Iranian-American writer and journalist Hooman Majd was gracious enough to talk with RealClearWorld today about the past, present and future of the Iranian reform movement. Majd - whose work has appeared in several publications, such as GQ, Newsweek, The New Yorker and the Financial Times - is author of the book The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran. This interview was edited for sake of length and clarity:
RCW: You recently argued in the pages of Foreign Policy that the Iranian Green Movement is a civil rights movement rather than a revolutionary one. Keeping that in mind, what kind of concessions will the regime have to make in order to appease the Greens?
Majd: If we're talking about the leadership of the Green Movement, then I think the system would have to concede at least that political prisoners will be released (not necessarily those with proven ties to the MEK), that the next elections will be independently monitored (outside of the Guardian Council), and that political parties will be free to form and be active. The Green Movement now encompasses many groups and many individuals with varying demands, as both Mousavi and Karroubi have acknowledged, but I still believe that the majority of Green sympathizers (if not outright supporters) look to the leadership - which includes [former Iranian President Mohammad] Khatami and sometimes [former President Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani as well - to fight for reform rather than an overthrow of the system. Without these revolutionaries and loyal Iranian politicians, fringe groups have little hope of attracting the general population (which is religiously conservative) to their side, or even some of the security forces who may be disillusioned with the brutality of the crackdown on dissent. It's impossible to say whether the Supreme Leader will ever agree to concessions, but the good news is that some conservative loyalists believe he should. Hard-liners are pushing for a complete obliteration of the reform movement, but as long as conservatives such as [Tehran Mayor Mohammed-Baqer] Qalibaf and [Majlis Speaker Ali] Larijani still hold sway, there might be chance for some kind of compromise.
RCW: The word â??paradoxâ?? is often associated with Iran. For instance, thereâ??s the Iran of the North Tehrani youth, and then there's the Iran of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. For various reasons, the former has become the hero of the narrative, while the latter has become the villain. Do you think thatâ??s fair? Who makes up Ahmadinejad's base?
Madj: I don't think it's fair. I think we see the hero/villain context only in the West, whereas in Iran it's not quite so simple. Ahmadinejad (and his ilk) still have considerable support - perhaps not a majority of the population - among the working class and outside of the big cities. He is not a villain to those who believe him to be an incorruptible and regular guy; one of them who understands their problems. There is a tremendous amount of resentment towards some of the old guard of the revolution, such as Rafsanjani, who are perceived to have enriched themselves and have engaged in nepotism. To some Ahmadinejad represents a break from the corruption of the past. He has also not been particularly vocal - as the Revolutionary Guards and some hard-line clerics have been - in denouncing protesters. He often says he is unhappy people are in jail and that "we are all Iranians," which plays well amongst his supporters who may not be supportive of the brutality of the crackdown. There is no doubt, of course, that the middle and upper-class youth who are protesting and getting arrested, beaten or killed are heroes to their peers and to Iranians outside Iran, but I'm not sure that Iranians in general, inside Iran, are viewing the issue in those terms. Society has become more polarized, and within families even there are those who support the Green Movement and those who support Ahmadinejad.
RCW: You're related to former President Khatami. How does this reform movement differ from the reform movement that coalesced around Mr. Khatami in the late 1990â??s?
Majd: In 1997 the very idea of reform was new, and there was suddenly a hope - much like there was in the U.S. in 2008 with Obama - that there might be real change in Iran. There was change, of course, but probably not enough for many Iranians who became disillusioned with the political system, particularly after the student protests of 1999. Those Iranians essentially stopped participating in the political process, which is why turnout for the presidential election in 2005 was twenty points lower than in 2009. I witnessed the hope again last year, as we got close to the election, and I think this time people somehow sensed that the reform movement was going to be on their side all the way, that it wouldn't back down in the face of hard-liners threats, and that change was again possible (of course that may be why the conservative hard-liners couldn't abide a Mousavi or Karroubi win). It was for this reason, I believe, that people came out onto the streets in June in the numbers they did. Since then, the reform movement has morphed somewhat, and as a civil rights movement rather than just a group of political parties, is unlikely to give up on its goal or be silenced. It may take some time, but it seems to me that the basic demands for reform will eventually have to be met, whereas in the Khatami era, it didn't seem as though anyone was going to fight - or have the ability to fight - to ensure that change would come in the Islamic republic.
RCW: What might a deal or power sharing arrangement look like, if one can be reached between the factions?
Majd: There are all kinds of rumors, none of which can be confirmed. But I expect that any compromise won't really involve power sharing so much, but a more open atmosphere for the opposition to operate. It may be that a few of Ahmadinejad's ministers might be replaced (such as [Iranian FM Manouchehr] Mottaki), or that [Iranian nuclear negotiator] Saeed Jalili is replaced with someone less ideological, but it is unlikely that Ahmadinejad would agree to real power-sharing. It is also possible that the Expediency Council could be given greater oversight (it was given more in 2005, but hasn't been able to exercise power over Ahmadinejad). Rafsanjani, Rezai, and even Mousavi are members of the Expediency Council, and if that body became more active in exercising control over the government and its ministries, that might a potential compromise for the reformists. I don't think anyone believes that compromise will look like anything that might show the regime to be weak; it will have to be subtle for the Supreme Leader to even consider it.