Talking to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—and the opposition—about Iran today.
by Jon Lee Anderson 
Despite Ahmadinejad’s assurances that I was free to interview whomever I liked, a senior government official told me that I should avoid behaving “sneakily” during my stay, illustrating his point with a serpentine movement of his hand. In the end, I was authorized to interview only one other person: Hossein Shariatmadari, an adviser to Khamenei, and the editor-in-chief ofKayhan, the daily newspaper that speaks for Iran’s clerical establishment. Shariatmadari was imprisoned in his twenties for his activities as a militant follower of Ayatollah Khomeini, and was serving a life sentence when the Shah fled Iran, in 1979. When Khomeini took power, he was freed, but the Shah’s torturers left him without any of his original teeth. Though he is sixty-one, his mouth is sunken like a very old man’s.
Shariatmadari is a frank speaker, and his pronouncements are a generally reliable barometer for the opinions of Iran’s Supreme Leader. Six months before the June, 2009, election, he had predicted to me that Ahmadinejad would win, and afterward he had repeatedly called for the arrest of Iran’s reformist leaders, whom he refers to as “Fifth Columnists” for the West.
“The circumstances today are certainly very sensitive” between the U.S. and Iran, he said carefully. “But it can’t be called a crisis.” Indeed, from the perspective of Iran’s government the situation today seemed advantageous. Shariatmadari said, “In his reaction to the unrest in Iran, Obama threw away all the political capital the U.S. had built up here. Although it turned out to be a catastrophe for Obama and his Israeli allies, it was a good opportunity for us.” He explained, “Over the past two decades, the West had mobilized some groups and trends and hatched some plots for their planned subversive D Day against the Islamic Republic. Mr. Obama saw the election time in Iran as his opportunity and used those people the West had saved up for the purpose. And he put all his eggs in one basket.”
If anything, Obama has been criticized for showing scant support for the Green Movement, and yet Shariatmadari suggested that reformists were something like sleeper agents for the West, and that the unrest had helped the Islamic Republic by exposing their identities. “Obama gave us an opportunity to see who the subversives were. So, in that sense, we have actually taken a step forward.” He went on, “Some people have protested to us and asked, ‘Why didn’t you arrest Khatami, Mousavi, and Karroubi during the unrest, when their involvement was revealed?’ But it was very clever not to arrest them, because it finally showed their true faces.”
The Green Movement, he said, was part of a grand conspiracy—conceived by, among others, Michael Ledeen (a veteran foreign-policy hawk), Richard Haass (the president of the Council on Foreign Relations), Gene Sharp (an authority on nonviolent resistance), and George Soros (the financier and philanthropist)—with the aim of overthrowing Iran’s government. The protests were not against Ahmadinejad, he explained, but “against the whole system.” Fortunately, “the people” had been mobilized and had stopped the conspiracy in its tracks.
The officially encouraged mobs of hecklers, the attacks on the clerics Saanei and Karroubi, and the embarrassing incident with Khomeini’s grandson indicated that Ahmadinejad’s victory over the Green Movement had come at a cost; the religious establishment and Iranian society at large seemed far less unified than Shariatmadari claimed. He acknowledged that there were differences, but denied that the Islamic Revolution was tearing itself apart. “Please note carefully,” Shariatmadari said. “The Islamic Revolution is not devouring its children but purging its delinquent children.” Speaking of the reformist leaders, he went on, “Ultimately, they will be arrested because they have committed crimes, and they will definitely be tried for treason and imprisoned, but not right now.”
The United States’ decision to ignore the nuclear-swap deal and push through a new sanctions package was also “positive for us,” he maintained. “First, because it shows that the Americans are not interested in positive engagement, and prefer force, and, secondly, because if the sanctions are implemented it may hurt us, but it won’t seriously harm us, because many other countries will complain that their interests are hurt by such sanctions. Any country with seventy billion dollars of buying capacity cannot really be hurt by sanctions.”
Furthermore, he said, “if they think they are going to inspect our ships,” as stipulated in the sanctions, “they should remember that the Straits of Hormuz are under our control, and that if anyone inspects our ships we will retaliate. A British ship may inspect one of ours, let’s say, but when they enter the Straits it will be our turn.” (Two weeks later, Iran’s conservative-led parliament passed a resolution demanding “retaliation” by Iran’s government in the event of any coercive inspections of Iranian ships by foreign navies.)
Despite Shariatmadari’s dismissals, Iran’s economy is troubled. For decades, the government has diverted roughly a hundred billion dollars a year of the country’s oil wealth into a system of price subsidies, which the sanctions have made increasingly unsustainable. Ahmadinejad has attempted in recent months to pass a bill that would cut those subsidies by forty per cent, a politically risky move; the measure would cause the price of gas to quadruple, by some estimates, and would vastly increase the cost of basic goods, which could seriously damage his standing among poorer Iranians. Ahmadinejad has wavered on implementation dates. In an effort to shore up the government’s revenues, the bill also calls for increasing taxes on merchants by seventy per cent. In mid-July, the influential merchants of the Grand Bazaar in Tehran shut down their shops in protest. The strike was effective: the government backed down, promising to raise taxes by only fifteen per cent.
But sanctions alone may not cause enough distress to bring Iranians back out onto the streets. For most Iranians, life will probably become tougher, but not insurmountably so. A
nd if they believe that their country’s economic woes have been caused largely by Western sanctions, as Ahmadinejad has insisted, they may be just as likely to rally around the government as to protest against it, especially if tensions with the United States and Israel continue. “Keep in mind, too, that public opinion in the world is on our side now,” Shariatmadari added. “In the Middle East people are just waiting to see who will defy the West.”
Shariatmadari seemed to preclude the possibility of a military assault by American forces. “They are in a blind alley in their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have failed. What have they achieved in either country? It’s very difficult now for them to prepare public opinion for another attack.” He dismissed the idea that an attack would likely come in the form of air strikes, aimed at devastating the country’s nuclear installations as well as its military capabilities. “There is no possibility for a limited attack against us. Any attack on us means all-out war. We won’t let them go. Yes, they may limit the war, but the end of the war is not in their hands,” he said. “In whatever combination they attack us, the Americans with Israel or without, we will hit Israel. They have nukes, yes, but their entire territory will be under the barrage of our missiles.”
Shariatmadari ended our interview with a prediction: “Five years from now, Iran and the U.S. will still not have any diplomatic relations. The U.S. will ultimately accept a nuclear Iran, and will find another pretext in order to confront it. I see a very low probability of war, because the U.S. is not in a position to attack us. Of course, some politicians in America may make a stupid mistake, but let’s hope there are some wise men among them.”