Nick Glunt | Staff Writer
Farideh Farhi, while working for the International Crisis Group in 2006, attended a women’s demonstration in Iran for equal rights.
The Bush administration had recently given about $18 million to various civil society organizations in Iran, pushing for equal rights. The Iranian government viewed these funds as “regime-change money.”
After she had watched for a long time, a police officer approached her. The woman asked Farhi leave. She did not leave; she tried to negotiate. In Iran, after all, negotiating with police is common.
To her surprise, that police officer arrested her. She had only been in Iran for two days. Instead of being taken to a police station, Farhi and about 70 others were taken to a prison’s intelligence compound. The charges: acting against the system and threatening national security.
The police suspected Farhi was there as an agent of the U.S. with cash to give to the civil society organizations.
After several days of interrogation, Farhi was released. But she took with her knowledge about Iran that she wouldn’t otherwise have had.
Farhi shared this story as part of her 10:45 a.m. lecture Thursday in the Amphitheater. She was the fourth speaker in Week Six’s topic, “Iran: From Ancient Persia to Middle East Powder Keg.”
In addition to being a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii at Manao, Farhi is an adviser to the National Iranian American Council.
In her speech, titled “Making Sense of Iran’s Contentious Politics,” Farhi explained that the Iranian domestic government can be understood in three aspects: the nature of revolution, the lack of compromise and the changing society.
The nature of revolution
The Islamic Revolution of 1979, Farhi said, was the first modern revolution of the 20th century. It was extremely popular. It brought together opposing forces to face off against monarchy. Monarchy, she said, could not adjust itself into modern times, so it had to go.
There were three goals of the revolution: no to monarchy, no to dictatorship and no to a patron-client relationship with the U.S. Similarly, the slogans read independence and freedom.
Later, a third slogan was added: Islamic republic.
“It was added later, some people say, to ensure clerical control,” Farhi said, “while others saw it as a commitment to economic justice and populace politics.”
Once the monarch was removed, the consensus fell apart. The differing opinion-holders could only agree on what they did not want; there was no choice in what system to adopt.
Lack of compromise
Farhi asked the audience to think of the words “Islamic” and “republic.” She said an “Islamic republic” is an oxymoron. As such, problems were unavoidable.
The clerics are not elected and essentially have veto power. The elected officials — the president and parliament — represent the people but constantly are in conflict with the clerics on how to run the country.
“Under consensual circumstances, if there was a broad agreement about how to run the country — the policy direction of the country — this institutional arrangement could be considered a system of checks and balances,” Farhi said. “But as we are learning in the case of the United States as well, these institutions of checks and balance in times of serious policy disagreements and conflict end up being institutions that are in gridlock and impasse.”
In the end, it comes down to whether the interests of state trump interests of religion, or vice-versa. As it turned out, the state won that battle, Farhi said.
She added that one of the causes of the uncompromising problem is that the Iranian people never were able to keep a single revolutionary political party to keep progress on the right track.
Instead, she said, there is an “absolute impasse” in the Iranian government.
Changing Iranian society
Secularism is Iran is growing, she said, which is directly opposing the idea of an Islamic republic.
“You can live in Iran,” Farhi said the government tells the secular middle class. “It’s your country. Even make good money if you have good skills. … You can enjoy your private life, as long as it does not spill too much into the public life, because your lifestyles are not Islamic enough. Either don’t participate in elections, or if election results are manipulated to change the results, don’t protest. Because if you do, you will be dealt with harshly.”
The supreme leader of Iran, the leader of the clerics, has the final say, according to the Iranian Constitution. Once he announces the election results, it is final. However, that’s only if you take it literally, Farhi said.
She said the idea that the supreme leader has absolute power is very much “against the spirit” of the 1979 monarch-removing revolution. In the end, it returns back to that revolution.
“The Islamic republic remains in limbo,” Farhi said. “It is still trying to find a compromise to the fundamental contradiction of a popular, anti-imperialist revolution that cannot find the proper balance or accommodation among the contending forces. Unless it can become a much more inclusive political system, Iran will continue to become a very noisy place for years to come.”
Q: If there is so much contention between President Ahmadinejad and the supreme leader, how did the ’09 election go to Ahmadinejad?
A: In the 2009 election, there was no contention between the two. But in the 2011 (election), there is a tremendous amount of contention. And I have always said that the relationship between Ahmadinejad and the supreme leader is more like a temporary marriage. We have an institution among mostly Shiite Muslims called temporary marriage where you actually marry someone for a short period of time, and you define it for a short period of time. Sometimes people call it legal prostitution, but sometimes it could be for 99 years. So it’s a very complicated system of contract between men and women. But in this case, Ayatollah Khamenei himself has said why he supported Ahmadinejad in the 2009 election. After the election, he came out and effectively said, “I supported him because his ideas were more similar to mine.” Effectively, rather than saying, “I am the father of the nation, father of everybody,” you know, because that’s what constitutionally the supreme leader is supposed to do, “I think more like this guy, and I think ideas like his should be empowered.” Because, remember, Iran was also getting ready for the Obama administration to come in, and very important nuclear negotiations were about to happen. So the supreme leader wanted to make sure that someone who has similar views on foreign policy was the president of Iran. But Ahmadinejad was a very interesting character in some ways. I mean, he’s short, but he’s very bold, and he challenges everybody inside Iran. … People inside Iran are also in awe of him. It’s not only outside. And he simply took a principle position on the issue that “I am the president of Iran, and as the president of Iran, I should be able to fire and hire my cabinet members. The clerics can tell us what is Islamic or not Islamic, but they should not meddle in the executive affairs of the country. Constitutionally, that is my responsibility.” That was fine. What really did him in was that he didn’t go to work for 11 days because that was perceived, effectively, as a boycott, a challenge to clerical rule in Iran. And that is the context that the conflict occurs. Let me just end by saying that Ayatollah Khamenei currently now wants Ahmadinejad to finish his term, does not want to get rid of him. But it all will depend on Ahmadinejad and whether or not he will continue to be a naughty boy or not.
Q: There are several questions about the revolutionary guard, their power, who controls them. Can you speak to that topic, please?
A: There is a tremendous amount of debate on this issue among Iran experts. OK? There is no disagreement on the increasing influence of the revolutionary guards. OK? Iranian society has become a securitized society, because the Islamic system feels threatened. Now, we can have a debate about why that is the case, whether or not this was something that was going to happen anyway as the Islamic system was challenged by reformers or the policies of isolation that have been practiced by United States government … and the threat of war that is constantly in the air, threat of attacks, has helped that securitization. But the reality is that revolutionary guards, as well as other security, parallel security institutions in Iran, have become more powerful. The revolutionary guards have also entered various economic arenas. So Iran now has a very viable and military industrial complex that exists in many other countries of the world. And the question, what is debated, is whether or not these revolutionary guard institutions, IRGC, have now become powerful enough that it effectively runs the country. I am not in that camp. I basically think that the structure of the Islamic republic with the clerical rule at the top, the office of the leader, is effectively in charge and constitutionally, the office of the leader appoints and gets rid of the leaders of the revolutionary guard. So, there is a debate about whether or not the military as an institution has taken over Iranian politics, let us say, the way it used to be in Pakistan or perhaps still is, or the way it used to be in Turkey. Iran, from my point of view, Iran has never had a tradition of military taking over government institutions and running the country. It has had a tradition of what some people call sultanistic rule, monarchical rule, one-manned rule. And I think that’s the direction Iran has taken in the past few years.
Q: Could you speak to the role of oil in keeping the current system in place? What would happen if the oil price decreased significantly?
A: Iran has survived, OK, let’s be very clear, (on) very, very low oil prices. In the 1980s, we’re talking about $9 per barrel; during Khatami’s presidency, it was $14 a barrel, but there is no doubt that at this time in Iran’s history, where Iran is faced with one of the most toughest sanctioned regimes ever instituted, that oil prices are very important in maintaining at least the government of Ahmadinejad in power. This is particularly so because Ahmadinejad came to power on a platform of economic justice, so he has used these oil prices to spread it out to various groups that are supportive of the system. So, the government budget outlays have increased, deficit has increased, so if oil prices drop significantly … even to $60 or $70 levels, people think that the Iranian government will be in trouble. The problem is that oil prices are not expected to drop, so that’s the reality. Secondly, is that in the past year or so, the government of Iran, because of all these pressures, has been forced to institute a very, very broad and extensive austerity program. They have cut the subsidies; they have increased the price of gasoline inside the country to tremendous levels. They increased it in the free market by 700 percent, and (there are) no riots. That’s why IMF — International Monetary Fund — loves Iran’s austerity program because people have taken it. And so there is a degree of rationalization of the economy, ironically caused or helped by this very, very intensive sanctions regime going on. But the result is not very clear.
Q: If there are limited freedoms in Iran, how can the Iranian newspaper be so critical of the president and his administration?
A: That’s the irony. I tell you, every day I read the newspapers. And there are periods where newspapers are closed. So, it happens. But for example, since two months ago, three reformist newspapers were allowed to publish again, and I read it every day, and I’m just stunned of the kind of criticism. And let us be clear now, because of the changes that have occurred, these criticism are not only against the president anymore — they don’t name the supreme leader because that’s against the law, to criticize the supreme leader — but because the supreme leader came out and said, “My views are similar to Ahmadinejad,” when you are criticizing Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy, you are criticizing the supreme leader as well. So that’s the strange part. And the criticism does not only come in reformist papers because the conservatives don’t get along either. OK? The tradition is that when you get rid of a competitor, the competition doesn’t end. In fact, the competition becomes more intense. I guess it’s like when you get into a fight with your brother, your fight might be more intense than your friend. I don’t know what’s the deal. But remember I said the Islamic Republican Party was disbanded, and at that time, the Islamic Republican Party was able to get rid of all the non-Islamic competition. Even without non-Islamic competition, what happened was you had more intense competition within. So that’s the irony, that’s the paradox.
Q: How successful has Ahmadinejad been in selling his views of Israel and (the fact that) there was no Holocaust to the Iranian people generally? What are their views?
A: First of all, those two have to be separated within the context of Iranian political discourse. From my understanding, even the supreme leader ultimately told Ahmadinejad to cut it out on the issue of the Holocaust. They did not think that strategically that was a good thing to do. But the anti-Israel rhetoric was a very, very deliberate tactical move on the part of the Iranian government. The Iranian government operates this way: You threaten our legitimacy, we’re going to threaten Israel’s legitimacy. And remember that the Iranians never used, (and) the Iranian official media are not allowed to use, the term Israel. The always use the term “Zionist Regime.” So, if you’re going to say the Islamic regime is illegitimate, we’re going to say the Zionist regime (is) — we’re going to prop up the propaganda and say the Zionist regime is illegitimate in order to attract support at that time within the Arab world, in the Arab street, as they called it. But (in) Iranian society itself, the issue of Holocaust has never been an issue. What has been an issue, and a concern, and that’s where Ahmadinejad may draw some support, is that the Iranians are very unhappy. I mean, the population does not like occupation. That’s the reality, and Israeli policies are very much disliked by an overwhelming majority of the Iranians. I would say that if you take a poll, Iranians would say, “Palestine is not our problem; it’s an Arab problem,” but yet at the same time, what Israel is doing is unconscionable in the occupied territories. So in that sense, there is a degree of support for what he has done.
Q: Was it a mistake for the reformers to boycott the 2009 presidential election? Should they vote in 2013?
A: They did not boycott the 2009 election. They actually participated, and the population made a choice to participate, as I said. In the 2005 election, 62 percent voted; in 2009, 85 percent. Now, we are faced with another election, an election that comes on the heels of a highly manipulated election; people are upset. The reformers, headed by former president Khatami, are saying, “We will not participate in the election unless three conditions are met. One, the election is fair, which means that you do not vet all of our well-known candidates; (two), if political prisoners are released, Iran now has quite a few former ministers or deputy ministers in prison (who) are reformers, and of course the former prime minister is on it, so political prisoners are released; and finally, the environment political parties are allowed to participate.” Obviously, these are not conditions that are going to be met in the coming election, at least the parliamentary election. So the reformers — and the population — are faced with a very difficult choice, because both in the parliamentary election and presidential election, probably the conflict or the competition will be between hard-liners without Ahmadinejad … and conservatives, traditional conservatives who are not as security-oriented. They are interested in economic development, and they are interested in some sort of a movement toward the center. So what do you do? Remember I said there is a part of the population that votes for Ahmadinejad. … So if the participation rate goes down to 60 percent, the hard-liners don’t even have to manipulate election results too much. They can win. So what do you do? Tell me, what would you do?
Q: Have you been back to Iran since you were arrested; could you go back, and what conditions do you believe that the hikers are currently subjected to?
A: I have not gone back since 2006; my family has gone; my daughter has gone. I think I can go in; I will have no difficulty going in; I don’t think I’m important enough to be stopped from going into the country, but I do not know whether I can get out. Not that I will be sent to prison. My passport may be taken, and the circumstances are such that one can get caught in this very, very intense political conflict. And because I have so many friends among the reformers, among the human rights community in Iran, that I may be used; I’m a pawn to get somebody else, the real competition in Iran. And I think in the case of the hikers, they have effectively become pawns from hostile U.S.-Iran relations. It’s really important for us to understand that this thing goes both ways. There are Iranians in American prisons who have no idea why they are there. On the day that they went into the courtroom, they were crying, and they could not understand. There is this guy who was lured into Georgia — the country of Georgia — to buy some sort of equipment that was dual-use or something, and in the process, he was arrested by the Georgian government. He could not set out bail, and after a month or so, he was sent to the United States. He ended up in prison for a couple of years, without a lawyer, because that’s what the Patriot Act does; he’s a security risk. And then the day he was brought to the courthouse, he was just crying, because he didn’t know English. He was just saying, “I’m guilty; just get me out of here.” He was given a five-year term, and I think in a year or so, he’ll be out. … So this dynamic has become a very ugly dynamic of U.S.-Iran relations, and the people who are caught in this are not the governments of the two countries or the people who happen to be people that are either messengers or go from one side to another, people who are trying to mediate, people who are trying to connect. Increasingly, it’s become more and more difficult. So the trials are going on right now, and I don’t know what the decision will be. The hope, the lawyer has said that he hopes that they have, after all, they spent two years, (that) the decision (they) may hand down (is) that they have already served. Find them guilty, but then say that they have already served their term, and let them go. But there are no guarantees.
– Transcribed by Emma Morehart