Farideh Farhi


POSTED: Friday, June 26, 2009

Iranian politics, always volatile, is in uncharted territory with even the Islamic Republic's supreme leader improvising in the wake of a disputed presidential election that has sparked mass protests and a violent crackdown, says an analyst affiliated with the University of Hawaii.


So far, President Barack Obama has struck “;exactly the right tone”; in response to the “;clearly rigged”; vote, said Farideh Farhi, 63, an independent scholar affiliated with the University of Hawaii-Manoa's political science department, who has written extensively about politics and elections in her homeland.

Farhi, who emigrated to the United States in 1972, joined the UH faculty in 1985, staying for about five years before resigning to return to Tehran to teach, write and conduct research. She returned to UH in 1998, and since then has taught either Middle East policy or American foreign policy in the Middle East to graduate students each spring.

Farhi, an adviser for the National Iranian American Council, was last in Iran in 2006, when she was arrested at a rally, jailed for five days and interrogated weekly for two months before being allowed to leave the country, which she had been visiting on assignment for the International Crisis Group, writing a policy paper on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presidency.

Her mother and other family members remain in Iran, which her husband and daughter are visiting now, safely, as tourists.

Question: The crackdown has muted public protests. Is the opposition doomed?

Answer: Not necessarily. This is a very volatile and fluid situation and ... everybody is improvising ... (opposition candidate) Mir Hossein Mousavi is under house arrest, so his supporters aren't quite sure what he wants them to do. But the crackdown has not destroyed this sense that something has to change ...

Q: How did the regime so underestimate the discontent?

A: I think they miscalculated popular feelings, they miscalculated the enthusiasm the opposition would generate. They clearly miscalculated the voter turnout ... and they also miscalculated the resolve of the opposition candidates. ... But you cannot talk about “;the regime”; (as a unified entity) because there is such a crack at the top.

Q: Because the protests are a direct challenge to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, given that he supports President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

A: Exactly. That's what raises the stakes so high. He took sides. He's not supposed to be so partisan in such a blatant manner ... The role of the supreme leader had been to balance competing interests, which Iran has always had ... Up until now he tried to give the impression that he could do that ... But now it has become very clear that the main player here, sanctioning the fraudulent election, sanctioning the crackdown, is the supreme leader himself.

Q: How do you know the results were rigged?

A: The reason these numbers were totally, immediately suspicious was not necessarily the votes for Ahmadinejad, or Mousavi. It was the numbers for a third candidate, Mr. (Mehdi) Karroubi ... They gave him only about 300,000 votes. He has that many campaign volunteers! ... It was just a real attempt to denigrate and humiliate him. ...

Q: What do you think will happen next?

A: The decision to crack down in such a violent and haphazard way says that these guys don't even know what the endgame will be ... The reality that the majority of the population of Iran is opposed to this government is clear. These opponents are the children of the revolution, the founders and pillars of the Islamic Republic. There's a very intense political struggle at the top layer of the country. ... But any expectation that the (Ahmadinejad) government is going to collapse is not going to hold. Because what you have are two coalitions engaged in a very serious discussion behind closed doors over the direction of the country. And they are both very robust.

Q: How have you been following the events?

A: Online. I read Iranian newspapers, blogs, I have a Facebook page, I call people, I do Skype. Means of communication have become harder, but they're not blocked completely.

Q: President Barack Obama has been criticized for not speaking out more strongly for the opposition. What do you think?

A: Obama has struck exactly the right tone so far. I think for the first time in a very long time an American president understands Iran ... He has made this very open argument that because of the tortured history with Iran, the U.S. cannot be seen as meddling or taking sides ... I am 100 percent sure that Mr. Mousavi does not want Mr. Obama's public support ... Mr. Obama has taken a very wise stance by condemning the violence that has occurred in Iran and saying to Iranian leaders “;the world is watching you.”; He's essentially saying that “;your power grab is nakedly in front of the world and the loss of the legitimacy among the Iranian people is also plain to see.”;

Q: But how then does the U.S. recognize Ahmadinejad's rule?

A: It's not the first time. That's American foreign policy. The question is not whether the United States engages illegitimate governments or repressive governments. The United States does, all the time. The question is specifically about engagement with Iran. Before this election, the U.S. sent a message to Iran about engagement on the nuclear issues, and the issue is now what to do? Slow down that offer of negotiation? Sanction the current government? ... Mr. Obama doesn't really have to do anything at this point, except to express outrage and to explain why the United States is not involved, which he has done, in ways that are very accurate. I would give him tremendous kudos for the way he has handled the situation.

Farideh Farhi's article, “;On Miscalculating an Election,”; can be seen at http://hsblinks.com/dv.