Soraya Sepahpour-Ulrich: . . . I think there’s nothing new that the West is painting a distorted image of what’s going on in Iran. I also want to mention that it’s very normal to have political dissent in any country. Iran is not unique in that sense. But what’s happening is by distorting the image of what’s going on, political dissent, in Iran, it’s not doing the political opposition any favor. The opposition in Iran, whatever they do, will be blamed on the Western media and the Western powers. So, in a way, their movement has been hijacked. I do believe firmly that, although the movement is genuine, the Westerners, especially the United States and Israel, had a hand in it also, so it’s a combination of both. . . . I think the biggest difference [between what is going on in Iran and the way it has been projected by the Western media] is that these people genuinely want some change, and the changes they want vary: some want more jobs . . . some want more freedoms. But a lot of people in the West seem to think that they want to get rid of the regime altogether. That’s not necessarily the case. I was there a couple of months ago. Some of them just want more personal liberties. The Western media, especially America, wants to change this in Iran and make them believe that they want to get rid of the regime altogether. Reza Pahlavi, the Shah’s son, and the Mojahedin, they are all there standing in line, thinking that they are in line to be taken to Iran to negotiate a deal with America. That’s not necessarily the case. All they want is just relaxed rules, and I think Ahmadinejad heeded this. If they were left alone, the opposition would be able to have a party and reconcile with the government. . . .
Azadeh Moaveni: I have a somewhat different take. I think that, six months ago, people wanted the government to heed the rules. Six months ago, people wanted a new election to be convened and wanted their basic electoral rights under the constitution. But I think that much has changed since then, and what we see as, what is being called, the Green Movement has become quite radicalized in the face of the government refusing to compromise or to meet any of its demands and instead brutally cracking down. So, I think now — certainly there’s no agreement, the opposition doesn’t speak in one voice — but there is certainly a very radical element emerging who is chanting in the streets for a different kind of rule, questioning the entire system of Islamic government. Now, is that a majority of protesters? I think it’s hard to say. I think that the government has restricted reporting so much that it’s hard to measure whether that reflects a broad demand. . . . I think we’re at a very significant moment, and the momentum is certainly on the side of the protesters. I think that, right now, professors at Tehran University, football players, directors, Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, the country’s cultural and social heroes are all on the side of the movement that is going increasingly critical. So I think that the moral momentum is certainly on the side of the protest. What’s striking I think is that a lot of people discounted this six months ago as a protest movement that might fizzle out because it didn’t have leadership, but what we are seeing is an incredibly resilient movement that is finding lots of ways to reflect its energy. . . .
Hillary Mann Leverett: I don’t think much is gonna come [out of the clampdown on foreign organizations accused of “psychological war” in Iran]. I think what we are seeing in Iran today, particularly as portrayed in the Western media, is an exaggeration of some sort of uprising: intifada as many have described it inside Iran, and maybe even the fall of the Berlin Wall, people have said. It’s nothing of the sort. We have had protests, very clear divisions within the Iranian government, from the beginning of the revolution, from assassinations and the exile of the prime minister early on to going after dissidents in Europe in the 1980s; killing intellectuals in 1998, five were killed; in 1999 there were widespread student demonstrations inside Iran. This I think is just another cycle in this kind of permanent division within the Islamic Republic that we’ve had since 1979. What I think you see the government concerned about now — and I think they have a point here, though it’s very unpopular to say so, particularly in Washington, DC — is that the United States — especially the past eight years under President Bush, and, this is a critically important point, President Obama has decided not to stop it — has pursued both a covert and an overt program to destabilize and undermine the government in Iran. Now, that doesn’t mean that the Americans are now orchestrating any protest on the streets of Iran, but it does mean that there are $400 million appropriated for covert activities to destabilize that government. So, that government is legitimately concerned that any American activity is suspect. Now that translates into the latest decision by a part of the Iranian government to so-called ban Iranians from having contact with some foreign organizations — some of which I’m associated with, my Web site The Race for Iran is associated with one of the organizations on this bad list — but many of us, including myself, met with President Ahmadinejad in September when he was in New York, and my understanding is that the desire to keep those contacts remains the same even though there are parts of the Iranian government that have taken this concern about US involvement to probably too concerned of a level. . . .
Riz Khan: . . . Nick Ziegler wrote from California saying, “My country, the U.S., has intervened in Iran before on the pretense of supporting democracy, while actually supporting authoritarian elements in the country. We support democracy, so long as the right people are elected.” So, you’re saying basically President Obama has continued this policy of the Bush administration. What happened to his desire to engage?
Hillary Mann Leverett: I think we really have to question — I have been questioning for some time — whether his rhetorical articulations to engage Iran were just that, whether they were just nice words, whether the Nowruz message was just a nice speech, whether there was some real strategic thinking, purposeful strategic thinking, behind that. I’ve questioned that for some time. I think today that everybody who really cares about what’s gonna happen to the United States, the US in the Middle East, and the Middle East itself, really needs to question what Obama is doing — we see this in terms of his seriousness regarding Iran, regarding Israel-Palestine, regarding Afghanistan. He comes up with great rhetorical formulations, but then there’s very little behind it, very little serious strategic thinking behind it. . . .
Riz Khan: . . . Let’s get back to some questions here, with Alireza in New York on the phone joining us. Go ahead, Alireza.
Alireza: Hi, there. I’m an Iranian-American, and like most Iranians I’ve been following this for the past six months, and I think I’ve reached a point where I’ve come to the conclusion that the opposition is pure rhetoric. I mean they’ve produced no evidence for any of their claims of election fraud, and it seems like they’ve descended into pure hooliganism and violence and just setting Tehran on fire to prove their point and propaganda — every kind of worst aspect of political activity. I’ve kind of become fed up with this. I’m an American-Iranian, so I was originally very much in favor of Mousavi and his improved relations, but I’ve really at this point just become fed up with all of the hooliganism of these reformers, and I’m wondering if this attitude is something that other Iranians may feel.
Riz Khan: Let’s get comment from Soraya in Los Angeles. . . . You were saying earlier on how it’s a mixed batch of people protesting, there are different reasons why people are out on the streets. Is there any semblance of a hard-core opposition then that has a true political motive and, like you said, maybe been hijacked. . . Can you see that hard-core political opposition actually isolating itself from the so-called hooliganism as Alireza is suggesting? . . .
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Cf. This just in from the Wall Street Journal: “The Obama administration is increasingly questioning the long-term stability of Tehran’s government and moving to find ways to support Iran’s opposition ‘Green Movement,’ said senior U.S. officials. . . . In recent weeks, senior Green Movement figures — who have been speaking at major Washington think tanks — have made up a list of IRGC-related companies they suggest targeting, which has been forwarded to the Obama administration by third parties” (Jay Solomon, “U.S. Shifts Iran Focus to Support Opposition,” 9 January 2009).
Azadeh Moaveni is the author of Lipstick Jihad and Honeymoon in Tehran and co-author, with Shirin Ebadi, of Iran Awakening. Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy. In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. Soraya Sepahpour-Ulrich, who has a Master’s in Public Diplomacy from the USC Annenberg School for Communication, is an independent researcher and writer. This interview was released on YouTube by Al Jazeera on 6 January 2010. The text above except the quotation from the Wall Street Journal is composed of an edited partial transcript of the interview.