Iranian Election Results
With Suzanne Maloney
Monday, June 11, 2001; 10:30 a.m. EDT
Talk about results of the Iranian elections with Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution and scholar of Iranian policy and issues.
Malony is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies specializing in the current political and economic situation in the Persian Gulf. She is finishing a book which analyzes Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's first term in office, tentatively entitled "Red Lines and Grey Zones: Dilemmas of Reform in Iran."
Maloney has published a number of articles and book chapters on related issues both here and in Iran, including "Change and Identity in Iranian Foreign Policy," in Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East (edited by Shibley Telhami and Dr. Michael Barnett, Cornell University Press, 2001); "Agents or Obstacles? Parastatal Foundations and Challenges for Iranian Development," in Iran's Economy: Dilemmas of an Islamic State (edited by Parvin Alizadeh, I.B. Tauris, 2000), and "Elections in Iran: A New Majlis and A New Mandate for Reform," Middle East Policy, June 2000.
She has spoken extensively on U.S. policy toward Iran and the Persian Gulf in public forums and in the print and broadcast media. She has also conducted research on Iranian politics and economics in Tehran, and has studied language at the International Center for Persian Studies, the University of London, and the American University in Cairo.
The transcript follows.
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Suzanne Maloney: Twenty-two years have passed since Iran experienced an Islamic Revolution which transformed the country into a theocracy and ruptured its once close relations with the U.S. Today, Iran's internal politics and, to some extent, its foreign policy are changing dramatically, although it is unclear where these changes will lead.
I'm a researcher at the Brookings Institution writing a book about this subject, and I've spent about 4 months in Iran over the past couple of years examining the situation there. I'm looking forward to talking with you about Friday's reelection of Iran's moderate president, Mohammad Khatami, as well as the larger questions about these changes and Iran's future course.
How much can Iranians expect after Friday election? Can Khatami have a better chance to improve the economy and succeed to liberalize the country?
Suzanne Maloney: This is the fundamental question that Iranians themselves are asking. Khatami and his allies have been blocked repeatedly in their efforts, by conservatives who control many of Iran's most important organizations. The lack of progress has left the population deeply frustrated.
Khatami's reelection will not in and of itself change that balance of power. However, it does provide him with a strong mandate, and an implicit threat to the conservatives that the population is insistent about the need for change. This pressure, along with the indications that Khatami's opponents are themselves progressing and recognizing the need for change, may enable the reformers to make greater progress during Khatami's second term.
Have U.S. sanctions harmed Khatami's ability to implement his reforms?
Suzanne Maloney: The impact of U.S. sanctions is an issue of great debate here in Washington. Iranians complain bitterly about the sanctions, and yet most people believe that they are not terribly effective - simply because the U.S. has not been able to persuade any other countries to join in the embargo. For this reason, the business community lobbying hard for the lifting of some sanctions, arguing that they hurt U.S companies more than they hurt Iran.
The real impact is of course mixed. Iran's severe economic problems are largely of its own making, and it is true that unilateral sanctions can't hurt its government's revenues nearly as much as a minor drop in oil prices.
However, U.S. sanctions contribute to the perception that Iran is a bad risk for investments, and they cause some foreign firms to proceed very carefully in entering into the Iranian market. And supporters of sanctions argue that they send a strong signal about American opposition to certain aspects of Iran's foreign policy - particularly its support for terrorism, opposition to the peace process, and programs to develop nuclear weapons.
Mt. Lebanon, Penn.:
So how many of the Iranians living here in the northern hemisphere cast votes in the recent election and of those, how many have serious intention of permanently returning to their homeland? Thanks much.
Suzanne Maloney: I have not yet seen any figures on turnout in the U.S. or Canada, where there are large Iranian populations particularly in LA, NY, Washington, and Toronto. The voting tallies in Europe and South Asia among Iranian expatriates were strongly in favor of Khatami.
This year, Iran made a really interesting effort to draw Iranian-Americans to vote - opening up polling stations on the West Coast, and sending postcards to all those registered with the Iranian Interests Section in Washington (and this campaign even included sending voting advertisements to non-Iranians, such as myself, who've visited this office!)
This is part of the Khatami administration's effort to enhance ties between Iranian experts and their homeland. Iranians abroad generally support the need for change within the country, and the president has skillfully played to many of their apprehensions about the Islamic Republic by using symbols of Iran's pre-Islamic past.
What kind of institutional power does Khatami have to force the clerics to accept reforms, especially with his high margin of victory? And how do you think the United States could be helpful to him?
Suzanne Maloney: The reformers focused on gaining institutional power during Khatami's first term - first they replaced all of the administrators in Iran's 28 provinces with pro-reform governors, etc. Then they initiated elections, for the first time in Iran's history, for local governments (municipal and village councils). Next, they focused a very deliberate effort on taking control of the parliament, which they did last spring. And of course, they dominated the new press.
Unfortunately, control of these institutions has not provided as much traction as the reformers would have liked. These institutions can be overruled by clerical bodies that are appointed by the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - and they frequently were.
So institutions alone are not the answer.
That said, the reformers will certainly try to improve their control of the government by replacing some members of Khatami's cabinet, which included several incompetent or traditionalist ministers. They'll also move to make the political parties more effective structures for mass political participation.
Suzanne Maloney: As for the second part of that question - what can the US do to help - Khatami, there you've really hit at the crux of the dilemma for Washington. Most people here agree that the reformers represent a better all-around deal for the U.S. They do not share all American interests and they would not necessarily make the closest ally - however, because they support a representative government and a more responsible international stance, the U.S. would prefer to see the reformers take full control.
The problem is that by demonstrating this preference, Washington only makes the reformers' task that much more difficult, and only adds to the polarization of Iran's politics on this issue. So the U.S. has tried to be nonpartisan where it can be - although explicit empathy for the reform movement has contributed to the failure of certain overtures.
I tend to think that an apolitical approach is appropriate for Washington. After all, we have consistently misread Iran's politics over the past 50 years, and each time we have tried to intervene or play one side off against the other (i.e., the Mossadeq affair in 1953 and the Iran-contra
mess) - we have only hurt our ability to deal with Iran.
Cleveland Park, D.C.:
I have read some speculation that Ayatollah Khamenei may have some sympathies for the reform movement, or that he in any case sees (as do the conservatives generally) that some concessions must be made in this direction in order to prevent the alienation of the Iranian people. Do you see any evidence of this, and has the Ayatollah made his statement on the election yet (in which he is supposedly going to indicate the official attitude toward the Khatemi mandate)?
Suzanne Maloney: The supreme leader Khamenei generally gets a worse rap than he might deserve here in the West. That's not to say that he is a beacon of Jeffersonian democracy; he clearly believes deeply that absolute control by the clergy is the proper form of government for Iran. And he's got a range of otherwise noxious positions, including his vehemently anti-Israeli stance and occasional speeches denying the Holocaust.
However, Khamenei is not as far to the right as some of the simplistic descriptions in the press sometimes suggest. He started off his career in the Islamic Republic as a somewhat moderate figure, and he has probably been forced - by virtue of the fact that he has only modest credentials in both religious and political terms - to play to the hard-liners to ensure his own base of support. But Khamenei does try to balance Iran's political system off - in the aftermath of crises such as the July 1999 riots, he has made some interestingly pro-reform speeches. And in the parliamentary election controversy last year, he insisted that the electorate's wishes be heeded, and overruled a clerical body that simply wanted to throw out the election. As a result, the reformist parliament was able to be seated in June 2000.
How will the re-election affect gender relations and better serve the women in Iran? Is Khatami's appeal in putting women in the forefront just for votes or is it genuine? Will women ever hold equal status in Iran as the men?
Suzanne Maloney: This is a subject that is of huge concern both in Iran and outside the country. The situation of women in Iran is of course complicated; unlike some Arab countries in the Persian Gulf, Iranian women have always voted, and worked in a variety of professions, and generally played an active role in the social and political life of the country.
However, the changes to Iran's legal system after the revolution have had a very negative effect on the status of women, particularly in family law (custody, divorce, etc.) This issue, along with the issue of the enforced Islamic dress code, has helped elevate Iranian women to the center of its political debates.
They are a key constituency, along with young people, and you saw all the candidates during the recent election appeal to what they perceived as women's issues. (After all, it was a rumor that the conservative candidate in 1997 wanted to impose an even stricter version of the Islamic dress code that helped doom his candidacy.)
The parliament has made reforms of the family law and other issues that are important to women a major priority. There are a number of vocal female MPs, and I would expect that a second Khatami term will see much more attention paid to this issue. Of course, as with everything, it remains in the hands of the conservative oversight councils to see whether these reforms can actually be implemented.
There's a tendency in western reporting from foreign cultures to only 'hear' people who say things that sound familiar to westerners-- the U.S. previous experience in trying to figure out what was going on in Iran 22 years ago is a good example of that. Do you think that this is happening now?
Suzanne Maloney: You're right. In all of our analysis of Iran and this part of the world, there are a variety of factors at play, including the tendency to hear what we want to hear. But there's the countervailing problem that many Americans have only seen the negative side of Iran through countless rebroadcasts of Iranian political rallies which chant Death to America etc.
So how do we sort through the contradictory imagery? I'm not sure. But I do know that time on the ground is absolutely essential. I spent a lot of time studying Iran and learning the language. But I understood far more about the country from my first five minutes lost in a Tehran taxicab than I had learned in most of those books.
And from that time on the ground, I can tell you quite confidently that the image of a reforming Iran is genuine. Much of this has to do with Iran's very young and active population - two-thirds were born or educated after the revolution.
Cleveland Park, D.C.:
How do the divisions between Iran and much of the rest of the Muslim world (Shiite vs. Sunni, the "exporting the revolution" problem) inform Iran's relationship with Islamic terrorist organizations? And is it fair to assume that support for these groups derives from a part of the Iranian government not controlled (or approved of) by President Khatami?
Suzanne Maloney: This is a complicated question - as are they all! - for such a Q&A forum. There's a lot we don't know about how and why Iran supports some militant groups abroad. After huge difficulties with Europe (i.e., a German court indicted the then-Intelligence Minister), Iran largely abandoned its pursuit of opposition figures in Europe. And the need to develop better relations with the Gulf countries has helped curtail support for subversive groups in Saudi Arabia.
That leaves support for Hezbollah, which was largely created by Iranian Revolutionary Guards but has since morphed into an autonomous organization, and some support to Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad. Certainly, much of this is channeled through organizations, such as the Revolutionary Guards and Intel Ministry, that are not fully controlled by Khatami or the elected government.
On the other hand, Khatami also maintains relations with Sheikh Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, and is generally supportive in his rhetoric of their campaign.
What do you think a proper reaction of the U.S. would be in response to the Khatami's victory on last Friday?
Suzanne Maloney: The appropriate U.S. response to most of Iran's political developments would be to simply stay out of the mix. Frankly, I really believe that the more we say, the more difficult we make it for Iranians to sort through their own changing politics.
Of course, comprehensive sanctions are really conducive to neutrality. So in a nutshell, I personally believe that a measured approach to scaling back American sanctions is in our national interests. However, I don't think that we should do so in direct response to Khatami's reelection - we should conditionally remove sanctions to give Iran a greater stake in the overall peace and stability of the region, and to give the U.S. greater influence over the future trajectory of the region.
Thank you for being here today. I am fascinated by Iran's changing political picture. Can you tell us more about which segments of the Iranian population support Khatami and which ones are backing the conservative clerics in the government? What about the former revolutionaries who brought the Ayatollahs into power? Have they changed their stance?
Suzanne Maloney: Who supports Khatami? As far as I could tell, just about everybody thinks reasonably positively about the man, even those who find him too religiously-oriented or the opposite. Khatami, unlike many other clerics in Iran, has a tremendous amount of personal integrity and charisma. He is clearly not corrupt, as is former President Rafsanjani, and he manages to
That said, a lot of Iranians find Khatami too passive - i.e., a fine talker but not much for action. There's been a real split even among his allies about whether he might be already obsolete. I think they learned during the lead-up to the presidential elections that this is not the case.
You ask about former revolutionaries; many of the then-students who took over the US embassy in Tehran in 1979 are now among Khatami's closest supporters. Many of them spent time in government before being sidelined as a result of political disputes in the early 90s, which caused them essentially to begin re-thinking their positions and initiate the critique of the Islamic government.
Mt. Pleasant, Washington, D.C.:
Is the Israeli government opposed to ending U.S. sanctions on Iran? Do you think Israeli's position is a factor in the continuation of sanctions?
Suzanne Maloney: I want to answer this because it is an important element to the debate, at least insofar as many Americans and Iranians consider the Israeli position to be the ultimate determinant of US policy toward Iran.
I don't think that this extreme view is really accurate, but obviously as a close ally Israel has an influence over the future of US-Iran rapprochement. In addition, pro-Israeli lobby groups have weighed in heavily on the Iran debate in DC, although their positions are not always identical to those of the Israeli government.
In fact, there several camps within Israel - from what I understand - on this issue. Some see Iran as the main threat, others believe that a better US-Iran relationship might mitigate Israel's real threat, which is Iraq. So I think that there is a multiplicity of opinions, although I tend to think that the anti-Iran camp remains very strong, particularly since the resurgence of the intifada.
But Israelis are intensely pragmatic, and I also believe that given the right circumstances any Israeli government would support an improvement in US-Iran relations. Historically, Iran and Israel had an excellent relationship, and there are certainly reasons why both sides might find some sort of modus vivendi to be in their interests.
Cleveland Park, D.C.:
Thanks so much for making yourself available today. I'm wondering if you could give a brief sense of when and why the Iranian government began holding popular elections; and were Khatami's reformist positions evident prior to his first election, or did this catch the conservative establishment at all by surprise?
Suzanne Maloney: Iran has been a functioning democracy - albeit very limited - since the revolution in 1979. There have been something along the lines of 21 national elections in 22 years, and they have taken place even at times of great tension, i.e., during the war with Iraq and in the aftermath of terrorist bombings such as the one in 1981 that killed the president, the prime minister, and dozens of MPs.
Khatami caught everyone by surprise in 1997, even himself and his own advisers, who congratulated him the night before the election on fighting the good fight but told him that he had certainly lost. His candidacy was largely initiated to get some ideas into the political debate, and then build for the future through a newspaper editorship and teaching.
But he clearly articulated his support for a more tolerant society and for forcing the state to respect its own laws. And this caught the imagination of the public.
Is it possible for you to tell us how Iranians view the execution of Timothy McVeigh?
Suzanne Maloney: Quick answer to this one: I literally have no idea.
But it's a good opportunity to point out that in the immediate aftermath of the OK City bombing, many commentators blamed Iran and Middle Eastern terrorists.
New York, New York:
I am an Iranian currently living in the United States. I was brought here by my parents years after the revolution and I plan on returning very shortly. Iran is very important to me and many other of my countrymen and women, and for us a very serious issue. Most of the discussions I ever have with my friends are about the politics and less about parties and such.
I know many young Iranians like myself eager for reform and freedom and willing to risk our lives for it.
How many conspiracies do you think are being planned now, considering the latest catch of Ali Afshar, by students to over throw the government?
I am fairly confident that in the next 4 years there will be at least one incident which will change Iran's history, what do you think?
Suzanne Maloney: The student movement is a very important force in Iran today, just as it was in the 1970s. The main organizations (The Unity Consolidation Movement and the Islamic Associations) were ironically created by the government to help "islamicize" the university populations. Today they are mainly bastions of reform.
The national organizations have remained somewhat careful, particularly since the arrest of their leaders over the past year. They are worried that student activism will only risk the lives of Afshari and others who are in jail today. And I think everyone recognizes that should unrest come to the universities, a full-scale civil war would follow shortly thereafter.
Khatami was not able to enact all the reforms he sought during his first term, and it may be unlikely he will be much more successful in this next term (due to the strong clerical opposition). It looks like it would take a long time at this rate to enact significant reforms. Is there a limit to how long or how many terms Khatami may serve? How much time does or may he have to enact these changes?
Suzanne Maloney: Iran, like the US, has a two-term limit for its presidency. Khatami would surely respect this given his emphasis on rule of law (and even if he didn't, there would be a huge backlash, as when former President Rafsanjani in 1996/7 floated the possibility of extending his own administration for a third term.)
You're right - reform will take much longer than the next 4 years, particularly the structural economic reforms that are necessary to ending Iran's dependency on oil revenues and creating jobs for 750,000 young people who come into the work force each year. From what I've been told, Khatami and his allies will try very hard to focus on "stepping-stone" reforms, small-scale changes that in and of themselves do not transform the politics but provide the basis for better political and economic administration.
The catch is, of course, the patience of the population. Eventually, it's going to run out. And this will become particularly problematic if the price of oil declines substantially, which would hurt the government's budget and make it hard for the state to meet its payroll (and the state is the major economic actor in the country.)
So in addition to these small reforms, I think that Khatami will have to do a better job of maintaining public optimism during his next term - perhaps through greater availability to the press (he only gave 2 press conferences over the past four years, although he made innumerable public appearances.) He'll also have to help generate new leadership - because what became very clear during the past year was that neither the reformers nor the conservatives had a viable alternative to Khatami as president.
It appears that Khatami has a very strong mandate and the support of the people. However, the conservative clerics have been stonewalling him. What, if anything, can he or the populace do against the clerics if what they really want is reform?
Could the stonewalling even result in a revolution?
Suzanne Maloney: The question of when and if Iran's next revolution is coming has been asked repeatedly over the past few years. Many believed that the July 1999 riots represented the start of something like this.
I tend to believe Iranians remain tolerant and willing to wait out reform a bit longer. Remember, the country has endured terrible hardship since the revolution - civil unrest, war, economic decline, sanctions - and many Iranians are weary of all this instability. They simply want a better life - fewer social restrictions, improved economic prospects. They waged the 1979 revolution for independence, freedom and an Islamic Republic, and they got some of that. SO they remain justifiably committed to at least the idea that the equation can be fixed to reduce the emphasis on the Islamic.
I was in Iran during the 1999 riots, and from my admittedly warped perspective (as a jetlagged foreigner) I'll tell you that many Iranians were shaken up by these events. Even those who ardently support reforms were not necessarily YET prepared to go to the barricades. The statistic I keep in mind is this: more Iranians came out to celebrate when the country qualified for the 1998 World Cup soccer tournament than came out to protest the university violence in 1999. This is not to say that Iranians are passive or quiescent, but that they have invested a great deal in this system, and they are willing to give their popular leaders a chance to make it work better.
How are the religious authorities chosen?
Suzanne Maloney: Oh, that's a dissertation question right there. Iran's religious authorities were historically chosen through the acclaim of their peers - i.e., there are no real exams to be a cleric, but having written a reslaleh (thesis) and having won the support of some followers and of your fellow clerics, you would be acknowledged as a particular rank of cleric (hojjatoleslam or ayatollah or grand ayatollah or marja).
Today of course the government has turned the tables a bit by bureaucratizing the clergy: now the office of the supreme leader funds certain supportive ayatollahs, certain seminaries, etc. The Friday prayers are delivered not by the most popular cleric, but by the one appointed by the government. And this has very much politicized the clergy.
There are a couple of important clerical bodies which have a great deal of authority: particularly the Council of Guardians, 12 jurists who can overrule any legislation, the Assembly of Experts, a larger group who select the supreme religious leader, and the Council of the Expediency. All of these have some democratic element to their selection process, but they are largely appointed bodies, which have enormous power and little popular input.
Why should one believe that elections in Iran
are anything other than for international show?
Suzanne Maloney: I suppose one should believe the voice of the Iranian people, 29 million of whom stood in long lines on Friday to vote. That's about 67 percent of the eligible voters. (I won't go into how that matches up against dismal voter participation in our more democratic system here.)
Seriously, these Iranians obviously believe that the election's outcome will have an important impact on their lives and their future. So the question is, why should we not believe the same?
Do you think the huge turn out would undermine the opposition groups, especially the People's Mujahedeen?
Suzanne Maloney: The Mujahideen has very little, if any, popular support within Iran, largely because it allied itself with Saddam Hussein after the Iraqi invasion of Iran and maintains a considerable army there. I never quite understand why members of our Congress sign off on petitions circulated by the Mujahideen - they are highly undemocratic, violent, and obviously have very bad choice of patrons.
Should Iranians choose to replace their government, they are far more likely to look within the country for candidates rather than investing their hopes in outside groups such as the MKO or the silly son of the former Shah, who have no sense of how Iran has changed over the past 22 years. Most Iranians were not even born when these people left the country.
Suzanne Maloney: On that rather paradoxical note, I've unfortunately got to sign off. I really enjoyed the chat and the challenging questions
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