Understanding Iran's Turmoil: An Expert Weighs In Bloody protests in the streets of Iran following that nation's June 12 presidential election have captivated the world's attention, but what does it all mean? Political analyst Karim Sadjadpour weighs in on the unprecedented events — and who holds the power.
NPR logo

Understanding Iran's Turmoil: An Expert Weighs In

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/105802915/105805944" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Understanding Iran's Turmoil: An Expert Weighs In

Understanding Iran's Turmoil: An Expert Weighs In

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/105802915/105805944" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to get an analysis of what's happening in Iran and profile the main players in the leadership and the opposition.

My guest, Karim Sadjadpour is an expert on Iran and an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In his previous position as chief Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, he was based in Tehran and Washington. As we'll hear, he narrowly escaped imprisonment in Iran. Sadjadpour grew up in the U.S. and has dual citizenship in Iran and the U.S. We recorded our conversation this morning.

Karim Sadjadpour, welcome to FRESH AIR. What are you hearing from friends and journalists in Iran?

Mr. KARIM SADJADPOUR (Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): Well, it's great to be with you, Terry. And talking to people in Tehran and actually outside of Tehran, as well, but especially in Tehran, they say that it feels like martial law right now.

At the beginning, last week, the scenes were reminiscent of the late 1970s and the 1979 revolution, but right now, it does feel like martial law. And they say that the regime is using overwhelming force against the population, and because there's no foreign media there, the world is not seeing what's happening. And they're very concerned that the types of brutality that are taking place in Tehran, the world is not able to see.

GROSS: Of course, we are seeing things through Twitter and YouTube and things like that. So do you think we're still missing a lot of the brutality that's going on?

Mr. SADJADPOUR: Absolutely. I just think we're not seeing the full extent of it. And one thing your listeners should understand is that Tehran is a huge city. It's much more like Los Angeles than it is Manhattan.

What I mean by that, it's wide and large and spread out as opposed to being a small, concentrated area like Manhattan. And one thing the regime does very well is repression. They have repression down to a science. And so the images that we saw last week of crowds in the several hundreds of thousands, we don't see those same type of images. And the reason why is not because the sense of injustice or the sense of rage has necessarily subsided, it's that the regime is able to block off the major highways and thoroughfares to prevent people from getting where they need to go and to prevent people from congregating in one area.

So what we're seeing instead of crowds in the hundreds of thousands is dozens of crowds throughout the city in the hundreds and thousands, and this is much more manageable for the regime shock troops, the Basij militia. Instead of taking on crowds of hundreds of thousands, they're able to manage several dozen crowds of hundreds or thousands.

GROSS: Do you know people who have been imprisoned in Iran this past week?

Mr. SADJADPOUR: Absolutely. A good friend of mine, Maziar Bahari, who works for Newsweek, has been imprisoned. He's been imprisoned in Evin Prison, as far as we know, for the last two days. Another journalist friend of mine, Iason Athanasiadis, who works with the Washington Times, who is actually not even an Iranian national, he's a dual Greek-British national, has been imprisoned. And another friend who has been working as a photographer with Time-Life Magazine, has been imprisoned. And there are plenty of people whom I haven't heard from.

So I think that there's an incredible mixture of emotions people have now in Iran. There is some hope. There is terror. There's great fear. There's tremendous anxiety. And my friends who are there covering it as journalists, and also my family members, whom I speak to, say that, you know, the whirlwind of emotions is really something they've never felt before.

GROSS: Do you see the possibility of Iran heading in either direction, either more of a tyrannical state or a breakdown of that state and heading toward freedom, depending on what happens in the next - in the immediate future?

Mr. SADJADPOUR: I think, Terry, that both outcomes are within the realm of possibilities. I do think that it's reached a point where the hard-liners, who are currently in power, they represent not only a small minority of the population but even a small minority of the political elite.

So if they want to retain power, it's going to have to be by using overwhelming force because otherwise they don't have legitimacy, and I do fear that they are capable of doing that.

On the other hand, Iran is certainly not monolithic, and the tools which the regime has at its disposal, namely the shock troops like the Basij militia and the revolutionary guards, neither are they monolithic. And the revolutionary guards are one good example.

The revolutionary guards are Iran's elite military force. They number about 120,000. And it's true that the upper tier of senior commanders in the revolutionary guards were directly appointed by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and they're going to remain loyal to him. But we have a lot of evidence, both empirical and anecdotal, which suggests that the rank and file of the revolutionary guards are much more representative of Iranian society at large.

They're young men who hope for an Iran which is more politically free, more socially free and provides more economic opportunities. And if there reaches a point, and this point may be reached, where the revolutionary guards are ordered to use overwhelming force against their own population, their Iranian brothers and sisters, I think we may start to see deep fissures within the regime's security movement.

And what we're seeing now, Terry, overall, is really unprecedented in the sense that in the past, we have seen the population, especially the young population, periodically rise up against the government, but we haven't seen this scale of demonstrations - in the hundreds of thousands. And we haven't seen these fissures at a political level since the 1979 revolution, where someone like Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was one of the founding fathers of the Islamic Republic, one of the pillars of the revolution, the man who made Ayatollah Khamenei the supreme leader, he made him supreme leader. He was Khamenei's king-maker. He is now in the opposition, as well.

So it's become such a narrow - the ruling faction, which is holding onto power, namely the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad, has become such a narrow faction of Iranian politics and Iranian society.

GROSS: What are we seeing now in the protest movement? Is this a protest against an election, against the election results as reported by the government, or is this a protest against the ruling system, against the theocracy?

Mr. SADJADPOUR: I think it began as a protest against these elections, which were really a selection. They were an insult to people's intelligence. And I think people really felt a deep sense that they were wronged, this sense of injustice as a result of these elections, and initially I think people went out to protest these results.

But the response of the regime has been so violent and so intransigent and so unsympathetic to people that I think that people are now asking for much more than they were before election day, June 12. And Terry, this is not - these discontents, which you now see being aired on the streets of Tehran and throughout the country, are not simply discontents which have been brewing the last four years, during Ahmadinejad's presidency.

Many of these discontents have been brewing for the last three decades: political discontents, social discontents, deep economic malaise, which exists in Iranian society. And contrary to some of the analysis we've heard that these demonstrations are simply taking place in northern Tehran and only amongst a certain strata of society, namely the middle class and affluent young student population, these protestors encompass an incredibly wide swath of Iranian society.

I've seen videos of laborers demonstrating, garbage men. You see elderly men and women on the streets, children. You see middle class. You see educated classes. And, again, contrary to popular belief that this is taking place only among the middle and affluent classes, most of these protests are taking place in south Tehran, which is kind of the more working-class part of the city.

GROSS: Do you think that President Obama's change of policy, change from President Bush's hard-line policy against Iran, changing from calling Iran part of the axis of evil and President Obama's speech to the Muslim world, do you think that those things have contributed at all to the climate of protest now against the regime?

Mr. SADJADPOUR: What I would say is this, Terry, is that the election of a president like Obama and the overtures which Obama has made toward Iran have had an effect on what's taking place in Iran. And what I mean by that is that whereas the Bush administration's approach toward Iran united Iran's disparate political factions against a common threat, the Obama administration, in particular Barack Obama himself, with these overtures, the Nowruz greetings, the calls for mutual respect, has essentially accentuated the deep divides, which already existed amongst Iran's political elites, between those who want to continue this death-to-America culture of 1979 and the vast majority of not only the Iranian population but, I also would argue, the vast majority of the Iranian political elite who understands that Iran will never fulfill its enormous potential as long as relations with the United States remain adversarial.

So I do think there has been an Obama effect in Iran. It wasn't necessarily the Cairo speech. It wasn't any particular speech, but it was just his aura and his demeanor towards the Iranians. And I think that many Iranians understood that, listen, if we can't make nice with the United States when there is a president in Washington called Barack Hussein Obama, and he's preaching mutual respect on a weekly basis and sending us greetings for Nowruz, it's very obvious to all of us that the problem lies in Tehran, not Washington.

GROSS: You know, President Obama has been criticized by many Republicans, including Lindsey Graham and John McCain, for not taking a stronger stand in support of the protestors and a stronger stand against the supreme leader. What do you think?

Mr. SADJADPOUR: I think Obama's approach has been very thoughtful, and I think he has a very good grasp of the situation. And what I tell U.S. officials, whether they're Democrats or Republicans, is let's defer to the leaders of these opposition movements in Iran themselves. Let's defer to the people. And the overwhelming feedback we've gotten from both individuals and also, again, the leaders of these opposition movements - people like Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the presidential candidate who was wronged, Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel laureate - they've been unequivocal about saying that the U.S. should continue to condemn human-rights abuses in Iran, but we don't want the U.S. to directly intervene or more directly intervene in this momentous internal Iranian drama which is unfolding.

Because I do believe, Terry, that the people who would love for us to more directly intervene is the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and President Ahmadinejad because they would love to frame this issue as a battle between themselves and imperial powers who are trying to usurp power in Tehran. And given the long history between the United States and Iran, I think we have to be careful and cautious not to step into this trap, which they want to set for us.

I do think, Terry, however, that there are many things that the U.S. can do behind the scenes to be more effective, and one of them is leaning on some of our allies who have more leverage vis-a-vis Iran than we do, and have less of a history in Iran than we do: Turkey, for example.

I was very disappointed that Turkey immediately came out and endorsed and acknowledged President Ahmadinejad's election. This is a Democratic country on Iran's border, and I think a different Turkish position toward Iran maybe could concentrate some minds in Tehran. India, South Africa, Japan, other non-Western countries which are democratic, which should, I think speak out more forcefully about what's taking place.

GROSS: My guest is Karim Sadjadpour, and he's an expert on Iran. He's an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Karim Sadjadpour. And he's an associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He's an expert on Iran.

One of the symbols of the protest movement, as everybody knows by now, is Neda Soltan, who is a young woman in her 20's who was shot Saturday and killed during the protests. And as you've pointed out, you know, all the symbols of the Iranian revolution of 1979 were middle-aged, bearded men.


GROSS: Clergy. And now the symbol of this protest is a young woman. What does that say, and what does that say about the role of women this time around?

Mr. SADJADPOUR: Well, Terry, I haven't been able to stop thinking about Neda since I saw those images last week. And I can tell you that all Iranians around the world have this image in their head of this beautiful young woman whose life was unjustly taken away from her. And I think that's a point worth repeating: that 30 years ago, the images we saw of Iran, revolutionary Iran, were middle-aged, bearded, traditional men, and today Neda Soltan is really the face of a new Iran, which aspires to be - which is a young, educated, modern woman. And in a way, she's very symbolic of these demonstrations that we see on the streets, that women are playing an incredible role.

And 60 percent of university students in Iran are women. And individuals like Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel laureate, are really the vanguard for these reform movements in Iran, are leading the path to change. And what's paradoxical is that women have really suffered the most since the 1979 revolution.

Many of their rights were stripped away from them. They are, in many ways, legalistically speaking, treated like second-class citizens. Yet because of the Iran-Iraq War, many Iranian men lost their lives, or they spent their formative years on the battlefield instead of in high schools and universities. So women are really far more advanced in Iran educationally. And this is the great paradox that despite the fact that they're more advanced than Iranian men, they hold far less rights, or their rights are inferior to those of Iranian men.

GROSS: And I guess for younger people growing up now - and I think, what two-thirds of the Iranian population is under 30, do I have that approximately right?

Mr. SADJADPOUR: It's approximately - about two-thirds under 32 is what I always hear.

GROSS: So these are people largely who grew up with the revolutionary leadership as the establishment, not as the revolution, so…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SADJADPOUR: It's exactly it. And you know, these young people, the vast majority of Iranians now were born either after the revolution, or they were unwitting children at the time of the revolution.

So they have no enmity towards the Shah's government. They have no particular loyalty toward this revolution. And 2009 is much different than 1979. We're in an age of Internet and satellite television and Twitter, and people can't be kept in the dark anymore. They see what's happening elsewhere in the world, and they want to live like their counterparts around the world. And I think what's been very striking for many Iranians is the rise of places like Dubai and like Turkey, places that, decades ago, were dusty backwaters in the case of Dubai or, in the case Turkey, was much less developed than Iran. And when Iranians go and visit these places, they see just how far behind Iran has fallen.

And what's interesting, Terry, is that when I was based in Tehran, I used to be based in Tehran working with International Crisis Group, before I myself narrowly escaped imprisonment, and I remember coming across an individual who once worked in the Office of the Supreme Leader. And he once muttered, kind of under his breath, with a great deal of frustration, that we need to take Ayatollah - Ayatollah Khamenei needs to go to Dubai for the weekend to see what's happening in the world because he hasn't left Iran since 1989.

GROSS: So how did you narrowly escape imprisonment? What were you going to be imprisoned for?

Mr. SADJADPOUR: Well, I was based there with International Crisis Group, which is a non-governmental organization, whose mandate is conflict prevention and resolution, and my job was kind of a cross between a journalist and an academic. They stripped me of my passport. I was forbidden to leave the country. And then I was detained at the airport by revolutionary guardsmen for several hours.

But you know, Terry, when I look back at that experience, it was very harrowing at the time, but it was truly negligible compared to all that's transpired since and all of my friends who have been imprisoned, who spent months in solitary confinement in Evin Prison.

I have two friends in particular who are physicians, called Kamiar and Arash Alaei, and they've done incredible, ground-breaking work on HIV treatment in Iran. They've received international acclaimed. And I always tell people that in a democratic Iran, these individuals would be ministers of health. They're that caliber.

They've now been imprisoned for over a year in Iran, being accused of fomenting a soft revolution, or velvet revolution, in Iran. And this is really the tragedy we're seeing in modern Iran that Iran is an ancient country with an incredibly rich civilization and an incredibly rich culture, and it has a very deep impact on people who are Iranians.

This pull of Iranian culture is very strong, whether you're living in Iran or you're living in the United States or elsewhere in the world. And it's a pull which exists even amongst the younger generation of Iranians who weren't even necessarily born in Iran or have never been to the country.

So it's a country which has a really profound impact on its citizens across, you know, throughout the world. And yet despite the fact that you have these, you know, the millions of Iranians within Iran and millions or Iranians outside the country who want to do good for their country, who want to help, who want to contribute to a greater tomorrow for Iran, the government simply has been isolating, imprisoning and intimidating these types of individuals for the last three decades.

GROSS: Karim Sadjadpour will be back in the second half of the show. He's an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with more of the interview I recorded this morning with Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In his previous position as the International Crisis Group's chief Iran analyst, he was based in Tehran and Washington. He grew up in the U.S. and holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and Iran.

What I'd like to do with you is a little bit of like a Who's Who in the Iranian crisis now, so we could help kind of understand the cast of characters. Let's start with Mousavi who is the person who is challenging Ahmadinejad for the presidency and says that he really is the rightful winner, and he's one of the powers behind the protest that we've been seeing. What do you think his goals are? Is it personal power? Is it that he wants to be president instead of Ahmadinejad? Or is he a genuine reformist?

Mr. SADJADPOUR: It's an important question Terry, and Mousavi is a very interesting character because he was prime minister in Iran during the 1980s and he's someone who has impeccable revolutionary credentials. He was very close to the father of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini. And after his tenure ended as prime minister in the late 80s, he simply took a hiatus from politics. He stayed out of the political fray for two decades. And there was a lot of talk throughout these last two decades that, you know, Mousavi should a presidential candidate but he always resisted. And finally, this time around, he thought the country was moving in such a profoundly dangerous direction that he came out of, kind of his political retirement, and he threw his name in the presidential hat.

And I always tell people, this is what my good friend, Afshin Molavi, from the New America Foundation always says as well, is that the pre-election Mousavi is much different than post-election Mousavi. Pre-election Mousavi was a fairly uncharismatic individual who wanted change within the confines of the current structure in Iran, within the confines of the Islamic Republic. He wasn't necessarily challenging the system itself. He was simply challenging Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the incumbent president. And in many ways Mousavi was closer to John Kerry than he was Barack Obama in the sense that he wasn't this incredibly charismatic figure with a huge popular following on his own, but it was that many people who were supporting Mousavi were much more passionately against Ahmadinejad than they were passionately for Mousavi.

But the post-election Mousavi is a totally different persona and he's someone who has been incredibly brave in many ways. And I always tell people that there's a symbiotic relationship between Mousavi and the crowds, and the scale of the crowds and the defiance of the crowds allows Mousavi the political capital to remain defiant vis-à-vis, the supreme leader. And Mousavi's defiance - he said, I'm not going to back down. I'm not going to concede my rights. I'm ready to become a martyr -has energized the crowds as well. So there's an expression in Persian that people often time use to describe Mousavi. They call him Torka laj boj(ph) and basically means a stubborn Turk. He's someone from Northwest, Iran, from the Azerbaijan province, which is predominately Azeri Turk, and they call him a stubborn Turk. He's not someone who's going to acquiesce or back down like the previous president, reformist President Mohammad Khatami, who was accused for not really having a backbone. Mousavi is ready to die for his cause and I think this has really energized people, and has earned people, I think earned him tremendous respect amongst the population.

GROSS: Say Mousavi won the election, how do you think Iran would change? What would the top issues on his agenda be?

Mr. SADJADPOUR: Well I think Terry, now sacred red lines have been crossed which are going to be very difficult to put back in the bottle. Had Mousavi won outright on June 12th, I don't think we would've seen necessarily a fundamentally different Iran. Again, he was calling for change within the confines of the current Islamic system. The foreign policy bottom lines of the regime probably wouldn't have changed dramatically. You would've continued to see Iran support groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. The rhetoric would've been toned down, no more holocaust denial of Ahmadinejad.

On the nuclear issue, I think we would've seen a similar approach although; less bombastic in its style, but the substance of it would probably be fairly similar. But I think again, post-election we've entered unprecedented, unchartered waters in Iran. And what Mousavi is now calling for, and many people in the streets, I would argue the majority now are the demonstrators in the streets are calling for, is not simply change within the confines of the current system, but they want to see a fundamental change of the current system.

They want to see a fundamental reform of the current system. And instead of having this individual quote/unquote "supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei," rule the country like a modern day Shah, but wearing a turban instead of a crown, they want a much larger democratic voice. They want those unelected positions to be either abolished or severely curtailed in their power and influence. And again, I think this was in many ways a miscalculation for supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. I wonder if he could rewind time and go back two, three weeks ago, whether he wouldn't have just stayed out of it and not rigged these elections. Because the challenge to his leadership now is unprecedented and that challenge didn't exist before these elections took place.

GROSS: Now Mousavi has called for a protest on Thursday, and that's the day after the Guardian Council is scheduled to ratify or annul the vote. And so far the Council says it's found no serious fraud. I mean, it's found what, like three million votes or something that it thought was fraudulent but it's nothing close to what it would take to change the outcome. So you know tell me if I'm wrong, but it looks like the Council's ready to ratify the votes. So assuming the Council does, what are the possibilities for this protest on Thursday at Mousavi has called?

Mr. SADJADPOUR: Well the Guardian Council is not an objective entity. It's not an independent entity. It's composed of 12 individuals and all of them are either directly appointed by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei or indirectly appointed by him. And I think that they're have even been signs in the last few days that the Guardian Council, between themselves, have great ambivalence about Ahmadinejad's presidency and their role. But I would be surprised if they do annul the election or overturn it, because the last months, and especially the last weeks, they've been very strongly supportive of Ahmadinejad. So if indeed the Guardian Council again endorses the results of the election and strikes are called for, we're seeing now the opposition entering a new phase. Instead of street demonstrations - they've already flexed their muscles on the streets.

They've have shown how many hundreds of thousands of supporters they have. And I should just add for you, Terry that these people who are taking to the streets are incredibly brave because the violence used against them is indiscriminate. There's Basij militia - we've seen harrowing videos of them targeting women, elderly, even children - so these people, if we're seeing hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, you can only imagine the millions of people who are feeling solidarity with them, but they're simply afraid of turning up. But again, instead of now these mass scale street demonstrations, what the opposition is now working on is targeting important arteries of the Iranian economy. Namely, the oil industry, the Oil Ministry - similar to what we saw in the late 1970s with the Shah - the merchant classes, the Bazar, laborers, bus drivers, really key arteries of this economy which, if strikes develop could really bring Iran's economy to a halt.

GROSS: So Thursday will be more likely to be strikes than street protests.

Mr. SADJADPOUR: I think we will see a combination of the two. I'm certain that there will be protests on the streets, but as I was saying earlier, the regime can prevent people from congregating in one area by shutting down highways and roads. But I think we will start to see strikes. And I think it's a situation where we're looking for a tipping point, Terry. The opposition is looking for a tipping point. They understand that there's a great fear of the regime and of the Basij militia and people are reluctant to embark on these types of anti-government activities unless they notice that everyone around them is doing that.

So (unintelligible) has called for national strikes and it may initially be that the majority of the Iranian businesses, or the oil ministry, or government entities do not heed those strikes initially. But I think the more this issue persists and as this crisis grows and the sense of injustice and outrage grows, I see the opposition in a way strengthening with time and I see the government's, the confidence people have in the government and the government's integrity, I see eroding with time, not increasing with time.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Karim Sadjadpour. He's an expert on Iran. He grew up in the United States, but his family's from Iran and he holds dual citizenship in Iran and the United States. He's an associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Let's talk some more after this break. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: My guest is Karim Sadjadpour. We're talking about Iran. He's an expert on the country and an associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. We're doing a little bit of the cast of characters in the story in Iran now to try to understand who they are. The supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei, is now on opposite sides with the former president, Rafsanjani. Now Rafsanjani had been largely responsible for making Khamenei the supreme leader. So since these two guys have been allies, why are they now on opposite sides?

Mr. SADJADPOUR: It's a very important question, Terry, and the relationship between and Khamenei and Rafsanjani is really like Shiite Shakespeare...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SADJADPOUR: ...this drama which has unfolded the last week or so because among all the different things that are taking place now in Iran, you know the population rising up against the regime, and the battle between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad, one very important thing that we're seeing now play out is the 20-year rivalry between Ali Khamenei and Hashemi Rafsanjani coming to a head. And these two individuals go back over 50 years. They were both acolytes of the Ayatollah Khomeini. They were students of the Ayatollah Khomeini going back to the 1960s, the late 1950s. And they both were part of the early cadres of revolutionary elites.

Khomeini served as the president during the 1980s and Rafsanjani was speaker of the parliament. And by all accounts Rafsanjani was much more powerful than Khomeini in the 1980s. He was - he had a closer rapport with Ayatollah Khomeini. And when Khomeini died in 1989 there was confusion as to who would succeed him. And as someone once said, the position of supreme leader was a robe that was only designed for Ayatollah Khomeini. That they really broke the mold with Khomeini and there was no one qualified to succeed him. No one could really fill his shoes.

GROSS: Was it a position created for him? I mean had there ever been a supreme leader in Iran before?

Mr. SADJADPOUR: No, there's never been this position and it was absolutely created for him. This was the former prime minister of Iran, Mehdi Bazargan, who once said this that this was a position of supreme leader was robe only designed for Khomeini. It was tailor-made for Ayatollah Khomeini.

And there's an incredible video which has come out, Terry on the Huffington Post which actually shows the deliberations 20 years ago inside this body called the Assembly of Experts. It's the body in Iran which has the constitutional authority to both anoint and remove the supreme leader. And it showed the deliberations of how they chose Khomeini's successor. And we've heard this in the past and it's been written about widely, but we actually see it now on this video, that Hashemi Rafsanjani played an instrumental role in making Ayatollah Khamenei supreme leader.

He was the king maker. And what Rafsanjani said was that he was the last person to see Khomeini before Khomeini died. He was there when he took his last breath. And Rafsanjani claims that Khomeini told him that Khamenei was his choice to succeed him. Now very few people actually believed this was true, but at the time it was very powerful and it played the decisive role in making Khamenei become supreme leader.

And what Rafsanjani thought was that he would have his friend and his ally as supreme leader, someone who was in the Islamic Republic political hierarchy, maybe a notch below him self, someone who was less powerful than himself. And he thought, you know, by having this compliant individual, like-minded individual as leader, it will allow him even more power and more influence. And what we've seen, especially over the last decade, is the world views of these two individuals diverging.


Mr. SADJADPOUR: And - well, in 1979, they were both revolutionaries. Both committed to the cause. And I think what we've seen over the last decade is that Ayatollah Khamenei's mindset is very orthodox. His world view is very orthodox and very rigid, and he believes his position is to retain and remain loyal to the ideals of the 1979 revolution and remain loyal to Ayatollah Khomenei's vision for Iran, whereas Rafsanjani in many ways is less orthodox than Khamenei. And he believes that, you know, this death-to-America culture may have been expedient for us in 1979, but now it's time for us to move on. The challenges Iran faces as a nation almost different in 2009 than 1979 and it's time to fundamentally change our orientation towards the world, towards the West, to open up our economy, to have more social freedoms.

And in many ways, Terry, I see this akin to the debate between scholars of the U.S. Constitution. And, you know, there's some scholars of the Constitution, what they call the textualists, who believe that the Constitution should be adhered to for word for word, that if you begin fiddling with the meaning of the Constitution and begin interpreting it as you want, then the entire essence of the Constitution could become unraveled. You can unravel it, and it will lose its meaning.

And then there's the other camp, the constructionist constitutional scholars who say listen, the Constitution was written in the late 18th century, and it should evolve with the times. It should be a living document with changes with the times. And in many ways, this is kind of akin to debate taking place right now in Iran between the hardliners and the more moderates. The hardliners believe that, you know, that movement - what took place in 1979 is sacred, and our revolutionary ideals do not evolve with the times. And I think the vast majority - certainly of the population, but as I said even the revolutionary leaders, people like Rafsanjani and others - recognize that it's time to move on.

GROSS: Now you've compared the relationship between Khamenei and Rafsanjani as Shiite Shakespeare, but you've also compared it to "The Godfather." You've said that it's - that their relationship is an Iranian version of the Corleones and the Tattaglias. There are no good guys and bad guys, only bad and worse. Now you wrote that in a paper before this current explosion of protest in Iran. Do you still believe that, that there are no good guys - there's bad guys and worse?

Mr. SADJADPOUR: Well, in particular, the relationship between these two men and their families - and this is why I think "The Godfather" analogy comes in - is that, these are two very powerful families within the Islamic Republic. And their paths have really diverged in the last decade. And not only have Ayatollah Khamenei and Hashemi Rafsanjani not been seeing eye-to-eye and they've become tremendous rivals but also their children. Their children hate each other. A lot of people believe that the individual who is most responsible for orchestrating Ahmadinejad's selection was Ayatollah Khamenei's son Mojtaba Khamenei. And he's considered even harder line than his father, and many people are alleging now that Khamenei is trying to groom his son Mojtaba to take over for him. On the other hand, you have the children of Hashemi Rafsanjani, who are less religious in their orientation, less orthodox.

Whereas Mojtaba Khamenei is himself a cleric, Rafsanjani didn't send his children to become clerics. They're businessman. And they're thought to be one of the most corrupt families in Iran. They have incredible business interests throughout the country. And the reputation has really been tarnished as, again, being unprincipled individuals who put their own economic interests in mind before the interests of the nation. So really, we're not talking about good versus bad. I think people have equal contempt, or they certainly resent the highhandedness and the brutality of the supreme leader and his very rigid orthodox world view.

At the moment, Rafsanjani is opposing Khamenei. So I think that he - his reputation is been redeemed somewhat. But certainly, people don't look at the Rafsanjani family with a great deal of affinity, either. They see them as quite corrupt, as well. So this is why I say it's kind of like the relationship between the Corleones and the Tattaglias in the sense that, you know, every one in this joust has their hands sullied.

GROSS: My guest is Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to the interview I recorded this morning about Iran with Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

President Obama has been trying to open up some kind of conversation with Iran. If President Ahmadinejad stays in power and the protest movement fails, where does that leave Iran? And where does that leave the Obama administration's ability to talk to Iran?

Mr. SADJADPOUR: Well, that's going to be an incredibly difficult situation, Terry, because if Ahmadinejad manages to stay president and Ayatollah Khamenei manages to stay supreme leader, and essentially this - we go back to the status quo ante of pre-election, I think that will really require an incredible amount of brutality on behalf of the regime, on the part of the regime to go back to that status quo ante because it's something which the vast majority of Iranians are resisting. And they will only achieve that if they're able to use overwhelming force. I think we are looking at a truly tyrannical state if that becomes the case. And that will leave the Obama administration in a very, very difficult position, because you'll have a state which is tyrannical, but which also is potentially in the path to nuclear weapons capability. And under four years of Ahmadinejad, they didn't show any signs of goodwill, that they were interested in having an amicable relationship with the United States. I think that the Obama administration will have a lot of difficulty trying to figure out what its approach should be.

On the other hand, I think that you will find that many in Israel and especially hardliners is the U.S. believe that if that were to be the case, if Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei somehow managed to go back to - managed to retain the status quo ante, it will be easier for the Obama administration to assemble a very robust international coalition against Iran and a robust international sanctions regime against Iran because Iran has shown to the world the character of its government.

GROSS: I keep asking myself, if President Bush was still in office, what would he be doing now? Because he had a policy of regime change. He -his administration appeared to be entertaining the idea of some kind of military intervention in Iran, like the possibility of bombing nuclear sites. Do you ask yourself that question like what the Bush administration be doing now?

Mr. SADJADPOUR: You know, Terry, I truly believe that the fissures which we're seeing now amongst Iran's political elites would not have developed during the time of the Bush administration. And what we saw during the time of the Bush administration was that even the reformers who are very critical of Ahmadinejad's government, they kind of bit their lip and they shut up because they said that, you know, Iran is under national security threat right now from the United States. The Bush administration keeps issuing threats and saying all options are on the table, and we'll swallow our pride.

We may hate this President Ahmadinejad, but we don't want to show the world and show the United States signs that there are internal cleavages. So, I truly believe that, you know, whereas the Bush administration kind of united Iran's vying political factions against a common threat, Obama's overtures have really extenuated this deep divides among Iranian officials. So frankly, I don't think the situation we're seeing now in Iran - the divide between the population and the state and the divide amongst revolutionary elites themselves - could have or would have happened during the time of the Bush administration. But I do think that the Obama administration's approach so far during this crisis has been thoughtful, and it's been the right one.

And we should continue to defer to the leaders of these opposition movements in Iran themselves. And until they call for a more direct U.S. role, I think we should respect their wishes.

GROSS: Are there are any thoughts you want to leave us with about Iran?

Mr. SADJADPOUR: I do, Terry. This image of this beautiful young woman who we've been talking about during the interview and who much of the world has been talking about, Neda Soltani, there's going to be a vigil for her held this Friday both in the United States and internationally. And soon you're going to be hearing more about this vigil on Facebook and CNN. But I think that - we may not be able to directly intervene in Iran's internal political affairs - we, the United States government. But I know that many Americans and people throughout the world want to express solidarity with the people of Iran. And I think this is one way we can do it, to attend this vigil on behalf of Neda Soltani.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. And I wish all your friends and family who are in Iran well. Thank you.

Mr. SADJADPOUR: Thank you so much, Terry. It has been my great pleasure.

GROSS: Karim Sadjadpour is an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Our interview was recorded this morning. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site: freshair.npr.org.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.