Iran at a Crossroads

L to R: Suzanne DiMaggio, Farideh Farhi, and Arang Keshavarzian in New York on June 25, 2009.

NEW YORK, June 25, 2009 – The political situation in Iran remains fluid, following the brutal government crackdown on demonstrators disputing the victory of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, according to two leading Iran experts.

"The dynamics have changed and the opposition is trying to adapt to the violence that has played out in the street," said Farideh Farhi, a lecturer and independent scholar at the University of Hawaii at Manoa speaking at Asia Society headquarters.

Farhi and Arang Keshavarzian, professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University, shared their views on the dramatic developments within Iran in a discussion moderated by Asia Society policy studies director Suzanne DiMaggio. Both speakers described the official vote tally as fraudulent.

"There is no doubt in my mind that the results that were announced by the Ministry of the Interior are not the results of the actual election," said Keshavarzian, who was in Tehran when Iranians went to the polls.

Although all four candidates were establishment figures, he said, the campaign exposed major differences in the policy visions of the political elite, most notably through a series of heated televised debates.

The vigorous campaign, permitted by Iran's supreme leader, convinced ordinary Iranians that their activism and votes could make a difference. This, combined with the push by opposition campaigns, resulted in large rallies in early June and a strong turnout on election day, the speakers explained.

Farhi said it was therefore "a shocker" when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's spiritual leader and highest authority, hastily proclaimed Ahmadinejad the winner, then approved a crackdown against street protestors in Tehran and other cities.

"This whole election, all the anger of the population was directed at Mr. Ahmadinejad. Why would [Khamenei] insert himself and draw this energy toward himself?" she wondered.

Farhi said either Khamenei shares Ahmadinejad's hardline vision for Iran's future or the Ayatollah is beholden to religious power brokers who oppose reform.

Keshavarzian predicted that "it's going to be very difficult" for the opposition to sustain itself, and expressed doubt that Iran would undergo fundamental change.

"At this moment, it's very premature to describe this as a revolution in the making," he said.

Although post-election turmoil in Iran has complicated the Obama administration's plans to improve relations with Tehran, engagement remains a viable strategy, Farhi said.

"The US has certain strategic interests in the region and they happen to align with Iran's strategic interests. For example, Iranian-American cooperation in Afghanistan is necessary no matter who is in power in Iran," she noted.

Reported by Ross Liemer