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Iran: Protests Continue, Panel to Investigate Fraud in Election
Tension Mounts as Opposition Protests Begin, Pro-Government Rally Also Expected

Kaveh Afrasiabi
Iranian Political Scientist and Author
Thursday, June 18, 2009 1:30 PM

Iran's elite Guardian Council, a 12-member panel of senior Islamic clergy and jurists who are investigating allegations of fraud in last week's election results, Thursday invited the four candidates for president to a special meeting Saturday to review their concerns.

Iranian political scientist and author ("After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy") Kaveh Afrasiabi was online Thursday, June 18, at 1:30 p.m. ET to discuss the meeting, the election and the continuing demonstrations in the country. Afrasiabi has publicly called Mousavi's "singular" focus on new elections "problematic" but he has praised the reform movement in editorials and called for compromise and a coalition government.

Mousavi States His Case (Asia Times, June 19)

The announcement came shortly before opposition leaders began marching again in the streets of Tehran, as they have each day since Saturday, when the Interior Ministry declared that results from Friday's balloting showed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was reelected in a landslide. Thursday's protest in the southern section of the city is scheduled to take marchers from Imam Khomeini Square to Tehran's train station. The march was called by Mir Hossein Mousavi, the leading opposition candidate, who has charged that the election was rigged.

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Kaveh Afrasiabi: Hello everyone, nice to be here and chat with you about what is undoubtedly a very volatile, dynamic as well as fluid situation in Iran rife with potential for dangerous escalation on the one hand and a re-mapping the political process based on a political compromise on the other. I am somewhat optimistic that the brewing post-election crisis can be contained and culminate in a new environment where the reformists challenging the result feel somewhat vindicated. With a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety prevailing throughout Iran, much depends on the outcome of present discussions among the key political players.

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Arlington, Va.: Mr Afrasiabi: How do Iranian-Americans feel about President Obama's silence? Is there a sense of betrayal?

Kaveh Afrasiabi: I can't generalize about the Iranian-Americans since there is a diversity of views, although it is obvious that many living in California in particular wish to see Obama state more pro-reformist comments, but I would not advise that because it will backfire on them.

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Wokingham UK: Are we seeing a faction fight between members of the Iranian religious leadership and their followers or a genuine demand for a society that would be less theocratic?

Kaveh Afrasiabi: There is a factional angle to the present crisis that involves powerful clergy and the direction of Islamic Republic, some preferring a more open while others favoring a more statist direction, and this has intersected with the reformist movement from below creating a unique dynamic.

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New York, N.Y.: It is said that Mr. Rafsanjani is holding meetings with the Grand Ayatollah's in Qum (members of the Guardian Council); why is this taking place and what do they expect to be the outcome of these meetings?

Kaveh Afrasiabi: In light of the political rupture affecting the clergy, I believe Mr. Rafsanjani is trying to be a mediator more than anything else, hence his dialogue with the Qom clergy.

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Boston, Mass.: What are the various factors which point to the fact that there has been a fraud in elections? And why were the elections announced so early within a manner of few hours when you have over 40 million people voting.

Kaveh Afrasiabi: I have an article in today's atimes.com that addresses Mousavi's official complaint. Personally I am awaiting my own final judgment on the fraud question until I see more solid evidence than presented so far by the opposition.

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Redmond, Wash.: Good afternoon. Mr. Afrasiabi, who exactly controls the military, paramilitary and police forces in Iran; is it the president or is it Ayatollah Khamenei? Also, when is the last time you were personally in Iran? Do you have family still there?

Thank you.

Kaveh Afrasiabi: The supreme leader is the commander in chief of the armed forces and president has more day to day control over the police, militias, etc. But beyond the formal responsibilities, who is the president and his ties to the armed forces makes a big difference.

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washingtonpost.com: Mousavi States His Case (Asia Times, June 19)

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Fairfax, Va.: How much of a role does religion play in governing Iran. Do religion and tradition stand in the way of updating and modernizing the way the country is governed?

Kaveh Afrasiabi: This is a complex question because Iran is part theocratic and part a republican and while religion dominates the political scene, strictly civil criteria are pretty important as well, so we really deal with a hybrid system that contains some secular dimensions.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Afrasiabi, while Mr. Mir Hussein Moussavi was the vice president of Iran over 25 years ago, it is surprising that after all of these years he finally appeared on the scene for the elections. From everything I have read about him, he is not a reformist. As such, how is he suddenly positioned as a reformist and how is he able to gather such a massive amount of people to support him? On what basis are these demonstrators making their decisions?

Kaveh Afrasiabi: I direct you to Mousavi's illuminating speech at Tehran U available on YouTube, where he self-identifies as both a reformist and a principalist since he believes that being janus-faced is fine and two sides of same coin. Having said that, I think he is best described as a conservative reformist and this reflects the reformists' own heterogeneity.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm just curious -- is the claim that the U.S. has interfered with the election and resulting riots just a ploy to rally anti-American hate? I apologize if this is an overly simple question.

Kaveh Afrasiabi: That's fine, Iran's foreign ministry has issued a statement to that effect to put Obama on notice not to meddle in Iran's affairs, this after a vocal statement by McCain that denounced the elections as sham.

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washingtonpost.com: Part I: Mir Hossein Mousavi Speech In University Of Tehran (March 09) (YouTube)

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Lyme, Conn.: When are the next scheduled national elections? I ask because regardless of the final determination on this election, don't demographics tell us that future elections are more prone to more favor a new type of leadership? To what degree does the current leadership recognize this, and do they seem willing to compromise or are they more prone to insist on strict allegiance to traditional governance?

Kaveh Afrasiabi: We have parliamentary elections coming up, that would be the 31st national election in Iran in 31 years. The leadership lowered its guard and allowed a uniquely competitive and transparent race this year and that is one reason I disagree with conspiracy theories claiming a coup. But right now some feel that there has been an abuse of process so we shall see what happens once the dust settles, which may be a while.

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washingtonpost.com: Part II: Mir Hossein Mousavi Speech In University Of Tehran (March 09) (YouTube)

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Would you please provide us with some basics on Iranian elections. How is voter checking conducted and how easy or difficult might it be to conduct voter fraud? How are the votes physically counted and what checks are there that the vote count is accurate? What are the faults in the system that could potentially lead to voter fraud? Do people vote by candidate or party, how many offices were up for election, and are ballots easy or difficult for voters to understand and vote for the candidates of their choices?

Kaveh Afrasiabi: Well, to make a long story short, in addition to two sets of election monitors, the candidates have their own monitors, some 3000 of them this time, and the Interior Ministry and an election vote count and electioneering org are in charge of the process. Votes are hand counted by some 60,000 people, and it appears that some electronic devices were also used this year to tally but I am not clear how wide-spread it was. The possibility of voter fraud has always marred Iran's elections and there is nothing new about it, bear in mind that we're dealing with a new and evolving system in a modernizing country so there are always some glitches that lend themselves to fraud, in addition to manipulations by this or that candidate. Iran's electoral law is under review for updating and hopefully this crisis spurs that process. I am in favor of international monitors to prevent fraud.

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Anonymous: The results were announced so quickly, it looked like Chicago. They didn't work very hard to make the counting (if there was any) look legit. But if the U.S. came out strongly in favor of the protestors now, would it help anyone but the conservatives? I would imagine that even some in the oppostion are still skeptical of American support for democracy in Iran, given our history of putting the Shan into power, helping keep him there and also supporting Saddam Hussein when Iraq invaded Iran. As I recall, many conservatives in the U.S. thought we should have supported the Shah more when the people were protesting against him. The current Iranian government is behaving like the Shah's did.

Kaveh Afrasiabi: You are right, there were some surprising abnormalities, for instance the Council of Guardians is mandated to certify the result within three days before the final winner is declared, to give candidates time to lodge their complaints.

U.S. should not favor any candidate and simply respect the will of Iranian people. Right now we seem to face a fait accompli with Ahmadinejad's re-election, and I highly doubt that a new election will be held simply because the opposition has not proved its case, much as some might like to believe otherwise in US, etc.

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Washington, D.C.: What was the election count, how many voted?

Kaveh Afrasiabi: Over 39 million, and the election organization of Interior Ministry has posted the breakdown on its website.

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New York, N.Y.: What is the sentiment in the parts of Iran that we don't see on camera?

Kaveh Afrasiabi: The Tehran disturbances have engulfed a number of other cities and towns in Iran, such as Mashad and Shiraz, and there appears to be a polarization that parallels what we see in Tehran, but my information on what goes on throughout Iran is somewhat limited.

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New York, N.Y.: It has been noted that many of the protestors' signs are in English. How widespread is English understood in Iran? Are these signs deliberately meant for the non-Iranian English speaking public and thus are seeking international support? Does this have the danger of backfiring internally? Are there many signs in English, or our English speaking camera operators seeking out the few signs that are in English?

Kaveh Afrasiabi: Well, English is popular among middle class Iranians and the English signs I believe are meant for the global audience watching the events in Iran, to elicit sympathy.

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Not convinced that the election was stolen: Am not convinced that the election was stolen. Just because urban people voted for the opposition doesn't mean that non-urban people did too. Are rural people also demonstrating? Is Iran's population mostly rural or urban people? If Iran is like most other countries I would think that the majority of people live in rural areas which were Ahmadinejad's base of support.

Kaveh Afrasiabi: Neither am I, despite signs of some irregularity. The bar is obviously high to overturn an election, but then again this is more than about election results, it's also a window for the expression of popular discontent and the situation at present is somewhat overdetermined by competing claims about future of Iranian politics

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Scarsdale, N.Y.: We are not hearing anything from the supporters of President Ahmadinejad, the majority of the interviews are conducted by those who speak English and seem to be supporters of Mr. Mir Hussein Moussavi. Furthermore, while I am happy that Twitter is up and running to obtain info on the current events in Iran -- what segment of the population are using this? What was the reason for the State Department in allowing Twitter to remain open at all times in order to receive info from Iran? How do the Iranian authorities look at such interest from the U.S. on their election? And why was the same concern not given to the Gazans by the MSM when over 1,300 people were killed, the = majority women and children, and 5,000 injured?

Kaveh Afrasiabi: The supporters of Ahmadinejad are present but not receiving as much attention by the western media that has rightly or wrongly gravitated toward the modernist protesters.

Yes, microblogging has been key but not terribly important since not to many people have access to that. We tend to forget that millions who voted for Ahmadinejad are lower and working classes, in rural areas, etc. so with less access to modern technology. This has been to some extent a class warfare.

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San Francisco, Calif.: Mr. Afrasiabi, there are many rumors about about U.S. and Israel's involvement in the current crisis. What are your views? It is not a hidden fact that under President Bush, $400mm was set aside for destabilizing the Iranian gov. Do you think that such covert operations are still ongoing?

Kaveh Afrasiabi: I have no information about that. I think this is a home-grown crisis that is likely to be resolved as a result of negotiations under way right now.

Well, Obama should repeal that Bush order in my opinion.

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Washington, D.C.: Why do you feel there's so much discontent? Is it in the majority? Is it primarily youth-oriented? How do most people feel in Iran?

Kaveh Afrasiabi: There are multiple causes of discontent dealing with economic, social and political. The opposition has expressed anger over unemployment, high inflation, Iran's negative image, and corruption. It's hard to talk about a majority when Iran's class society reflects a diversity of interests and orientations. yes some 60 percent are below 27-year-old and the young have been an engine of the mass protest today.

I am not in a position to aggregate Iranian people's feeling, except to say the crisis has negative economic impact and must be resolved for daily life to go on normally. People want a quick resolution.

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McLean, Va.: Is Mousavi techy? Does his campaign use the Internet? The election sort of reminds me of the U.S. election, with Obama being the one who knows and uses technology and McCain who didn't so much. Do you agree?

Kaveh Afrasiabi: Yes he does, but I would say he and other candidates are primarily low techy and have a long way to go to technologize the campaigns, but this round was a major improvement over previous rounds, and until the election day everything actually seemed a step or two forward!

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Washington, D.C.: What will the ramifications be of the rallies and demonstrations if the results do not change? Will there be any fundamental change -- positive or negative -- in the government? Will the "hardliners" come down even harder to put the protesters back in line? Will this signal future civil unrest?

Kaveh Afrasiabi: Good, million dollar, question and, again, my hunch is that the results stay as they are with respect to Ahmadinejad's victory, but then again Iranian politics is at times full of surprises so we shall see. The crisis could easily spiral out of control and tomorrow is a litmus test with the leader giving Friday prayer speech and candidates sending their followers so hopefully there will not be any violent encounters but at a minimum it will be very tense.

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Washington, D.C.: What do you think will happen at the meeting this weekend to investigate the election?

Kaveh Afrasiabi: I think there are a couple of different scenarios in the making, one being new election, doubtful, another a political compromise whereby some reformists would have a presence in the second Ahmadinejad administration, etc. In terms of investigating the elections, based on what has been presented to the authorities, pertaining mostly to the pre-election irregularities, I doubt that it will be convincing them to call for new elections, as this would cause a major uproar among the millions who voted for Ahmadinejad. Then they would feel the victory was stolen from them. Of course, some among them feel confident in a new election they would still win, and I kind of agree with that assessment in light of some key advantages the incumbent would have over the rest.

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Annapoilis, Md.: If the investigation finds no fraud and it is declared valid what will then happen with Mousavi?

Kaveh Afrasiabi: Another good question that many are asking in Iran today and my guess is that nothing will happen to him since he is considered "khodi" one of the inner circle of ruling establishment. But of course much depends on Mousavi's own reaction, he can capitalize on the political asset in the direction of solidifying the mass base toward a political party and overall that seems a distinct possibility, that is, the system evolving toward a two party system.

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New York, N.Y.: Mr. Afrasiabi, while we hear that the more progressive, and intellectual class are supporters of Mr. Moussavi, the class which has continued to defend Iran's security comes from the lower class of Iranian society, the same class who are the supporters of Pres. Ahmadinejad. How can Mr. Moussavi win the confidence and support of this class who are vital for Iran's national sovereignty and independence. History has shown that it is not the upper echelon who send their children to the battlefields!

Kaveh Afrasiabi: Well, I don't necessarily agree with your assessment. The bravery of Iranian middle classes standing up for their rights is indeed admirable. Mr. Mousavi lost because he was unable to broaden the appeal of his movement and he capped the reformist votes of some 13 millions, which is still admirable given his long absence from politics. But to be more effective Mousavi needs a proactive economic policy, and some of his ideas such as resurrecting the lavis bureaucracy of planning organization are not very exciting to say the least. During the campaigns Mousavi was good at critiquing his rival but less so in showing a viable economic blueprint to tackle the economic problems, and that remains a lacunae of his movement.

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Montgomery, Ala.: I am looking to the protests and such and cannot help but draw analogies between the chaos that existed after the first revolution that happened in 1953 and what happened in 1979 and today...

Is there any real chance that there will be some real change in the leadership after this?

Kaveh Afrasiabi: I highly doubt that. I think the more distinct possibility is in terms less of institutional change and more in terms of distribution of power and power-sharing, which is why the idea of an all-inclusive cabinet has some attraction today. The factional balancing act on the part of the leader may culminate in a much more moderate Ahmadinejad administration, and the present negotiations may also lead to a cease-fire between Ahmadinejad camp and Rafsanjani camp, hopefully.

As for the similarities of today's protest and 79, sure there are some similarities in terms of collective action and political rupture, but let's not get carried away here. The leading opposition figures are from within the system and this has only a minor anti-systemic potential, which is why the leadership is not paranoid about another revolution.

The push for democratization from below seen today is going to gain some tangible gains, that's my prediction.

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Calgary Alberta: What is the Basij? Are the members of this organization primarily Iranian? How likely is it that foreign Arabs have been brought into Iran to participate in/help out the Basij controlling the large demonstrations?

Kaveh Afrasiabi: Regarding the Arabs, you mean Hamas, not likely. I think the government has sufficient forces to confront the situation and such rumors have the side-effect of exaggerating the crisis.

Basijis are the irregular militias, Ahmadinejad was a Basiji himself and so was Mousavi by the way.

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Toronto, Canada: Mr. Afrasiabi, Do you have any predication of the outcome? If not, can you at least tell us about different scenarios and probability of each happening in your personal opinion?

Kaveh Afrasiabi: I usually stay away from predictions but if I have to, I'd say the dice falls in favor of a historic compromise and not a Tiananmen moment or anything like that. Hopefully I will be exonerated in this and nightmare scenarios do not take the upper hands, but as I said I remain somewhat optimistic about a new mood of compromise gaining momentum in Iran today.

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Kaveh Afrasiabi: Thanks folks, it's been a pleasure hope I shed some lights on the situation for some of you, forgive me if I didn't and or did not give the type of response you expected.

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