A Look At What Is Really Dividing Iran

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Government forces continue to clash with the opposition over the controversial election this past June, and protests earlier this week ended in bloodshed. But as the chant of the crowds becomes louder, it is still unclear exactly what is dividing the country. NPR's foreign correspondent Mike Shuster gives us an update on what is really going on in Iran.

NEAL CONAN, host:

Yesterday, there was a massive turnout for government-sponsored demonstrations in several Iranian cities. Today, protestors are back in the streets of Tehran, where they've reportedly been met with tear gas. Western reporters have little access to this story, but it looks as if the unrest that followed the disputed presidential election earlier this year has regained momentum and presents the greatest challenge to the government of the Islamic Republic since the Iranian Revolution 30 years ago.

From this distance, it's hard to tell which parts of the Iranian people support the government and which the opposition, the size of the protest movement and why so many appear willing to risk tear gas, beatings, arrest, even gunfire.

We've asked NPR Foreign Correspondent Mike Shuster to help us out. If you have questions for him about who's who in Iran, about the how and the why the size and the stakes of this protest movement, give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mike Shuster's been to Iran many times for NPR News, most recently for the presidential election. He joins us today from NPR West in Culver City, California. Mike, always good to have you on the program today.

MIKE SHUSTER: Hi, Neal. It's good to be here.

CONAN: And as we watch these counter-protests it's, I mean, on Sunday, it was a huge number of protesters, then yesterday it was the big government-sponsored demonstrations, then more protests today, unclear as to how many year they are today. Is there any way to gauge what's happening here and who's on the rise and who's holding firm and who's not?

SHUSTER: Well, if we try to gauge it simply by counting numbers, the numbers of, yesterday, of pro-government demonstrators and the numbers of protesters in the streets on Sunday and previously, I don't think that that necessarily gives us a really good gauge or what's going on in Iran. But you have to figure that the pro-government demonstrators, the government helped them get there. They provided buses. They gave them - many government workers the day off. They gave students the day off. And most importantly, the police allowed them to demonstrate, whereas on Sunday, the riot police and the street militia were out in force and they used violence to try to stop the demonstrations - the protest demonstrations, and they occurred nevertheless.

So I think that we probably need other tools to gauge what's really going on in Iran. And it seems to me there is - this is a political conflict. There is deep dissatisfaction with the government of Iran. There was deep disbelief last June when it was announced that Muhammad Ahmadinejad had overwhelmingly won reelection. There was cognitive dissonance in the streets. People didn't believe that. They believed that the primary challenger, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, won. And I think that in the face of government violence, the amount of violence that the government has mounted against the protests, I think we can get some idea of how deeply felt the protests are.

And we can at least say it is highly unlikely that they - that the government can stop them. The government thought that it could stop them, and it hasn't. And now they will continue, or there may be people on both sides that look for some kind of a political solution. But it is a political conflict and a political problem.

CONAN: And you say there was deep dissatisfaction at the results of the election and the belief that it was rigged. Nevertheless, the - it seems that there's more going on here, that there's - for people to go out and take those kinds of risks, there has to be more than just, well, you know, I thought my man won and the other guy won.

SHUSTER: Well, I think there is more going on here, and what it is has to do with political rights and human rights in Iran. I think that the people who voted for Mir-Hossein Mousavi and in the immediate days after the June 12th election went out in the millions in the streets, believed that they had the right to protest. And when they were met with violence by the government, I think it shocked a lot of people. I don't think they expected that. And as the struggle between the protesters and government increased and the violence increased - this is not an unusual phenomenon.

We've see it in many places in the world, at many different times. There is a radicalization that takes place, or a deepening of political resistance, and the protests and opposition begin to challenge the government itself rather than ask for more narrow concessions, like a recounting of the vote or having a - holding a new election, something like that. And that's where it's gotten. The violence that the government has used to repress the opposition has led to deeper demands. And I must say on an emotional level, I think that the fact that large numbers of people continue to go out into the streets and face violence and possible death is truly extraordinary. There have been lots of places that I've covered in the world, Neal. And I haven't seen that kind of courage and fearlessness and determination in a lot of places.

CONAN: And the stakes seem to be rising, listening to some of the rhetoric and some of the speeches of those demonstrations yesterday by important figures, both clerical figures and government figures.

SHUSTER: The rhetoric gets more and more heated and it's really troubling especially because there are senior officials on the government side who keep saying things like the opposition leaders should be executed, people should be arrested en masse and there should be violence used against them. And what's interesting is that despite the level of violence, the government hasn't yet singled out the leaders of the opposition, who may be figureheads, it's not entirely clear, but the Mussovi and a couple of others who have spearheaded the opposition.

The government seems reluctant to carry out the threat. But there may be a point at which they overcome their reluctance and actually do arrest the leaders or do allow the security forces to do their work. And that could easily lead to so much more violence in Iran, I fear.

CONAN: We are talking with NPR foreign correspondent Mike Shuster - 800-989-8255, Email us talk@npr.org. Brian(ph) is calling from upstate New York.

BRIAN (Caller): Hi, yes. My question is really just, I guess, I mean I understand that there isn't whole lot of information coming out of this for people from outside. And we can't really get a good look. But my question is, you know, who are the people that are making up this anti-government movement? Is it really just students and young people or is this sort of like a broad-based like, you know, like everyone around the country is really putting in for this and supporting it?

SHUSTER: Well, I was there during the election and the immediate aftermath. And the largest demonstration that took place was on June 15th. And I have rarely seen a crowd of this size. The New York Times reported that there were three million people in this demonstration. And they were people of all kinds from all walks of life. There is no question that there are many students that are involved in this movement. Iran is overwhelmingly young, I think it has a majority of its people are under the age of 33. There is also widespread education and widespread university education in Iran. Now that's in fact the benefit of the Islamic republic over the last 30 years. And many, many, many of those students have taken part in these demonstrations. But you saw people of all ages. There were a great number of women involved in this movement. I think far more than previously in Iran. I went to political rallies when I was there last June where the rally was held in an outdoor stadium and the stadium was divided in half effectively. And men were on one side and women were on the other. And it was clear you could see that women outnumbered men actually in that particular rally. And I think that there were tens of thousands of people there.

I think that this is primarily a secular movement. It's primarily a movement of the middle class. I think it's primarily a movement of well-educated people who have come to the conclusion that the Islamic Republic doesn't serve them, as far as the political rights and the political goals that they have set for themselves. And I think that's what's in part driving this movement.

CONAN: And would it be fair to say that the base of the protest, the opposition would be in the cities and the base of government supporters in the countryside?

SHUSTER: I think that, is probably - that is probably true, I'm not sure that we need - we should reduce it that way. But, I mean, Iran is no longer a backward country and no longer a largely rural country. It has many cities of large size and I think that yes, those urban dwellers are fueling this movement. But my sense of it, Neal, is that there are many children who live in smaller towns and villages, came from the countryside and who have gone to university because universities have been so open to a wider portion of young people over the last 30 years.

And they take the ideas that they learn in universities and go back to their smaller towns and villages. I suspect that there's really no place in Iran that has been unaffected by this political conflict.

CONAN: Thanks for the call Brian. Let's go next to Patty(ph), Patty is calling us from Campbellsport in Wisconsin.

PATTY (Caller): Good morning. Or I should say good afternoon. It was quite a co-incidence about an half an hour ago I was watching some video on YouTube from the protest that went on the 27th of December this year. And it was just - granted, I'm certain this wasn't a broad array of what happened, but there are police vehicles just plowing people down and running them over.

SHUSTER: You know, I've seen this video, it's actually going around the world and I think a great number of people have seen this video of a police vehicle that plowed into a crowd and left body, left at least one body, there may have been more lying in the streets. What's interesting about the - there isn't indeed a lot of information coming out of Iran. The problem is that it's not coming from journalist where we can use the tools at our disposal to confirm that the day that things happened, the place that things happened, who is really involved, how many people are really involved. It's frustrating to be unable to use the kind of analytical tools that we as journalist bring to a story like this.

CONAN: And it may be worth noting that a senior Iranian official described that specific video as a lie.

SHUSTER: And others attest to its truthfulness. I think that there - I think this is the great problem in assessing what's really going on in Iran. Not that we have too little information but we have two little analytical, too few analytical tools, or not that traditional analytical tools to make sense of all the information that's coming out, the video and audio and writing in blogs and all of that, to attest to whether it could be truthful or not.

CONAN: Patty, thank you very much. We are talking with Mike Shuster about the uprising in Iran. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Mike, there is another part of this which is a lot of people outside of Iran and particularly in the West look at what's going on there and say this is it seems to be a grassroots movement that is rising up against a repressive and theocratic state that's a lot of things wrong with it, in terms of human rights and economics and other things, and that a lot of people think is dangerous. And isn't this a wonderful thing? With the paucity of tools that we have, is it easy to read too much into what's going on?

SHUSTER: Yeah I think there is a danger that you can read too much into what's going on. But interestingly enough Neal, soon after the demonstrations last summer kind of petered out, some people were quick to jump to the conclusion that was the end of the opposition, that it was a short-lived movement and that the government had used relatively minimal force to regain control and that was going to be that. And that turned out not to be true. I've been very cautious in making any kind of predictions about how long this will last and where it will take Iran and what are the ultimate results or the ultimate consequences. But I think that we can say now seven months after the June 12th election, that this is a strong movement and it will continue. What it will actually lead to is really hard to say. And my own fears is that because there such a deep chasm between the government and the opposition - those that support the opposition and those that support the government - that, however, it's going to be resolved, I fear there may be a great deal more bloodshed before the whole thing is clarified for the rest of the world to see.

CONAN: Let's go to Shaun(ph). Shaun's calling from Oklahoma City.

SHAUN (Caller): Yes thank you taking for my call. My question is, I wonder how you feel about (unintelligible) and the thought that a lot of the unrest that we're seeing now in places like Iran, or as a result of really the waning of Islamist thought through out the area and now it just filling that void.

SHUSTER: I don't feel really qualified to make a judgment about that. It is certainly true that Islam is a very important factor in the conflict in Iran. There has been an Islamic republic that has governed Iran for 30 years. And it's a complex matter, this Islamic republic, because it's a compromise between those who waged the Islamic revolution 30 years ago in Iran and who wanted a purely Islamic government, and many who wanted a more secular government that was democratic in nature. And this was a hybrid in effect.

And it managed to keep the clerics significantly imbued with political power for quite sometime. But it also created a lot of dissatisfaction. Don't forget the opposition that has emerged this year, it's not the first time that there's been a reform movement that has challenged the more entrenched hard line elements in the government. Mohammed Khatami was a reformer who was elected president in 1997 and reelected president in 2001. For eight years, Iran had a president at least who was trying to bring about political reform and he's part of this movement now.

So, this has been a theme, a nexus of tension within Iran's government for 30 years. And it may simply be that at this point, these two strains of political thought are irreconcilable, or Iranian's are having much greater difficulty now reconciling the two.

CONAN: Shaun thanks very much for the call. And I think we have time, if we go quickly, for one last call from Cyrus(ph) in San Jose, California. And of course we remember from my history books that Cyrus is a Persian name, is that right?

CYRUS (Caller): Yes correct.

CONAN: Go ahead please.

CYRUS: Yes thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to make a point regarding the - not only political conflict, but the cultural conflict that has been going on in the past 30 years in Iran. Iranians generally speaking does not see, they do not see the Islamic Republic of Iran as a true representative of their culture and the people of Iran. And that is the major point that has been overlooked for the past 30 years. And that is why so many people are pouring into the street and risking their lives to make this point to the world that this government for the past 30 years has acted as an anti-Iranian government in every shape, and way and form - culturally, politically, religiously and every other way.

CONAN: Sorry, I don't mean to cut you off, Cyrus, just have a little time left, I wanted to give Mike an opportunity to say something quickly about that.

SHUSTER: Well, I think that's a view shared by many in the opposition and many in the Iranian diaspora around the world. I don't think I need to add anything to it. That is an expression of what many people feel about the government of Iran and that's leading to - that's helping to fuel the opposition, there's no question about it.

CONAN: Cyrus thanks very much for the call. Mike Shuster as always thanks very much for your time.

SHUSTER: Oh, you're welcome Neal.

CONAN: Mike Shuster joined us from NPR West in Culver City, California.

Take care of yourself tonight. Happy New Year, I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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