Director of Community Outreach, National Iranian American Council
Monday, June 15, 2009 1:00 PM
The confused aftermath of Iran's presidential election is complicating the Obama administration's planned outreach to the Islamic republic and underscoring the challenges facing the president's new approach to the Middle East based on shared values and common interests.
Latest Post Story From Tehran: Hundreds of Thousands of Iranians Protest Election in Tehran (Filed 12:53 p.m. ET)
Michelle Moghtader, director of Community Outreach at the National Iranian American Council was online Monday, June 15, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss reaction to the election in the Iranian-American community and elsewhere around the world, the situation on the ground in Iran today and what the future of U.S.-Iran relations will be in regards to the bigger picture of the Middle East.
Michelle Moghtader: Hello, Michelle Moghtader here with the National Iranian American Council. Look forward to your questions, especially regarding the Iranian Diaspora and Iranian American reaction.
Raleigh, N.C.: Good afternoon. My understanding is that the government has had significant success in shutting down cell phones, satellite TV, and some Internet social networking sites, like Facebook. However, Twitter is working. Why is that?
Michelle Moghtader: They using proxies to break the filters. So twitter is even being blocked too. You can say it's online warfare of constant censoring and breaking of filters.
Washington, D.C.: I agree with the usually misguided Anne Applebaum that even if Ahmadinejad wins, democracy has won, because if he calls them poor losers, he's been a very poor winner. His days are numbered.
washingtonpost.com: Op-Ed: Some Good in a Bad Election (Post, June 15)
Michelle Moghtader: His position is definitely unstable and uncertain right now, but we cannot be sure whether he will come out weaker or stronger after the turmoil dies down.
D.C.: Why do you think so many American neocons -- Marty Peretz, Gary Sick come to mind -- seem to be rooting for Ahmadinejad? I would have thought that they would see real reform in Iran as a positive development.
Michelle Moghtader: It's easier to promote their own agenda, which is diplomacy failing. It is a lot easier to increase sanctions or potentially the risk of war when the sharp-tongued Ahmadinejad is President, rather than Mousavi.
Manchester, Vt.: Some are criticizing President Obama for not more strongly supporting the opposition in Iran. Do you think he should and why or why not?
Michelle Moghtader: Obama so far is playing it safe by staying silent. He said he would pursue talks with Iran, which are not dependent on who the President is.
He is trying to avoid a 1953 scenario when the US over threw the democratically elected Mossadegh. If Obama responds by supporting the opposition, he will strengthen Ahmadinejad by allowing him to criticize the Americans and rally his supporters even more.
Boston, Mass.: Could Ahmadinejad have "stolen" the election, if true, without the consent of the ruling religious leaders?
Michelle Moghtader: He definitely could not have done any of this by himself. But, the details are unknown because of the lack of international vote monitors.
Washington, D.C.: I've seen people saying the current protests could become Iran's Tiananmen square. What are your thoughts on this?
Michelle Moghtader: So far, the protests have been relatively peaceful- in the sense that no one has been killed. However, they have use batons, tear gas and I have been seeing more and more bloody pictures. While initially people said 50-100 people died, that is not true. However, now, AP and Time Magazine have confirmed 1 dead in Azadi square. Beyond that, I cannot say with certainty what has happened.
As for becoming the next Tiananmen Square- it is true that many and most of the protesters are students, but the deaths are not at the same level. And let's hope they stay that way.
Fairfax, Va.,: How do American Iranians view the election and the aftermath?
Michelle Moghtader: Iranian Americans are very frustrated. Perhaps we let our hope increase too much- we saw Americans and then Lebanese elect change. So it is disheartening to think that Iranians would still vote Ahmadinejad. Most feel like there was cheating involved.
Some suppressed their hope and figured that Iran wouldn't and said that we don't know the poorer provinces of Iran, where Ahmadinejad has a lot of support.
To voice their frustration and solidarity with their fellow citizens in Iran- they have taken the streets. Almost 300 people turned out in DC, same in NY and even more in LA.
Washington, D.C.: They say the authorities are looking into voter fraud. How is that done? Do they have an impartial jury or group to do that? How monitored would that process be?
Michelle Moghtader: I'm not sure how it's down. However, there is a lot of reason to be skeptical of it. This is because the Supreme Leader ordered the Guardian Council to look into voter fraud. And at the end of the day, they are loyal to the Supreme Leader, who previously confirmed the election results two times.
He also confirmed them the same day as the election- normally they have to wait 3 days. Then he reconfirmed then the next day and now he's looking into them. So I'm not too hopeful about the results of the investigation.
Washington, D.C.: If the president of Iran is not the highest authority (i.e. the supreme leader of Iran is the highest authority), why are they so many protests against this election?
Michelle Moghtader: This election represented a glimmer of hope. Voter turnout was at 80% whereas in 2005 it was 62%.
People who hadn't even voted since the inception of the Islamic Republic came out. If you've heard the chants, "Death to Dictator." It's because the opposition doesn't like how Ahmadinejad's harsh rhetoric has demonized the Iranian people. So by protesting they are letting out pent up frustration of the past 4 years, and for some, since 79.
McLean, Va.: How unrealistic would it be to ask if Ahmadinejad might take the opposition and reaction to his "victory" into account in his new government and possibly make some concessions to those who want more freedom?
Michelle Moghtader: One theory I heard is that Mousavi isn't suicidal. Meaning, he wants some sort of power or position in the government. And he's asking his people to continue protesting until an agreement is made. This would give people of the opposition more of a voice, but again, don't know how likely this will be.
Falls Church, Va.: Ahmadinejad's supporters say that the west's view of Iranian's opinions are distorted because we only hear from middle-class Iranians, ex-pats and those in Tehran. Is this true? What percent of people in Iran, from all classes, especially the young people, are opposed to Ahmadinejad?
Michelle Moghtader: This is partially true. Most of us have friends and family in Tehran and the big cities, not the rural provinces in Iran who have benefited from government handouts and subsidiaries. And as for finding out how many people, especially young people don't support Ahmadinjegad, the best indicator would have been the elections. The biggest indicator right now, is the people who are out in the streets- today there was 100-200K in the streets of Tehran protesting the elections. And that's just one city. And it's important to note that a lot of people are staying inside their homes for fear of it turning more violent.
Washington, D.C.: How do you think the Obama administration will deal with an Ahmadinejad victory? Vice Presdient Biden yesterday said on Meet the Press that there was some consternation about how the election was run. Your comments please.
Michelle Moghtader: The Obama administration is playing their cards very safely right now. Notice how they haven't made any distinct statements condemning the elections or accepting the results like the EU.
During Obama's campaign, he said he would talk to Iran and at that time Ahmadinejad was in office. Even despite elements in Congress and others in DC, Obama has stood by his policy of talking to Iran- without deadlines. Even Secretary of State Clinton made stated that sanctions wouldn't be helpful right now.
So I suspect that Obama will stay out of questioning or opposing the elections, for fear of allowing Ahmadinejad to rally his supporters around him with anti-American rhetoric.
D.C.: From here, it seems as if the opposition is more passionate if nothing else. How strong is the support for Ahmadinejad among his voters...I know he can marshal the military and the militias, but if the election really was close as most suspect, are his supporters hard support or soft and willing to fade away if fraud can be established?
Because of government handouts and subsidiaries, the poorer Iranians support Ahmadinejad very strongly and it is genuine. There are rumors that people have been bused in from the provinces to stage rallies for him.
By contrast, Mousavi's supports didn't vote for him because he was such a great candidate. It was more like they voted to get Ahmadinejad out of office (much like Kerry supporters in 2004).
Marrakech, Morocco: Does anyone know how long it took to count votes in 2005 and declare a winner? What were the comparative vote counts? With polls open 3 hours more than originally scheduled, they announced a winner 1-1/2 hours after the polls closed this time, and with over 30 million paper ballots
Michelle Moghtader: Well in 2005, voter turnout was a lot less and I believe it took longer because it was a closer race that went into the 2nd round.
So that raises suspicion, if there was 80 percent voter turnout, how did they tally the results so fast?
Chantilly, Va.: What do you want to happen here? Are you calling for a recount? Is that realistic? If there's a place in Ahmadinejad's government for Mousavi, would that help? Do you expect the U.S. to get involved in the internal maneuverings of another country despite the internal opposition? Do you have a practical solution?
Michelle Moghtader: This is all unprecedented, so it's hard to tell what is going to happen. However, things are changing, initially I heard that there weren't that many people protesting against the results, but today proved completely different, with 100-200k protests solely in Tehran.
Also- Mousavi was there, and the state-run media made this public beforehand. This is a big deal seeing as the media is normally seen as being biased in favor of the current government. However, they alerted everyone beforehand that Mousavi was going to be at the rally, causing more people to turnout.
Washington, D.C.: Another Francophile, Shireen Hunter, interviewed Mousavi back in the 80's and found him "no democrat." Has he changed?
Michelle Moghtader: People who voted for Mousavi knew that there was going to be no big change, but at least it wasn't going to be Ahmadinejad, whose economic policies, or lack there of have almost eliminated the Iranian middle class.
He was in government 20 years ago, and he helped bring about the revolution, but again he had to have been approved by Khamenei, so he couldn't have been anti-the Islamic Republic.
Also, people remember Khatami, who was much more liked, but essentially his hands were tied behind his back. But you can't blame the population for wanting their own Obama.
Anonymous: I also thought the economy in Iran, apart from the global problems, was in a mess and the people blamed Ajmadinejad. It that a wrong way to think of it, because it's actually the Supreme Leader and their counsels that have the power? Thank you for taking my question.
Michelle Moghtader: The president sets the tone for everything, he interfered a lot and many of his economic advisors. He has more control over economic policies and domestic policies than over foreign policy.
Anonymous: What are the odds that Rafsanjani can use the Assembly of Experts to oust Khamenei as Supreme Leader? I've also heard that Khamenei has been laying the groundwork to have his son succeed him. How is the establishment reacting to that? I can't really envision Janati, Shahroudi, Karoubi, et al acquiescing to a dynastic rule in the Islamic Republic.
Michelle Moghtader: It may get to the point that Rafsanjani has no other option than that, but it's all behind the scenes and no one knows what's going on.
As for Khamenei's successor- this is new to me.
Michelle Moghtader: Thank you all for your questions and it was a pleasure being here. Please check out our blog www.niacinsight.com for future updates.
washingtonpost.com: Updates From Iran (niacINsight)
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