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What Montazeri said

Mideast Mirror
January 20, 2000

Iran 's leading dissident cleric -- and one-time heir apparent to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeiny -- believes the supreme leader should be accountable to the people, the Guardian Council should not vet out election candidates, and the president should have powers commensurate with his responsibilities

Mideast Mirror has obtained a transcript of the remarks made by Iran 's leading dissident cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, which caused a sensation when they were first reported by Western news media on January 13, during the buildup to next month's crucial parliamentary elections (see Mideast Mirror, January 13).

Montazeri's indictment of the absolute powers of the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and of the abuses of the Guardian Council, which has disqualified many reformist candidates supportive of President Mohammad Khatami from contesting the February 18 parliamentary elections, landed several Iranian newspapers in trouble last week when they quoted some of his comments -- and were duly summoned to the conservative-controlled Press Court for questioning.

Montazeri, who has been under house arrest in the religious center of Qom since shortly after being deposed as designated successor to the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeiny, broke his years-long public silence by faxing written answers to the Tehran correspondents of Reuters and The Guardian to questions about the relationship between religion and state in contemporary Iran .

He came out strongly against clerical interference in government, whilst upholding the general idea of hands-off clerical oversight to ensure that legislation and government policy remain in line with Islamic principles.

He also charged that Iran 's supreme leader, Khamenei, had overstepped his bounds, and should -- in accordance with Islamic principles and the Iranian Constitution -- be popularly elected, have less power, and be accountable and open to pubic criticism for his actions.

And he suggested that Iran 's Islamic republican Constitution, of which he was a leading author, should be changed to give the president, Khatami, control over the military and security forces and more power commensurate with the duties he is supposed to perform.

Montazeri's written interview was translated from the original Farsi into Arabic by London-based Iranian analyst Ali Nouri-Zadeh and then into English, more loosely, by Mideast Mirror.

Question: Twenty years have passed since the Islamic revolution, but Iranian society has not yet reached a single interpretation of the form the Islamic Republic should take. What is your view regarding the role that the vali-e-faqih should aspire to in the Islamic Republic? What are the attributes that the vali-e-faqih should have? How should the supreme leader be chosen? By the Council of Experts [the 86-member body which elects, supervises and can sack the supreme leader and can amend the constitution], or by the citizens themselves?

Montazeri: In Islamic shari'a, is the legitimacy of the regime, and the need to offer obedience to the ruler, achieved by the ruler being appointed by God Almighty, or through election by the people in accordance with a social contract?

And is there a difference between the rule of the infallible prophets and imams, peace be upon them, and the rule of others?

This is a religious debate which requires a broader opportunity to clarify. But what is certain is that a just and stable regime of government is achieved by the people electing and accepting such a regime.

1. After he declared his prophecy, the Prophet of Islam, peace be upon him, did not proclaim himself a ruler. It was after 73 notables of Medina offered him their allegiance during the pilgrimage at Mina that he prepared to proclaim the popular governance of the Messenger, peace be upon him, in Medina. At his request, those notables appointed people from among themselves to be the link between the Prophet and them.

After arriving in Medina he concluded agreements with the Jews of Medina, then after the conquest of Mecca the people of Mecca declared allegiance to him.

Allegiance in that time was aimed at consolidating a system of governance and represented a social contract between the people on the one hand and the ruler in person on the other.

2. Although at various times the Prophet, peace be upon him, appointed the Imam Ali Ibn Abi-Taleb, peace be upon him, as ruler in succession to him, this was not achieved until after the death of Othman [bin-Affan, the second Caliph of Islam], when all sectors of the people declared their allegiance to the Imam Ali.

It is worth mentioning that allegiance remains valid so long as the person it was given to has not lost the necessary qualifications to govern.

3. God's book and the sayings of the Prophet affirm that God commanded the Moslems to consult amongst themselves. That indicates that the system of government under Islam is a popular system.

4. According to the Constitution in Iran, governance is based on the views of the people in all fields and at all levels. The ruling powers and even the vali-e-faqih, are chosen by the people, and their responsibilities are defined by law. Thus the Article 6 of the Constitution stipulates that the affairs of the country under the Islamic Republic must be decided in accordance with public opinion and through elections. Article 56 says that absolute governance on earth is God's alone, and that God appointed human beings as governors of their social fate. It affirms that no one can deprive human beings of this God-given right or suborn them in the service of the interests of one person or group, and that the people exercise this God-given right in the manner specified in other articles of the Constitution.

5. Imam Khomeiny always used to speak, in his press interviews and speeches in Paris and Iran, of the people and their opinions. He used to affirm the need to abide by elections and by a republican and popular system. He used to say: "The view of the people is the basis."

[correction/ed: The vote of the people is the basis - mizaan ray'e mardom ast.]

Imam Khomeiny knew full well that the people in this day and age are politically aware, and that thanks to the development of the media which has made the peoples of the world like one family, it is impossible to continue ruling by force or by imposing authoritarian methods. No stable system of government can be established unless it is popular.

6. In the draft Constitution that was drawn up by a number of people on the instructions of Imam Khomeiny, there was no reference whatsoever to vali-e-faqih. But during meetings of the Council of Experts, a number of members, including myself and the late Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, insisted on the need for this concept, vali-e- faqih, to be included in the Constitution.

God's book and the sunna [the tradition of the Prophet Mohammad] stipulate that a Moslem ruler must be just, capable and wise, and that Islam is concerned with economic, political and social affairs. Therefore, a Moslem ruler must be familiar with Islamic issues and must run the country in light of them, and real familiarity can only be achieved by being fully conversant in jurisprudence, interpretation, God's book, and the sunna of His prophet.

In other words, if it is decided that the affairs of any country are to be run on the basis of an ideology or faith, it is natural that the theorist of that ideology should have full supervision over the course of administering the affairs of that country, so that officials do not diverge from Islamic teachings.

7. The purpose of the concept of vali-e-faqih is for Islamic teachings to be implemented, either directly or via the supervision of the executive authority and the other authorities for which the Iranian Constitution provides. In reality, vali-e-faqih means the faqih supervising the administration of the country's affairs and ensuring, via the jurisprudents on the Guardian Council, that the laws issued by parliament are of an Islamic nature.

The vali-e-faqih is elected by the people, his duties and powers are specified in Article 110 of the Constitution, and the people's direct and indirect verdict on him is based on his compliance with the Constitution and the country's laws.

In any case, the vali-e-faqih has no right to exercise absolute power. Article 107 states that the vali-e-faqih is equal to all citizens before the law, and that he is not above the law and cannot interfere in all matters, especially those outside his area of expertise like complex economic matters, foreign policy, and international relations.

In short, the task of the vali-e-faqih in the Islamic Republic is only to supervise the country's affairs in terms of compliance with Islamic principles. Those entitled to assume that post must be specialized and expert in Islamic matters, enjoy the qualities of justice, capability and wisdom, and not be covetous or greedy. If more than one jurisprudent is available in whom these qualities are found, the best and most senior should be chosen.

8. Although some senior officials believe that the vali-e-faqih is appointed by the infallible imams, I have disputed this theory in detail... It is certain that the legitimacy of this post is acquired by popular election.

In reality, there is a social contract between the people and the vali-e-faqih, and the Constitution was drafted on that basis. Accordingly, his term may be limited and temporary, like that of the president or a member of parliament. And given that the vali-e-faqih is accorded responsibility by the people, he is not infallible. He must accept criticism and be responsible for his actions.

9. The Constitution stipulates that the vali-e-faqih is elected by the Council of Experts, whose members are in turn elected by the people. But recent years have shown that this procedure has not been successful, and that most citizens view this issue with suspicion and misgivings [for the following reasons:]

First, because the people of any region are obliged to vote for one person who is nominated from outside that region for membership of the Council of Experts, even though there may be many scholars within that region. Thus it becomes a matter of appointment rather than election;

Second, because the determination of the religious rank of candidates has been allocated to the Guardian Council, even though its members are appointed by the vali-e-faqih himself. As a result, the vali-e-faqih is appointed and kept in office in this manner, which is wrong.

Third, although there are many religious authorities, scholars and teachers in the country, how can those responsible for appointing the vali-e-faqih be of lesser rank than them in terms of scholarship and knowledge?

Fourth, why does the Council of Experts include just one special class, i.e. clergymen, when the leader has to have other qualities in addition to being a jurisprudent?

Given these impediments and problems, and despite intensive propaganda campaigns, people are not eager to take part in elections to the Council of Experts. It is therefore necessary, when the time comes to review the Constitution, for there to be a reappraisal of that institution as well, and for the people to start electing the vali-e-faqih directly from amongst the known jurisprudents who have the necessary qualities to assume that post.

1. Because of his expertise in jurisprudence and Islamic matters, the direct concerns of the vali-e-faqih are confined only to supervising the administration of the country to ensure it is in accordance with Islamic principles, and ensuring via the Guardian Council that the laws passed by parliament are of an Islamic nature.

But the amendments made to Article 110 of the Constitution spell out the tasks and powers of the vali-e-faqih in detail. That led to all powers coming under his control, and to the government being stripped of responsibility for implementing the Constitution and managing the country's domestic and foreign policies. This is one of the main problems of the Constitution.

In this context, it is necessary for me to point to an important issue, though some will be troubled by it. When I was head of the Council of Experts and I was involved in every stage of the preparation of the Constitution, I regret to say that despite the fact that the members of the council were scholars and men of ideas, nevertheless:

(a) They did not have experience and expertise in drafting laws;

(b) The Islamic revolution had triumphed recently, and the injustices of the previous regime were fresh in peoples minds, so everyone feared the emergence of a tyrannical executive authority as in the past. Meanwhile, given the adoration everyone had for Imam Khomeiny, the members of the Council of Experts tried to curtail the powers of the executive authority as far as possible and reduce it to an ineffective body, and to place all powers under the control of the leader and guide. That was a proper and appropriate measure to take at the time, but no one under the circumstances prevailing then considered the consequences and contradictions that might ensue from translating those ideas into practice.

During the reappraisal of the Constitution which accompanied the Imam's death, the Council of Experts augmented the powers of the leader, placing at his disposal the tasks of appointing the chiefs of police and security, regulating relations between the three authorities, and appointing the head of the broadcasting and television authority.

Article 113 of the Constitution stipulates that the president of the republic is responsible for implementing the Constitution and heading the executive authority, yet the armed forces and police and security forces are not under his control!! Moreover, the legislative and judicial authorities are not in harmony with the president of the republic.

Article 121 of the Constitution stipulates that the president must take an oath to uphold the Constitution, support that which is right, promote justice, protect the freedom and inviolability of citizens, back the people's rights, and do his utmost to safeguard the country's borders and its political, economic and cultural independence.

How can the president of the republic perform such functions when there are no forces under his control?

All the dreams and hopes of society are turned on him, and he receives a flood of letters, petitions and complaints to which he is answerable. Yet the armed forces and all the other agencies are under the command of the [supreme] leader, who considers himself above the law and unanswerable.

I am not speaking about the current president of the republic, but of the institution of the presidency on which the current Constitution places great responsibilities while it is denied executive and media power!! In any case, a solution must be found to this important problem.

The political principles of the Constitution are not on par with the immutable teachings of God. The country's political laws are based on the majority view of the people. Now, over 20 years after the first set of laws was drafted and over 10 years after the new laws were prepared, most of the previous views have remained unchanged while the previous generation does not, in reality, represent the forthcoming generations.

In any case, politics are subject to constant development. One cannot rely on the political ideas of the past as the pivot of the life of future generations. As the Imam, may God have mercy on him, said in the speech he gave at Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery in Tehran immediately after his return from Paris: the fate of every generation is determined by that generation itself.

2. The best means of overcoming these problems, should circumstances arise in which the Constitution can be amended, is to avoid placing all these powers in the hands of one individual, and to untangle the existing jumble between the executive, legislative and judicial authorities, so that each can have its independent powers in accordance with the duties vested in it, and exercise control over the forces that are appropriate to its functions without interfering in the work of the others.

The people elect the members of parliament and the president directly by voting. As for selecting religious leaders, citizens choose, purely of their own accord, one or more individuals as sources of emulation in religious matters, opting for the most erudite and knowledgeable of jurisprudents. It would be best for the following procedures to be followed:

First, for a number of jurisprudents to be chosen who have the necessary qualities for membership of the Guardian Council, in order to ensure that the laws passed by parliament are consistent with Islamic teachings.

Secondly, for them to choose a number of jurisprudents who have the necessary qualities to head the judiciary, one of whom would then be elected for a limited period by Iranian judges and lawyers in their professional elections.

Thirdly, to appoint one of their number, for a limited number of years, to generally supervise the course of developments in the country in terms of their compatibility with Islamic laws. This person would formally be the country's vali-e-faqih.

In this regard, it would be best if the religious authorities called on three well-known religious scholars from each major city to consult with them in order to formally appoint the vali-e-faqih. It might be best to nominate a number of candidates, one of whom would be appointed for a specified number of years via a general popular referendum -- while senior religious authorities and the people would have the right to monitor the actions and behavior of the vali-e- faqih.

On that basis, the ruling regime would remain under religious authority in terms of its compliance with Islamic teachings. That would bring an end to the contradiction between the religious authority and the vali-e-faqih, and turn the Shiite marja'aiya into a legal entity as well as retaining its traditional nature.

Islam does not oppose the idea of separation of powers or of decentralization, because the accumulation of power in the hands of someone who is not infallible and is prone to making mistakes is incompatible with reason and wisdom.

Question: After the success of the Islamic revolution, the clergy were given every opportunity to become prominent in society and in the institutions of government in Iran . Now that the regime has become stable, what is the right role that clerics should play? Should they have a strong presence in the organizational structure of the ruling regime, whether in the legislature, executive or judiciary? Or should they perform their traditional role as government advisors and suffice with moral and spiritual supervision and monitoring? Having tried directly controlling the centers of power in recent years, do you think the traditional role of the religious scholars is threatened or changing?

Montazeri: The main and principal role of men of religion is to provide intellectual and moral guidance to the people and clarification of the teachings of Islamic shari'a -- to attempt to guide society towards moral rectitude and to promote social justice. They [should] intervene in affairs of government when necessity requires. If officials in the regime do their work properly and apply the law and Islamic shari'a, there should be no need for the clerics to intervene.

It is worth mentioning that the clerics who had no experience in [public] administration and the affairs of government did not achieve success in the posts which they occupied after the victory of the revolution. Lack of experience and other reasons, which I will refrain from mentioning now, led to the weakening of the moral stature of the clergy among the citizens to a great extent.

You were among the authors of the Constitution. Do you believe its clauses have been implemented? If not, in what areas have the intentions of those who drafted the Constitution not been fulfilled? For example, in the past you criticized the Guardian Council for not abiding by its oversight role and disqualifying from elections candidates affiliated to the reform movement. Can you provide further clarification of this issue or similar matters?

Montazeri: Although the late leader of the revolution affirmed after the end of the [1980-1988] war [with Iraq] the need for the text of the Constitution to be implemented and for no unlawful practices to be committed, regrettably his advice was not followed after his death.

The right of oversight which the Guardian Council uses to reject the candidacy of advocates of reform or opponents of the regime is a right which conflicts with the text of the Constitution. The formation of the special court for clerics is also at variance with the Constitution.

There are other matters too which all conflict with the Constitution. It appears that most articles of the third chapter of the Constitution, which deals with the rights of the people, have not been implemented yet.

For example, the articles relating to citizens' reputations and the preservation of their property, lives and rights, and also to the publication of newspapers, freedom of expression, the establishment of political parties and societies, and the holding of meetings -- these are embodied in the Constitution and society has not seen them so far.

Regarding the Guardian Council's supervision of elections, which is stipulated in Article 99 of the Constitution, I recall that when I was head of the Council of Experts the aim of approving this article was to avoid a repetition of the bitter experience of the elections that used to be held during the previous era, when the regime used to intervene to appoint its candidates who would win in pro forma elections. The Council of Experts approved this article to prevent any intervention by officials in future. Thus the aim of that was to enable elections to be conducted in total freedom and to prevent intervention in them, not for this article of the Constitution to be exploited to reject or accept candidates.

Iran belongs to all its people, virtually all of whom participated in the revolution and have the country's fate at heart. It is this unity, solidarity and harmony which led to the victory of the revolution. But now, regrettably, some have been overcome by a monopolistic and hegemonic spirit. They strive to expel from the scene honorable elements who are committed to Islam and the revolution, on the pretext of defending Islam.

Religious scholars say that shoura [consultation] is the basis of the Islamic republican system, but the word shoura has two different interpretations. Some say shoura is implemented by civic institutions like the parliament and the presidency when they consult scholars and jurisprudents. Others believe that even the vali-e-faqih, i.e. the Islamic ruler, must consult the people. The question is, which of these two interpretations is closer to the truth?

Montazeri: The second interpretation is correct. All officials, even the vali-e-faqih, must consult with specialists before making their decisions. Shoura in Islam is not just a norm and a moral issue, but a religious duty. In the Koran, God commands the Prophet of Islam to consult with the faithful. Shoura is a prominent attribute of the faithful. In the Koran, God commanded them to consult among themselves.

Can the leader violate laws, or must he abide by the law like other citizens?

Montazeri: Article 107 of the Constitution stipulates that there is no difference between the leader and all other citizens before the law. Thus the vali-e-faqih is not above the law. And Article 110 of the Constitution specified clearly what the leader's tasks are, and that his election by the people happens on the basis of his compliance with the Constitution.

What circumstances do you live in under the house arrest imposed on you?

Montazeri: I have always been interested in reading books and scholarly works, and I thank God for the opportunity He has given me. I am regretful because Islamic society refuses to listen to different ideas and beliefs, because children of the revolution are thrown into jail every day, and because Islam, the revolution, and the late leader have been turned into means exploited by some for their own purposes.

I have said repeatedly that I seek no post, but my religious duty obliges me to say the truth and to defend the people and the revolution. I will not shirk from defending the legitimate rights and freedoms of the people.

I am not dismayed about the house arrest imposed on me, but I am pained and saddened when I see members of martyrs' families and pioneers of the struggle subjected to torture because of their support for me.

Do you know when your house arrest will be lifted? If that happens, what role will you aspire to in future?

Montazeri: I do not think at all about having my house arrest lifted, but I do think about the duty I should perform. I am now under house arrest, so I do my religious duty, I read books, I reply to the questions directed at me, and I read newspapers and magazines. If my house arrest is lifted one day, then I will take the decision appropriate to the time and circumstances.


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