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Foreign correspondent and blogger Michael Totten weighs in on the Iranian election crisis

Tuesday, June 16, 2009
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HH: We begin with Michael Totten, who along with Andrew Sullivan has distinguished himself over the past 72 hours as he had in the past by owning a story. He’s now taking his blogging on the Iranian turmoil over to Commentary Magazine’s Contentions blog. We’ll talk about that with John Podhoretz afterwards. Michael Totten, thanks for joining me.

MT: Hi, Hugh, thanks for having me on again.

HH: Tell me what you think is going on this hour in Iran tonight?

MT: Oh, this hour right now? Oh, gosh, I’m sorry, I’m not quite that up to speed.

HH: Okay, the last six hours.

MT: It is, I believe, about 5:00 in the morning right now in Tehran, so I don’t think there’s probably anything going on in the last six hours.

HH: How close to the edge is the regime?

MT: Well, it’s really hard to say, especially from, I’m eleven time zones away from Iran. It looks to me like it might actually fall over.

HH: And what do you base that on?

MT: It’s hard to say, of course. I mean, if there’s a successful revolution, it’s going to start like this. But just because it starts like a successful revolution, it doesn’t mean there’s going to be one.

HH: And what are you looking for? What kind of events will tell you that the pace of turmoil’s accelerating such that the mullahs are in danger?

MT: Well, I saw two really striking photos today that I found via Andrew Sullivan’s blog that showed some unarmed demonstrators scaling the walls of a Basij militia base. They were unarmed, and they’re attacking a militia base, which is an absolutely extraordinary thing to look at.

HH: Yeah.

MT: And I mean, that’s got to have these guys incredibly rattled.

HH: In terms of communication with Iran, as I said, you and Sullivan have been blogging…where are you getting most of your information from?

MT: Oh, gosh, I’m getting it from all over the place. I’m getting it from Twitter, I’m getting it from other blogs, I’m getting it from Google News, is a pretty decent aggregator for mainstream media content.

HH: And how are you deciding which of the tweets you can trust, which you can’t?

MT: Well, I read the tweets, but I am really reluctant to quote them for a couple of reasons. The first, obviously they’re un-confirmable. And the people in Iran who are publishing these tweets, they’re in a fog of war type of situation. That’s also occurred to me, and I don’t know if anybody else has thought of this yet, because I haven’t seen any mention of it, but it’s entirely possible that the regime itself could be using Twitter and spreading disinformation. I mean, you just don’t know who’s writing this stuff and what they know.

HH: Oh, sure. I wrote a piece in the Weekly Standard five years ago on black blog ops. You can always count on someone using any platform for surreptitious and nefarious purposes. But the tweets are so simultaneous with action that sometimes it’s easier to spot the fakes. Michael Totten, in terms of American media and Western media, are they doing their job?

MT: No.

HH: Expand.

MT: No, I don’t think so. Well, I’m thinking mostly of the TV news here is ridiculous. I mean, I didn’t turn it on initially, because I expected they wouldn’t have much when this first started. But after 24 hours, I thought that they would have something. And apparently, they do have something, but every time I’ve checked Fox, MSNBC and CNN, they’d had nothing. And this is the biggest story in the world…

HH: Yeah.

MT: …and if the regime actually falls, it’s, in my opinion, going to be the biggest geopolitical event since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

HH: And it will save us a confrontation with a nuclear power. It will prevent everything that people are worried about.

MT: Yeah.

HH: That’s why everyone should be invested in the success of the small d democrats there.

MT: Absolutely.

HH: Sullivan’s covering it from Cape Cod, you’re on the West Coast…

MT: I’m in Portland, Oregon.

HH: Portland, Oregon…

MT: Yes.

HH: You have no trouble getting this stuff. Have you been contacted by MSM to appear on any of their programs, Michael?

MT: No, I was, NPR e-mailed me today and asked me if I wanted to go there, on their show. But they actually thought I was in Iran. And I told them, I said look, you know, I’m happy to talk to you guys, but you’ve got realize I’m not actually there. So they bumped me. I guess NPR’s the closest to the mainstream media that has contacted me.

HH: Oh, that’s unbelievable, just because you own the story. Now going back to your experiences in Iraq, what is, what do you expect the impact of all this turmoil, if any, on Iraq to be?

MT: Well, if the regime goes, the impact on Iraq and Lebanon is going to be enormous.

HH: Exactly.

MT: Because, especially, I think, even more in Lebanon than Iraq, because Lebanon still has a very heavily armed militia that’s basically the private army of Iran. And in Iraq, most of the Shiia militants have been beaten. So I think in Iraq, the impact will be less, although it will be positive. In Lebanon, it could be absolutely enormous. If Hezbollah, I mean, Hezbollah’s guns aren’t going to go away, and it’s not just going to shrivel up and die, because it does have authentic support among the Lebanese. But they’re going to lose their money. And if they lose their money, half of Hezbollah’s support comes from the money that’s spread in the community. They’re going to be in serious trouble.

HH: There have been some reports today that the mullahs are importing Hezbollah into Iran for the purposes of the dirty work. Have you seen those reports?

MT: I have. I’ve also seen a couple of people have mistakenly thought that Ansar Hezbollah was imported from Lebanon. Now Ansar Hezbollah is the Iranian branch of…it’s basically the same sort of deal, but it’s Iranian-based rather than Lebanese-based. So you’ve got to be careful when you see reports of Hezbollah doing this or that. You don’t necessarily know if it’s Iranian Hezbollah or Lebanese Hezbollah. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some Lebanese Hezbollah members go to Iran. Some of them are there all the time anyway for training and what not, and they’ve been in Iraq as well.

HH: Any doubt in your mind that there are at least some elements within the theocracy’s military wing that will not hesitate to open fire in a Tiananmen Square sort of way?

MT: I’m sure some of them want to. Whether they will or not is another question. I’m slightly surprised that they haven’t done it yet, actually.

HH: Well, they had some firing today, but obviously that is one event in one place. What are you hearing about Tehran University? There are reports spread across the web of pretty amazing repression there.

MT: Yeah, it’s pretty ugly. I saw some photographs on one of the Iranian websites of Ansar Hezbollah, that’s the Iranian branch, breaking into dorm rooms and beating the hell out of people and dragging them off to God knows where.

HH: In terms of the Iranians who you encountered when you were covering in Iraq, were they part of the regime’s presence in Iraq? Or were they independent from them?

MT: Some of the Iranians I met in Iraq?

HH: Yeah.

MT: The only Iranians I met in Iraq were anti-regime revolutionaries in the north. And they’re armed anti-regime revolutionaries.

HH: Okay, so they’re in Kurdistan.

MT: Right.

HH: And what do you think they’re doing at this moment?

MT: Well, I actually sent an e-mail to the camp leader yesterday, and he responded to me quickly. I asked him you know, hey, are you guys sending your army into Iran? Because when I met him, he told me that they’ve done this several times when there’s uprisings in Iran. They send their people over the border, because they’re only about five or ten miles from the border. He didn’t answer my question, and I don’t frankly blame him. I mean, if he’s actually sending armed anti-regime elements into Northern Iran, he probably doesn’t want them to know that yet.

HH: And how many of them are there, Michael Totten?

MT: I don’t know. I asked, there are probably, I’m going to just guess, okay? I asked, and they wouldn’t tell me. But based on the size of the place that I saw, I would guess two thousand.

HH: And a last question, are there other foreign governments with operatives who are armed, to your knowledge, in Iran?

MT: In Iran?

HH: Yeah. I mean, are there other people that have the capability? I’m thinking Israel or other anti-Iranian regime people that have the capability of fomenting revolution there.

MT: Well, I would, as far as foreign, not to my knowledge. But I would have to say that the Iranian army might actually. Now I’m not talking about the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. I’m talking about the Shah’s old conscription army that was never dismantled or replaced.

HH: Right.

MT: It has been there all along, and it broadly reflects the opinion of the population at large. But actually, I should say more broadly, it reflects the opinion of the younger people at large, because it’s a conscript army. It’s not ideological like the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The Khomeinists created the Revolutionary Guards alongside the Shah’s army.

HH: Yeah, as detailed in Taheri’s new book, The Persian Night. Michael Totten, thank you so much for joining me. We’ll check back with you blogging now at Commentary Magazine’s Contentions. People should read every single thing that Michael puts up there. It’s absolutely first rate stuff.

End of interview.

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