11 December 2018

Tuesday, 22:03



Orientalist Yelena DUNAYEVA: “Iran is on the eve of largescale and interesting events”



Iran has remained in the focus of world politics since the end of the last year. Protests, anti-protests, new sanctions, anti-sanctions, military advancement in Syria, threatening statements against Trump and, finally, intra-confessional battles in the centre of Tehran. A spectre of approaching large-scale events is haunting the Persian latitudes. Acute political struggle for supreme power has been gathering momentum in Iran amidst the agitation in foreign policy. R+ had the following conversation with an expert on Iran, Yelena Dunayeva, about the common situation of our southern neighbour and the expected regional implications of the ongoing events:

The United States has offered Iran to hold talks on neutral ground about some issues of mutual concern. Do you think such a meeting can end the hostility between Washington and Tehran?

I do not think it is possible to overcome fundamental contradictions by negotiations alone. But they can be very useful in settling the issue of prisoners held in the U.S. and Iran. The Congress is more radical about Iran than Donald Trump is. Relations between these countries will not normalise in the short term. We will wait until Trump’s next moves when his ultimatum on the Iranian nuclear program expires and if the U.S. withdraws from the agreement on this program.

Iran’s main prerequisite for setting normal relations with the U.S. was the return of Shah’s deposits in Western banks to Tehran. Can satisfaction of this claim open a new page in the U.S.-Iranian relations?

In fact, President Obama has returned some of this money to Iran. But this was done at a time when American citizens were detained in Iran. By the way, the Congress has sharply criticized Obama claiming that he had actually redeemed the Americans for $3 billion. Yet there is more Iranian money still kept in the U.S.

According to some reports, five police officers were killed and three hundred Sufis were wounded during the recent bloody clashes in Tehran. Can intra-confessional battles in Iran explode into crisis similar to the Syrian one?

Iranian Sufis, or dervishes, belong to the Order of Naqshbandi. Iranian authorities have long accused this order of its alleged ties to ISIS. The fight against the Sufi fraternity, or dervishes, which the Shia do not recognize as a religious movement, has a long track record. Dervishism is a semi-mystical teaching. The Sunni population of the Islamic Republic of Iran reaches 10 per cent only. The Iranian authorities officially recognise both the Shiism and Sunnism but consider dervishes sectarians. The fight against the dervishes in Iran is conducted under a pretext that they can be the followers of ISIS. In principle though, this fight is part of a general policy against dissent after the protests in December 2017. There will be no significant confrontation between the Sunnis and the Shiite majority. Sunnis have few mosques situated in specially designated places only and they are not always welcome at the highest levels of power. The situation changed after Rouhani’s election as president, when the Sunnis became the members of regional administrations in Baluchistan, Turkmenistan and some other provinces of the country with a predominant Sunni population.  In Khuzestan, for instance, the Iranian citizens of Arab ethnicity were granted limited self-governance rights such as maintaining the order, practicing their customs and traditions, etc.

How topical is the nature of the “Kurdish issue” in Iran?

Kurds are significantly integrated into Iranian society. They serve in the army, study at universities outside the Kurdish province, and their migration to other regions of Iran is strong. Kurds are the members of the government and parliament (the Majlis); there are Kurdish cultural communities, the Institute of Kurdish Culture in Tehran; Kurdish is taught as a foreign language in the universities of Kurdistan. By the way, Rouhani has offered to learn ethnic languages in provincial schools. But then it turned out that there were no teachers, no textbooks, no programs for the teaching of Kurdish and Azerbaijani languages. There are special departments in the universities where the students study the Kurdish literary language to become teachers of the Kurdish who will later teach the language in schools.

One of the oldest pro-Kurdish organisations, Mojahedin-e Khalq, has long waged an armed struggle against Tehran...

Mojahedin-e Khalq cannot be called a pro-Kurdish organisation. Fighting against the Iranian authorities, it supports the activities of illegal Kurdish parties and organisations in opposition to the incumbent regime and mainly based in Iraqi Kurdistan. Indeed, these organisations are fighting with the regime. Their members cross the border and attack police posts, commit terrorist acts. Yet various sources report that no more than 15% of the Kurdish population of Iran supports these groups. By the way, the Iraqi authorities have evicted almost all the members of the Mojahedin-e Khalq from the country, who have later settled in Albania.

A recent poll conducted by the Centre for Strategic Studies of the Rouhani administration shows that 50% of Iranians advocate the derogation of the article on the mandatory wearing of the hijab...

Only the parliament may cancel this law, but the Majlis has not discussed this issue so far. It was the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, which instructed wearing of a veil back in 1979. In fact, most of the respondents were not interested in this issue. Hence the attribution of their votes either to the opponents or to the defenders of the law. Therefore, one can see a varying number of supporters and opponents of the law in different surveys. Interestingly, the issue of arbitrary wearing a veil is one of the issues put forward for the referendum suggested by Rouhani along with a number of other important issues open for discussions. A social survey was conducted after the protests to get the views of Iranian citizens on them and the reasons behind the January events. The young people were questioned, as they were the main participants of the protest movement. The poll showed that 75% of respondents negatively assessed the situation in the country. About 60% think that the situation can be changed by reforms, and 31% think that this will not help and it is necessary to change the regime as a whole. This data has been taken care of properly. Apparently, economic claims is a result of discontent with the existing socio-political system in the country. In his speech delivered on the Victory Day of the Islamic Revolution on February 10, President Rouhani said that the referendum could help solve many problems. Iranian constitution allows for conducting referendums in critical situations. There have been two referendums held in the country after the revolution: on the change of the state system and the adoption of the constitution.

Rouhani’s team suggests raising the issues of hijab and state social benefits at the referendum, as the government discussed the possibility of reducing these benefits just before the protests. Also, the government reports that a lot of money from the state budget goes to various religious, cultural and propaganda funds, which are associated with the clergy. Since these funds have waqf (charitable endowment in Islam, R+) property through collecting religious taxes, they are able to finance themselves. The organisation of Islamic propaganda or the religious university in the city of Qom owns tens of times a larger budget than the largest Sharif Polytechnic University well known throughout the world by its highly qualified specialists. So, the idea is that the religious funds serving the clergy should be financed by the same clergy or report to the government. In fact, nobody knows what the allocated state money is used for. By the way, it is speculated that the money that Obama paid to Iran was used to supply missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen, bypassing the Iranian budget. Rouhani proposes to take funds under the financial control of the state or finance them from the income of the clergy. The Conservatives are against the referendum and very harshly criticise this proposal. If two-thirds of the Majlis supports the presidential proposal, it means the process of popular voting is launched. Although the referendum is not discussed in the Majlis, it is widely discussed in the media. Nothing in the country will change without dismantling the political structure of society, limiting the functions of the spiritual leader and the clergy, in particular the Supervisory Board. Even the conservatives understand the need for inevitable changes. Khamenei himself, speaking recently before the public, noted that not everything had transpired as expected during the construction of the Islamic Republic; there was still no justice, and he was personally, albeit partially, responsible for the outcome, for which it was necessary to apologise to the people. Some analysts believe that even the spiritual leader feels a need for change, although I am sceptical of this opinion. Either way, Iran is on the verge of large-scale events. The referendum can somewhat unravel Rouhani and relieve tension for a short time. Even artists in their address to the government said that there could be only one question in the referendum: an Islamic republic or an Iranian republic. Apparently, Iranians want certain freedoms. In principle, they do not care if the leader is a spiritual or secular person. As one of the protesting girls shouted on the Ingilab Avenue, taking off her veil and waving it like a flag, “give me freedom, a right to choose between hijab and nothing, a right to live as I wish to live, I do not care if this country is an Islamic republic or not”.

The most surprising moment was not that the protesters tear off the portraits of national leaders, but rather the slogans of the young people asking forgiveness from Shah Reza Pahlavi. The last shah is gaining a wide popularity among the Iranian intelligentsia and youth. Medallions with an image of Shah Pahlavi are getting increasingly popular in Iran...

Ironically, interest in Reza Pahlavi has gained momentum in the past six months. For the first time in forty years pro-shah slogans were voiced, the first one in Qom. Iranians told me that a documentary series about the fight of the shah regime against the clergy was shown on local television. Authorities wanted to present the shah as an opponent of the clergy but the youth understood the message the other way around.

For the young people, the last shah of Iran was a strong, powerful nationalist figure, who was able to pull Iran out of feudalism and modernise the country on a Western model. He forcefully tore off Islamic clothes from men and women dressing them in European suits. He took away all the waqf property from the clergy and put Iran on the path of secularisation. Reza Pahlavi built roads, opened a university, first modern schools, etc. Young people do not think about the brutality of the Shah's regime, that huge land areas and most enterprises belonged to the Shah. The very fact of a strong leader who opposed the clergy is attractive. There are pro-shah forces in the country but they have insignificant influence on population. Reformers under President Khatami who attempted to combine modern life with Islamic ideology and then were forced to leave Iran, have more political influence over Iranians than the pro-Shah emigration.

Iran I on the eve of largescale and interesting events. It is important that Trump be not up to mischief that would make Arab countries behave aggressively against Iran. I do not think it happens anyway. The attitude of many Arab states toward Iran is quite normal.