Op-Ed: Iranians Don't Want Help From U.S. Time magazine columnist Joe Klein witnessed the election in Iran, and its immediate aftermath. After ten days in Tehran, he believes Iranians — both supporters of President Ahmadinejad and members of the reform movement — don't want help from the U.S.
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Op-Ed: Iranians Don't Want Help From U.S.

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Op-Ed: Iranians Don't Want Help From U.S.

Op-Ed: Iranians Don't Want Help From U.S.

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Joe Klein of Time magazine was in Iran to report on that country's presidential election and its immediate aftermath. He's now returned to the United States and the debate over how President Obama should respond. Joe Klein will join us in a moment. We'll also focus more on President Obama and the U.S. response tomorrow in this hour on TALK OF THE NATION.

In the meantime, if you'd like to talk with Joe Klein about the campaign, the election, and how President Obama should respond, give us a call: 800-989-8255; email us: talk@npr.org.

Joe Klein is a columnist for Time magazine, the author of this week's cover story, "Iran versus Iran: What I Saw at the Revolution." He's back in the U.S. and joins us from a studio at Time magazine in New York City.

Nice to have you back on the program, Joe.

Mr. JOE KLEIN (Columnist, Time Magazine): Good to be back, Neal, in every sense of the word.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And I wonder, do today's reports from Tehran suggest that the government's already limited patience with protests may now be over?

Mr. KLEIN: Well, I think that you've seen the crackdown ever since the supreme leader gave his speech at Friday prayers, saying that dissent would no longer - street protests would no longer be tolerated.

And the crowds have thinned out a bit since then, although the sort of reporting that we're getting right now isn't as comprehensive as you'd like it to be, mainly because they kicked all of us out.

CONAN: And those Western reporters still in Tehran are restricted to their offices, pretty much.

Mr. KLEIN: Yeah. I think that CNN is allowed to do one report a day, and that's mostly on the basis of phone work.

CONAN: So, how long were you in Iran?

Mr. KLEIN: I was - I had a 10-day visa and I was there for almost all of it.

CONAN: And you left when?

Mr. KLEIN: Monday, a week ago.

CONAN: So you did get to see some of the post-election turmoil, but not a lot.

Mr. KLEIN: Right. I mean, when I left, the demonstrations were still building. There was no sense that you were going to get the huge outpourings that you got toward the end of last week. It was still, you know - the demonstrations that I saw on the street, the violence that I saw on the street, it was crowds of up to a thousand maybe, not the enormous crowds that you later saw.

CONAN: And there's some extraordinary pictures of those later crowds in Time magazine's issues this week. And, Joe...

Mr. KLEIN: Right.

CONAN: I need to ask you about the campaign leading up to these elections. The results have become so controversial. Let's focus for a moment on the campaign. And to quote you from your story, today's issue of the magazine, "the president," meaning Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, "was, without question, the best politician in the race." You go on to suggest, "He seemed to have been trained by some Iranian equivalent of Karl Rove." What do you mean by that?

Mr. KLEIN: Well, what I mean by that is that Ahmadinejad is a kind of classic 21st-century media-savvy political candidate. The other candidates in the race, especially the two reformers, Mousavi and Karroubi, seemed like elderly members of the Council on Foreign Relations or something like that. They were not trained for television, for sure. And Ahmadinejad pretty much ate their lunch in the two debates that I saw.

CONAN: There was that famous debate where issues were discussed. It was very extraordinary, I think, for an Iranian presidential election. Nevertheless, a lot of the coverage here suggested that Ahmadinejad had gone too far and that Mousavi had, in fact, come off better.

Mr. KLEIN: Well, a lot of the coverage is based on reporting that's done with the more sophisticated people, the upper middle-class people in north Tehran. But when you go down to south Tehran, or into other parts of the country, you find that they really consider Ahmadinejad their, you know, their street fighting hero. He's, you know, he's the - he represents the working class. He has really - his policies have very much favored the working class, the children of those who fought in the Iran-Iraq war.

Remember, that was an enormous event in the history of Iran. It was proportionately more important than World War II was in our history. They lost a million men. That's - you know, in a country of 70 million.

There are tens of thousands of victims of chemical gas that are still in the country. I interviewed the wife of one victim who's had to support the family, you know, ever since, for the last - nearly 30 years. And so, those people represent a very significant constituency in Iran and so do the working class. And they pretty much love Ahmadinejad.

In fact, one of the Ahmadinejad street slogans was Ahmadinejad is love. And what does this mean? It means that it is entirely possible that Ahmadinejad could have won this election if it had been conducted fairly. Or if the votes had been counted, it would have been closer, far closer than it was. And I think that that's why the government decided not to take any chances and - to steal it.

CONAN: What does that mean? Especially on the day after the election, the supreme leader in Iran, the Ayatollah Khamenei, he comes out and says this is the divine judgment. This is the - and there are so many people, at least in Tehran, there are so many people who say, wait a minute, this election was stolen. If the supreme leader is saying it's divine judgment, isn't he putting his credibility on the line here?

Mr. KLEIN: Well, I think the supreme leader's credibility is very much on the line right now, and that is where the story is at this moment.

I always believed, especially when it seemed that the street protests were going to grow stronger, that no matter how many people they put in the street, they were going to need - the protesters were going to need support from some aspect of the Iranian government, one of these various regulatory bodies that they have. They have the most complicated government in the world. They have at least two of everything, a secular version, President Ahmadinejad, and a religious version, the supreme leader. They have a secular army and a religious army, the Revolutionary Guards.

And so, I came to believe that, and I believe now, that the Assembly of Experts - which is kind of the Iranian College of Cardinals, which selects supreme leaders and can also dismiss them, although they never have - is a very important body. And right now, there's an awful lot of politicking going on behind the scenes within that body, according to U.S. intelligence sources, as well as people in Iran.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. We're talking with Joe Klein of Time magazine, the author of this week's cover story, "Iran Versus Iran: What I Saw at the Revolution."

And this is Yonicka(ph). Yonicka calling us from Central Washington.

YONICKA (Caller): Yeah, hi. I would like Joe Klein to tell us more about the history of Mousavi, who's the leader of the opposition. I believe that he was in office for several years and that he is definitely not a reformer. He has a record of thousands of political killings.

I think that we have a simplistic way of looking at it. I think that the election was stolen. But just because he's the opposition doesn't make him the good guy.

CONAN: An unlikely firebrand. Of course, all of the presidential candidates were allowed to run by the Council of Guardians, Joe Klein.

Mr. KLEIN: Right. Well, Mousavi is a fascinating character. I interviewed him when I was there. And he is not a likely presidential candidate. In fact, I interviewed him in a building that he designed - first time ever for me in a presidential campaign. He's an architect.

He was a very prominent member of the generation that brought the revolution. And he was the prime minister under President Khamenei and under the first Supreme Leader Khomeini in the 1980s. And that regime was very brutal in its first years.

As prime minister, he was mostly known as a very good manager. He kept the economy going during the Iran-Iraq war. And he was, in fact, a favorite of the Supreme Leader Khomeini. But what happened to Mousavi is the same thing that's happened to many other members of that revolutionary generation. Over time, over the course of 30 years, they've become far more moderate. And they have turned - they've reassessed the revolution that they brought.

A lot of the hostage-takers, you know, when the American diplomats were taken hostage in 1979, are leaders of the reform movement, had prominent positions in President Khatami's government. They are opposed now. You have a real generation gap. The revolutionary generation is opposed by the generation that fought the Iran-Iraq war - President Ahmadinejad was one of those and, you know, his allies in the Revolutionary Guard and other aspects of the military.

So while it's true that Mousavi has a very checkered past, he is also a real representative of the old guard establishment in Iran that believes that the way forward now is through a much more planned economy and with much better relations with the rest of the world, including the United States, a point that he made absolutely clear when I interviewed him.

CONAN: Not that he would change Iranian policies on the acquisition of - on its nuclear ambitions or the acquisition of nuclear weapons for that matter...

Mr. KLEIN: Well, actually, you know...

CONAN: ...or its support for Hezbollah and Hamas?

Mr. KLEIN: Well, yes. I mean, actually, Mousavi was - I spoke to all of the major reformers, to Karroubi, who was also a presidential candidate, to Mohammad Reza Khatami, who had been the speaker of the parliament and is the brother of the former president, and to others. And their position on negotiations with the United States is very similar to the hardliners.

Mousavi was distinctive in one fascinating aspect. He said to me that if they're - you know, that the enrichment of uranium was not negotiable, that was a right that Iran had under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is the truth. He said, but if there were a weapons program going on, that would be negotiable in talks with the United States. And he was the only Iranian politician who acknowledged that such a program might exist. None of the others did.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Yonicka.

YONICKA: Okay. So you're convinced that he's changed his stripes then?

CONAN: Yes. Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

YONICKA: Okay. Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Joe Klein of Time magazine on the Opinion Page this week.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Ali(ph). Ali with us from Des Moines.

ALI (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

ALI: Thank you for your time.

CONAN: Go ahead.

ALI: Great show. Great program.

CONAN: Thank you.

ALI: Long-time listener, first-time caller, as they say. Mr. Klein, a very, very good input on your insight in Iran, my country. I'm an Iranian-American and I've been here for a long time.

One of the points that I want to make that the previous caller made: First of all, I think President Obama does need to talk this up more of what's going on in Tehran, what's going on in major cities in Iran, people coming out, people demonstrating.

It is a very fine line to walk, that you don't want to cross that boundary and give the opposition, the opposition - not the same opposition that everyone's referring to, meaning Khamenei and the rest of the Islamic republic establishment - a chance to say, here is United States meddling in our affairs. We want them out.

CONAN: Ali, can I interrupt you just briefly? We have a tape cut of President Obama appearing on the "The Early Show" today on CBS where he talked about his reticence on the subject of Iran. Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Early Show")

President BARACK OBAMA: The last thing that I want to do is to have the United States be a foil for those forces inside Iran who would love nothing better than to make this an argument about the United States. That's what they do. That's what we're already seeing. We shouldn't be playing into that.

CONAN: And is that your point, Ali?

ALI: QED. That's one of the points, absolutely. But at the same time, you can't just completely ignore the subject. The other thing I was going to say is Mousavi, who calls himself a reform candidate - remember, these guys all come from the same lot. We have an Iranian saying (Speaking in foreign language.)

It essentially means they're all of the same lot, okay? They grew up the same, they have the same government. So, unless, really, the people of Iran - and this is not the Iranian expats living outside of Iran - want a change, a change of government, we - it's truly up to them.

So, these people going out, you know, my fellow Iranians going out in the streets, demonstrating, being shot, being killed, are putting their word where, you know, putting the action word - putting the word where the mouth is as they're going out there and they're demonstrating. We do need to give them some kind of a support, again, as President Obama pointed, not to an overt degree that they will start blaming U.S. for this.

CONAN: Ali, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

ALI: Thank you.

CONAN: And Joe Klein, you wrote about this in a blog post last Friday where you talked about the campaign by what you - I think you call the double-barreled neocon assault. They called on President Obama to do more to talk about the protests. And tell us more about that.

Mr. KLEIN: Well, that was a blog post about the columns that Charles Krauthammer and Paul Wolfowitz wrote. And, you know, I would add John McCain's public statements to this. I think that what the neocons miss, and what a lot of Americans miss, is the way that the United States is perceived even by the reformers, even by the most sophisticated Iranians, the people who are fighting for democracy now.

When they look at the United States, they see the country that overthrew Mohammed Mosaddeq's government in 1953, who supported the Shah, who ran as repressive and arguably a more brutal regime than the mullahs are running now. They see the country that supported Saddam Hussein. I can guarantee you that every one of those lovely young people who are out in the streets believes that the United States supplied Saddam Hussein with the poison gas that has inflicted so many injuries on Iranian soldiers during that war.

They see the United States as supporting - you know, as denigrating their country by including it in the Axis of Evil. And so, we have a really checkered past there that the neoconservatives and those who want the president to treat this as if it were the Soviet Union, those people never acknowledge that. And it's a past that the president has started to deal with in his Cairo speech and his statements since.

Now, obviously, as the caller said, we - you know, our government, our president and all of us, you know, are obviously in support of the people who are in the streets and obviously don't want to see harm to come to them. But, you know, as the president said, it is very, very easy for the supreme leader and his allies to blame this on us.

And I thought it was very significant in his speech at Friday prayers that the lead Satan in this case wasn't us but the British. And that's in large part because the British BBC Persia service, which is excellent, has been such a thorn in the side of that administration.

But it is significant that because of Obama's posture, the Great Satan, which is something that those guys have relied on for 30 years to stay in power, the Great Satan isn't doing them any favors right now.

CONAN: Joe Klein, thanks as always for your time. Appreciate it.

Mr. KLEIN: My pleasure.

CONAN: Joe Klein, author of this week's cover story in Time magazine, "Iran Versus Iran: What I Saw at the Revolution." There's a link to his column at our Web site, npr.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION.

More on this tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.

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