One on One: 'The revolution in Iran has just begun'

Top Iran expert Menashe Amir believes uprising in Iran has not died down.

menashe amir 248 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
menashe amir 248 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
'There were two days a couple of weeks ago when the call-ins stopped," says Menashe Amir, Israel Radio's Farsi broadcaster, whose shows have attracted millions of listeners in Iran for the past 50 years. "But then they resumed." The going-on-70-year-old, who officially retired five years ago, yet continues to transmit on a daily basis, attributes this to the courage of his former countrymen (Amir made aliya in 1959). In a September 2006 interview in these pages, Amir asserted that a majority of Iranians opposed their regime, yet were helpless in the face of the repression under which they were living. Amir quoted Iranians who told him that if they had someone to lead them in their struggle, "it would be possible to topple the regime very quickly." This week, in light of the popular uprising that began in the streets of Teheran after the results of the June 12 election were falsely called in favor of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - when the real victor was reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi - I asked Amir for his latest assessment. In our last interview, you said that the Iranian people would not go against the regime without a leader. Is Mousavi now that leader? That's still unclear. I'm doubtful about whether Mousavi will be able to hang on. Also, don't forget that Mousavi is part of the regime, so he certainly does not want to bring about its collapse. However, a combination of circumstances has caused him to stand and struggle, which is something I couldn't have anticipated. Two things got him really angry - one political, the other personal. Politically, he is certain he won the election - and I can confirm that he did. According to all the information I have received, he garnered twice the amount of votes as Ahmadinejad, for whom he has great contempt. He thinks Ahmadinejad has destroyed Iran, both internally and in terms of its foreign relations. On a personal level, he is furious because Ahmadinejad dishonored his wife. During the televised election debate, Ahmadinejad produced documents supposedly proving that Mousavi's wife received her doctorate fraudulently, and took advantage of her husband's standing to achieve her position in academia. And this is while Ahmadinejad and his henchmen are the epitome of those who take advantage of their positions to further their interests. The elections are a perfect example of how Ahmadinejad manipulated the system in order to declare himself the winner. Do you think that the popular uprising turned Mousavi into an unwitting leader of a movement that began one way and turned into something else? Has it caused him to change his perspective on actual freedom for the people who are rallying around him? There are two levels on which figures like Mousavi operate - internal Iranian issues and foreign relations. Where foreign relations are concerned, I don't see a big difference between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad. Furthermore, it is not the president who determines policy. That is done by the Supreme National Security Council. The president's role is to carry out its decisions. On the nuclear issue, for example, it makes no different whether the president is Mousavi or Ahmadinejad. In any case, even Mousavi declared openly that, if elected, he would continue Iran's nuclear program, as well as its policy of supplying weapons to Hizbullah and Hamas. But where Iran's internal affairs are concerned, there is a big difference between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad. Mousavi believes that Iran's economic policy has to be completely overhauled, and promised to give women greater freedom and more rights. His own wife is an intellectual, after all. He also promised greater rights for the young, and things like that. He even hinted that he would lower Iran's involvement in international conspiracies. Is this because Iran's international involvement costs so much money, and he wants to try to rescue its economy? That's certainly part of it. I would say that the real battle in this election was over the economy, not freedom and equality. From an economic standpoint, who is Ahmadinejad? The one who failed to solve Iran's economic difficulties, in spite of the fact that during his four years in office, Iran earned more money than in all eight years of [Seyed Mohammad] Khatami's presidency [1997-2005]. Where did the money go? So who received more sympathy among the people during the campaign? The one who headed Iran's government for eight years [as the fifth and last prime minister of the Islamic Republic], from 1981 to 1989, during its war with Iraq - and during a period of austerity. Indeed, Mousavi managed, with almost no money, to handle the Iranian economy. That was the source of his popularity, and what tipped the scales in his favor. You say that it was Mousavi's economic policies and prowess that gained him public support, but as soon as he was declared the loser of the election, he suddenly became the leader of a spontaneous revolution whose focus is freedom for the Iranian people. Is it that he hadn't meant for this to happen, but once it did, he took the ball and ran with it? Yes, but the root of the problem is that those who determine policy in Iran decided a year ago that Ahmadinejad was going to win the election. To this end, the interior minister - who is in charge of executing the election law - was replaced, and other such things, all of which were approved by [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei. As election day approached, they pulled a trick to raise voter turnout. Why? Because there is a new president in the White House, and he has to be shown that the Iranian regime enjoys the support of the people. So they set up a televised debate, in which each candidate freely raised issues and expressed criticism, thus creating the illusion that this time the elections in Iran would be free ones - something they have never been in Iran. This raised the expectations of the people, and brought a whopping 85 percent of the public to the polls. Well, the level of disappointment was as great as the level of expectation. This 85% of the public turned out to vote, and afterward felt the victory had been stolen from them. This is what caused the people to protest, en masse. And these people today have a leader in Mousavi. The protests have been extremely sophisticated as a whole. Half a million people who took to the streets and didn't even chant slogans, so as not to give the security forces an excuse to kill them. This has made it necessary for the regime to create a justification to suppress the demonstrators, so it sends in its Basij militia, as well as plainclothes police, to destroy homes and go after protesters, some of whom have been killed. Of course, we know all this, thanks to the technology that has been enabling the citizens to document the goings on there with the cameras on their cellphones. But then came Khamenei's Friday sermon, in which he declared his complete support for Ahmadinejad. At that moment, the people understood they had no chance - that change cannot come about through demonstrations, because when the supreme leader rules, his ruling cannot be appealed. What Khamenei said was, "If you people have complaints, submit them through the legal channels." But what are the "legal channels" in Iran? The legislative council that is Khamenei's puppet, which itself was complicit in the election fraud. This is why Mousavi said that this body wasn't acceptable to him, and that he would only trust a neutral committee. Over the past two weeks, I have been asked by every reporter from every TV and radio station and every newspaper whether the protest is petering out. And my answer is always a decided no. And it won't peter out as long as Mousavi remains steadfast. But you yourself began by questioning whether Mousavi would persevere, and also said the Iranian people understood they had no chance once Khamenei declared his support for Ahmadinejad. Are you saying that this protest won't die out in spite of all that? Yes, it won't die out, in spite of all that. Because something else has happened, as well. The people have seen that with this regime, nothing is possible. It won't make the slightest compromise. Thus, since that speech of Khamenei's, the slogan has become, "Death to the dictator," and the demand has become to change the regime. In this case, the "dictator" is not only Ahmadinejad, correct? During the first few days, it was directed at him. But after that Friday sermon, it became directed against Khamenei. Do you think Ahmadinejad and/or Khamenei will be assassinated? Assassinations won't solve the problem. It's hard to predict the future, but there are many efforts going on there to try to solve the problems, and I don't see how they can be solved. Khamenei climbed a tree from which he can't come down, by saying that everything was OK in Iran; Mousavi did the same, by saying that nothing in Iran was OK; and in between them is [Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani, who is very worried about his own personal fate, the fate of his family and fortune, on the one hand, and on the other, he is worried about the future of the regime, that might collapse. So, he's saying, "Come and let's find a solution involving a compromise that will satisfy everyone." That's impossible, because if Khamenei makes even the slightest concession, it will harm his status. A supreme leader can never make a mistake, and if he admits to one, it will bring about the end of his reign. Then there's Ahmadinejad, who is a merciless fanatic. One of his past jobs was as a final executioner. He would fire the last bullet into the heads of people put to death. His nickname is "the man of a thousand bullets," since he used to boast that he had shot bullets into the heads of 1,000 executed people. He will not concede on anything. Nor will he ever forgive Mousavi or his family. Already, they are holding Mousavi responsible for the deaths of innocent citizens, killed during the protests. It's a case of turning the victim into the aggressor. And Mousavi knows that if he gives in on anything, his life will be in danger. This is why I keep saying that the events in Iran have not begun to die down; they've only just begun. This is because the Iranian people have proved that they finally understand the nature of their regime, which is why their demand has become regime change, rather than reforms. In the 30 years since the last revolution, during which I have been following Iran closely - and understanding the psychology and mentality of its people - I have come to the conclusion that what mainly interests the people is their ability to make a living. And, with the events going on there now, coupled with a bad economy that will only get worse, the next time the people take to the streets, it will not only be the students and middle class doing so, but also the farmers and lower classes. The soldiers of the revolution of 1979 were the lower classes. If this time around, they join the middle class and students - and have a leader - the current regime is sure to collapse. Is that a good thing? The last time there was regime change in Iran, the ayatollahs came to power. Who and what will replace the current regime? It's impossible to predict what will happen. There are a few possible scenarios. One is that the Iranian people will revolt, the regime will fall and then free elections will be held, under international supervision, and the people will elect democratic leaders. That one's not easy. Another scenario is that the members of the current regime will fear for their lives - because if they are toppled, they will have nowhere to run - and they will respond by reaching some kind of compromise or agreement, and this will put an end to the current crisis. A third possibility is that there will be massive intervention on the part of the Revolutionary Guards, who will lead a military coup, and instate a reign of terror that will eliminate any remaining freedoms the Iranians enjoy today. Since the first scenario would seem to be the most desirable, why have the people been shouting "Allahu akbar" ["God is great"] from their balconies? It's a political maneuver. If they shout slogans against the regime, they'll be killed. But no one can do anything against a religious cry. And it is the very same cry that the Ayatollah Khomeini shouted to rally the masses around toppling the shah. So this is like saying that history is repeating itself. Speaking of history's repeating itself, let's talk about US President Barack Obama. Do the Iranian people feel betrayed by him for his lack of outright support against the regime? Obama worries me very much. Watching him on TV on June 12, when the election in Iran was held, I was amazed to hear him praise the welcome process going on in Iran. Here I am, a small fry with no access to classified material, who simply reads what is going on, and I have known for an entire year that these would be fraudulent elections. Since then, I have briefed the Mossad, as well as written and lectured extensively to this effect. So, I ask myself, if I understood the situation, how is it that the leader of this superpower doesn't get it? It's true that he retracted his statements a few days after the election, when he saw he was wrong, but still... And then there's Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom I greatly respect. But, when asked why the US would want to engage in dialogue with Iran, she said, "We'll have to wait and see what the regime wants and expects." Now tell me: Do we not know what Ahmadinejad wants and expects already? Furthermore, I would like to warn the American policy-makers that there is a group in Iran who will never, ever allow open talks between the US and Iran. All attempts by previous American administrations to engage in dialogue have failed because of this. And even now, Ahmadinejad has said that until Obama apologizes for statements he made "against the Iranian people" - as though it was the Iranian people who fixed the elections and killed protesters - "we won't begin talks." But even if such talks were to begin, which they won't, they won't bring about any real results that could serve American interests. I blame president Jimmy Carter for being among those responsible for the 1979 revolution and the toppling of the shah's regime. And I sincerely hope and pray that Obama won't be another Carter. Speaking of former presidents, what is your view of George W. Bush? I actually met him a year and a half ago in Los Angeles, on the eve of the congressional elections, and told him the following story: After the US invaded Iraq, during our broadcasts to Iran, we received numerous call-ins from listeners, saying: "Please ask Bush to come and rescue us." In response, I asked them, "Haven't you heard of the Persian saying, 'Only my own fingernails can scratch my back'? Why don't you do the job yourselves?" The answer was: "Saddam Hussein fell only after foreign intervention; the Taliban regime in Afghanistan fell only after foreign intervention; we, in Iran, need active support from the US in order to change the regime. And the head of the snake is Iran, not Iraq. It's Iran that's stirring up the entire region, and thus Bush should have taken care of Iran first." So, when I met Bush, I told him that I had a message from the Iranian people, who ask that he intervene to rescue them. Bush opened his eyes wide, as though someone had handed him the heavens on a silver platter. He then cracked a broad smile and said, "But, sir, surely you are aware of the difficulties we are having dealing with Iraq." Anyway, American intervention is the expectation of the Iranian people. I am not in favor of a military operation. But the US could be helping the uprising in many other ways. As I said, what is going on in Iran has only just begun. And if the world grasps the enormity of this moment, and does what it can to help the Iranian people in their struggle, it will not be necessary to bomb the nuclear facilities, because the Iranian people will rise and do the job themselves.