June 19, 2009

Bernard Hourcade on the Crisis in Iran

Originally published in Lemonde.fr

We have translated and posted here a question-and-answer session between Bernard Hourcade, director of the French National Centre for Scientific Research, on the crisis in Iran.

 “One may fear that the repression will increase”

In a chat with LeMonde.fr, Bernard Hourcade, researcher at CNRS, says that the Supreme Guide, Ali Khamenei, by supporting Ahmadinejad, “has broken the consensus that was prevailing in the government of the Islamic Republic.”

Rudy:  Where are we with the accusations of fraud?

Bernard Hourcade:  I have not personally tallied the results, and a number of hypotheses have been advanced.  On the one hand, the official position of the Interior Ministry, supported by the Supreme Guide this afternoon, is that Ahmadinejad won with 24 million votes even though he had won only 5 million votes in the first round in 2005.  This result is very surprising.

Secondly, corroborated reports indicate that some individuals took control of the Interior Ministry the evening of the elections.  Thirdly, exit polls seemed to indicate that Mousavi and Karrubi had come ahead of Ahmadinejad.  All these elements suggest the very strong hypothesis of a massive fraud operation.

Rica:  Are the demonstrations only the acts of an elite, urban, educated minority?  Numerous reports seem to indicate that the movement is more broadly supported than that.

Hourcade:  It is incontestable that the new middle bourgeoisie voted massively for Mousavi and Karrubi in the large cities.  They are therefore the main malcontents.

But one must recall that many revolutionaries of 1979, who are now 50 or 60 years old, also voted for these candidates because their revolutionary ambitions are not being met in the current Islamic Republic.  Thus, today’s demonstrations represent a vast segment of society.  We must recognize above all that the youth are very active, but are not the only ones participating in the demonstrations.

Rey:  Can power increase the repression, or is it already at its maximum?

Hourcade:  So far, the repression has not been systematic.  The deaths were the result of serious but isolated incidents.  By contrast, arrests of moderates and reformists have been massive.

The statement of [Supreme] Guide Khamenei this Friday afternoon, confirms the election of Ahmadinejad and demands the end of demonstrations.  One may thus fear that systematic repression will begin from tomorrow morning on.

Raf:  What exactly should we make of Khamenei’s speech today?  The Supreme Leader seems to have finally chosen his camp.  And clearly.

Hourcade:  The [Supreme] Guide has the function of arbitrating.  But in this election, he has chosen his camp, that of Ahmadinejad, even though the other candidates are equally “sons of Khomeini.”  The consensus that had prevailed in the government of the Islamic Republic seems thus to have been broken.  This is what explains the size of the demonstrations and the participation of Mousavi and Karrubi at their head.

Bbb:  Does Ahmadinejad have the power to resolve the crisis alone?  Or must he come together with other members of the regime?

Hourcade:  Ahmadinejad is a secondary political personality in the Islamic Republic.  He depends heavily on the support of the [Supreme] Guide and partially on that of the revolutionary forces ([the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps], Basiji).  He has developed a network of friends while he has been in power, but all that does not suffice to give him a political capability of the first order.

It thus seems unlikely that he was alone at the origin of the crisis and/or of the resulting frauds.  Ahmadinejad cannot escape from this crisis alone.

Phil:  How far is Mousavi ready to go?  And what sort of support does he have in Iran?

Ali:  Is there a risk of civil war?

Hourcade:  Mousavi is a revolutionary candidate, but one who has benefited from twenty years of reflection out of active political life.  He is thus close to both the [Supreme] Guide and to the popular dynamic.  In addition, his wife, Zahra Rahnevard, is a very well-known feminist in Iran.

Mousavi thus appeared as a compromise candidate between those faithful to the regime and partisans of a controlled evolution.  It is clear that Mousavi does not want the Islamic Republic to fall, but simply wants a change of government.

Benjaminl_1:  Aside from the rapprochement with Europe and the West in general, what are the points of disagreement between [Ahmadinejad] and his opponents?

Hourcade:  During his campaign, Mousavi opposed Ahmadinejad over his way of governing, accusing him of squandering oil revenues and insulting the international community instead of building Iranian power.  Ahmadinejad has a confrontational approach, Mousavi has an approach based on negotiation and the search for compromise.

Even if they agree on the objectives of independence, of Islam, of social justice, during discussions with the United States, these differences of approach are fundamental.

Pasteur_Bergman:  How can we explain that many protestors accuse Ahmadinejad of being a dictator without raising the question of his principal order-giver:  [Supreme] Guide Khamenei?

Hourcade:  The president is being accused now because the question is about him.  The protestors are not raising the question of the Islamic Republic.  It is the truth of the elections that is being contested.  This does not mean that there are not partisans of a radical change of regime among the protestors.  But this question is not the order of the day for the moment.  Mousavi is radically opposed to [raising this question].

Roustaveli:  Does the governmental propaganda that accuses “foreign powers” of being at the root of the demonstrations take hold among the population?

Hourcade:  Foreign influence in Iran is an extremely sensitive subject, above all since the fall of Mossadegh in 1953 by a coup d’etat organized by the CIA.  Thus none of the Iranian political forces wish to receive direct aid from abroad.  Directly supporting Mousavi would be the best way for a foreign government to marginalize him.  On the other hand, popular support of the citizens of the world for the democratic Iranian pavement can play a very important moral role.

It is very unlikely that foreign powers had any role whatsoever in what is happening in Iran.  In general, Iranians do not believe in this idea.

Wesh:  Why do you think that the [Supreme] Guide chose to support Ahmadinejad rather than someone else?  Is the reason ideological, or does it relate to political issues stemming from the obscurity of the Iranian power?

Hourcade:  Ahmadinejad in 2005 was the most malleable candidate to comfort the conservatism of the system by relying on its fundamentals:  opposition to the United States, opposition to Israel, and Islamic culture, notably about women.  The Iranian establishment’s support for Ahmadinejad is thus both a question of the individual and of ideological principles.

Rey:  If he remains in power, will Ahmadinejad be able to continue the same policy:  isolation on the international scene, repression and totalitarianism internally?

Hourcade:  It is clear that Ahmadinejad, especially after what is going on now, will have policies as radical as those of the past, since this is how he distinguishes himself from other candidates.  His partisans are looking to him as a radical to oppose the United States systematically, even after the start of negotiations.

Nevertheless, the correlation of international forces, especially the change of American policy, and the strategic danger emanating from Afghanistan and Pakistan, might constrain the new Ahmadinejad government to change its deportment partially under the pressure.

Coyote:  What is the role of the Shi’ite clergy in this crisis?

Kallikrates:  Does Ayatollah Khamenei risk being removed by dissident ayatollahs?

Hourcade:  The Shi’ite clergy is, by definition, multifarious.  Some [clergymen] are part of the apparatus of the Iranian state and support the Guide’s government; others prioritize religion.  The clergy of Qom is not extremely favorable to the political clergy of Tehran.  The demonstrations of the last few days have shown that many high-ranking clergymen are violently criticizing the divisions created by these contested elections.  The Association of Militant Clergy, notably, has called for a demonstration tomorrow, Saturday, which is an exceptional demarche.

As far as the removal of the Guide, it is juridically possible by the Assembly of Experts, who can remove him in case of illness or felony and elect someone else.  Such a development is currently improbable because it would fracture the Islamic Republic itself fundamentally, which the three defeated candidates do not want.

Steph:  And the army, which side is it on?

The army will probably remain neutral throughout the conflict, as it was during the 1979 Revolution.  The Revolutionary Guards are loyal to the Islamic Republic and not to a fraction of it.  They have clearly said that they would not fire on crowds as the Shah did.

The Iranian security forces and the Iranian armies are as divided as the population.  The risk of a military coup d’etat is thus very low.

David_Miodownick:  Can one speak of a secularization of young people in Iran?

The youth are no more secular than religious in Iran.  Religion there occupies an important place, as in other countries of the world, and the Iranian youth, like the adults, want to live in the 21st Century while remaining at the same time Iranians who love their country, participants in globalization, and also good Muslims.

Nevertheless, free thinking is developing in Iran as in most countries of the world.  But this phenomenon is not specific to the youth.

David_Miodownick:  Is a theocracy necessarily authoritarian?

Since God in Islam, as in Christianity and Judaism, is infinitely good, a theocracy should be on the contrary a government particularly solicitous of the wellbeing and liberty of people.

But the political translation of the divine will poses many problems, notably that of despotism, as the divine will itself of which no one can claim an exhaustive knowledge.

Alain:  In what circumstances can one envisage the fall of the regime?  Could the country go through such a transition peacefully?

Hourcade:  What is surprising now in Iran is the calm and the maturity of the demonstrations and, paradoxically, also of the police forces, who have put down the demonstrations but have avoided any frontal assault.  The numerous deaths are the fault of extremists or of “uncontrolled elements.”

We can thus hope that a new consensus may be found in the Islamic republic.  This optimistic hypothesis could be swept aside by the inability of the current power-holders to negotiate, since they seem to refuse all concessions.  Iran has entered a “revolutionary” process that is not yet massive, but that cannot be stopped by a single speech.

Cerrumios:  Is it known that there are relations between the Iranian government and al Qaeda, since they agree on certain points (opposition to the USA, Islamist culture, opposition to Israel…)

Hourcade:  In the Islamic world, the Iranian Republic and al Qaeda are at two extremes, and the possibility that the pro-Taliban elements might take power in Pakistan is a mortal danger for Islamic Iran.

Al Qaeda, Sunni, is at the opposite extreme of the “modern” Islam of Khomeini.  Opposition to the United States is less ideological than political in Iran.  And finally, concerning Israel, Iran is more anti-Israeli than pro-Palestinian.  Thus, beyond generalities, these two movements within political Islam are radically opposed.

Nico_1:  If Ahmadinejad remains in power, how do you see the reaction of other states?  Should we not expect a conflict with Iran, even a third world war?

Hourcade:  The next radical government of Ahmadinejad will certainly comfort those who think that no change is possible in Iran today, particularly on the nuclear question, on Palestine, and on the Islamic ideology.  These factors could provoke tensions and certainly conflicts.

But this situation is not new, and the demonstrations of recent days have demonstrated the positive political dynamic of Iran today.  Any conflict risks “killing” not only the radicals, but also the partisans of opening-up.