By LEE KEATH and ALI AKBAR DAREINI Associated Press Writers TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — She is a granddaughter of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the 1979 Islamic revolution, but Zahra Eshraghi has long been a leader of reformers seeking to liberalize Iran.
She sees dark days for the country, at least in the short run, given the hard-liners’ lock on power. To break that hold, she says, former reformist President Mohammad Khatami must run against hard-line leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad next year.
“The only way to save the country is for Khatami to run next year in presidential elections. He is the only one who will defeat Ahmadinejad,” Eshraghi told The Associated Press in an interview conducted in Farsi.
She spoke against the backdrop of this Friday’s parliament elections that Ahmadinejad allies and other conservatives are expected to win, maintaining their hold on the legislature. Reformists are crippled because most of the 1,700 candidates disqualified by Iran’s clerical leadership were reformers.
Khatami has said he has no desire to return to the presidency, which he held in 1997-2005.
But he remains the most charismatic figure of the reform movement and is under pressure to run. In recent months, he has stumped for little-known reform candidates, giving speeches that have drawn crowds of thousands in a campaign that otherwise has been met with public apathy.
To Westerners, Eshraghi may seem an unusual figure to be in the reform movement’s ranks.
Her grandfather brought the idea of “velayat-e-faqih” – rule by Islamic clerics – into reality in Iran with the popular uprising that chased out the shah in 1979.
In the system that has evolved, the powers of unelected clerics, headed by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, trump those of Iran’s elected government. They can overrule laws and bar from elections any candidate deemed insufficiently adhering to the Islamic republic system.
Ahmadinejad allies and other conservatives are running in Friday’s election under the title of “Usulgerayan” – Farsi for “principlists” – touting their loyalty to Khomeini’s revolution.
Eshraghi, who didn’t seek to be a candidate in Friday’s election, argues that religious hard-liners have hijacked the revolution, which she says was meant to bring freedom to Iran.
“This is totally against the goals of the revolution and contrary to the views of Imam Khomeini … With this trend, nothing remains of the republic. And they have left nothing of freedom,” she said.
Because of the wide disqualifications of candidates, “I don’t think there will be even a powerful minority bloc of reformists in the next parliament,” said Eshraghi, who is married to Khatami’s younger brother, Mohammad Reza, himself a reformist leader.
Despite her gloom, Eshraghi predicts the hard-liners will fail in the long term. “In this era of communications and flow of information, the young generation won’t accept that few hard-liners decide their fate,” she said.
Reformists want the powers of the clerical leadership to be limited. Eshraghi’s husband has said Khamenei – who became supreme leader after Khomeini’s death in 1989 – should not act as if his authority is absolute, a rare public criticism that could have gotten him arrested.
Some conservatives who wholeheartedly support the clerical leadership have criticized Ahmadinejad’s presidency, saying he has gone too far in monopolizing power for his allies and been too harsh in pushing out opponents, including some clerics with longtime roots in the revolution.
Even Khomeini’s family has not been immune from the rhetoric of Ahmadinejad’s allies.
Eshraghi’s brother, Ali, sought to run in Friday’s elections, but was disqualified. He was later reinstated, but then decided to drop out of the race to preserve the Khomeini dignity after hard-liners began to criticize his family.
Hard-line media and Web sites unleashed a wave of criticism last month against Eshraghi’s cousin Hasan Khomeini after he criticized the head of the Revolutionary Guards military corps for making a speech seen as backing Ahmadinejad’s camp in the election.
Some of the hard-line attacks aimed at his integrity, accusing Hasan Khomeini – who is caretaker of his grandfather’s sprawling tomb complex on Tehran’s outskirts – of taking gifts from reformers.
More moderate conservatives eventually came to his defense, and the editor of one of the hard-line Web sites was jailed for insulting the Khomeini family.
Eshraghi was firmly in the reformist camp long before Ahmadinejad came to power, as an advocate for women’s rights and an influential party figure during the reformists’ stint in power.
Khatami was swept into the presidency by a landslide in 1997 elections. Three years later, reform candidates swept elections to take over parliament, and the president’s younger brother, Eshragi’s husband, became deputy parliament speaker.
It was a brief heyday for the reformers. They were able to bring a more liberal atmosphere, loosening Islamic restrictions on women’s dress, music and other social activities.
But hard-liners, backed by the clerical leadership, blocked concrete political change. In 2004, most reformist lawmakers were barred from running for re-election, and hard-liners took over the legislature. A year later, Khatami had to step down as president because he had served the limit of two consecutive terms, and Ahmadinejad won the presidential vote.
Khatami is eligible to run again now, and as a respected cleric he would be a difficult candidate for the clerical Guardian Council to disqualify.
But he appears reluctant to face what would likely be a bitter campaign. And some reform supporters see him as tainted by the failures of his government to make more widespread changes, saying he was too hesitant to push hard for change.
Eshragi said that even under the current conditions, reformers have to at least try to make a comeback.
“It’s our country. Why should we hand it completely over to the hard-liners,” she said.