Elections in Iran
NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
MARGARET WARNER: For more on all this, we turn to Ali Banuazizi, who was born in Iran and came to the U.S. in 1959. He is now a professor of modern Iranian history at Boston College; Elaine Sciolino, who's covered Iran for 20 years for the New York Times. Her forthcoming book is "Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran." And Daniel Pipes, editor of the Middle East quarterly, and director of Middle East Forum, a nonprofit group that tries to promote U.S. interests in the Middle East. Welcome, all. Elaine, we had two conflicting things this weekend: The reformers won big again at the polls. Then the guardian council turns around and says, boy, even though the election results from last February in Tehran may not be valid because of fraud. What do you make of this? How are we to look at all of this?
ELAINE SCIOLINO, New York Times: Margaret, the best way to look at it is to see Iran as a series of battlefields and the reformers are the guerilla warriors on this battlefield. And you've just seen another round in this great struggle but it's an open-ended system and it's an open-ended war. Just as you've got the guardian council saying, "we have not validated some of the election results," you've got the ministry of the interior saying, "this is all baloney and these results should be validated." You've had one member of the guardian council today said in an interview that the reformists should take their positions in Tehran. So, stay tuned.
MARGARET WARNER: Daniel Pipes, do you see this as guerilla warfare, political guerilla warfare at least?
DANIEL PIPES, Middle East Forum: It's a nice analogy, yes. The power is with the hardliners. It's those reformers who are expressing the people's will who are attempting through various means, guerilla-style means, to change the existing order. So far they're not getting very far but momentum is on their side. In the long-term, they're probably going to prevail. In the long term they will prevail. In the short term it looks pretty rough.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor Banuazizi, explain what you think the conservatives were trying to do the last few weeks arresting outspoken dissidents, shutting the newspapers, now threatening to invalidate some elections, invalidating others. What are they really up to here?
ALI BANUAZIZI, Boston College: Well, if you're going to stick to that analogy of guerilla warfare, I think here is a case where the guerillas clearly are in the majority and they have spoken time and again in three consecutive elections each time quite eloquently with over 70% of the votes cast in favor of the reform candidates. On the other side, we have an entrenched minority, the clerical establishment, that has been extremely nervous about its own fate, about the possibilities of continuing to remain in power, and has resorted to all kinds of counter guerilla tactics including serial murders, closing of newspapers and a variety of other extra-constitutional means to thwart the reform movement.
MARGARET WARNER: Daniel Pipes, how far do you think the conservative hardliners will go to thwart this? In other words, do you think they might try to annul the Tehran seats in the election? Do you think they might try to actually keep a majority of reformers from taking their seats in parliament?
DANIEL PIPES: Absolutely. They've got a big bag of tricks. As Professor Banuazizi pointed out, they've already used a few of them -- extra-legal, spontaneous in some cases ways of resisting the expressed will of the people of these elections. They have the power; let's face it. They're in a position to keep on doing this for a long time to come, and I'm very optimistic about Iran for the long term. There's no way this regime is going to stay in power decade after decade but short term they've got the judiciary, the military, the intelligence, the economic institutions, the mass-media institutions, they've got the power.
MARGARET WARNER: Elaine Sciolino, do you agree they'd go this far?
ELAINE SCIOLINO: I think it can be portrayed a little bit more complicated than this. I mean, both of my friends and colleagues have made a couple of very interesting points, but the fact is who's got the power and to what end? Does anybody who has the power want to see bloodshed in the streets, violent demonstrations, and I would argue no. I mean, the goal of both the reformists under president Khatami and Ali Khameni, the ayatollah who is the supreme leader, is the durability and permanence of this Islamic system. No one is saying, "let's get rid of the Islamic republic. Let's go on out into the streets and have a secular democracy." There is not a cry for a new revolution so in the end I would say that the goal of both the important leaders in the country -- the president and the supreme leader -- who control different institutions of government -- is exactly the same. I would agree with Ali that there is a entrenched minority that wants to keep the status quo and the version of Islamic rule as Iran has known it for 20 years, but it's the minority.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor, how do you see this question of how far the conservatives will push this in terms of trying to really overturn the will of 70% of the voters?
ALI BANUAZIZI: One could, of course, turn the question around and ask how far are the liberals or the reformists going to or are willing to go?
MARGARET WARNER: That's my next question but go ahead.
ALI BANUAZIZI: And how can they go down that path? So far and particularly since the last elections in February, the restraint shown by the reformists has been really quite remarkable. Time and again, the president has urged his followers not to push the hands of the hardliners and not to give them an excuse to annul the elections or possibly even stage a coup d'etat. And I think given the level of mobilization, given the level of frustration suffered by the majority of the people again, I would contend, it is really quite remarkable the level of maturity exhibited here is quite remarkable. So undoubtedly the path to change is going to be a very torturous one, but let's keep in mind that the path to change in other countries, including, for example, Russia, has not been any easier and less torturous.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me just ask you to explain one thing to us, particularly to an American audience: Where does the guardian council get the authority to say "trump" the voters? In other words is that in the constitution? Is it because the supreme leader, the ayatollah, ultimately has the ultimate power?
ALI BANUAZIZI: Well, the guardian council has been given the charge of protecting the country and the state and Islam against all kinds of challenges, and it has very broad powers which it has interpreted even more broadly, including career meddling in the electoral affairs of the country. So the constitution at this point is vague enough to allow the guardian council to exercise the kinds of extra-judicial, extra-constitutional authority that has been exercised. But there are other factors. I would only mention one.
MARGARET WARNER: I'm sorry. But let me get on to Daniel Pipes because I want to get back to him.
ALI BANUAZIZI: Sure.
MARGARET WARNER: And comment on the professor's point that the reformers have played it a very smart game here encouraging their supporters not to go in the streets and not to demonstrate. Do you agree with him that that really in the medium term is the best strategy?
DANIEL PIPES: I do indeed agree that it is by far the best strategy. Were the reformers to act in a hot-headed way, then the full force of the hardliners would fall on them and we would be crushed perhaps. But right now they're playing a savvy game and they're getting quite far. I also agree with Ms. Sciolino's point, which I think is a very profound one that nobody is trying undo the Islamic republic. There's different visions to keep it going. It's a little bit like Gorbachev and his hardliners. Everybody wants to keep it going. Nonetheless the fact is that the reforms that Gorbachev unleashed were reforms that Khatami would want to release are in the end probably fatal for the system. So it's in our interest and no matter how much they want to keep it going. Whatever the motives are that, in fact, they unleash these reforms. Yes, they've been doing it in an intelligent way.
MARGARET WARNER: And, staying with you for a minute, Mr. Pipes, how does the trial of these Iranian Jews fit into this picture? In other words, what purpose do these trials serve for the hardliners?
DANIEL PIPES: It is a way of isolating the country from the outside and isolating the reformers from the outside. It's a little bit analogous to 22 years ago when the hard liners took over the American embassy. This called a revulsion outside, created a breach with the foreign countries and allowed the hardliners to increase their power within. So it is with the Iranian Jews on trial today with this kangaroo trial, now five of them have confessed. It's an internal power play. And I think more broadly we should see the argument that's going on between these two broad factions as an internal, domestic Iranian debate with very few elements of foreign policy involved. They're not talking about the Arab-Israeli peace process, not talking about weapons of mass destruction, not talking about terrorism and not talking about improving relations with the United States. That's not the center of gravity. It is how things work in Iran.
MARGARET WARNER: Elaine, so how do you see in the medium term the reformist forces regrouping here? I mean, what do you think they're going to do?
ELAINE SCIOLINO: I'd like to come back first to something that Dan said about the trial of the Jews because I don't think we can underestimate the importance, the real symbolic importance of this kind of trial and its impact on the international community. Confessions in Iran are nothing new. They're emblematic of a dark side, a repressive side that continues even today despite the reformist trends, despite the transparency, the move towards democracy, the rule of law. There are centers within centers in Iran. I would argue you can't speak of an Iranian regime anymore or an Iranian rule. There are different power centers with different levels of authority and influence. And I think that that is going to continue to play out in this struggle. That's why it's difficult to predict a trend line or a future path.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor, brief last word: Would you expect this new parliament to take office?
ALI BANUAZIZI: I believe so. By the end of May, God willing.
MARGARET WARNER: So you're willing to make that fearless prediction? Professor?
ALI BANUAZIZI: Yes.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you all three very much.
Comment on this item
You can help support Daniel Pipes' work by making a tax-deductible donation to the Middle East Forum. Daniel J. Pipes