Twenty-three years after the Islamic Revolution, Iran has become a political paradox. A young, sophisticated society, curious about the outside world and hungry for the advantages of modernity, Iran is caught in a struggle between democracy and religious authority. Can Iran resolve the paradox of a theocratic democracy? Here are excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with New York Times senior writer Elaine Sciolino; the reformist Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei; Iranian dissident Fariborz Raisdana; Iran's ambassador to Canada, Mohammad Ali Mousavi; and Iranian Vice President Massoumeh Ebtekar, a former student revolutionary and one of the highest-ranking women in the Islamic world.
A senior writer for The New York Times and the author of Persian
Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran (2000), she has covered Iran since the
revolution in 1979.
How has the Shiite religion affected the character of [Iran]?
... The interesting thing about Shiite Islam is that it's founded on debate and
disagreement. We in the West have this image of Iranian clerics, starting with
Ayatollah Khomeini, as being stern and rigid and never bending. But indeed, the
nature of the religion is to question your elders, question your superiors, and
constantly debate and argue. That's why when you go to a country like Iran, you
realize everybody wants to argue with you all the time. They think it's fun. We
think it's sort of difficult and hard to be talking politics all the time, but
for them, it's really what gives them life and vitality and vibrancy. ...
So Shiism is almost an adjunct to the democratic movement.
Oh, no question about it. Shiism is part of the democratization and the reform
movement in Iran. And I argue, for example, that the holy city of Qom, that the
clerical establishment, the sort of Vatican of Iran, is the most dangerous
place in Iran, because there are seminaries there where students are taught to
fight back and to argue. You've got a whole generation of young clerics who are
saying, "Wait a second, this is not really the Islamic Republic. This
government is as repressive as that of the shah." ...
In 1997, the people of Iran signaled that there was momentum towards some
point of democratization there. ...
What happened in 1997 is that the Iranian people went to the polls in record
numbers to elect the guy who wasn't supposed to become president. The guy who
was supposed to become president was a cleric who was the speaker of the
Parliament. ... And he was defeated by a little-known cleric who happened to
have something called authenticity and charm -- Mohammad Khatami, who had been
a minister for 10 years, but for the five years before that election, had run
the National Library.
It would be as if the Librarian of Congress decided to run for president. He
had no organization. He had no money. He was a populist candidate, would get on
a bus and kiss babies and shake hands. And he had such an extraordinary
personality and such charm. It sounds sort of trite or superficial, but he's as
charming as Bill Clinton. And that goes a long way. He charmed the people of
Iran. He charmed them with his personality, with his good looks, and with his
promises. He pledged to create a civil society that would be governed by the
rule of law and tolerance.
And it hasn't really materialized. Is that because he was not totally
honest, or is that because he never really had the power to do it?
I think Mohammad Khatami was and is an honest politician. And I don't think
anyone has ever questioned his integrity. But he doesn't have the power to do
it, and despite the fact that he's a charming politician, he's not a guerrilla
fighter. He doesn't have the stomach for back-room politics. He doesn't connive
or strategize or metaphorically kill his enemies. Instead, he has an alliance
with the man who has even more power than he -- Ayatollah Khamenei, who is the
Supreme Leader in Iran. And even though he is not popularly elected, Ayatollah
Khamenei has control of the armed forces, the intelligence services, the media,
the judiciary, and the clergy.
The essence of the Supreme Leader's power is in the doctrine called the
velayat-e faqih. ... Explain that for a North American audience.
... It's hard to translate, but probably [it means] the rule of the Islamic
jurist. It stems from the notion that there should be one arbiter of all
Islamic law and of government. And indeed, in Ayatollah Khomeini's early
writings, he did talk about this notion and this idea that there shouldn't be
democracy; there has to be a single arbiter. ...
Ayatollah Khamenei doesn't have the same credentials [as Khomeini], and
certainly doesn't have the same personality. But he has the power. And his
power is often at odds with Khatami, who is also a cleric, but one level down.
But it would be wrong to think that these two guys hate each other or are
constantly fighting each other or are lobbying for power. They need each other.
They work together in a very strange way. They can't exist without each other.
It's like an old married couple where divorce is not an option.
First of all, the two of them deeply believe in the preservation of the Islamic
Republic, no matter what. So neither of them is going to do anything that is
going to jeopardize the system as it exists. Khatami doesn't want to overthrow
the system. He wants to open it up. He wants to reform it. He wants to
transform it, but not at the expense of destroying it.
Not at the expense of the Islamic character of the system?
So that doesn't leave a whole lot of room for change. ...
But that's where the people come in. And I would argue that the reform movement
has moved beyond President Khatami. President Khatami can leave the political
scene tomorrow, and the reform movement will continue. There are people who are
in Iran now risking their lives for the reform movement, who are in prison as
political prisoners, who have lost their jobs. ... The reform movement is quite
big, and it's not going to die. Political reform movement in Iran dates back
100 years. ... Participatory politics, fighting back against the system, has a
long tradition in Iran. ...
Is it really too optimistic to expect that there can be accommodation
between this extreme form of Islam and a democratic movement? Can this work?
I have no idea. ... You have a battle raging, not for control over territory,
but for the soul of a nation. It's between these two impulses -- belief and
democracy. And belief doesn't allow for democracy. You can't turn around
certain things in the sharia or in Islamic law. ... But you can try to
neutralize it with your democratic weapon by interpreting it in a certain way.
And the reason this isn't going to go away is these interpretations are going
on not only by secular reformers, but in the mosques by clerics.
One of the most revered and influential religious authorities in the holy city
of Qom, Saanei was a protégé of Ayatollah Khomeini. Today he is a
reformist who speaks in favor of greater freedom and democracy.
Ayatollah, could you please explain to me the meaning of velayat-e
In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. ...
As for the meaning of velayat-e faqih, as for the legal meaning of it, it is as
stated in the constitution. And as it has been stated in the constitution there
is no contradiction with democracy and the rule of the majority. ... What has
created the perception, in the minds of a group of people, of what is wrong
with a lawful Vali-ye faqih [the individual who has the jurisdiction over the
people] is that some perceive that in the constitution the Faqih [Leader]
should act as a dictator and authoritarian. ...
Is that not true?
No, it is not true. It is not stated in our constitution and it is not true.
Imam Khomeini has been quoted as saying that "the will of the people must be
second to the will of God." Does that not mean the supremacy of a cleric over
the will of the people?
There is not such a meaning in velayat-e faqih at all. What Imam
[Ayatollah Khomeini] has said supports the idea that people elect the Faqih.
Imam recognized the people as the main foundation, and it is interesting to
note that Imam mentioned something about the jurisdiction and vote of the
people in his speech at the Behesht-e Zahra [Tehran's cemetery] in 1979, that
perhaps until then many of the supporters of the people's rights had not paid
attention to. He said that during the monarchy era and based on the old
constitution, those of the regime were not able to make decisions for us and
rule over the government. This is a very deep meaning that is set and
understood in all the world's constitutions, and that is the fact that whatever
people want and choose should be [universally accepted] in a way that all human
beings would be able to accept in the course of history. Otherwise if some of
the laws in the constitution are not acceptable by the people, they have the
right to change it. This means that no group or party has the right to rule
over the other. And there is no better way to define democracy in Islam. ...
The theory of the constitution is clear. It is a democratic model. The
practice might be something different. Do you believe that the current
interpretation of the power of the Supreme Leader, the Jurist, is correct? And
is it working according to the desires of the great mass of the people?
I think you should ask those gentlemen. But I don't think it is that way. I
don't think they think that way, and if they do, you should ask them, but I
don't think it is that way.
To a Westerner, the institution of the Supreme Leader suggests a principle
of infallibility, as the pope.
[Smiling to the interpreter] Tell him his questions are becoming too political,
and I am too clever. [Laughter]
I can see that very clearly. The principle of infallibility, do you believe
Nobody believes in it, let alone me. Even Imam Khomeini was not infallible, let
alone anyone else.
There is an insinuation, there is some sort of suggestion in the role -- and
this is from the Western point of view -- in the role of Supreme Leader in the
constitutional structure of Iran, that there is an element of infallibility,
given all the power in the hands of the Supreme Leader. Is this a correct
This is a completely and definitely untrue perception. I don't believe
anyone thinks this way. ... No one is infallible, especially when it comes to
people's affairs. The country is managed by the will of the people. We cannot
say that decision of one individual is right and the beliefs of others are
wrong. In an Islamic system everyone has one vote, from the Supreme Leader, to
the President and all other authorities. The Supreme Leader has only one vote
and he should not be able to impose his ideas on anyone else. He is not
infallible. He is capable of making mistakes just like everyone else. To err is
An economist and Iranian dissident, he was part of a reform group whose members
tried to run in parliamentary elections two years ago. Many are now in jail.
You were an active reformer under the shah. You were part of the revolution
[in 1979]. How long before you became disappointed?
... [I became] disappointed ... particularly during the last two years and
particularly after [the] second election of Mr. Khatami, because he announced
that he believes [in the] constitution. And in my opinion, this constitution
cannot present real democracy in Iran. If you look to this constitution, you
are inside a loop, a vicious circle. Democracy means that the power should come
from people. ... But in this constitution, you are inside of a loop, and you
can never give the real power to people. ... This was one reason. And the
second reason was that he's very conservative; he is not very happy of the real
power of the people. ... He belongs to ... a particular kind of ideology, and
somehow he's in favor of the status quo. ...
What does this say about the possibilities, the potential for reform
I'm very pessimist about the reforms as far as the people are concerned. ...
Many political activists and reformers, real reformers, independent reformers,
are still active and are talking with people. They do research, they accept the
danger. Many of them are in jail. But as far as the reformism inside of the
government sector ... under the leadership of Mr. Khatami is concerned, I am
pessimist. I think this kind of reformism is actually finished. ...
... If the reform process is finished, you're either going to have the
status quo or you're going to have a revolution.
... This result is not [an] acceptable result, that you either should accept
the status quo or go toward the revolution. ... I think the reformism
leadership should go to ... some independent reformist groups. This time, it's
the last chance for the reformism in Iran. ... The status quo cannot ... answer
the ... social, political, economic problems of Iran. Otherwise, some kind of
... a revolt, some kind of difficulties will arise. But because we have no
party, we have no strategy about the future.
I cannot say, or I cannot anticipate what will happen in that case. But I think
that the best way is to give the leadership of reformism to the hand of
independent reformists coming from people, particularly educators and political
The clergy, the Supreme Leader, are answerable only to the divine, to God.
How do you reform that aspect of the Iranian system?
... Many of them believe [in] God. But our difficulty is not because people
believe [in] God. ... The problems arise because some minority [group] that
believes that they are real representatives of God and Islam are in power, and
they do not accept the participation of people, democracy, social justice, and
society. They do not accept it. ...
How much of the Iranian economic dilemma is caused by corruption, caused by
the abuse of power by the political elite?
... We have enough resources -- gas fields, oil, and education. Now [1.7
million] university students are starting university. ... But the problem is
that the structure of power does not allow these resources and possibilities to
go toward production, economic development, and overall economic growth. I
think many difficulties stem from the misuse of power in this country. ...
How dangerous is it for people like you to speak like this in Iran
It is little bit dangerous. Not [just a] little bit, more than [a] little bit
dangerous, because you are walking on a sword. But anyway, some people have
accepted the responsibility, and they are ready to accept the danger and the
Why has it become more dangerous to speak out in the last couple of years?
I'm told that it's worse now than it was since Ayatollah Khomeini died.
Well, I don't want to say it's worse than that. But during the last two years,
the situation has changed. And now we have more difficulties for newspapers,
for freedom of speech, freedom of expression, for organizing non-government
institutions or parties. ... Just at the beginning of the year 2000, when they
attempted or tried to kill ... one of the more important advisers [to] Mr.
Khatami, then many things changed. ... Mr. Khatami as a leader of the
reformism. He didn't continue his job. He didn't continue. He didn't fight for
freedom of expression for newspapers. ...
In democratic systems -- and Iran is half-democratic -- you have the
democratic political system. The solution is for people like you to run and get
elected and change things. So what happened when you tried to run for election?
I was rejected. ... We had a coalition called National Religious Coalition.
Many leaders are in jail now. ...
This is the reason that I say that according to this constitution ... we cannot
be hopeful about democracy. And I think we have to continue to criticize the
constitution. The criticism [of the] constitution does not mean that you are
going to overthrow the government, or you're a revolutionary. You have the
right to criticize the constitution. Inside of the Iranian constitution, we
have one principle that says, "How you can change me?" This means that this
constitution is not coming from the God, is not Koran; is something which is
made by people. And we can criticize it and change it. I think this is the best
He is Iran's ambassador to Canada, and one of only two Iranian diplomats in
When we were in Iran, we saw a lot of evidence of the ongoing tensions
between the elected and the reform-minded Iranians and the conservatives. We
also heard a lot about repression of dissidents, repression of reformers.
People go to jail. People disappear off the street. How seriously do you take
the evolution of the Iranian political system?
It is serious, because there is a transition process underway. When you have a
genuine indigenous process of reform, which exists in Iran, this process has
its negative and positive outcomes. What you hear in Iran -- not secretly,
[but] in the street, in the bus, to the people -- this means that this process
is going on, that people feel free to tell you their dissatisfaction or their
satisfaction. That process is moving forward. ...
There is concern about the background of a long history of repression,
including assassination. A German court has documented what they say are 89
assassinations in Europe. We hear of hundreds of people assassinated in Iran
... There had been misconduct in the past. One of them you mentioned, within
our intelligence ministry. But it is a free country, and one evidence for that
is exactly this: that if there is such misconduct in the most important
intelligence institution of the country ... it won't be covered up. And they
did it. It was disclosed, and the people brought to court. It hasn't finished
yet. That shows that the process of reform is genuine, the process of reform is
lively. No one within the government wants to cover it up. But they want to
deal with it and try to deal with it correctly. ...
And the government could cover it up. But it was the government of President
Khatami which actually raised the issue, disclosed it, and give a message, a
counter-message to those who are committing this, that we will disclose it and
we will deal with it openly to the public. ...
I mean, the day President Khatami came to power and today, if you compare the
level of transparency, the level of freedom, the level of accepting the will of
people within the state, is so much different. It is moving forward. Sometimes
it has too much impediments, moves slowly. Sometimes [it] moves fast and
President Khatami, because he has got a power from the public to move on --
that's what he is doing. He is against, and the public would be against, that
he would move reform without rule of law or out of the rule of law and
regulations. And if you want to live within the rules or through changing the
rules, it takes time. It is not an easy task. It might take a generation or
more. That's a process. It's a major shift. ...
The constitution right now seems to give a lot of arbitrary authority to the
clerics and to the arms of military enforcement. ...
No, it is not. But if even we assume you are right, that it gives such power,
can reform move out of rule of constitution? That's illegitimate. That's
against the will of public that has given to the president to move within the
rule of law. If there is wrong within the law, you should change the law, not
move against the law.
And that's actually the message, the major message of the president: that even
though these impediments exist, our conduct should be within the rule of law.
And if the law is inefficient, then we should amend the law; we should change
the law through its set process, which is Parliament. ...
There have been four high-profile assassinations since President Khatami
came into office. Are they aberrations? ...
... There have been misconducts, as I said. The major cases have been the ones
that the government of President Khatami disclosed itself, a misconduct within
the ministry of intelligence. ...
There have been cases. For example, let me give you a United States case,
assassination by CIA in the past which no one knew and they denied it totally
after 30 years, 40 years, 50 years. Now they are disclosing the documents which
show CIA and the government of United States was behind it.
This was a very healthy process in Iran, that the government itself has closed
a major misconduct by its ministry of intelligence. That shows the process is
healthy, it's moving forward. But it doesn't mean that today there is no
misconduct, no. The process of reformation and rule of law is a continuous
process. And we hope very soon we reach to a point that any misconduct by
anyone would be very soon stopped. ...
She is vice president for the environment in Mohammad Khatami's administration,
and the highest-ranking woman in the Islamic Republic.
Historically, of course, modernity tends to bulldoze aside a lot of the
spiritual, the religious principles of society. How will Iran in the final
analysis avoid this historical trend?
You don't really think so? Do you think that, even in these days, modernity is
still pushing aside the spiritual dimension of the human? ...
It certainly seems that way in the West.
Well, I think that there are a lot of indications that ... there's a lot of
reconsideration, revisiting a lot of the previous perceptions that we had. We
can see that in the Western world. We can see that in the East. And maybe
that's the reason why we need to establish a stronger dialogue between the East
and the West, between modernity versus religious perspectives. Modernity on one
side, [and] the need to return back to human values, spiritual values, moral
values [on the other]. ...
It's awfully hard to sell that message to people in their teens, even people
in their 20s. ... They look out the big window on the rest of the world through
their Internet, through their television sets, and they want that.
They've been given the message that enjoyment and fulfillment is only in that
realm. But maybe if the window is opened up a little bit, there might be other
ways for fulfillment, for enjoyment [of] your life. I think that spiritual
enjoyment is a different way of achieving many of those standards or many of
those hopes and aspirations which the younger generation have. But it's just
not in the picture. ...
... Half of the population of the country [are] women, many of whom believe
that their status is not fully recognized, that there has to be serious reforms
of property rights, matrimonial rights, etc. How easily can Iran, given its
constitutional framework, deal with that before it turns into a serious crisis
... No one can deny that there's still many areas [where we need] to secure the
rights and to restore the rights of the woman. But also no one can deny that
Iranian women have advanced tremendously during the past 20 years, despite all
the initially very negative propaganda about the status of women in Iran.
But women have advanced to the extent that now they are taking more than 60
percent of the seats in the university entrance exam. ... More than 97 percent
of our girls that [are] of schooling age have access to primary enrollment.
The fact that more than 300 women now are sitting in rural and urban councils.
... You see women from villages where traditionally these women had no place,
had no say in that village. But now today, a woman is sitting in a rural
council, and she's deciding alongside with men about the fates of that council.
And she's speaking out about environmental issues in her village, about how to
deal with the waste, how to deal with the issue of literacy, for example. This
indicates that there's a genuine change, a genuine change which takes time,
these cultural transformations. ...
The restraints which exist, the problems which exist are mostly in the marital
law and the issues related to the rights of the woman within the family. But
that deals with the issue of the paradigm of development that we see for women
and her role in the family, and how we see the family here in Iran and
according to Islamic perspectives. ...
What we are looking for in our legislation is to make sure that the spirit of
Islam -- which deals with human dignity, human freedom, the right for every
human being to decide about his or her future and destiny -- this should be
safeguarded within the political system in the country. And then this should be
worked out in a way that we also preserve the sanctity of family. Because we
feel that when you're dealing with the family, it's not only the rights of two
individuals, the man and the woman. But it's also the rights of children.
The nature of Iranian democracy. ... What kind of a democracy is
... Liberal democracy is one form of democracy. We have other different types
of democracy. We have social democracy. If you look at the political
philosophies now which exist, for example, taking the different political
systems in Europe and the West, you see that there is a framework for this
democracy. A framework has been defined. ... You have a red line in terms of
your code of conduct in your society. You have a red line in terms of your
political system in the West. You have a code of moral standards. ... But where
that red line is drawn: That's the point. We draw that red line on the basis of
the religious principles of Islam. ... The fact that the religious
establishment has a set of moral codes, I think that these codes, these norms,
these values exist everywhere. It's just how you define them. ...
... When you have your red lines and your codes dictated by secular
considerations, it's difficult enough to accommodate people's demands for
change and reform. When it's defined by religious codes and religious standards
that are very old --
I have to disagree with the wording that you use. Religious principles never
become old, because they have the spiritual backing. Religion is different from
philosophy, from politics, in that it deals with an infallible source. An
infallible, immaterial source which is supposed to respond to all needs of
humanity irrespective of time, place, race, culture. This is what religion is
supposed to respond to. This is what God has sent for the human race.
If we do not interpret this religion properly, if we do not understand it,
that's our fault. But religion never becomes old. Islam never becomes old. ...
That's the challenge that we have in today's times, to bring that spirit to
life in today's world and to show that this is a model. It's a different model
of political, social, economic development. ... It has its gains, it has its
losses; no one can deny. But I think it's worth [considering] in today's
political world, in today's economic world, and to take a different
perspective, instead of stereotyping it.
Now that Iran has invited the world to enter dialogue amongst civilizations,
it's time to enter dialogue and make many of these basic and fundamental
issues. Not only a superficial political debate, but debating some of these
more concrete issues, which actually are shaping our policies, are shaping our
lives, are shaping our destiny. And that's the message that President [Khatami]
had been proclaiming, [that] ... the next decade [is] the decade of dialogue.
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