Azadeh Moaveni is the author of Lipstick Jihad and co-author, with Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, of Iran Awakening. She has lived and reported throughout the Middle East, and speaks both Farsi and Arabic fluently. Azadeh studied politics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and received a Fulbright Fellowship to Egypt. As one of the few American correspondents allowed to work continuously in Iran since 1999, she has reported widely on youth culture, women’s rights, and Islamic reform for Time, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times. Currently a Time magazine contributing writer on Iran and the Middle East, she lives with her husband and son in London.
Q: On February 13, 2012, an Israeli diplomat was injured in a car explosion in New Delhi, India. An explosive device was also found on an Israeli diplomat’s car in Georgia, although it was detonated in time. Israel immediately blamed Iran for these attacks. How do you believe these explosions are related to the on-going tensions between Iran, Israel, and the United States? Do you believe these sorts of incidents will continue in the future?
Azadeh Moaveni (AM): Authorities in India and now Thailand, the most recent scene of explosions linked to Iran, have pointed the finger at the Iranian government. The case against Iran is, however, by no means watertight. If Tehran is indeed the malevolent, uber-competent terrorist power GOP contenders are describing, we must ask why these attempts have been so clumsy.
Nonetheless, if we take at face value the conclusions presented by those investigating the explosions, as well as Iran’s promise to retaliate for the assassinations of its nuclear scientists, the purpose behind these explosions seems to be very clear: Iran will respond in kind and will not back down in the face of threats from the United States or Israel. Additionally, the Iranian government is very sensitive to any appearance that it is buckling under pressure. Even if Iran’s negotiators are willing to come back to the table – we have seen them hinting at this in recent days – the government also does not want to appear as if it is coming from a position of weakness. If Tehran is indeed behind these explosions, the motivation may simply have been to project an image of capability and to demonstrate that, if provoked, Iran’s reach can extend quite far.
Whether more happens depends on various factors, including how the Israelis behave as well as developments on Iran’s domestic front. Iran is heading toward a significant parliamentary election in March, and the Ahmadinejad camp is desperate to cling to its influence. This all makes developments in the weeks ahead fairly unpredictable.
Q: On February 11, 2012, the Islamic Republic marked the thirty-third anniversary of the Iranian revolution. The scene in Tehran’s Azadi Square, included an image of the downed American drone captured by Iranian officials several months ago. How has America’s presumed spying and other covert activities inside Iran benefited or challenged the Iranian regime in its approach toward the United States.
AM: More than anything, incidents like the downed drone are useful public relations fodder for the Iranian regime. It is something the government can parade before their supporters and use as evidence that the West truly has it out for Iran. The regime has been able to make this case more vigorously in recent months, especially with sanctions taking an increasing toll on the daily lives of Iranians. Inside the country, Tehran has been very effective at shifting the blame and responsibility toward the United States, and the onus, at least in the eyes of the Iranian public, is on Washington to answer tough questions about spying inside Iran and inflicting sanctions that have sunk the Iranian currency. If public opinion is a strategic asset, then Iran has very skilfully used these developments to buttress its image and support among the Iranian people.
Q: February 14, 2012 marked the first anniversary of the house arrest of Green Movement leaders Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Housein Mousavi. What is the current state of Iran’s Green Movement? Did Mousavi and Karroubi’s arrest have any discernible impact on the political scene inside Iran?
AM: It is fashionable to say the Green Movement is over. In reality, it is true that the opposition has no consensus about its aims and no real leadership. In my view, however, those circumstances are not as interesting or relevant as the question of how Iran, post-Green Movement, will react to the key moments in its future. The Iranian public is mercurial, and we need to acknowledge that the Green Movement has changed Iran in ways we cannot yet predict or fully understand. The upcoming parliamentary elections, the next presidential election, a possible flare up with the West, the succession of Ayatollah Khamenei, all of these junctures may give Iranians the opportunity to meaningfully express their discontent.
The arrests of Mousavi and Karroubi have certainly quashed the Greens’ ability to develop any kind of strategy and to evolve into a credible opposition. Politically, the chief impact of the arrests has been to free up the Ahmadinejad camp to do battle with Khamenei’s supporters. That contest may actually be more defining of Iran’s middle-term future, than the arrests themselves.
Q: Recent news reports indicate the Iranian government has cut off access to websites that use HTTPS. These include websites such as Gmail, Google, and Yahoo. Assuming these reports are true, what do you believe motivated the government to do this? Do you think these restrictions will be permanent? If so, why?
AM: This development concerns the upcoming parliamentary elections, about which the regime is deeply nervous. The government is concerned about issues, such as whether figures like Rafsanjani will undermine the vote, whether reformists may organize a boycott that gains mainstream exposure, and whether popular anger over economic conditions will spill over into street unrest. By shutting down the Internet, the regime allays some of these fears. It removes social media as a networking tool, bars Iranians from accessing non-state news sources, and prevents citizen journalists from relaying information to the world media about events which both Iranian and foreign journalists are forbidden to report.
These restrictions will most likely be eased after the election. At least until now, the government has typically tightened and relaxed Internet controls, maintaining a delicate balancing act between not angering the people too excessively and controlling and checking their behavior. Iran’s scheme for a ‘halal intranet’ may be changing all this, but its implementation seems so unfeasible that it is hard to imagine these restrictions will endure.
Q: Over the last several months, the Iranian government has reportedly arrested a number of journalists and bloggers, many of whom have little to no history of political activism. What do you believe accounts for this spate of arrests?
AM: This development is closely linked to the elections as well. It is, nevertheless, remarkable that the regime feels vulnerable enough to conduct these arrests, despite all the other steps it has taken to crush dissent (from Internet controls to satellite TV jamming to the house arrest of Karroubi, et al). The aggressive campaign against BBC Persian, which has involved unprecedented harassment of the family-members of journalists and long-distance interrogations, is particularly noteworthy. To me, this demonstrates the regime’s sense of vulnerability to negative public opinion inside Iran, and the influence it believes outside sources of news have on the Iranian public.
As these kinds of arrests chill debate, it also seems to reflect the government’s growing indifference to voter turnout. The Iranian government usually likes elections to be hotly contested, as high turnout projects the image of electoral legitimacy. The atmosphere these days, however, seems very different. Security is the main objective, and there is hardly any pretense about the elections being a real political contest.
Q: Europe has announced its intention to cut off petroleum imports from Iran, adding further pressure to an Iranian economy that has already been slammed by economic sanctions from the United Nation and the United States. Do you think the European move will have a substantial additional impact on the Iranian economy?
AM: I am no oil expert, but my understanding is that it will certainly sting, if not bite. If nearly twenty percent of the country’s total oil sales go to Europe, then a commensurate cut in income will not go unnoticed, especially given the government’s ongoing schemes to reduce subsidies. Nevertheless, a European embargo has a mostly symbolic power, and will not, on its own, unleash economic doomsday upon Iran. With oil prices as high as they are today, Iran is still taking in a considerable volume of income from its oil sales to other parts of the world. In all likelihood, the Iranians will be able to soldier through. That is why Western diplomats are thinking more ambitiously about bigger picture income reduction, including finding incentives that will lure China away from Iranian oil, implementing financial restrictions that will make it difficult for Iran to import needed commodities, and preventing Iran from securing insurance for its oil tankers. These secondary restrictions will be much more damaging to Iran than the European boycott.
Q: How have economic sanctions affected the average Iranian?
AM: In just the past few months, the price of basic goods like dairy products, beef, cigarettes (to lots of Iranians these are a staple!), and tea have gone up significantly. Prices for foreign medicines have jumped by a third, and made those Iranians, who require regular treatment for illnesses like cancer and diabetes, deeply nervous. Because of the rial’s depressed value, the typical middle-class holiday to a place like Turkey or Thailand is now no longer possible. Simple financial transactions between ordinary people – such as between a student or young professional in Europe and family back home – are now extremely complicated and expensive. In short, regular Iranians are feeling these sanctions more acutely than ever before, and, interestingly, are blaming the West more than their own government.