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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.


photo of sciolino

Elaine Sciolino
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]?

read the interview ... 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?

Correct.

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.


photo of Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei

Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei
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 faqih?

read the interview 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 in it?

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 perception?

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 human.


photo of raisdana

Fariborz Raisdana
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?

read the interview ... [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 then?

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 activists.

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 today?

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 risk. ...

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 way. ...


photo of mousavi

Mohammad Ali Mousavi
He is Iran's ambassador to Canada, and one of only two Iranian diplomats in North America.


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?

read the interview 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 itself. ...

... 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 strongly.

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. ...


photo of Massoumeh Ebtekar

Massoumeh Ebtekar
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?

read the interview 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 situation?

... 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 this?

... 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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