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Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, historian and expert on the Middle East
On March 2, Iran held its first national election since the summer of 2009, when the mass protests that came to be called the Green Movement began in the aftermath of a disputed presidential election. Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, a University of Illinois professor of history and sociology and the author of “Islam and Dissent in Postrevolutionary Iran,” was in Tehran during the early weeks of those protests and has followed developments since. He discussed the recent election, held in the shadow of rising international tensions over Iran’s nuclear program, in an interview with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
Unlike some of the Arab Spring uprisings that began in the Middle East in 2011, the Green Movement was effectively shut down through arrests and the use of force. So, was it a failure?
I think of the Arab Spring as a moment of transcendence. By that I mean a moment in which Arab nations realized their own powers beyond the limitations and despite the brutalities that they had been subjected to by various tyrannical regimes. In that sense, I think the Arab Spring is more comparable to the Iranian revolution of 1979 rather than to the widespread protests after the 2009 presidential elections. It is true that the Arab Spring ended the reign of a number of dictatorships in the Middle East, but we need to a look at it as a beginning rather than an end of a democratic movement. For more than three decades now Iranians have been trying to define, contest, and transform the meaning and ideals of their revolution. I see the Green Movement as the latest manifestation of this trend. In that sense, I don’t think of it as a failed movement.
What was at stake in the parliamentary election and what was the result for those in power – and for the opposition that urged citizens to boycott the vote?
Those who oppose the Islamic Republic as a matter of secular principle have always called the elections in Iran meaningless. But those who believe that the regime has the potential of reforming itself have invested in electoral politics as one of the means of democratic transformation. The reformists in Iran, those who led the Green Movement inside the country, for the first time declared that they would not participate in the election until their freedom of expression is guaranteed and all the political prisoners are released.
In the absence of the main reformist opposition, the March 2 election became primarily a scene of competition between two conservative factions, one endorsed directly by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the other a hodgepodge of the supporters of the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The biggest surprise, however, was the number of independent candidates who were elected to the parliament, taking at least 90 out of the 290 seats. Of course it is hard to know how conservative or reformist these independents will turn out to be.
Overall, the opposition could not muster enough support to expunge the significance of the election. The opposition questions the government’s claim that 64 percent participated in the election. But their own numbers put the participation rate at over 50 percent, which is just about the average rate of participation of previous parliamentary elections.
In the ongoing tensions with the U.S. and the West, the Islamic Republic of Iran is often seen or portrayed as irrational, driven by ideology, with President Ahmadinejad often exhibit A. But you believe it’s quite the opposite.
Yes, I do think that Ahmadinejad and other key decision-makers in Iran act rationally. That is to say that, rather than an ideological impetus, what motivates their actions is their national interests under the Islamic Republic. They carefully examine the consequences of their actions before committing themselves to any cause.
When Iranian strategists are portrayed as “crazy” it suggests that they act impetuously and without regard to the real consequences of their recklessness, even if that means their own annihilation. If you look at the history of Iran’s foreign relations since 1979, however, it might surprise many people to see how the Islamic Republic, in practice, has followed very pragmatic policies in regional and international affairs.
To say that they act rationally does not mean that their policies are good or bad. It doesn’t mean that their decisions are sound and just, or must be supported. But calling the leaders of the Islamic Republic crazy sounds to me like a reckless and irresponsible position in a part of the world that requires the most nuanced analysis and strategic thinking.
Why is the nuclear program so important to Iranians, across the political spectrum? And do you see any way past the current impasse?
This is very much related to the earlier question. In an interview last week, commenting on the Iranian nuclear program, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey said that in his opinion “Iran is a rational actor.” This most definitely marks a turn in the strategic thinking in the U.S.
The discussion about the Iranian nuclear program often centers on the question of capability rather than intention. In that sense, we can also understand better why there is so much enthusiasm and support for the nuclear enrichment capability among Iranians across a diverse political landscape. This is a major concern in Iran because some estimate that the Iranian oil reserves would dry up in 30 years or so. For a country that is primarily dependent on its oil production, this is a daunting prospect. It gives the advancement of nuclear technology a different kind of urgency.
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