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photo of Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saaneiinterview Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei

Ayatollah, could you please explain to me the meaning of velayat-e faqih?

[Editor's note: The term velayat-e faqih, meaning "rule by the jurisprudent" or "rule of the Islamic jurist," is the Islamic Republic's concept or theory of the state. Vali-ye faqih denotes an Islamic legal expert who exerts worldly power. The Supreme Leader is often referred to as the Faqih.]

In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. In advance I would like to thank you gentlemen for your kindness and thank God for giving me the opportunity for this dialogue.

Thank you very much.

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.

It is true that the Vali-ye faqih has the right to select a number of posts [in the regime], and that the lawful Vali-ye faqih is responsible for other designated duties in accordance to the constitutional revision, as it was designated to him, which is in line with the will of the people and 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 is that some perceive that in the constitution the Faqih should act as a dictator and authoritarian. ...


Ayatollah Saanei is one of only 10 grand ayatollahs in Iran and one of the most revered and influential religious authorities in the holy city of Qom. Prior to the revolution he was a protégé of Ayatollah Khomeini, who once described him as being like a son. He served on the first Council of Guardians after the revolution, and later as the Islamic Republic's chief prosecutor. Today he is a reformist who believes in greater freedom for the people of Iran and a more accountable democracy. He was interviewed through an interpreter at his home in Qom by correspondent Linden MacIntyre in February 2002.


Is that not true?

No, it is not true. It is not stated in our constitution and it is not true.

The reason and evidence is that in our constitutional law, along with the principles and laws related to the velayat-e faqih, we also have fundamental laws and principles for the people's representatives and freedoms as well as people's rights.

And therefore I think the concept of velayat-e faqih is in accordance with democracy and what the majority want, in its real meaning and the meaning as I and many legal experts understand it, and the perspective of the masses of the people and Imam [Ayatollah Khomeini], the founder of the Islamic Republic, had wanted.

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 people who are demanding reform of the system say that velayat-e faqih and the constitution are blocking reform, that they make reform very difficult. What does the grand ayatollah think of that?

Those who mention this are normally concerned with ... the way things are implemented, or they have a different and specific understanding or interpretation of the constitution. But my interpretation, and other people like me, is that the constitution is the only factor that guarantees reform.

Then may I ask the grand ayatollah, where do you see the principal need for change in the Islamic Revolution?

Look, if there is a need for change, the constitution has foreseen. And those who believe that the reform trend has been blocked or not consistent should follow up and adopt the methods and ways that they think are helpful. But there is no set path. When the implementation is blocked, when the executive power, the legislative power or the judiciary power are facing problems, it must be observed what the constitution states. And if it has been forecasted in the constitution, and if things are not done in accordance with constitution, that does not have anything to do with the constitutional law.

Young people are saying there should be a more secular, Western style of society. Women are asking for increased marital and legal rights. What does the grand ayatollah think about these sorts of demands?

I do not agree with you that the Iranian youth are searching for laws that are just like Western laws, that are in contradiction with and against Islamic laws. They are supporting laws that are taken form the heart of Islam and protects their rights. In addition to this fact, these days if you go to the universities, you would find that people like me enjoy great respect on the part of the youth, even though we are clergy and guardians of religion.

About women, it is true, they also want their rights, and in my view all their rights have been considered in Islam. I have repeatedly written and said this. I think we can protect and consider all natural rights of individuals based on the constitutional law and the laws that are passed in the Parliament. But why they are not implementing it, this has nothing to do with me and nothing to do with the [Islamic] law, if they do not consider people's rights.

And I believe that today the civil law in family rights need to be revised. We need to modify them. To protect freedoms and principles of the constitution, we should work hard and pay attention to the law. We see the type of problems created for the people's representatives [in Parliament] in regards to parliamentary immunity, although the Parliament members' immunity is one of those highly important issues that have been generated from Islam's principles.

And I have mentioned it in my declaration and have pointed out that the oppressed have the right to complain ever so loudly in Islam and are free to talk freely wherever or whenever they want. But what can we do when such a definite and crystal clear legal right has been subject of fights, arguments, as well as tension in the society? We are hopeful that those who have the power to resolve these kinds of problems and arguments within the framework of the laws and regulations do their best and solve the problematic issues.

What do you think are the main problems, the main barriers, holding back the reform of the women's rights and the additional rights of the young people?

There are some people who have wrong beliefs and they are also following their path to implement those ideas. They do not have fair and correct interpretation of Islam and the constitution. ... These perceptions are either out of ignorance, which makes them not guilty for what they do, or due to enmity, which makes them guilty.

I believe that the enemies of Islam are blocking implementation of the Islamic principles with all their efforts. See how they created tension among us [clerics] about the immunity of the Parliament representatives while such a simple issue is accepted and implemented in the parliaments and constitutions all over the world. Some people consider it [the immunity law] as violation of the constitution and challenge it. And this reflects wrongly against Islam.

Everyone in our country, and specially the young generation of Iran, have the right to question this fact, and to say, what kind of Islam is it that ignores a fundamental right accepted by the people internationally? This is where I believe that the enemies of Islam, through many middlemen, are trying to distract the minds of the nation in the society. Of course, some of them do these things out of ignorance, and some of them are creating these tensions on purpose, and therefore are guilty, criminal [sinful].

Who decides then? When there is a disagreement between the masses of people and the teaching of the clergy, who makes the final decision on how the society should operate?

I cannot answer that question because is not my job to explain that. You should ask those who have this responsibility. By referring to the constitution, you can understand who is the responsible authority and why they are ignorant or why, God forbid, they are acting as enemies.

I would like to ask you for a comment on the current tension with the United States over the charges that President Bush has made most recently. What is your reaction to President Bush's reference to Iran as a source of terrorism, as a source of instability in the world?

I do not have an opinion on this particular issue. But as the nature of the powerful requires, their concerns and issues are mainly political, not based on reality. What I mean by this is that they are either trying to use this issue as an internal tool, to reach their purposes inside their own country, or they are aiming at certain enemies in our country as pressure levers. ...

When a powerful political figure states such a thing about Iran, the result is that in case the supporters of reform want to make a move or react upon this, then the opposition of the reform movement would accuse them of supporting American polices, Bush policies, and this is a very heavy accusation.

And our people do not have good memories and good experiences with the U.S. policies, rather they have very bad experiences. The point is that if Bush and other likeminded powerful politicians really believe in such a thing, they could have resolved their issues through political channels and through dialogue with the [Iranian] representatives. There was no need to broadcast it on an official occasion and for the whole world.

Today, all those who are against Iran are the enemies of the whole nation. The best way to serve Iran is to help those who are talking about reform, about Islam, about dialogue, and are sincere about it. Those who are blocking reform's movement should not be helped or supported. We have seen that the powerful political figures of the world believe that they should support the reform movement of Iran, whether they are on the right or on the left. The summary of my thoughts and beliefs in this regard is that Bush's speech and his reactions are because they want to take revenge and because they want to block the reform movement in this country. ...

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. I think a great injustice has been done to the supporters of democracy and freedom and true Islam due to Mr. Bush's speech. And what he said has put more pressure on the best men and women in this country. ... In brief, if supporters of democracy in Iran had been under pressure yesterday, they will be under more stress and pressure tomorrow. And if they were not under pressure, they will be, and Mr. Bush has caused this situation and is responsible for that, unless he corrects his statements and resolves his issues with diplomacy and takes the pressure off the freedom lovers' shoulders [in Iran].

In my opinion, Mr. Bush and people like him have never been and are not interested to look after freedom loving Iranians or the Iranian Muslims. It has been like this until today, we don't know how would it be tomorrow.

Mr. Bush and others will accuse Iran of having supported movements in other countries where people have used violence, terror, to pursue their goals. What do you think of that, and what is the teaching of Islam on the use of those methods in support of national struggles?

Discussing the times and places that Islam should help in these issues is up to the Islamic Republic's policy and the diplomacy of our government. The world of today is the world of knowledge and awareness, and if Mr. Bush and others have anything to say [in this regard], they should express their ideas publicly and bring their witnesses and reasons to the people of the world and the public opinion would definitely support them. How is it possible that the Iranian government, whose official religion is the Shiite branch of Islam, commits acts of terror and assassinates people? You will not find one Shiite in Al Qaeda or Taliban and their affiliates all over the world.

I suppose Mr. Bush is referring mostly to Palestinian and Lebanese issues, as opposed to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. I am curious about the teaching of Islam and the intention of the Islamic scholars when funding goes to organizations that then use terror. What is the attitude of Islam to that sort of a development? The Islamic Republic supports Islamic groups in other countries like Lebanon and Palestine. Those groups then take the support and use it violently. What is the attitude of Islam toward that sort of action?

Look, sometimes we are discussing the Islamic beliefs of others. Well, they are responsible for how they think. What we are discussing now is our interpretation of Islam in our republic. We are never in favor of terror and assassination. I repeat what I said before, if Mr. Bush wants to serve the Iranian nation and bring security to the world, not political arguments and power games, he should express his ideas clearly and logically for all the people of the world. He should not take a defensive stance and use some political rhetoric that is really offensive and unprofessional, which indicates that the speaker does not have common sense and mere intellect.

As I told you, in Shiite religion terror is definitely condemned. Therefore you are not able to find a Shiite Muslim in Taliban movement. We are Shiite Muslims, and my interpretation as well as that of other religious leaders in Islam, is that Islam does not accept terror. Terror in Islam, and especially Shiite, is forbidden.

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. In Islam and Shiite world, infallibility had been limited to a very specific and small number of individuals. 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.

I would like to thank the Grand Ayatollah for this opportunity to speak to me. ...

I would like to wish you success, and we are sure that anyone who is working in journalism and media agencies are very precise individuals. They are professional in their field. I am hopeful that what I said here today would not bring harm to the nation of Iran, and I am hopeful that you and I would be able to express the fact that the constitutional law in Iran is based on people's will, and I am hopeful that if those who are outside Iran want to serve the Iranian nation, [they will] take their steps based on dialogue and understanding as well as supporting those who are pro-democracy in Iran and boycotting the opponents of democracy inside Iran. Not like the unhealthy stance of Mr. Bush, by unfavorable rhetoric, which was his mistake.

Dialogue is always useful, and one of the great problems in relations between Iran and the West in the last decade has been an absence of dialogue. And I agree that diplomatic contact is essential for peace, and I think it's true that with direct conversation and contact we understand each other better.

God willing it will be changed and it will be reformed. God grants us the success to serve humanity, despite borders, languages, and religion. Islam and God are supporting humanity. God bless you.

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