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Q&A WITH ZAIN VERJEE

Q&A

Aired November 15, 2002 - 12:30:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JIM CLANCY, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Tension still high in Tehran, where for days protesters were on the streets, condemning a university professor's death sentence.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): The professor, accused of blasphemy, is at the center of the largest pro-reform demonstrations in years.

CLANCY: Coming to his defense now, the reform-minded Khatami, declaring this sentence should never have been handed down.

VERJEE: But some say this collision between conservative clerics and reformers is being driven by a much larger fight.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This death sentence is a response to parliament's efforts to decrease the power of the conservative clerics.

CLANCY: On this edition of Q&A, blasphemy and the backlash in Iran.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

Hello and welcome once again to Q&A.

Now for days, Iranian students have been on the streets, denouncing the death sentence of Hashem Aghajari found guilty of questioning the clergy's interpretation of Islam.

VERJEE: It was in his speech in June that created problems when he questioned why only clerics had the right to interpret Islam.

CLANCY: He said each new generation should have the right to interpret the faith and not blindly follow the clerics, and he was blunt about it, asking "Are people monkeys to imitate the clerics? According to the clerics, students who study and understand the Koran commit a crime when they don't go back to the clerics for guidance."

And that is when the trouble began. It's become a much larger political fight now.

First, to get an idea of what the student protesters are saying, we have, from Dallas, Texas, Aryo Pirouznia, a spokesman for the Student Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran.

Now, you're opposed to the conservative clerics, your group -- is that correct?

ARYO PIROUZNIA, STUDENT ACTIVIST: Yes, Jim. Hello to you and to Zain.

We are -- actually, the student movement in Iran, in reality, is going more toward a secular trend than the usual debate between so-called conservative and so-called reformists.

As you know, part of the story was exactly on Mr. Aghajari's arrest and death sentence, but the first demonstration, just, the audience must picture it, started by the protest of some officially tolerated student bodies that now it has gone totally out of hand of what we called the so- called reformists. It means people who are seeking to make some minor reforms within the frame of a theocratic regime that today for many Iranians is simply unreformable.

CLANCY: But is -- does that include President Khatami?

PIROUZNIA: Of course, because Mr. Khatami hasn't been apart, separate, from this regime. Just we need to know his background -- he was the man who used the students to get in power and he was the man when, on July 9, they shoot on my comrades in Iran. He called those students hooligans. This is Mr. Khatami.

And I think his background has plenty of controversies. For example, when we look to the so-called dialogue among civilization, what is this kind of dialogue, Jim, for example, that I come to your country -- I'm sorry, your wife should veil herself. And she comes to my country, she needs to do the same thing. Or I come to your country, you should have my food on your table, and do not take your food.

And so Mr. Khatami, for people who know him, he was part of the Council of the Islamic Revolution involving a lot of what were terrorist attacks against, including, Americans, back before 1979. He was for seven years, Mr. Khatami, seated at the same table that a lot of other people, hard-liners today, that executed tens of thousands of people. You know the numbers of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and it was the same Mr. Khatami who used, because of the international pressure, the regime under (UNINTELLIGIBLE) at the time.

They need to show a much more prettier face than the usual ugly, excuse me, terrorist face that this regime was showing to the world.

CLANCY: OK, Aryo, we're going to get back to you in just a moment. I'm going to ask you to stay right where you are. Zain, come on in here.

VERJEE: We're going to go to Tehran now and have journalist Shirzad Bozorgmehr on the line.

Shirzad, give us a sense of the situation on the ground, and is the war of extradition between hard-liners and reformists coming to a head, as we see on the ground?

SHIRZAD BOZORGMEHR, JOURNALIST: It could come to a head, but only if the student protests get out of hand and students spillover into the streets instead of protesting peacefully within the confines of their campus.

What the gentleman was saying was partially true. President Khatami has lost some of his support among the students, but that is purely because he was unable to deliver on the promises he made to the youth prior to his first election and second election, not because he has a background that is unacceptable to them.

He is very still popular amongst the large segment, but some students have turned away from him because he was unable to deliver on his promises.

VERJEE: What about Ayatollah Khomeini, many say also that he's lost support from the conservative factions as well over there.

BOZORGMEHR: There are no signs of his power waning in any way that we can tell from this end, no.

CLANCY: Let me ask you, Shirzad, Jim Clancy here. Let me just ask you this; we've seen how there were thousands of students in the streets of Tehran this week. I also understand that some of the supporters of the clerics have also taken to the streets.

BOZORGMEHR: Yes, they did so, very vehemently today, following the Friday prayers meeting, ironically, at the Tehran University campus. They actually chanted slogans condemning Aghajari and saying that the verdict was just and that he deserved it. They even called him the Iranian Salman Rushdie for his statements.

But one thing that we must say here is that Mr. Aghajari, in his own defense, and his lawyer, have been saying that what he has said is not new and it is not his words. He has been quoting from the late Dr. (UNINTELLIGIBLE), who was one of the major politicians behind the Iranian Islamic revolution of 23 years ago.

VERJEE: Shirzad, the apparent impending fate of Prof. Aghajari, is there the feeling that that sentence is going to be carried out?

BOZORGMEHR: No. The general feeling amongst the reformists, Aghajari's supporters, and his foes, the conservatives, is that this sentence does not serve anyone's purpose, and I think they're at work very hard to come to some kind of a decision or some kind of agreement to nullify the verdict.

But the problem is that Mr. Aghajari himself has so far refused to either ask for a pardon or to appeal the verdict. So right now, the dilemma is to convince him to do either of those two.

VERJEE: Shirzad Bozorgmehr, a journalist reporting to us from Tehran. Thank you, Shirzad.

With us still from Dallas is Aryo Pirouznia, and he -- you know, Aryo, I'm just wondering that -- is this death sentence in any way a reaction by the conservatives in Iran to laws pushed through parliament that were put forward by President Khatami to sort of restrict the two centers of power in Iran, the judiciary and the Council of Guardians?

PIROUZNIA: Zain, what we need to know is exactly in Iran you have several forces.

It's very simple (UNINTELLIGIBLE). You have Islamic Republic here, with its conservative and reformists -- whatever you want to call them. Then you have today a majority of the population who is looking for a secular trend. And as I caught reports from the "New York Times" and a lot of journalists in Iran, that they quoted Iranian students giving the slogans "Referendum, Referendum." This is our national slogan.

It means they want to go somewhere behind what eventually some reformists can offer in the frame of the actual existing theocracy.

CLANCY: Aryo, hold the thought, let me bring in -- because we've got a couple more people I want to bring in here.

Rob Sobhani, professor at Georgetown University. Also, joining us from London, Amir Taheri, editor of "Politique International."

Amir, let me begin with you. The real question here is, does -- what does this uprising by the students, all of these demonstrations, really mean?

AMIR TAHERI, "POLITIQUE INTERNATIONAL": Well, it means that there are two Irans. There is Iran as a revolution, and Iran as a nation.

Iran as a revolution has interests that often clash with the interests of the Iranian nation. The Iranian nation is a young nation. 2/3 of the people are aged below 30. They want to live like everybody else. They want jobs. About 30 percent of the population of working age are unemployed, and the force -- the prospects are rather grim. So they want to join the world. They want to live like you. They want to live in peace and democracy.

But the other Iran, represented by the messengers of the revolution.

VERJEE: Let's bring Rob Sobhani in here. Rob Sobhani, do you agree with that?

ROB SOBHANI, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: Zain, I think the fundamental point is this: in 1979, the people of Iran took advantage of the opportunity of an election to force the reform movement to begin. They forced the process of change in 1997, and Mr. Khatami became the catalyst in that.

Now, as some of your speakers have said, because he has not delivered on the mandate he was given, increasingly you have seen a rift between the population who wants to have a better economic, social and political environment, and the system which is divided amongst conservatives and moderates.

And I think Amir Taheri and Mr. Pirouznia are correct, more or less, in saying that we do have two Irans. We recently were able to conduct a poll of public opinion in Iran. One of the most striking results of that poll were that 65 percent of Iranians want a fundamental change in their system of government, and they don't want it through bloodshed, because 72 percent of the same people we polled showed they want it through a referendum, a free referendum.

CLANCY: Amir Taheri, the students are out on the streets. Do they have the support of the business community? Do they have the support of any of the conservative -- what you would have called in the past the conservatives?

TAHERI: They do have the support of modern businessmen, but the traditional bazaars, the older-style businessman, still support the so- called conservative groups.

But the students also have the support of the working classes. We have strikes in various industrial cities, and also in the gas industry, in sympathy with the students in the past, and there are signs that this will be the case again.

So the important thing is for the students to formulate their political demands, because for the first time this has become a clearly political movement. They are calling for a referendum to change the constitution, to drop two items of the constitution that give all the powers to the unelected supreme leader, so that Iran can become a normal democracy based on election and the will of the people.

This is the real issue in the streets of Tehran, whether -- sorry.

VERJEE: Rob Sobhani, that's the real issue in Iran today, but can President Khatami play any positive role in this?

SOBHANI: I think to the extent, Zain, that President Khatami caves in to the demands of the people, he is opening up the system to more demands.

He is in a position no different from Mikhail Gorbachev. What's missing from the Iranian political landscape today is a Boris Yeltsin. That is what we see today in Iran.

Aghajari and the Aghajaris of tomorrow are simply symbols of protest, and Khatami, I think, is in a very difficult position. The more he opens, the more people of Iran are going to demand change.

CLANCY: Aryo, I want to bring you in again and ask you the question whether or not -- if this death sentence were carried out, could it spark - - could it be the catalyst that did lead to a Boris Yeltsin surfacing among the students or others in Iran?

VERJEE: Aryo?

PIROUZNIA: Yes, of course, if this death sentence is carried, which I doubt that it will happen even, most likely, as you know, tomorrow from Saturday, more protests are going to take place in Iran. So in these conditions, eventually, if something happens to Aghajari, who is actually symbolizing all those kept in Iranian jails, all those executed, it's going to really spark most likely something more wider than what we witnessed on July 9, 1999.

VERJEE: Rob Sobhani, final word.

SOBHANI: Zain, I think at this critical moment, critical juncture, it's very important for Washington to make a clear position. Does Washington stand with the people of Iran for change, or does Washington want to engage the government of Iran?

If that question is answered, I think we're going to find a different Iran of tomorrow.

VERJEE: Amir Taheri, we have a little more time. Your final thoughts. What's the key issue here?

TAHERI: Well, the key issue is what kind of Iran the people of Iran want. Do they want to export revolution and terrorism, or do they want to build their economy and their lives?

And the date to watch for, I think, will be November 24. It is not very far away. Because this is the anniversary of the political murders carried out by the regime, and from what I understand from inside Iran, not only the students but other groups within society throughout the country are going to come out in force.

And if there is no positive response to their demands, then it could be the beginning of a conflict that could decide the future of Iran very, very shortly.

CLANCY: Amir Taheri, and Aryo Pirouznia, Shirzad Bozorgmehr and, of course, Rob Sobhani, our thanks to everyone for being with us on a little bit of an abbreviated version of Q&A. I'm Jim Clancy.

VERJEE: I'm Zain Verjee. Q&A continues on Monday. "YOUR WORLD TODAY" with Daljit and Michael is next.

END

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