The FP Interview: Mohsen Makhmalbaf

In an exclusive interview from Paris, Mir Hossein Mousavi's external spokesman describes this week's protests in Iran as another revolution -- and Mousavi as Iran's Obama.

STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty ImagesNot easy being green: With Mousavi unable to speak to the press, his external spokesman, renowned filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, urges the international community not to recognize Ahmadinejad.

The world has watched in awe this week as protests have continued to rock the streets of Iran. Opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi and his green-clad supporters are demanding a rerun of last Friday’s election — which they claim was rigged in favor of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Nearly a week after the vote, the conflict has reached fever pitch. At least eight people have reportedly died in protests, and hundreds of demonstrators, organizers, and reformists may have been arrested. The Guardian Council, the powerful 12-member body that oversees Iranian elections, has offered to hold talks with the candidates in hopes of resolving the crisis. But there are signs that the Iranian establishment may be split over what to do.

The international community seems equally perplexed about the best response. U.S. President Barack Obama, for example, has been careful not to be perceived as siding openly with the Mousavi camp, saying he didn’t want to be accused of meddling in Iran’s internal affairs.

At the center of this story is Mousavi himself, who has been present at many of this week’s protests but has otherwise been muzzled by a government crackdown on his press and other public appearances. Foreign Policy sought out his external spokesman, renowned filmmaker and reformer Mohsen Makhmalbaf. In an interview from Paris, Makhmalbaf speaks of this week’s protests as another revolution — and Mousavi as Iran’s Obama.

Foreign Policy: You were involved in the 1979 Iranian Revolution as a young man, and your films have touched on it extensively. What parallels do you see between then and today’s situation?

Mohsen Makhmalbaf: There are some similarities and some differences. In both situations, people were in the streets. In the [earlier] revolution, there were young people in the streets who were not as modern as the people are today. And they were in the streets following the lead of a leader, a mullah — in those times Ayatollah Khomeini. Now, the young people in the streets are more modern: They use SMS; they use the Internet. And they are not being actually led by anyone, but they are connected to each other.

These young people who are in the streets are looking for peace and democracy. The previous revolution was a revolution of traditionalism against modernism; but now this is a revolution of modernism against traditionalism. The previous revolution had a frown; this one has a smile on its face. The previous revolution was red; this one is green. We can say that this is a 21st-century revolution, but the other was a 20th-century revolution. That revolution was led by the people who were educated by the epoch of the shah, and this generation was brought up by the mullahs inside the Islamic Revolution. We have many young people, and maturity is killing the fathers. In each generation, we kill our fathers. And our fathers [today] are the mullahs.

FP: There has been growing criticism here in Washington that U.S. President Barack Obama hasn’t said or done enough to support those demonstrating in the streets of Iran. Do you think Obama is being too careful? Or even that he is helping Ahmadinejad by being cautious?

MM:Obama has said that there is no difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi. Does he like it himself [when someone is] saying that there is no difference between Obama and [George W.] Bush? Ahmadinejad is the Bush of Iran. And Mousavi is the Obama of Iran.

FP: Would Mousavi pursue a different foreign policy than Ahmadinejad?

MM:As you may know, former President Mohammad Khatami, who is supporting Mousavi at the moment, was in favor of dialogue between the civilizations, but Ahmadinejad talks about the war of the civilizations. Is there not any difference between the two?

We [Iranians] are a bit unfortunate. When we had our Obama [meaning President Khatami], that was the time of President Bush in the United States. Now that [the United States] has Obama, we have our Bush here [in Iran]. In order to resolve the problems between the two countries, we should have two Obamas on the two sides. It doesn’t mean that everything depends on these two people, but this is one of the main factors.

FP: There have been rumors that you might come to Washington. Can you tell us if these might be true?

MM:If there is a particular invitation that is important, I will be going, just like I have traveled to Brussels to speak to the European Parliament. If there is an interview with the Congress, the Senate, or the president, I would be going to the United States.

FP: In meeting with European officials in Brussels Wednesday, what did you ask from them, and what response did you get?

MM: I asked the European Parliament to listen to the voice of the people of Iran who are in the streets. They don’t want Ahmadinejad. They don’t want nuclear bombs. They don’t want atomic bombs. They want peace in the world and democracy in Iran.

In the two previous elections, one last week and one four years ago, Ahmadinejad was elected with massive fraud. At those times, nobody knew Ahmadinejad. Four years ago, people boycotted the election, and Ahmadinejad was voted the president by a minority. This time, everybody decided to vote to change Ahmadinejad. But when he didn’t have the votes [that his supporters in the government] were looking for, they had a coup d’tat. Friday night, there were attacks to the principal headquarters of Mousavi. People working there were attacked and injured. They destroyed the systems: the faxes, computers, telephones, everything — all the means of communication. And when Mousavi was informed after counting the votes that he had the majority, the army commanders went to him and announced the coup d’tat to him. He didn’t accept it and said that people would be going to the streets.

The secret police have been watching him all the time this week. They do not let him speak on Iranian television. Nobody can contact him. The people active in his campaign have been arrested — all. But as long as people are in the streets, they cannot arrest Mousavi himself. People are still in the streets. They want another election with the observation of the international community.

The people of Iran do not want Ahmadinejad for three reasons. First is the economic reason — because he has made the economy worse during his presidency. The oil money has been many, many times more than the oil money during the time of Khatami’s presidency. But the inflation has been two-and-a-half times more than the inflation rates at the time of Khatami. The second reason is the social freedom. People have been injured; people have been under pressure in their social lives during the time of Ahmadinejad. And the other reason is the face — the international image — of Iran, which has been destroyed. In the time of Khatami, people talked about dialogue and peace. But now, the people of Iran have the same image as Ahmadinejad: They are terrorists and they are looking for wars. These are the three reasons that people want Ahmadinejad out.

FP: What are your hopes for the partial vote recount that the Guardian Council is conducting?

MM:We don’t think that the Guardian Council is legitimate itself. They are supporters of Ahmadinejad. We don’t recognize them.

FP: What’s your end goal? When will the demonstrations stop?

MM:If they act rationally, [regime leaders] should accept people’s opinion. Otherwise, there would be repression, which would make the country go another way. Up to now, the regime has [only] been [confronted by] groups of people, but now it is confronting everybody in the country.

FP: Would Mousavi be willing to accept some sort of power-sharing arrangement? Say, Ahmadinejad remains as president but Mousavi becomes prime minister once again?

MM: This is not a solution, because people do not want Ahmadinejad at any level. He is so illiterate that — the millions of people in the street — he called them trash. And now, people are telling him: You are trash.

FP: Does Mousavi have a message that he’d like to deliver to the international community?

MM:[He asks] that the governments [of the world] pay attention to the people in the streets and do not recognize the government of Ahmadinejad as the representative of Iran — [that they] do not recognize the government of Ahmadinejad as a legitimate government. Iran is a very important country in the region, and the changes in Iran could have an influence everywhere. So as a result, it’s not only an internal matter — it’s an international problem. If Iran could be a democratic Islamic country, that would be a pattern, a role model, for other Islamic countries. And even if Iran has a terrorist image [today], it would be a model for other countries [in the future].

Mohsen Makhmalbaf is the official spokesman for Mir Hossein Mousavi outside Iran. He is also an award-winning filmmaker based in Paris.

Editor’s note: This interview was conducted with the use of an interpreter.

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