In Iran, Green Movement Has 'Ceased To Exist'
NEAL CONAN, host:
Very few Western reporters have been allowed to visit Iran since last year's contested presidential elections sparked massive protests. But Jon Lee Anderson of The New Yorker recently got the opportunity to visit Tehran to interview President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and see what's become of the opposition Green Movement. He found the first both relaxed and defiant in advance of an expected visit to the U.N. General Assembly next month in New York. And the Green Movement quiescent, if not quite crushed.
Jon Lee Anderson joins us now from the studios of the BBC in London. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. JON LEE ANDERSON (Staff Writer, The New Yorker): Thanks, Neal. It's a pleasure to be here.
CONAN: There were moments last year with millions in the street that the Green Movement seemed, well, inexorable. Now you report - I think I'm quoting -"repression works."
Mr. ANDERSON: Well, yes. I have to say the - almost the only way I could speak to members of the Green Movement were on long hikes above the city in the canyons of the Alborz Mountains, where Tehranis go for exercise and fresh air. And it - and I'm thinking of one occasion in particular. It was actually two-hours hike, well, well above the last pavement of the city before I found people in a cherry orchard willing to speak openly, people within the Green Movement. And there, they did speak openly and they talked wanly about waiting - the day when they could actually go out onto the streets and demonstrate were past the repression had been too great.
But they were waiting, quote, unquote, "for a rift in the monolith to appear." And when I asked them what that meant, they said - they pointed to some schisms between clerics and hoped that that would eventually provide a crack through which they could once again fill the space. But they acknowledge that for the time being, they were relying on social networking sites, in other words, virtual as opposed to active or physical - physically acknowledgeable resistance to the regime as their only recourse.
CONAN: As it happens, that hiking path you note begins just outside the walls of Evin Prison which has been an important piece of the repression.
Mr. ANDERSON: That's right. Evin has been the site of mass executions, well, enumerable detentions. A Canadian-Iranian woman was arrested outside, taking pictures just a few years ago, and then died of her beatings later inside, something that even the regime had to acknowledge. And, of course, within its boundaries, within its walls, there are estimated to be thousands of people buried in the mass executions at different moments of the revolution, mostly in the 1980s. But the repression has kept up, as we know, a constant ebb ever since.
CONAN: You report on at least one of the - on several, in fact, of the leaders of the resistance movement who were later brought out and confessed in show trials to an improbable litany of crimes.
Mr. ANDERSON: That's right. I mean, this time - the last time I was in Iran was six months before the election, in December 2008. And, you know, and on that occasion and previous occasions, I was able to generally interview a fairly wide range of people within the acceptable, then-acceptable spectrum of points of view in the Islamic Republic. And they included, you know, reformists from the Khatami predecessor regime to Ahmadinejad's and others, included a newspaper publisher very close to the former President Rafsanjani, regarded as the godfather of the reform movement. And the former vice president of President Khatami, Mr. Abtahi, who is regarded as - he was known as the blogging imam because he had - he was very liberal and had a blog. And I say liberal in the Iranian context.
Mr. ANDERSON: He, you know, he wore a soutane and had a headdress. Now, both of these men were picked up and disappeared in the crackdown following the elections. And when they reappeared, they were, you know, physically thin, pale and looked terrified as part of the show trials of a year ago. And then, in a series - then and in a series of subsequent interviews in which they appeared together, the repudiated everything they had ever stood for.
One, Abtahi, actually, listed his own crimes, you know, for incitement against the regime, using communications to cause chaos at the heart of the revolution. And his colleague said he was glad about his own defeat. These were men who had most clearly been broken. And they were used as exemplary figures for the degree to which the regime would go to silence its opposition.
CONAN: If you read Jon Lee Anderson's piece in The New Yorker and you have questions about what's happened in Iran over the past couple of years, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. And I wanted to ask you, in years past, particularly in contrast with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, people who visited both countries, even when they were at war with each other, reported that Iraq was a police state, people live in terror, while Iran was, by comparison, a vibrant, robust, democratic place. What's happened?
Mr. ANDERSON: Well, some people say that what's actually happened is that the security apparatus has taken power through Ahmadinejad. One has to remember that Ahmadinejad, you know, hes actually the first civilian president of post-Shah era, revolutionary (unintelligible). He's not a cleric as his predecessors were, and yet he is a - I guess, you could - within Shia Islam, you could say he's the Shia equivalent of an evangelical Christian from the South. You know, he's a - he's from the Messianic mystical side of Shia Islam that believe in the return of the 12th - the so-called hidden imam, who when he returns, along with Jesus Christ, will heal humankind and lead us on the path to redemption. Now, Ahmadinejad actually believes this.
He's also a man who since his youth, since his 20's, when he was in university at the time of the revolution, volunteered for the Pasdaran, the revolutionary guards, the Basij, those paramilitaries whom we saw stabbing and attacking the Green Movement protesters last year. You know, this vast paramilitary army of, you know, by and large, working class, devotees of the revolution who owe their existence and that small power they have, the power of physical coercion, to the continued existence of the regime.
Now, you may remember that Ahmadinejad tends to wear a windbreaker. This was certainly during his first term, this was what he always wore, a kind of beige windbreaker. And people thought this, you know, outside Iran used to think, well, this is just because he doesn't know how to dress. Well, in fact, this was his symbol of identification with the Basij, which he is still a member of.
Now, that force we've now seen, you know, rallied and be brought into the city on a number of occasions. On the year anniversary of the election, senior revolutionary guard figures, military figures, Ahmadinejad himself, bragged about the number of Basij that they had - were able to bring into the streets. You know, this idea of a kind of thug army that was somehow - that they represent the people, the thrusting masses, which are somehow also deniable for the regime itself. You know, this is - if their excesses are committed, it's the will of the people, not the actual regime.
What we've now seen since last year's election is a break with tradition, of this kind of decorum of the exchange, the, you know, alternation between reformists or hardliners in power. We've seen the supreme leader, the ultimate figure of authority in Iran, come out and explicitly endorse Iran, which was something that was not seemly in the past.
And yet he did on this occasion, justifying it on the basis of the, you know, accumulated threats, a raid against the nation. And so - and the Basij brought into the streets to hold order and to put down the protests. So we now see a state that, if still democratic in name, is no longer in fact, and is much more of a security state openly than it was before.
CONAN: When you got the chance to interview him, he was not wearing his windbreaker but the suit with the open collar that he also dons from time to time. And you report that he seemed much more confident than he had been in the past.
Mr. ANDERSON: Much more. But in our interview and the - actually, the very first day I was there, two days before I arrived and just hours later was taken into a press conference with him where, both there and in our interview, he seemed much more self-confident than Id ever seen him in the past. I'd always - I'd had occasion to meet Ahmadinejad on a number of previous occasions, and also watch him in public. And I'd always noted that he was very ill at ease in his own skin.
And he now seemed very, very confident, you know, easy with himself. And I had no doubt that this has a great deal to do with the fact that he now knows where he stands, you know, his chief opponents no longer threaten him. He has boxed them in. The supreme leader who may, at one time, have played favorites or even seen him as expendable, has now explicitly endorsed him in power. He's now going after - if anything, he's after going his conservative opponents who continue to challenge his authority in a number of ways.
And he - yes, he was loquacious. He was patient. He was - I mean, he smiled a great deal. He took his time. He seems very savvy about how he appears. It was a marked difference to the Ahmadinejad I'd seen in the past.
CONAN: We're talking with Jon Lee Anderson, who writes for The New Yorker. You can find a link to his most recent piece, "After the Crackdown," at our website. Go to npr.org. You can just click on TALK OF THE NATION. And you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.
And let's get Charles(ph) on the line, Charles with us from Raleigh in North Carolina.
CHARLES (Caller): Good afternoon. Yeah, my question is this - and maybe I question his last comment. How does Ahmadinejad really consider that anyone will ever take him as a serious leader? I mean, I understand he wants to be taken seriously. But he's really a puppet of the theocracy of the imam and that - the revolutionary council, and that's never going to change. I mean, I'm wondering how you see him viewing his role and, you know, as anything more than just a puppet. And I will...
Mr. ANDERSON: Well...
CHARLES: ...be happy to take my answer off the air.
CONAN: All right, Charles, thank you.
Mr. ANDERSON: Well, sure. I mean, that's, you know - their system is something that's quite alien to us. And it's difficult for us to measure the kind of, I suppose, the internal culture, internal architecture to the relationships that make up the Islamic republic, that theocracy.
Now, in the past, before Ahmadinejad, there was a certain amount of, you could say, cool distance between the president and the supreme leader. When Ahmadinejad took office in 2005 for the first time, he kissed the ring, as I recall or perhaps it was the hand - of the supreme leader in a public occasion, which to people in Iran said a couple of things. It said to them that there was a much closer identification than ever before. They saw it as kind of craven and unseemly - and certainly amongst the elite and the upper middle classes, they saw this as an act of craven and obescence, which they look down upon, and was unnecessary.
But it reflects the degree to which Ahmadinejad represents the kind of collective fealty of the Basij class in Iran to its supreme leader. In other words, they fully accept and, if anything, propagate the idea of this ecclesiastical hierarchy. They, you know, Ahmadinejad is the - if he is the right hand of - well, if the supreme leader is the hand of God in Iran, then Ahmadinejad is the man who implements that hand of God's will. And I think he would probably dispute the epithet of puppet, but he would have no problem with being said to be the representative or the administrator or the implementer of the clergy.
CONAN: We have a call on our international line. Farad, with us on the line from Tehran.
FARAD (Caller): Yes, my name is Farad. I live in Iran. I have worked 25 years for Chrysler and big corporations. I have many, many graduate degrees, as you can hear, you can recognize from my accent. This is my synopsis, that inconceived, inexecuted political economic military policies of United States has alienated this nation from United States to the point educated people like me also very faithful to the Iranian custom, Iranian system, cannot have the opportunity to enter the government.
CONAN: That's the fault of the United States?
FARAD: That's absolutely the fault - not necessarily the fault of the United States. You know, I'm just saying these are the causes, to the point that even with my family members, even my relatives, I am American and I am hated.
Mr. ANDERSON: Hmm. Well, yeah, the...
FARAD: And Im associated with these policies.
Mr. ANDERSON: Is it Farad or Farid(ph). Farad, you know, the...
FARAD: Farad, F-A-R-A-D.
Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah. The - yes, it's a complex situation you live in there. I would say that it's probably - it seems to be a common practice in Iran amongst the more ideological of the society to tend to blame Iran's problems on outside powers - at the moment and for recent years it's been the United States. And for many, it's still Great Britain, who unbeknownst to probably many Americans, there's a widespread theory in - you could call it a conspiracy theory, I suppose, but it's more than that - in Iran that Great Britain is actually still pulling all of the strings, that the United States is merely the puppet of -you know, the United States is the Ahmadinejad to Great Britain, the supreme leader. And that, you know, outside powers like Great Britain and like the United States, and old Russia, too, are all scheming to take Iran's oil and soul away from it again.
There's this tendency by Iranian nationalists to look outward for the cause of all of their problems. And I see this as unfortunate because I don't think things will change in Iran until Iranians look to themselves for real change.
CONAN: Farad, thank you very much for the call. Appreciate it. You can read more about Iran and President Ahmadinejad in Jon Lee Anderson's piece in the New Yorker magazine, including a lot of talk about what might happen in the event of a war between the United States and Iran. Jon Lee Anderson joined us from the studios of the BBC in London. Thanks very much for your time today.
Mr. ANDERSON: Thanks a lot, Neal, my pleasure.