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Iran's banned cleric breaks silence
BY: Geneive Abdo in Qom
The man behind profound change in Iran is the invisible resident of this holy Shi'ite Muslim city.
He has been under house arrest for more than two years, exiled to his modest home on Riverbank Street. Few dare to mention his name in public. Newspapers which print his ideas are closed or taken to court. Fellow clerics who spread his opinions in public are imprisoned. And thousands of his disciples, the seminarians who read his banned books, do so clandestinely.
Now, Ayatollah Ali Hossein Montazeri is tired of being silenced. In his first interview ever, according to his aides, he told the Guardian of his vision for a new Iran.
'I have spent a lifetime fighting for the independence and honour of this country, defending the rights and freedoms of the people. I consider telling the truth my religious duty,' he said in the interview.
The truth for Ayatollah Montazeri, the most powerful cleric in post -revolutionary Iran after the late Ayatollah Khomeini, is terrifying for Iran's conservative clerical establishment. He interprets the Iranian constitution as giving the people the right to elect all leaders in the government, including the supreme clerical leader, now appointed by a body of theologians.
'Although some of the clerics are of the opinion that the supreme leader derives his authority from divine appointment, such opinions are subject to dispute.
'From the Koran, the book of God, one can deduce that government is a public affair,' he said in the 12-page interview, which was faxed to the Guardian from his home.
For many conservatives who believe in the current system whereby clerics have the power to screen candidates who run in elections, Ayatollah Montazeri's ideas threaten their political survival. His criticism of Iran's maltreatment of political prisoners forced him out of favour in 1989, after Ayatollah Khomeini had designated him as his successor.
In 1987, Ayatollah Khomeini was quoted as saying of Montazeri: 'He is the fruit of my life. My essence is in him, not once or twice but several times.'
Since his house arrest in November 1997, Ayatollah Montazeri lives under constant scrutiny by two guards posted in a separate house next to his own. Even his children are forbidden to venture out without permission from the guards. During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ended last weekend, seminarians were allowed to visit his family, but the ayatollah was forced to remain secluded behind closed doors.
'The day I went to Montazeri's house, his son Ahmad had to get the guards' permission to go to the store to buy some yogurt,' said one seminarian and admirer.
The restrictive conditions of his arrest have eliminated him physically from the scene. The theological school he ran was closed; and the state froze his assets, virtually impoverishing the elderly cleric, born in 1922.
But his shadowy existence has made him a figure larger than life in Iran.
'In the seminaries, it is forbidden to study Montazeri's writings. One student caught reading his books was sentenced to seven years in prison. But many smuggle in his writings, which are an inspiration to us all,' said one seminarian.
Ayatollah Montazeri was placed under house arrest for criticising the powers granted to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He also said Ayatollah Khameini was unfit to make religious rulings.
In the Guardian interview, he reiterated his opinions. 'The leader is equal to any other person before the law. He can never be above the law, and he cannot interfere in all affairs, particularly the affairs that fall outside his area of expertise, such as economics and international relations.'
But in today's Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei regularly speaks out on relations with the west, particularly the United States. He advocates a general policy of isolationism.
Ayatollah Montazeri also criticised the clerical establishment for refusing to give more power to the president when a revision of the Iranian constitution was made in 1989, shortly after Ayatollah Khomeini's death. Indeed, the limitations on President Mohammad Khatami, who was elected in a landslide in 1997, have been a major obstacle to implementing his reform programme.
'How can the president implement the constitution when the military and security forces are not under his command? Whereas all social expectations are directed at the president, and he has to respond to almost everybody, all institutions of power are under the command of the supreme leader, a leader that according to some, is above the law and therefore cannot be held accountable.'
When parliament amended the election law after Ayatollah Khomeini's death, giving the Guardian Council, a body of clerics, the right to supervise elections, Ayatollah Montazeri said this violated the constitution.
The Guardian Council this week announced that it had eliminated key pro-reform candidates who registered to run in parliamentary polls scheduled for February 18.
'The law (constitution) is explicit on the fact that the su pervisory role of the Guardian Council pertains to 'supervision over the elections' and not 'supervision over the candidates',' Ayatollah Montazeri said.
Ayatollah Montazeri is sad, not about his arrest, but at the limitations of freedom of expression in Iran. 'I am very sorry to see that in the present circumstances there is no tolerance in the Islamic society for hearing anything other than what is coming out of the ruling circles, a condition in which the children of the revolution are being sent to jail.'
And he apologised for having to communicate his ideas by fax and not in person.