Mousavi would shun nuclear weapons, says Iran scholar
U.S.-based historian tells Haaretz defeated reformist knows nuclear bomb would be 'catastrophic' for Iran.
Even if the Iranian authorities succeed in suppressing the large demonstrations, the opposition might adopt other forms of protest - such as manifestos, strikes and mass resignations by university professors. That is the assessment of Ervand Abrahamian, a professor of history at the City University of New York and author of several books about Iran, most recently "A History of Modern Iran" (Cambridge University Press, 2008). "There is talk about the opposition trying to encourage its supporters to go out into the market places and prevent commercial activity," he told Haaretz last Wednesday in a phone conversation from New York. "That's the question: How will the bazaars behave, will the strike reach commerce."
One of the repressive steps taken this week, he said, was "having young people appear on television to 'confess' that the BBC et al had incited them to choose the wrong way, which was the reason why they had demonstrated." Abrahamian believes they were tortured. This was the method used during the "ideological period" of the 1980s - torture of leftists considered opponents of the system, who were then told "to confess their crimes" on television broadcasts. Abrahamian, who in fact wrote a book on this subject ("Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran," University of California Press, 1999), is fearful that "we'll begin to see senior activists in [Mir Hossein] Mousavi's office or journalists who support the opposition 'confessing' in public."
Abrahamian, who was born in Iran to an Armenian family and educated in England, has not returned to his country of birth for 30 years. "I was involved in left-wing student activity during the time of the Shah and for that reason I was on the Sawak [intelligence services] blacklist. The list was transferred in its entirety to the new regime," he explained. He maintains regular contact with a group of people in Iran via an online chat room - a method that has proven safer than phone conversations.
Were you surprised by the scale of the demonstrations?
"Yes, but actually I shouldn't have been, because it's an Iranian tradition. The important events in Iranian history took place after mass public turnouts: The constitutional revolution in 1905, thwarting Great Britain's plans to include Iran in its empire in 1911, the nationalization of the oil industry and [prime minister Mohammed] Mossadegh's rise to power in 1951."
Were you surprised by the scope and swiftness of the suppression?
"No. The authorities have the ability and the experience to suppress. They trained the Revolutionary Guards for that purpose for 20 years. But at the same time, they know that ruling by force will not help their legitimacy. They may be able to stop the protests, but they won't restore their credibility.
"The demonstrations that took place during the election campaign already threatened the authorities, which is why they hastened to interfere in the results. They felt that they were losing control over the street, and therefore the only solution was to declare an unequivocal victory. They were afraid of a second round, in which the level of politicization and public recruitment would increase.
There are some who say the division between opponents and supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reflects a dichotomy between classes.
"The core of the support for Mousavi is in fact university graduates and educated people, who can be described as middle class, and who are a clear product of the welfare state and the policy of expanding social services in force since the establishment of the [Islamic] Republic. Ahmadinejad's support base is whom I call 'evangelical' rather than 'fundamentalist.' These are not the poor, but the religious poor - between 20 and 25 percent. It's similar to the support base for former president George W. Bush in the U.S. That doesn't mean that the Iranian working class supported Ahmadinejad. The general impression that most Iranians are religious is not correct.
"This division changed during the elections," Abrahamian continued. "In Iran, the activity of political parties is not very important. Therefore the election campaign is very fluid, unexpected. Ahmadinejad based his election propaganda on nostalgia for the past, among other things, and Mousavi has an important part in that past. Mousavi was able to reach the classes who supported Ahmadinejad for populist reasons. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the gap between rich and poor in Iran actually narrowed, because Mousavi - who was prime minister at the time - initiated price control and was responsible for nationalization. It's no coincidence that many on the left supported him. The trade unions support him too. He cannot be called leftist or socialist, as several articles have described him, but rather 'statist.'
"In 2005 Ahmadinejad won for several reasons: The reformists boycotted the elections and his rival [Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani was identified with the most corrupt elements in the regime. That is why Ahmadinejad tried this time to claim that Mousavi in effect represents Rafsanjani, but people don't believe him. In 2005 Ahmadinejad was actually running against George W. Bush, whereas this time the U.S. is headed by President Barack Obama. It's therefore reasonable to assume that support for Ahmadinejad declined this time."
Which means you do not doubt the claims that the elections were rigged?
"There's no doubt. Mousavi's chances of winning in the cities were known. That isn't the case in the villages. But people who are involved in what's happening in the villages said that the rate of support for Ahmadinejad there was about 20 percent. The rest supported [Mehdi] Karroubi and Mousavi. In the past, opening the ballot boxes and counting the votes was done in the villages themselves. This time the Interior Ministry took the closed ballot boxes. When they announced Ahmadinejad's victory, people in the villages were as angry as those in the cities."
You explained in one of your articles that the welfare state established after the revolution is the main reason for the republic's stability. Does it still exist?
"More or less. That's why people support the Islamic Republic, but not Ahmadinejad. They aren't talking about bringing down the regime - and that may be why the demonstrators mistakenly believed that they would not be suppressed. It's irresponsible on the part of Westerners to claim that this is a revolution against Islam. That plays into the hands of Ahmadinejad and [supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei. The welfare state was established before Ahmadinejad, much of it during Mousavi's tenure as prime minister and in [former president Mohammad] Khatami's time. Khatami tried to reduce the resources channeled to religious institutions and the inflated Revolutionary Guards. Ahmadinejad restored the previous situation, and resumed the transfer of some of the oil profits to these institutions and their members. For every villager who received money from oil profits, there are 10 who didn't - another reason for the accumulation of anger."
Is the economic recession in Iran related to the global crisis?
"No. Khatami put the oil profits in reserves and intended to use it for development. Ahmadinejad decided to spend the money by raising salaries and giving pensions, and by investing in Revolutionary Guards projects. This channeling of money led to a flooding of the market with cash, and to inflation - but did not create jobs. Unemployment increased, mainly among university graduates. The value of the raise in salaries and pensions was eroded. One of the strong images of the most recent demonstrations is that old man carrying a sign on Freedom Square. The sign says: 'I'm not a speck of dust, [referring to Ahmadinejad's claim that the demonstrators are only a speck of dust] I'm a retired teacher.'"
'The return of the messiah'
Why do Ahmadinejad's followers support him?
"The basis was and remains evangelical. And that's why Ahmadinejad speaks a great deal about the return of the messiah. Some think that it is crazy, but it speaks to some people. There is the conservative base in the Revolutionary Guards and a group of clerics who are inflexible in their thinking. Ahmadinejad appointed his former friends from the Revolutionary Guards, who think like him, as governors. They won't want any improvement in relations with the U.S. and are convinced that the U.S. is determined to destroy the republic. That's why they secretly support the development of a nuclear bomb. They don't say it openly, but that's the direction.
"Mousavi is realistic. He knows that developing a nuclear bomb would be catastrophic for Iran. It would alienate the neighbors and lead to additional sanctions that would harm the economy. If they want an improvement in the economy they have to improve relations with the U.S. That's why there's such a major battle. It's connected to foreign policy. That's why Rafsanjani supports Mousavi. That doesn't mean that they support the West, but they understand that confrontation with the West is not worthwhile.
"Ahmadinejad thinks that the U.S. won't dare to impose sanctions," Abrahamian added. "He speaks of the U.S. as having lost its power. But the U.S. still has the power to destroy the Iranian economy, to destroy Iranian cities. I assume that Mousavi's supporters are thinking about this possibility. The Iranians are very savvy in politics, even the residents of the villages are aware of these questions, not only the middle class and people with education. The development of nuclear technology stemmed from an exaggerated assessment of Iran's power. Although it's an important force in the Persian Gulf, to consider it a world power is megalomania of the kind the Shah suffered from. I think most Iranians understand that. The only reason Iran has influence in Afghanistan and Pakistan is the stupidity of American intervention there."
Are the claims there has been Western and Israeli involvement in the demonstrations totally without foundation?
"Yes. Obama and the U.S. are not involved in the demonstrations. And as far as Israel is concerned, it certainly did not stir up the demonstrations, but there are people who are making strange declarations to foreign correspondents to the effect that Iran wants to be a friend of Israel and is not interested in financing Hezbollah and Hamas. I assume that these are emissaries of the Mossad. They don't reflect the views of the opposition. Mousavi's followers are interested in an improvement of relations with the West, but not in normalization. They aren't interested in intensifying the Israeli-Arab conflict, but they won't go so far as to rid themselves of Hamas and Hezbollah. They apparently accept the official position of the Khatami era - that if the Palestinians support the two-state solution, Iran will not oppose it."
Why is Ahmadinejad so insistent on denying the Holocaust?
"He may have spoken to the hearts of the 25 percent of evangelical supporters. With the exception of this group, his words surprised the Iranians. They say 'What does this viewpoint have to do with us?' Karroubi and Mousavi, for example, said that this talk presents Iran in a ridiculous light. It's possible that he thought that this is the way to reach the Arab world. It's possible that 20 or 30 years ago such claims, about the Holocaust having been invented, were common in the Arab world. It's possible that today this claim still speaks to extremist religious groups.
"And I should add a footnote: One of Ahmadinejad's close advisers is a redhead named Mohammad Ramin, who speaks fluent German. This mystery man grew up in Germany, maybe he's partly German. He's the one behind Ahmadinejad's statements about the Holocaust."