to get involved in economic and political activities, that would help him to become powerful. But it was a double-edged sword.
You know, we have the regular army. It's non-political, it's consistent, they are not involved in economy. And they are more under, you know, commandership of Ayatollah Khamenei. But Revolutionary Guard, you have -- you know that one of the reasons that people still are talking about -- and I remember at that time that people were talking about that -- one of the reasons that Iran failed to keep the Iraqi city in -- because they took the city, but soon they gave up.
And one of the reasons they gave up that city, which was very important for Iran, was that we had Majlis election in Iran. And the commanders of Revolutionary Guard, instead of fighting in warfront, they got back to the cities, and they were participating in the campaign for election. And this is one of the scenes of Mr. Mohsen -- that people don't forget and don't forgive.
So, if an -- Ayatollah Khamenei got very angry and especially in his testament he mentioned that Revolutionary Guard should not interfere in politics at all, and they should remain impartial to all, you know, the political events. But it was too late.
And Ayatollah Khamenei -- you cannot find different factions within army. But there are many economic and political factions within Revolutionary Guard. They are fighting with each other. They have conflict of interest. And as much as you give the money, you increase this, you know, fight. You make them forced to fight more.
And I think that sanctions are one of the factors that would increase the conflict of interest between different factions of Revolutionary Guard. They blame each other. They compete with each other. For example, when Japan withdrew from the Azadegan oil field, Hatamal Ambia is coming and he wants to get the project, and a big fight within Revolutionary Guard started with different factions. Who should get this project?
And because of the, you know, limited options Iranian regime has in trading with the world outside, these factions, the companies owned by Revolutionary Guard, they brutally fight with each other in order to get more benefit.
And the same thing exists in political field. They -- Green Movement does not need to do anything, you know. It's getting more difficult for Ayatollah Khamenei to manage this conflict.
I think Ayatollah Khamenei was not a successful leader, but he was, so far, a successful commander in chief of our armed forces. And his leadership, his commandership over Revolutionary Guard, was much more successful than his leadership over the country. But it's getting more difficult for him to control this conflict between different sides of Revolutionary Guard. And there are many evidences for this.
MR. KRISTOL: Mohsen, do you want to comment on that, and also on the economic situation, perhaps?
MR. SAZEGARA: You know, as you know, Revolutionary Guard is -- I believe that is a unique organization in the world, because Revolutionary Guard is like a classic army, like a militia. At the same time, by the hands of -- one of the five forces of Revolutionary Guard is involved in terroristic actions, supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas, and in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And at the same time, Revolutionary Guard is like a political party inside Iran. They support for the election, they are -- they have, you know, candidates for any election. They are behind the Ahmadinejad -- they supported Ahmadinejad to become president five years ago. And this time they saw that they lost the election, they made this coups d'etat against the vote of the people, the election.
They are like a KGB. They have their own divisions inside even prison. I have been their house several times, and -- I have been their guest several times. And they are involved even in mafia activities like alcohol beverages smuggling in Iran, drug smuggling, sex traffic.
And any part of the economy, not only they are in mafia activities, but especially they are involved in oil projects in Iran. Many companies, which -- some of them are very famous, like the telecom of Iran, for instance, or tractor manufacturing company, or ship manufacturing company, car assembly manufacturing company. This is the Bahman Industrial Group.
Recently, last night, I saw a news that they did -- after Maharen-Iranian Bank, which is underway to start another bank, Ansor Bank, is underway. They are already in some investment and banks of Iran, private banks as well. So -
MR. GERECHT: Do you think this split personality within the Guard Corps still has an ethical corps? I mean, the Guard Corps came into being with a really defined personality, in the sense that it was there to defend the nation. That, obviously, is no longer the case. So, is there any ethical corps left to the Guard Corps, or is it really one of greed, profit, power, et cetera, et cetera?
MR. KHALAJI: Regarding ethical corps, it reminds me of this famous phase of Groucho Marx, who said that, "These are my principles. If you don't like them, I have others."
MR. KHALAJI: So, this is the principle of Revolutionary Guard. And, as Mohsen said, they are involved in any profitable business in Iran, from sport to cinema to, you know, human traffic, to everything. And there is no principle for that.
There is no -- when you see this in YouTube, you see that one of the generals of Revolutionary Guard, who is famous for his sacrifice in the war -- he was one of the commanders of the war -- and he was a sign of spirituality and, you know, sacrifice, you know, and all this, he comes to the university, he talks for people. And the video clip is on YouTube. And he says to youth of Tehran, "If you come to the street, and oppose the regime in favor of Mr. Musadi, we don't guarantee you that you wouldn't be raped in the prison."
So, you know, everything is just a fable by Islam. You know, I studied Islam, and I think, in principle, there is no principle in Islam. But I think that rape is not justifiable, you know. There are some things that you cannot justify, you know. And especially raping men, you know? Raping men in prisons, this is what made many clerics angry about this regime, you know, because you cannot defend it.
Revolutionary Guard proved that the -- look. Ayatollah Khamenei came to power. He had problem with the first generation of Islamic Republic, whether within clerics, within politicians, within Revolutionary Guard. The people who entered the Revolutionary Guard in the first decade, they were very honest people, they were idealists, they believed in some values. And that's why they were coming mostly from middle class. They were mostly educated. And they really sacrificed their lives for the country, and for the revolution, and then for the war.
But Ayatollah Khamenei hates anyone who does not owe his political credential to him. And he has difficulty to work with people who are somebody. Look at what happened to the first generation of Islamic Republic. Look at who left from the first generation of Islamic Republic. Now I'm here.
MR. KHALAJI: Mr. Sazegara is here, and -
MR. SAZEGARA: Mr. Navavi is in jail -
MR. KHALAJI: Yes. And as Woody Allen says, "God is dead, and Marx is dead, too, and I don't feel very good, either."
MR. KHALAJI: And I am here. So, look at Rafsanjani. Look at Hada Jami. And none of these big figures of first decade of Islamic Republic, they are active in the politics now. Khamenei, he created his own generation.
The people of small, you know, small size, who felt indebted to Khamenei -- look, when Sharudi, as the head of judiciary, came to power, he was nobody. And he was liked by Khamenei. And as soon as he became somebody, he was replaced by Sadegh Larijeni, who is nobody now. And that's the golden rule for Khamenei: Don't allow anyone to become someone. Otherwise, you're going to have a problem.
And I think this Revolutionary Guard changed. That ethical corps could be found in the first decade. Now they are all contaminated by economy and politics.
MR. GERECHT: Do you think that's true, even amongst the volunteer part of the Guard Corps, because the Guard Corps, you know, has its professional cadre, which may be more corrupt. It also has a volunteer cadre, which is -
MR. KHALAJI: They are officially volunteer, but they are not -- in fact, they are not volunteer. They get lots of benefits. You know, yes, they are volunteer -- if you mean Basij, for example. Basij are officially volunteer. But who can deny that if you become a member of Basij, you get better education, you get better job, you get special loans for your marriage, for your business, for everything. And it has become politically -- in your economic interest to become a member of Basij.
In any level you are, whether you are a student of a high school, or you are a manager of a big company, it's better for you to become a member of Basij, because you can get lots of exclusive benefits from the government.
MR. SAZEGARA: The first days of the Green Movement, we had some members of Basij, some volunteers, especially from the governmental office of Basij, and even student Basij. They were in the streets to beat the people, to attack to the people. We recognized them.
But recently, in recent demonstrations, none of them are in the streets. We have recognized some criminals who have been hired and have been paid to, you know, bring them, as Basijists, to the streets to beat the people.
And myself, I have received several, you know, letters, emails from some ex-members, especially university student Basijists, that -- they say, "We are not with them any more." So this is true.
And about the ethical corps, I can say the chief commander of Tehran division of Revolutionary Guard was dismissed 25 years ago, and later he was arrested and he was imprisoned -- he passed away a few years ago -- I think that ethical corps was ended, was finished, because the -- was one of the symbols of ethical values of the Revolutionary Guard, and several others. But he was famous because he had lots of supporters in Tehran. And the gang of Mosen Nirezan, even they took over the Revolutionary Guard, they started to, you know, dismiss them.
And I mean, I totally agree with Mehdi, that right now just -- we come from some corrupted generals, that they kiss Ayatollah Khamenei's hands, and they have open hands everywhere.
And back to your previous question, that the -- who runs Iran? Who rules Iran? Of course, Ayatollah Khamenei, according to the constitution, has more than 80 percent of the power of the country. He appoints the head of judiciary power, he appoints the head of judiciary, he -- by the council of guardians, he controls the candidates of any election in Iran and any bill passed by the parliament. He has the armed forces, the national exclusive radio and television of Iran. And he has all the powers.
But like any other dictator, any other system like that, after a while he is at the hands of the people who, you know, he has appointed. And they -- you know, he can't do anything that he wants. When -- you know, when you rely on the forces like Revolutionary Guard that kill people for you, rape people for you, and open their hands that they are, you know, in every economic effort -- this is not so easy to, you know, order them whatever you want, because they have their own tools, as well.
And as we know, you know, they have the son of Ayatollah Khamenei and this is how they are really influential in the house of the leader.
MR. KRISTOL: Final question for two of you, and then I am going to make Reuel speak for a minute, instead of just asking questions. So unaccustomed. You two are the only people I have ever seen who have led Reuel to ask questions instead of give answer.
MR. KRISTOL: What should we look for, I mean, over the next months or year? Are there particular events, particular moments, particular times of the year, particular developments that could happen that would cause you -- and that should cause us -- to say, "Well, this is out of the ordinary, this is a moment," perhaps? Either, as I say, a date or a particular political event that might happen, or -- you know, what should we be keeping a special eye out for?
MR. KRISTOL: I mean it's hard to know ahead of time. I suppose people wouldn't have said in 1978, "You should keep an eye out for a particular moment in 1979." But still, it would be -- maybe it could help us a little bit.
MR. SAZEGARA: You know, I can't give you an exact date and the exact time to say that it will happen, for instance bringing down the government of Ahmadinejad or a regime change.
What I can say is we can plan toward this target. We have timetable for, for instance, the first three months of the year. We have a timetable for our actions. But as you know, in social movements, struggles, there are lots of factors. And sometimes some big mistakes on both sides, they can change many of the results.
And -- but I agree with Mehdi, that Ayatollah Khamenei, so far so good for us. I mean, he -
MR. KRISTOL: Do you agree that he -- that there could be such a rift between Ayatollah Khamenei and Ahmadinejad that you could have an actual change of government, or of the presidency? And would that be something you expect in the next year? I mean -
MR. KHALAJI: Look for -
MR. KRISTOL: Would that be a moment of, you know -- for the regime -
MR. KHALAJI: Yes. I said it depends how we define regime. For Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a free and fair election would save the regime. For Ayatollah Khamenei, a free and fair election would change the regime. So, it depends on how we look at this. And I think, as I said, in these issues I always trust Mr. Khamenei.
And I think a free and fair election would be a big change in Iran, because it would reduce the power of Ayatollah Khamenei and Revolutionary Guard, and take it takes the country toward at least a semi-democracy.
But, look. The revolution or significant movements, it's in their nature that they are not preventable and they are not predictable.
MR. KRISTOL: Right.
MR. KHALAJI: So, nobody can predict what happens. But I think it's not right to say that for United States or any Western country, "We don't want to interfere in Iranian internal affairs, we don't want to meddle with Iranian internal affairs." Why? Because every move -- every move -- even indifference of the United States and the West, would affect the internal situation in Iran.
If Mr. Obama does not react to the violation of human rights in Iran, it would affect this movement. It would affect the destiny of this regime. If he reacts to it, it will change the course. You cannot say that, "Okay, we don't say anything because we don't want" -- your silence is meaningful and effective.
(Cell phone rings.)
MR. KRISTOL: President Obama, very upset.
MR. KHALAJI: So, it depends on how we design the new regime of sanctions, how we treat Iran, with regard to human rights, how we treat Iranian democratic activists and human rights activists. It all can have tremendous impact on what is going on in Iran on the destiny of the Green Movement, on the destiny of Iranian regime.
Some actions can make the regime stronger. The regime -- if regime gets stronger, the Green Movement gets weaker. And some actions could result in different directions.
MR. KRISTOL: Thank you. Reuel, final words?
MR. GERECHT: Yes. I mean I would just remind folks that in the late 1980s it was patently obvious to folks who were looking at Iran that there was a huge tectonic shift underway, and that the regime was losing legitimacy rapidly.
I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that the CIA was completely unaware of that, and you should take all national intelligence estimates on Iran with a grain of salt and more or less ignore them. But the -- that has just gained speed.
I mean, there is a reason why Iran has this magnetic pull over folks who study the country, who study the Middle East, is that, compared to the Arab lands -- and if there are any Arabists in here, my deep apologies -- it's just an intellectual feast. And what Mehdi was talking about, I mean, Iranians make really bad totalitarians. It is just -- culturally, it just simply doesn't work.
And I think that people need to realize that the Green Movement really now owns the intellectual classes in Iran. They own the middle class in Iran. They own much of the upper class in Iran.
The regime, I think, really has a severe problem now with replication. It cannot create people that really believe in it, except through means of bribery and economy, and in a very crude sense, sort of the play of West -- Islam against the West. And again, inside of Iran, I don't think that plays very well any more.
So, I just -- I would just close by those -- the realists in this world who like to believe that the regime is this pillar, this concrete pillar, and the Green Movement is going to crack up against it, and they are inevitably going to lose, I would just suggest to them they should be a little bit more patient, that again, if you look at what has happened inside of Iran in the last 20 years, if you see the way the regime has essentially lost the best and the brightest almost without fail, that it eats its own kind, I would just suggest that I think the regime's days are numbered.
And since I believe in meddling in everybody's affairs, I suggest the United States actually has things it could do, and it really ought to do them.
MR. KRISTOL: And that sets up the next panel very nicely.
MR. GERECHT: Yes.
MR. KRISTOL: Thank you all very much for, really, an interesting discussion. Thank you.
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