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American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Rubin’s take on the Iranian turmoil

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

HH: The two questions – could there actually be regime change, and what should the United States be doing there now. Joining me to discuss that, Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, one of the country’s preeminent experts on Iran. He’s been here before, but never under such circumstances. Michael, thanks for spending some time in what must be a busy day. Your demands on you must be extraordinary today, so I appreciate you joining us.

MR: Indeed it’s been busy, but if there’s a semblance of hope, it’s worth it.

HH: Now talk to us, tell the audience, do you think there might actually be fundamental change in Iran possible right now?

MR: Well, this is what we need to look for. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how many people come out of the street. What matters is if the security forces decide to switch sides and side with the demonstrators against the government and against the other security forces. We’ve had huge crowds like this in the street before, back in 1999, after the student uprising, and also in 2001, after the soccer riots. Now back in September of 2007, the Iranian government reorganized the Islamic Revolutionary Guard corps, these crack, elite troops. And what they did is they figured the biggest threat to the regime is not going to come from external enemies. It’s going to come from within. This is when they started talking about velvet revolutions and so forth. And so what they did is instead of having a centralized Islamic Revolutionary Guard corps, they broke it down into provincial units. But in each province, they don’t allow people from that province to be stationed there in the Revolutionary Guard, because they’re afraid that those people won’t fire on the crowds. The next couple of days are really going to be key, I’d say the next 48 hours. If the Revolutionary Guard, or actually the Basij starts to switch sides, then we’re going to have some really interesting times that could culminate in regime change. However, if we just have arrests, and ultimately the people don’t, the Revolutionary Guard doesn’t change its approach, Iran is a country. It’s not a democracy, as we all know. And it doesn’t therefore matter what public opinion is. What matters is that the guys with the guns control things. It’s the classic nature of a dictatorship.

HH: Now Michael Rubin, in terms of, I’ve spent a lot of time with you and a very long time with Amir Taheri trying to describe the rather opaque government here, and there’s the army, then there’s the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, then there are the special forces, then there’s the Basij. Where is the fracture point for security forces in your view?

MR: The fracture point will always be with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard corps. Now within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard corps, you have something called the Basij, which are a paramilitary group, sort of almost the reserves. These are the guys who you would expect to defect first. However, and we’ve seen from photos, for example, coming out of Iran, of protestors attacking Basij stations. But we haven’t seen any sign that the Basij is really changing sides.

HH: But what about the army? Is there any hope that they might? Because they’re supposed to be as apolitical a group as exists there. But they’re also weaker in terms of influence, according to Taheri and others. What do you think about the army?

MR: Army I don’t think is going to be a major entity on this. First of all, the army is mostly conscript. It’s mostly young guys. You have to remember at the time of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the army initially sided with the Shah. The Shah had appointed most of the officers and so forth. Eventually, the conscripts defected. But the Khomeini and the Islamic Republic always saw the army as basically being either neutral or disloyal. And this is why Khomeini had created the Islamic Revolutionary Guard corps. It was meant not only to defend Iran from enemies outside, but also to really protect the Islamic Revolution. These are Khomeini’s brown shirts, his elite unit. And they don’t care about the people at all. They exist only to preserve the theocracy.

HH: What about Rafsanjani and his oligarchs? Do they have any ties into the IRG that they might exploit at this point?

MR: Not really. Rafsanjani and his oligarchs certainly represent the old guard. And in the last days of the campaign, Ahmadinejad was really running against him. But I wouldn’t expect Rafsanjani to be able to attract any sort of popular support. People really resent Rafsanjani. He’s someone that while they were off fighting the Iran-Iraq war, sacrificing their youth and so forth, he was back cutting business deals. I mean, he could be about as wealthy as Bill Gates. And so ordinary Iranians really don’t like Rafsanjani. He’s not a popular figure to rally around. The thing is right now that we have to consider is that in the back of everyone’s mind in Iran, and outside of Iran, we have the whole issue of the Islamic Revolution back in 1979. Now just what happened back in 1979, is you had a series of protests, people were killed, and it sort of set off a snowballing chain of events, because every forty days after someone was killed, you’d have another protest at the end of their time of mourning and so forth. Now the thing is, the regime who were the victors in the Islamic Revolution know this. And so while Iran is a tinderbox, they are very, very good at putting out fires, and they actually act far differently than the Shah did, or even than the Islamic Republic did in its early years. Rather than, for example, just going out into the crowd and bashing heads, too long, as they’ve done perhaps today and yesterday, what they’re going to start to do is start to take a lot of photographs of protestors. And over the next couple days, slowly remove them from their houses, and put them in jail, and then do God knows what to them. We’ve already heard reports, for example, that 100 students from the University of Tehran have simply disappeared. If the regime can sort of remove these protestors without setting off another round of protests, this is the strategy they’re going to use moving forward.

HH: President Obama made a set of remarks about an hour ago, very, very mild, Michael Rubin. What do you want him to say? What do you want the American government and American media to be doing right now?

MR: Well, President Obama made a couple points. First of all, what he said is that he chastised the violence, the regime violence. He talked about freedom of speech, and how important that is. But he also said that he looked forward to the review process of the Iranian elections, investigations led by the Islamic Republic about whether there had been any fraud. This is like asking Stalin to investigate the famine in Ukraine. I mean, it’s basically asking the fox to guard the henhouse. It’s the wrong thing.

HH: Right.

MR: If you ask me what Obama should do, we shouldn’t repeat a chicken Kiev moment, referring to the time when the elder George Bush went to Ukraine, and during the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and argued against freedom and independence for the Ukraine. What we should do is state clearly that we support the Iranian people. And the Iranian people, just like the Iraqi people, just like the Afghan people, have a right to choose their own government, that this is what freedom and liberty are about. We should not, we should not abandon moral clarity.

HH: Michael Rubin, very quickly, is the media doing its job?

MR: The media is doing its job as good as it can. The media up to the election wasn’t, because it was conflating advocacy with analysis. Now, I mean, even Roger Cohen of the New York Times is admitting he got Iran wrong. I mean, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know what. But now that this is so overwhelming, the media has a real problem, because Iran doesn’t exactly have freedom of media. It doesn’t allow people into the countryside. It’s rounding up journalists and preventing them from doing their job. This is why the Twittering and all these other phone calls and so forth are so interesting.

HH: Sullivan, Totten, you, yeah. Michael Rubin, thanks, we’ll check back.

End of interview.

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