The Green Movement’s Fringe Benefits: An Interview with Dr. Ali Reza Nourizadeh
Gozaar sat down to interview Iranian analyst Dr. Ali Reza Nourizadeh about the Green Movement. Dr. Nourizadeh is a senior researcher and director at the Centre for Arab and Iranian Studies. He is also a correspondent for Deutsche Welle (German Radio), a political commentator for the radio channel Voice of America, and a senior writer for the Saudi Arabian Al-Sharq Al-Awsat.
It seems that journalists, both in Iran and abroad, have played a vital role in the social campaign currently known as the Green Movement in Iran. How influential have they been, in your opinion?
In the course of the elections, due to the lack of a free press that could tell the other side of the story, blogs played a key role in disseminating information. And perhaps for the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic, the overseas media also played a major role: in addition to the two dominant overseas broadcasters of television programming into Iran—that is, Voice of America and BBC—other broadcasters were able to play a role to a certain extent. But at the same time, blogs and online newspapers written by Iranians inside the country gained much importance.
During President Ahmadinejad’s first four years in power, all of the overseas press coverage of Iranian elections was overwhelmingly negative. Then suddenly, as the Green Movement developed, those abroad who were 100 percent against the regime said, “Well, we may not accept the Islamic Republic regime but we believe in this movement.” As a result, this movement or wave became stronger by the day. In my opinion, the Green Movement was very effective in bringing the electorate to the polls, sustaining their interest and passion, and transforming them into a force of opposition. That’s how the power of the media became apparent. Despite all the money it expends on the dozens of television networks (e.g., Jaam-e Jam), newspapers, and websites under its control, and despite the problems such media caused for reformist or protesting websites, the regime suddenly found itself confronting a force more powerful than itself. So even with all the power and abilities and apparatuses at its disposal, the regime was, even if only momentarily, silent when faced with a voice that the people recognized as legitimate.
Starting almost from the first week after the announcement of the results of the presidential elections in June 2009, the Islamic Republic regime has been obsessed with destroying this movement. The regime has reckoned that, in the end, it will somehow come to an arrangement with its domestic opponents, whether by threatening them or by arresting them and that, inevitably, certain weak elements will step out of the arena. But what is the regime to do with the Persian-language media overseas? Every day, newspapers are published on the internet and articles appear on various websites and blogs. And every day, there are interviews and exchanges of views broadcast on overseas television stations. This is something that the Islamic regime has only just recognized might hurt it—and that point has simultaneously dawned on outsiders as well.
For over 30 years, I have held views directly opposed to those of the Islamic regime and my tone has always been vitriolic. The only exception was during the first four years of Khatami’s presidency, when I had some hope that change could be effected from within. However, this faint hope faded during Khatami’s second term as president. It has been a novel experience for me to see the Islamic regime reach such a point of desperation that it compiles dossiers on journalists abroad, forwards these to INTERPOL, and labels these people terrorists! Apparently, the regime has now arrived at a juncture where it is connecting the movement to forces or entities abroad because it is helpless within its own borders. Gradually, some of the young journalists inside Iran have left the country and joined the forces abroad. As a result, they grow stronger with every passing day.
Do you think this has been a proud moment for journalism?
Excepting the several months preceding the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the six months following it, as well as the first five or six months of Khatami’s first term as president, this has been the only time that a close connection has developed between ordinary citizens and journalists. People await their children’s return at the end of the day so their children can print out something from the internet and give to them to read. Or they wait with bated breath to see what this or that television program has to say about the events of the day. In Iran, there exists within the population a group of almost professional viewers or listeners who have followed all the programs for years. But there are also many people who had never followed the news, who simply watched the television series produced by the regime’s media. However, in the course of the elections and their aftermath, suddenly, something else started happening: children began telling their parents, “Here, read this article.” Gradually, a new connection formed between the press and the people. The Green Movement created a new wave of hope, and people found that they could relate more closely to the articles and interviews.
Also, a new wave of reporters began rendering assistance to journalists abroad like me. These were young people who recorded videos with their cameras or called on their mobiles and provided up-to-the minute reports. Gradually, a certain set of networks were formed, though some members were arrested and thus suppressed. But on the whole, I believe that this is another new development, whereby inside Iran every person thinks that he or she is a reporter and must relay the latest news to members of the media abroad.
I think the Green Movement may have been the only time at which journalists within Iran who had a modicum of independence and the media abroad found something in common. Do you agree?
Absolutely. Throughout the years, the regime’s efforts had been solely focused on building barriers between Iran and what lies outside it. This means that the opportunity costs or risk factors associated with communicating with groups outside Iran became very high. In practical terms, this meant that, if a young journalist in Iran wished to contact an experienced journalist like me, he or she would have to seriously weigh the risks of the punishment that might befall them if their email to me was tracked. Then, like a gigantic earthquake, the Green Movement came about and shattered this wall. I met far more young journalists during this period than ever before. A half hour before I was to go on air, these young journalists would call or email me to give me news, even though it was extremely dangerous for them to do so.
In my opinion, it is a very important point that the people in Iran began to trust those outside the country. Prior to this, most Iranians overseas fell into a few categories. There were those who did not comprehend what was happening in Iran, who lived in a world of their own and expected to depose the regime overnight—and from Los Angeles! For a short while, they found a following, but today, such views and expectations have all but disappeared. Only about three or four such individuals have remained; they emit weak moans but no one pays any attention to them anymore. Then there used to be another group abroad whose members were former leftists. Perhaps due to their long exile, they took every little spark or bit of news extremely seriously and would follow and make a fuss over it. And somewhere in the middle was a group that followed the news inside Iran but did not get over-excited about every new development. Those in this group were able to find common ground with many within Iran and, together, these elements comprise a force which is dominant today.
Was there a negative point associated with this development as well?
An interesting thing happened. When journalists inside Iran joined forces with us outside the country, some of them began acting as monitors, and attempted to enforce the same mentality that was prevalent in Iran: that is, a mindset that separated ‘insiders’ from ‘outsiders’. Their attitude could be summarized as follows: reformists to one side and to hell with everyone else. It did not matter much if these sides included or excluded important actors such as Hassan Shari’atmadari or this or that activist.
I will provide you with an example. Professor Shoja’eddin Shafa passed away not long ago. Regardless of whether we approve of him politically, he was a noted cultural figure and educator who taught at least three or four generations. Even if we take into consideration only his translations, the totality and range of his contributions—from his translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy all the way to the writings of André Gide—comprise a veritable treasure trove. When Shafa died, certain reformists who claim to be supporters of the Green Movement wrote of him that he had defamed or cast aspersions on the reputations of others. This is a completely baseless and inappropriate charge.
This happened inside or outside Iran?
It happened overseas. This was regrettable. However, as can be observed, even Musavi himself has a rather high tolerance for a wide range of viewpoints. Recently, he said that the Green Movement must be such that there is room within it for 70 million Iranians (the current population of Iran), including the protesters.
The Islamic regime and Khamenei himself have repeatedly said that the entire Green Movement is the handiwork of the overseas media and have even mentioned certain names. In your opinion, do such charges have any basis in truth or are they fundamentally related to the sort of conspiracy theories to which all dictators resort?
At the time of Mr. Khatami’s tenure as Minister of Islamic Guidance, Khamenei revealed a plan to combat cultural invasion by the West, which caused Khatami to resign. Khatami had said that, in order for us not to fall prey to the cultural propaganda of our enemies, we must open our windows to the outside world. But in the beginning of the reform era (Khatami’s first term as president), newspapers published in Iran rendered the work of the Persian-language media abroad difficult: one either had to join in and harmonize with them, or else people would pay no attention. But of course, this does not mean that the overseas media caused the subsequent events; the overseas media were affected by the events and reported on them, but that does not mean that what happened was somehow their doing.
However, it is in Mr. Khamenei’s nature to believe such things. In nine out of every 10 sentences he utters, Khamenei says the word “enemy.” It seems that somehow he imagines that people would not have taken to the streets in Tehran if it had not been for the provocations and machinations of Voice of America and BBC. This is absolutely Mr. Khamenei’s own mistake.
As my last question, how popular or how intellectual do you think this movement is?
In one sense, this movement is a popular one: if it were intellectual, its slogans would have been different. Those who say, “Where’s my vote?” are people who simply want to go on with their lives and do not seek a revolution. Such people simply wish for their children to go to school and graduate from a university—and many of them believed that, within the closed framework of the Guardian Council, the regime would allow them to choose whoever they wanted.
At the same time, Musavi and his wife, Ms. Rahnavard—in my opinion, a person worthy of consideration—were able to engage the electorate’s interest and stir passions by allowing people to believe that they could actually participate in the system by voting, and that such participation would be to their benefit. Naturally, the majority of those who voted (that is, 22 or 23 million individuals) for Musavi and Karubi were not intellectuals. The traditional leftist elements are not involved in the Green Movement and, in effect, have been left out of the equation—in fact, they have denounced the movement. Those set on the absolute dissolution of the Islamic regime are not part of the equation either and do not align themselves with the Green Movement.
However, the Green Movement is not a demagogical movement, meaning that the people did not envision having Musavi as their leader. They consider and accept Musavi with all his limitations and do not expect a revolution or a major transformation of the current regime. However, by voting for him, they expect him to form and put in place a peaceful government that would be accountable to the people and permit freer elections. The majority of the people desire a peaceful transformation that would not cause major disruptions or upsets.
In my opinion, a mutuality of belief and a connection have developed between, on the one hand, the intellectuals and original thinkers who (unlike our generation) are not idealists, and, on the other, people whose level of awareness and understanding has, fortunately, advanced. These two different camps have connected with each other and, as a result, the Green Movement has been born.