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Iran: Crackdown on Protesters Over Weekend. What Should Obama Do?

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Karim Sadjadpour
Iran Analyst, Carnegie Ednowment for International Peace
Monday, June 22, 2009; 2:00 PM

Riot police attacked hundreds of demonstrators with tear gas and fired live bullets in the air to disperse a rally in central Tehran Monday, carrying out a threat by the country's most powerful security force to crush any further opposition protests over the disputed presidential election.

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Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was online Monday, June 22, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the latest news out of Iran, including reports of British nationals being asked to leave the country and what role the U.S. should play in the conflict.

Iran says at least 17 protesters have been killed in a week of unrest so far after the electoral council declared hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad winner of the June 12 election. His main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, charged the election was a fraud and insists he is the true winner. His followers have been staging near-daily rallies, at least one of them drawing a massive crowds of hundreds of thousands.

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Karim Sadjadpour: Dear all, this is Karim Sadjadpour from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, look forward to chatting with you about Iran.

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Washington, D.C.: As the protests wear on in Tehran, the clerical leaders are becoming increasingly split over how to respond. Besides Supreme Leader Khamenei himself, who are the key figures to watch in Iran, and what exactly should we be watching for?

Karim Sadjadpour: So far we've seen unprecedented fissures among revolutionary elites. I would keep my eye out on individuals who up until now have been somewhat on the fence, namely Speaker of the Parliament Ali Larijani, and former Revolutionary Guard Commander and presidential candidate Mohsen Rezai. I think these guys will shift in the direction the wind is blowing, and Larijani's recent expressions of concern about the elections are an indication to me that he thinks the tide may be shifting against Ahmadinejad.

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Poplar Bluff, Mo.: Mr. Sadjadpour, thanks for the chat. What are the chances that the Revolutionary Guard could side with the reformists? Thank you.

Karim Sadjadpour: Good question. The senior commanders of the Revolutionary Guards (from now on I'll use the acronym IRGC) will, I expect, remain loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei. He's handpicked at least the first few tiers of the IRGC leadership. But it's widely thought that the rank and file of the IRGC are somewhat reflective of the Iranian population at large, namely, young people who are interested in a better standard of life. So if the IRGC are ordered to perform major crack downs for a sustained period, I think it's possible we may start to see cleavages amongst them.

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Fairfax, Va.: What do you think of the amateur video of the woman who was killed? AP says it's become an iconic symbol of the outrage of the government's crackdown. Comments?

Karim Sadjadpour: I haven't been able to stop thinking of Neda. She has become a symbol of this movement. Whereas the face of Iranian revolutionaries 30 years ago were bearded middle aged men, today Neda's image--young, educated, female--symbolizes the face of the new Iran which aspires to be.

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washingtonpost.com: Amateur video turns woman into icon of Iran unrest (AP, June 22)

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Indianapolis, Ind.: I've been reading and hearing a lot of talk about why the president should say more. If the president were to say more wouldn't people in Iran who oppose the protest accuse protesters of being puppets of the U.S.? Even people in Iran who are on the sidelines might question the motivation of the protesters.

Karim Sadjadpour: I think President Obama's approach has been the right one. He has condemned the Iranian government's use of violence against its population, and expressed moral support for their cause. But as long as the Iranian opposition leaders themselves ask the US to refrain from more direct involvement, I think we should continue to defer to them.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you see an internal revolution coming because of this election? Are factions of Ahmadinejad's government coming apart?

Karim Sadjadpour: As opposed to 30 years ago, this time around I have not heard the word "enghelab", ie revolution, chanted by the protesters. I think people certainly want fundamental change and reform, and their starting point is a different president, or at least a fairly conducted election.

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Washington, D.C.: What will happen to those demonstrators who have been arrested? What will be their fate? Will they be tried, put in jail, what will happen to them?

Karim Sadjadpour: The one thing this regime does very well is repression. They have it down to a science. What they do is target individuals who are capable of leading opposition movements, in order to decapitate the movements. So individual protesters are imprisoned and I'm sure will have to endure horrendous circumstances, including physical and psychological torture in many cases. But unless they believe you're someone capable of leading an opposition movement, they will eventually release you. This time could be different though, we've entered unchartered waters.

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Wokingham, U.K.: I presume that the Iranian government, if it successfully terrorizes the opposition, will resort to ever wilder and woolier rhetoric about evil foreigners. But words without sticks and stones cannot break our bones. Does the regime have ways of going beyond words and threats to seriously dangerous, rather than merely theatrical, action?

Karim Sadjadpour: Several of my friends who are either foreign journalists working in Iran, or dual nationals, have been imprisoned over the last week. So the regime is beginning not only to target Iranians, but also foreigners it believes are somehow contributing to the unrest. Basically from the vantage point of the hardliners in Tehran, the entire world is now filled with adversaries, save Hugo Chavez and a few others.

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D.C.: Assuming that Obama's tempered public reaction to events in Iran is correct, are the strongly-worded congressional resolutions (and, e.g., comments by McCain) helpful, not-helpful, or of no real consequence?

Also, does the variety in approaches (e.g., tone of comments) amongst the Western countries help? At least on this aspect I think it does because, to the extent that Iran wants to engage at some point with anyone in the West, this effectively offers a variety of selections for them. Overall, as long as there is a general commonality of goals amongst western allies, I think a patchwork of approaches is better than the classic notion that "we must speak with a single voice."

Thank you.

Karim Sadjadpour: I think Obama's approach has been the right one, and I think those from the Congress who are pushing for a much more active US role should defer to the leaders of the Iranian opposition themselves, who've made clear this is an internal Iranian drama which is unfolding. I would like to see some EU countries more forcefully denounce some of the human rights abuses taking place, and I though the decision by some governments--like Turkey--to immediately endorse the election results was unfortunate.

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Chantilly, Va.: Is the press still repressed there today? I heard earlier reports that they weren't allowing reporters on the streets to cover the story.

Karim Sadjadpour: According to an objective source--Reporters without Borders--Iran is one of the most difficult environs in the world for journalists. Media is very carefully monitored. That's one of the frustrations that people have with Ahmadinejad's government, that he and other hardliners reversed much of the forward progress which had been made during the era of Iran's previous president, Mohammed Khatami.

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Washington, D.C.: Have there been any updates about the whereabouts of Mousavi? And have the arrest of members of his family detered Rajsanjani from gaining momentum in Qom?

Karim Sadjadpour: I know Mousavi spoke at a rally yesterday, but I've not heard from him yet today. He's so far remained defiant and uncompromising, which has earned him the respect of the demonstrators. I've been told that Rafsanjani's family members are now free, and he continues to try and agitate against Khamenei by assembling a coalition of senior clerics in Qom. My understanding, however, is that he hasn't succeeded in convincing a majority of them to turn against Khamenei. Not because they have tremendous allegiance to Khamenei, but because they are depending on Khamenei economically and also fear the consequences of openly working against him.

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Washington, D.C.: What topics will you cover during your live streamed Carnegie event tomorrow?

Karim Sadjadpour: We have a very good group tomorrow, Abbas Milani is one of the foremost Iran scholars in America, Nick Burns is a highly esteemed former US diplomat, and David Ignatius has been working on these issues for 30 years. I hope you can join us online if not in person.

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Boston, Mass.: I'm confused why Iran is arresting foreign journalists. Seems like it would be much more PC to just evict them from the country. Are they trying to intimidate the reporters still at large?

Karim Sadjadpour: It's difficult to evict reporters with Iranian passports (even those who are dual nationalists) so they've attempted to silence them by imprisoning them. Some of the foreign correspondents in Iran who overstay their visa are imprisoned, to try and teach a lesson to others.

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Annapolis, Md.: I've read that the prominence of women in these demonstrations has been unique for the country. Women in the past were never seen in these circumstances. Is this true? To what do you attribute this new role that some women have been taking part in?

Karim Sadjadpour: That's right, women are really at the forefront of change in Iran. Their situation is paradoxical, because from a legal standpoint they've suffered much more than men have since the revolution, yet they now compose 60% or university students, so they're better educated but with less rights, which is an untenable situation for the regime.

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Anonymous: Given America's history in Iran, including putting the Shah into power and helping keep him there even when there were street protests against him, and backing Iraq's invasion of Iran, one would certainly expect the conservatives in Iran to try to use any American criticism of the elections to show the demonstrators in a bad light but would this affect the amount of support the demonstrators would get among most Iranians? On the other hand, would a loud call by Pres. Obama to annul the elections help the demonstrators?

Karim Sadjadpour: The Obama administration is attempting to read carefully precisely because of this long history. I think the regime, in particular Ayatollah Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, would love it if President Obama came out and more forcefully supported the demonstrations. They want to pain the protesters and opposition as US lackeys, but I think Obama has smartly refrained from walking into that trap.

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Washington, D.C.: Any chance the Iranian government will take the protests in mind and do something to appease the dissidents?

Karim Sadjadpour: I am not optimistic, at least not in the short term. Ayatollah Khamenei's modus operandi is to never compromise when under pressure, for he feels it projects weakness and will invite more pressure.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you see an internal revolution coming because of this election? Are factions of Ahmadinejad's government coming apart?

Karim Sadjadpour: Again, I'm reluctant to use the word revolution, simply because it's not a chant I'm hearing from the people on the street or the opposition leaders themselves. But I think people are now demanding far more profound change than they were before election day on June 12th. Their psychology seems to be, "well if you're not even going to give us 5, then we're going to demand 20".

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McLean, Va.: Are other world powers afraid of the prevelant criticism of the currert government and what that might do to its nuclear power?

Karim Sadjadpour: Russia and China, as expected, have abstained from any criticism. In general, non-democratic countries around the world live in glass houses, so they're not in great positions to criticize Iran's abuses of democracy. That's why I think democratic, non-Western countries like Japan, Turkey, South Africa, and India have an important role to play here. I wish they were more publicly outspoken in this case.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you believe there was tampering with the vote count? Did Ahmadinejad win legitimately or will we never know?

Karim Sadjadpour: I believe this election was conducted under an enormous cloud of improprieties. Even Iran's Guardian Council--a body of 12 individuals who are either directly or indirectly appointed by the Supreme Leader--is now acknowledging this fact. Listen, I don't think that hundreds of thousands if not millions of people around the country would risk their lives by taking to the street if they didn't genuinely feel they were wronged. And as Tom Friedman recently said, "If I genuinely won a 2 to 1 election I would agree to a recount against anyone, anytime."

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Washington, D.C.: Dumb question but I'm wondering, does this "change" message reflect at all on Obama's campaign message?

Karim Sadjadpour: No such thing as a dumb question! In fact, there was a wonderful article written in the Wall St. Journal by my friend Farnaz Fassihi, a few days before the election, which profiled Mousavi's chief campaign strategist, a 26-year-old kid who said he modeled Mousavi's campaign after Obama's.

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Tampa, Fla.: What is the difference between the IRGC and the Iranian Army, and what is relationship between them?

Are they the same, or different? If there is an Iranian Army separate from the IRGC, could it take sides differently from the IRGC, and would it make any difference?

I ask because I've read that the IRGC has arrested some commanders of the Iranian Army. This indicates to me that the army is a separate institution and might be suspected of having reformist sympathies.

Karim Sadjadpour: The IRGC are the regime's elite fighting forces, numbering approximately 120,000 men. In Persian they are called Sepah-e Pasdaran, and they were initially created to be "guardians of the revolution", given that the newly formed Islamic Republic in 1979 didn't feel it could trust the loyalty of the regular army, which was trained by the previous regime, i.e. the Shah. To this day the IRGC get preferential treatment to the army, which is mostly made up of conscripts. To give a high school football analogy, the IRGC are varsity, and the army is JV (junior varsity).

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Ayatollah Khamenei: Is he steadfast for what he believes, even in the face of opposition or just insulated from the current feelings of the general population?

Karim Sadjadpour: I think Khamenei is quite earnest in what he believes, but he also is insulated and out of date. He hasn't left the country, as far as we know, since 1989. I recall someone who used to work in his office saying (with frustration), "if only he could go to Dubai for a weekend to see how the world has changed!".

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washingtonpost.com: In Iran Vote, a Challenger Looks to Past (Wall Street Journal, June 12)

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Washington, D.C.: To what extent will the unrest in Iran affect Iraq? I read a story that's there's concern.

Karim Sadjadpour: I think if the Ahmadinejad government remains in office, we could start to see a more nefarious Iranian role in Iraq. Mousavi and the reformists have long argued for a less radical, revolutionary foreign policy. They understand that this "death to America" culture of 1979 is counterproductive today. So I don't think they'd be interested in an escalation in Iraq or elsewhere.

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Washington, D.C.: What is your sense of how disruptive the protests have been to daily life in Tehran? In other words, has the city ground to a halt, or are the protests -- albeit large -- relatively contained to one area? Is travel still allowed into and out of the country?

Karim Sadjadpour: I spoke to a reporter friend of mine in Tehran this morning who said it feels like the city is under martial law. That said, I do know people who have been both traveling to and from Iran. Iranians are incredibly resilient, they've endured a tremendous amount of hardship and unrest the last three decades. We all hope that better days are ahead, the Iranian people truly deserve them.

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Tallahassee, Fla.: What is the mood among the rural populance in Iran? Are they with the Azadi crowd or do they support Ahmadi? Also, is Mousavi likely to start taking a more forceful stand?

Karim Sadjadpour: If I had to generalize I would say that the rural population is more concerned with daily bread and butter issues, economic issues, more than political and social freedoms per se. Ahmadinejad made them grandiose promises of putting the oil money on people's dinner tables in the 2005 campaign, but since coming into office he's profoundly mismanaged the economy, despite the boom in oil prices which he enjoyed. So I think it's mistaken to somehow think the rural population was automatically going to support Ahmadinejad's reelection.

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Arlington, Va.: Do you see any positive outcome at all -- what are the chances that the regime would really re-evaluate the election and allow for some kind of power-sharing among both or several candidates?

Karim Sadjadpour: I am hopeful. Previously sacred red lines have been crossed. I have tremendous admiration for the bravery of the Iranian people. Obviously no one wants to see bloodshed or further unrest, and we all hope that people can achieve a greater political voice peacefully.

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Mt. Rainier, Md.: Are you yourself Iranian? If so, do you go back home very often to visit family and friends? How do you view the election results personally and what does it mean to you?

Karim Sadjadpour: I am a dual, US-Iran national. I have many friends and family there but alas am no longer able to visit. I hope I will be able to visit again one day soon.

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Anonymous: Is Mousavi a strong advocate of developing a nuclear weapon?

Karim Sadjadpour: Mousavi, like all Iranian officials, has said he's in support of a civilian nuclear energy program, not a weapons program. For what it's worth, I have more faith in Mousavi's integrity than Ahmadinejad's.

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Karim Sadjadpour: Thanks so much to all of you for a wonderful session, many thanks and zendebad Iran (long live Iran).

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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