What is the current situation on the ground in Iran?

I’d first of all say that we should truly appreciate the magnitude of this moment. Those who argue this is only a disagreement between revolutionary elites are patently wrong. The mayor of Tehran, Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf, himself a former senior Revolutionary Guard commander, claimed that over three million people demonstrated in Tehran. I am not at all predicting a revolution, and in fact people are not even using the word ‘engheleb’ i.e. revolution, but to give you an idea, in 1978 it took six months before a million people took to the streets, this time it took place in a matter of days. And the images and many reports showed how the demonstrations represented an incredibly diverse socio-economic swath of Iranian society, with women often being at the forefront.

The scale of the demonstrations has subsided for now, but there’s no indication that people’s sense of injustice or rage has subsided. From what I hear from people in Tehran, the nightly protest chants of ‘Allahu Akbar’ are as loud as they’ve ever been. The main problem the opposition faces at the moment is that its leadership is either imprisoned, under house arrest or unable to communicate openly. So you still have tremendous popular outrage, and you have unprecedented cleavages amongst the political elite that haven’t yet been reconciled. But if this popular outrage is to be channeled politically it will require leadership, and at the moment that is lacking.

Who were the people on the street last week, on July 9?

Last week was the tenth anniversary of the 1999 student protests. Despite the great brutality of the government the last four weeks, and the fact that people were sternly warned not attend, there were still over a thousand protestors throughout Tehran. I’m sure that for every one person out in the streets, there were thousands more at home who feel solidarity with them.

It’s worth underscoring the tremendous courage which people have shown the last few weeks. While the government claims only a few dozen have been killed and a few hundred imprisoned, what I’ve heard from European embassies in Tehran and independent human rights groups is that several thousand have been imprisoned and several hundred killed. The more hardline elements of the bassij militia seem to truly relish violence. People are up against an ostensibly religious government that has shown no moral compunction, a government that murders an innocent 26-year-old woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, and then blames it on the BBC and CIA. Every time people take to the streets they’re risking their lives, and the fact that thousands continue to do so is not insignificant.

What is going on beyond Tehran, because we only really hear about Tehran?

Some of the images I’ve seen outside of Tehran have been similarly remarkable. In Isfahan—whose population is more traditional than that of Tehran—the demonstrators filled up the enormous Nagsh-e Jahan square, the largest historic square in the world and a UNESCO world heritage site. In the images of it you can’t see an inch of ground it is so tightly packed with people. I’ve seen video footage of other large protests and nightly chants of Allahu Akbar in important cities like Tabriz, Shiraz, Mashad and Kashan. There’s an incredible video of Kashan University being overwhelmed by student protestors. In short, discontent in Iran certainly transcends geographic location.

One problem outside of Tehran, however, is that people are often less connected to the outside world via the Internet and satellite television, and have less access to technologies like video phones to document what’s taking place. For this reason there’s a lot of concern that the type of repression and human rights abuses that take place outside of the capital are much greater than that which has been documented only in Tehran alone, for outside of major cities the regime’s repressive apparatus can act with impunity, and without accountability.

There were some interesting reports out today about main opposition figures. Supposedly Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani will lead Friday prayers, and Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mohammad Khatami will be there. At the same time, I read that Mohsen Rezaie said something along the lines of ‘continuation of the current situation will lead us to collapse from inside,’ on his website. So, there are still these figures out there. What do you think they are up to?

I’m sure Rafsanjani feels torn. On the one hand, this election was a tremendous personal affront to him. He and his family were publicly maligned by Ahmadinejad during the campaign, who accused them of being not only corrupt but also traitors to the revolution. His children were harassed, and in some cases, briefly imprisoned. I have no doubt he has tremendous personal disdain not only for Ahmadinejad, but also for Khamenei. Certainly this has to do with power and greed, but there are also pronounced differences in their world-views.

On the other hand, the continued survival of the regime has always been paramount for Rafsanjani. He’s always seen himself as one of the protectors of the revolution and doesn’t want to take action that could hasten the demise of the entire Islamic system. In the past he has tended to tread carefully in his public statements about domestic politics, while continuing to operate behind the scenes.

But this Friday is probably the most important speech of his career. He’s nearly 75 years old, and his legacy has always been important to him. If he complains about personal slights and electoral improprieties but submits to the will of the Leader ‘for the sake of the ‘glorious revolution’,’ history will remember him not only as a crook but also a coward. I’ve learned to have low expectations of the courage and integrity of Iranian officials, and hope that I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Rezaie is interesting if only because he and individuals like Ali Larijani, the speaker of the parliament, are tremendous opportunists. They position themselves in the direction in which the most powerful political winds are blowing. The fact that both of them continue to straddle is telling. If Rezaie really sensed that the election dispute were resolved and a done deal, he would remain quiet. The fact that he recently said the country could face ’disintegration’ absent a political reconciliation seems to imply that there are important rifts we may not be privy to.

With regards to Moussavi and Khatami, I think Moussavi has up until now distinguished himself from Khatami—despite the fact that he doesn’t have Khatami’s charisma—by refusing to back down to the hardliners, the way Khatami did during the 1999 student protests. He has earned political capital. But the two of them have been somewhat absent from the events of the last two weeks. If they do indeed appear publicly at tomorrow’s Friday prayer session and Rafsanjani concedes defeat, it will be a tremendous blow to the millions of people who took to the streets.

What do you make of the talk that Mojtaba Khamenei has had a very deep role in the past month’s events?

There have been allegations about Mojtaba since the 2005 election. Mehdi Karroubi, who in 2005 narrowly lost to Ahmadinejad in the first round, wrote an open letter to Ayatollah Khamenei alleging that Mojtaba helped engineer Ahmadinejad’s victory. Khamenei wrote a furious letter to Karroubi ordering him to keep quiet. But now Mojtaba is once again being discussed. People say that he’s essentially his father’s henchman—he does his father’s dirty work. Though Mojtaba trained as a cleric, he has grown up amongst intelligence officials and Revolutionary Guardsmen, that’s his coterie. I was told separately by several informed sources in Tehran shortly after these recent elections that Mojtaba, among others, played an instrumental role in making sure that the election results came out in Ahmadinejad’s favor. There are now rumors that he’s going to be leading the bassij militia. Iran’s system is so opaque that it’s difficult to know for sure.

What are the implications of the silence so far of most of the clerics? What’s going on among the clerical class?

According to the dissident cleric Mohsen Kadivar, only one of twelve grand ayatollahs in Qom has congratulated Ahmadinejad. What’s even more interesting is how several prominent clerics over the last few weeks have openly criticized Khamenei.

Ayatollah Montazeri, the most senior grand ayatollah in Iran, recently issued a fatwa stating that Khamenei is an illegitimate ruler, which is probably the greatest verbal challenge to Khamenei’s leadership in the last 20 years.

What we’ve seen in Iran over the last decade, however, is that the institution of the Revolutionary Guards has eclipsed the institution of the clergy, in terms of their political and economic clout. So while the cleavages amongst clerical elite is certainly significant, what would be a far more fatal blow to Ahmadinejad and Khamenei would be open dissent amongst the Revolutionary Guard elite, which we haven’t yet seen.

Do you think that the Revolutionary Guards are still behind Khamenei?

The senior commanders of the Revolutionary Guards were handpicked by Khamenei, they owe their positions to Khamenei, and at the moment at least I think they’re unlikely to challenge him. But there’s a lot of anecdotal and some empirical evidence to show that the rank and file of the Revolutionary Guards is more reflective of Iranian society at large. They are not simply 120,000 radicals who are ready to martyr themselves to retain Ahmadinejad’s presidency, as one of the senior commanders recently alluded.

How would you estimate the costs of the government’s actions?

In terms of the political costs, I would argue that over the last four weeks the legitimacy of the Ahmadinejad government has decreased rather than increased. Meaning, as time has passed more people have questioned the legitimacy of the elections rather than endorsed the results.

This scale of repression is not only politically costly for the regime but it’s also financially costly. To have, essentially, martial law—tens of thousands of basij militia and Revolutionary Guards patrolling the streets of major cities in Iran—and to have thousands of people in prisons throughout the country, and to constantly be filtering the internet and jamming satellite broadcasts from abroad is very expensive.

For example, European diplomats have told me that to jam satellite television broadcasts such as Voice of America and BBC Persian is exorbitantly expensive, it costs the government thousands of dollars per minute. Think about those costs over a four-week period. We’re talking about tens of millions of dollars that the government is spending on tools to repress the population. This may be sustainable for the next weeks and months, but it’s not a long-term option for the regime. I don’t see time being on the side of the hardliners in Iran, especially if there continues to be a decline in oil prices, which is really the regime’s lifeblood.

What are the long-term implications?

First of all, the idea of the Islamic Republic of Iran is now over. It has lost any claims of being a ‘republic.’ Past Iranian governments didn’t necessarily represent a wide swath of Iranian society, but they certainly encompassed a fairly wide swath of the Iranian political elite. Now the country is being run by a small cartel, which I would argue, reflects not only a very narrow swath of Iranian society, but also a narrow swath of Iran’s political elite. It’s a cartel of hardline clerics and Revolutionary Guardsmen who have benefitted tremendously from the oil bonanza of the last few years. They made nearly $300 billion in oil revenue the last four years and don’t want to share power. They are self-proclaimed ‘principlists’ but in reality their only real principles are power and money.

If indeed they do stay in power, I think the implications for Iran are increased political isolation and economic malaise. This was a government, Ahmadinejad’s government, that even when oil was at a 150 dollars a barrel, Iranians were complaining that their economic circumstances had deteriorated. The combination of oil at 60 dollars a barrel and heightened economic sanctions is going to be much more difficult for the Ahmadinejad government to endure, I think it’s going to require the use of very repressive means to stay in power. And again, the political and economic costs of this repression are significant over the long term.

How might this affect U.S. policy toward Iran?

It seriously complicates the Obama administration’s engagement efforts. For the first time ever, I think we shouldn’t even be talking about engaging Iran, we should take a wait and see approach. The strategic imperative to have relations with Iran will always remain, but let’s wait until the dust settles in Tehran.

When the protests were at their peak, the Obama administration correctly refrained from inserting the United States into Iran’s internal political battles, for fear that we would hurt those whom we’re trying to help. I think we should continue to adhere to our policy of non-interference in Iran’s internal affairs. By prematurely calling for engagement I think we run the risk of demoralizing the opposition and the millions of people who took to the streets and who continue to reject the legitimacy of the Ahmadinejad government; we implicitly endorse an election that is still being hotly contested in Tehran and tip the balance in favor of the hardliners.

While the costs of engagement in the short-term are very high, the benefits of immediate engagement are negligible. Tehran is still in disarray and Iranian officials have shown no signs whatsoever that they’re prepared or capable of making the types of compromises necessary to reach an accommodation with the U.S. when it comes to the nuclear issue or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

All that being said, I understand the Obama administration has decided that the nuclear clock is too urgent an issue to delay negotiations. But we should be clear about something: The problem we have with Iran has far more to do with the character of the regime than their nuclear program. The reality is that as long as Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and company are in power, we’re never going to reach a nuclear accord which sufficiently allays our suspicions—and Israel’s suspicions—that Iran is pursuing a weapons program. Any such accord would not only require Tehran to significantly curtail enrichment and agree to an intrusive inspections regime, it will also require them to modify their hostility toward Israel and alter their relationship with groups like Hezbollah. The chances of this happening as long as Ahmadinejad is president and Khamenei is Supreme Leader are very slim.

If indeed Khamenei and Ahmadinejad manage to retain power for the foreseeable future—which is totally plausible and yet highly unpredictable—I think our Iran policy will resemble our policy toward the Soviet Union in its latter days, namely a combination of engagement and containment. I seriously think Ahmadinejad would welcome an Israeli strike in order to try and achieve the same outcome as Saddam Hussein’s 1980 invasion of Iran—namely to unite disparate political factions against a common threat and keep giddy Iranian minds busy with foreign quarrels.

What other countries have a key role to play?

As always, to the extent possible, it’s essential that Iran face a unified international approach. It’s essential that European countries show a strong backbone and keep their political and economic dealings with Tehran to a minimum. China and Russia are always more difficult to sway, but when you talk to Russian and Chinese officials in private it’s obvious they are no fans of the Ahmadinjead government. The fact that Iran has attacked China’s treatment of its Muslim minorities I’m sure irritated Beijing.

But the country that has the greatest potential to influence internal Iranian affairs in the short term is Saudi Arabia. The Iranian economy is heavily reliant on oil revenue, and each one dollar drop in oil prices is nearly one billion dollars of lost annual revenue for Iran. If Saudi Arabia—whose relations with Iran have deteriorated since Ahmadinejad became president—were to quietly increase output in order to provoke a price drop it could prove devastating to Iran, far more damaging than any sanctions that are now being deliberated.

So what happens to the P5 +1 nuclear negotiation process? Does it just stop?

I think before the U.S. decides to engage Iran it’s a good idea to have EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana first try and feel out the Iranians privately. If the Iranians continue to send their current nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, that means they’re not interested in negotiating or making any compromises. Jalili is simply an apparatchik who shows up with strictly defined talking points. I’m sure the Iranians will try to draw the U.S. and EU into negotiations in order to get recognition for the Ahmadinejad government. But I don’t see them interested or capable of making any deal. In other words they’re interested in the rainbow, but not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.