June 23rd, 2011
01:05 PM ET

Maziar Bahari on Iran today

Maziar Bahari was in Tehran to cover the 2009 Iranian elections for Newsweek Magazine until the Revolutionary Guard came knocking at his door one day.

Maziar Bahari spent the next 118 days in prison in Evin Prison, much of it in solitary confinement.

He's written a new book about Iran and his experiences there called Then They Came for Me. You can read the prologue here.

Maziar joined me to talk about Iran two years later.

Fareed Zakaria: We've all been watching this Arab Spring. It's not happening in Iran. Is that because the regime is different or they are just able to completely brutally repress it? 

Maziar Bahari: I think there are two main differences between the situation in Iran and the rest of the Middle East. One is that Iranians experience the sudden change of revolution 32 years ago.

So they approach any sudden change with caution. They do not want another revolution.

And what happened in 2009 after the election was not a revolution either. It was a movement for change - for reform. The other difference between Iran and Arab countries is that Ayatollah Khamenei, Iranian's Supreme Leader - the Iranian dictator - has been grooming his image as a clean leader in a sea of corruption.

He's very different from Mubarak and Ben Ali, for example. He has forbidden his sons to get involved in financial activities.  His followers think that this leader is almost a saint. I mean, if he were a Catholic, I think they would have beatified him by now.

So Khamenei has a cult around him who are willing to die for him and they are willing to kill for him.

In other countries, I don't think that was so.

 a fascinating power struggle taking place in Iran where Ahmadinejad seems to be sensing that this kind of overly Islamic republic or ideology isn't working, so he's been distancing himself from the theocrats. We tend to think Ahmadinejad is the bad guy. 

So let me ask this very simply. Who is the good guy of this fight, the Mullahs or Ahmadinejad? 

Well, the simple answer is that none of them are the good guys. And according to people who believe Khamenei, they think that he as the Supreme Leader is the supreme jurisprudence. He is the person who can interpret the teachings of the Koran and run the country at the same time.

But what the Ahmadinejad people are saying right now is that we do not need that clerical establishment. We can interpret the teachings of the Koran ourselves. So we can be in touch with the 12th Imam - the Shia Messiah ourselves.

So without attacking Khamenei directly, he is undermining the whole system of belief that puts Khamenei in power.

Is Ahmadinejad popular? Because he as mayor of Tehran popular. He was popular for parts of his presidency as this simple, clean guy who was not corrupt as far as people knew. That's why he dresses in this very simple way. Does that image still hold? 

No. I don't think so. Ahmadinejad had a lot of support because Khamenei supported him. But now that Khamenei explicitly is not supporting him anymore, Ahmadinejad has lost his base. That's why he's trying to steer people's nationalist sentiments. That's why he's trying to have a new support base for himself.

Ahmadinejad has certain people around him who are likely a cult and they have cult-ish beliefs. But at the same time, in their way that they're organized and in the way that they thuggishly behave, they remind one of Cosa Nostra.

In this bewildering situation, one of the things you've often said on our show is, you used to say, you know, don't forget this regime has some support. Whether they are poor people, rural people, some people who are very religiously minded. Do you feel like it's losing support? Is there any indication of that? 

I think the regime is losing support every day. Last year, it had more support than now. Because the situation has become really untenable, all the ingredients that led to the demise of Mubarak and Ben Ali in Egypt and Tunisia, they exist in Iran. Higher unemployment rates, inflation, uneducated population who feel they are disenfranchised and their votes don't count.

People used to say that when the monster goes out, the angel arrives, meaning if the Shah goes out, Khamenei arrives. And then, they saw that kind of a monster went out but something even worse replaced him. And now they're not saying that anymore.

In this mix, what should the administration do? What should the United States do? Because the Obama administration began its term trying to see if there was some way to establish a dialogue with Iran. And part of what happened was the regime is not really that interested in having a dialogue because they need the anti- Americanism. 

And then, of course, the green revolution happened. And I think right now there is no coherent policy toward Iran. Should there be one? How should they handle it? 

If, as you say, the situation is really complicated. I think that they should think have – they should think more about the sanctions. They should lift the bad sanctions that hurt ordinary Iranians. They should allow more Iranians travel. I think there was a good development that they're giving visas to students, that the students can have multiple entry visas.

I think what the United States should do is to provide means to communicate for Iranians. The Iranian people know what to do. Iranian people know show to determine their own destinies. But what they need is to – how to communicate with each other. And that means having better communication infrastructure, for example, satellite Internet that cannot be censored. They need more filter-busters. Companies like Google, Yahoo! YouTube should be able to deal with the Iranian people freely without worrying about being reprimanded by the U.S. administration. They have to try to help Iranian people in general as much as possible.

In your book you talked about your mother who is how old? 

Eighty-four years old.

Where is she now? 

She's in Tehran.

The one part about this new life is you can't – you can't visit her. 

I can't visit her. She comes to London every now and then. But it's very sad.

So they let her out? 

They let her out, yes. And –

And your father was jailed by the Shah's regime. 

My father was jailed by the Shah's regime. My sister was jailed by Khamenei's regime. So – and, again, we – our stories are not unique. We are one of millions of Iranian families, thousands of families who have been jailed by both regimes.

And my mother is a proud Iranian. She said that I was born in this country. I want to live in this country and I want to die in this country. And many people in Iran, they say that.

And that's why I'm very hopeful about the future of Iran, because even though the government is trying to brutalize people, people are not losing hope. People are still fighting for a better future. This fight is with a bit of trepidation, but it is still a fight that will have very good results.

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Topics: Iran

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soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. Nazanin

    Mr. Bahari even doesn't know that the supreme leader of Iran is not Khomeini now and is Khamenei!! Khomeini was the founder of Islamic Republic. his comments about Ahmadinejad has lost his popularity because Khamenei doesn't support him anymore seems too absurd. actually the majority of Iranians don't like Khamenei as he thinks ( if they don't hate him!). it seems he has no information about Iranians.

    June 23, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Reply
    • Chuck Hamilton

      Nazanin, in my 2nd and 3rd posts I was replying to you. I didn't see the Reply, my bad.

      June 23, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Yes, from what I heard, Ahmadinejad would prevail, if the Iranians should choose between him and Khamenei.
      I think Ahmadinejad is more pragmatic and wants to steer his country out of isolation, while the theocrats who living in an ivory tower have lost touch with reality.

      June 23, 2011 at 6:21 pm | Reply
  2. Chuck Hamilton

    In several places, you refer to the current Rahbar-e Enghelab (Leader of the Revolution, his official title) as Khomeini. This is incorrect. It should be Khamenei. His predecessor in the position, Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Ruhollah Mostafavi Moussavi Khomeini died 3 June 1989 (19 Khordad 1368 on the Iranian calender). The current office holder is Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei. Pronounciation of the two names is very similar.

    June 23, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Reply
  3. Chuck Hamilton

    Nazanin, spoken the two names sound very much alike to non-nonspeakers. Although I disagree with Bahari on several points, I am certain he knows the difference. I put the mistake to whomever transcribed the interview and failed to at least consult Wikipedia.

    June 23, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Reply
  4. Chuck Hamilton

    Recently on his Facebook page, Bahari suggested Iranians forgive Hashemi Rafsanjani and forget about his past actions, ignoring the fact that nothing about Hashemi Rafsanjani has changed. Convenient historical amnesia seems to be a common afflication among those who call themselves reformists in Iran and the diaspora. Anyway, I responded that if the reform movement is the scorpion ( a reference to the frog and scorpion parable), then Rafsajani is the snake that eats the scorpion. He defriended me.

    June 23, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Reply
    • lissnup

      Dear Chuck: Re: "he defriended me". What a sorry way to end a conversation and a relationship, yet to me those three words encapsulate a rising undercurrent among the diaspora. These days I notice ideologies are more evident, and the mantra increasingly appears to be "my way or the highway", even while others are calling for dialogue and unity. It's a shame, because I feel that if this is an indication of the current trend, it will only increase the isolation of Iranians both outside and inside Iran, and further separate an already fragmented diaspora.

      June 23, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Reply
      • Chuck Hamilton

        Or "we don't want another revolution". They keep waterboarding us and the people inside with that and it's just not true. A revolution is exactly what the people want, definitely not like Libya or Syria.

        I wrote a Note on FB comparing numbers: in the four weeks from 17 December thru 14 January, Tunisian security forces killed 219 persons. In the three weeks 26 January and 11 February, Egyptian security forces killed 840 persons. In contrast, during the entire two years after the elections (13 June 2009) to today (16 June 2011), Iranian security forces have killed 166 persons for political reasons. Even on Ashura that year, there were only ten killed (ten confirmed). The mantra "We don't want another revolution" is a ploy invented by the reformist movement to accomplish the same thing with words principlists do with batons: keep people in their place. It's akin to the reformist slogan coined by former Vice Minister of Intelligence and Security for Political Affairs and top strategist of the so-called reform movement Saeed Hajjarian: "Our aim is to turn enemies of the system into critics, and critics into supporters". It's a cynical method of manipulation.

        June 23, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
  5. IranToday

    Is stuck in the year 1200.

    June 23, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Reply
  6. TowelHeadsAreMorons

    Yeah. Yeah. I know...."Death to America". 8=>(_|_)

    June 23, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Reply
    • Shahin

      Okay, what the fuck is your problem?
      I seem to find you on every article regarding Iran and everytime you make these moronic comments which most of the time have nothing to do with the article itself. So what is it? Are you an american who's pissed at Iranians for some reason? Are you a racist? Are you one of those pathetic individuals whp like to post controversial statements in order to feel excited?
      Seriously, why?
      And what's up with the discriminating nickname? I hope you realize that "towelheads" includes basically every single individual that wears a turband, including Sikhs, dervishes and zoroastrians, so basically it's insulting to a lot more people than you think. Although "thinking" might be the wrong verb to use in your case!
      Back off and post something useful instead of your ignorant provocative verbal diarrhea!!

      June 23, 2011 at 6:40 pm | Reply
      • TowelHeadsAreMorons

        No. Just stating facts.

        June 23, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
  7. chindoo

    This is the reality of IRAN

    [vimeo 24944194 w=480 h=320]

    June 24, 2011 at 4:40 am | Reply
    • king

      how can you listen to these jack asses , someone like fareed zakaria, sold out himslef to media, or his host, he thinks he is iranin, F him, they should have not let him out rougten SOB.

      June 24, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Reply
  8. Mr. Twitter

    HaHa Twitter has got to be outperforming other social sites

    July 15, 2011 at 9:51 pm | Reply

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