Iran's clerics defend the guided republic
By Geneive Abdo in Tehran
September 4, 2000
Iran's conservatives, forging ahead on the back of a series of political
triumphs, insist that they have no interest in relinquishing institutional
power or compromise their beliefs to reach an accommodation with President
Mohammad Khatami's reform movement. In recent weeks they have flexed their
muscles to demonstrate their strength: they have closed nearly all the
reformist newspapers, imprisoned nearly all the prominent progressive journalists,
and blocked a bill which could have freed the press.
In his first interview with a foreign journalist, Hojatolislam Ruhollah
Hosseinian, one of the most influential clerics in the conservative establishment,
said his political camp was fighting to defend Islamic principles, which
they believed to be under threat.
Islamic vigilantes, backed by the conservative establishment, are also
resurgent. Last week, they prevented two reformist religious intellectuals
speaking in the town of Khorramabad in Lorestan province by cordoning off
The incident led to five days of scattered street clashes between the
vigilantes and democracy demonstrators, in which scores were injured and
a policeman died.
Hojatolislam Hosseinian, a mid-ranking cleric, said his supporters were
fighting to build a country based on indirect democratic rule, in keeping
"Just as democrats in the west come with various qualifications,
such as Christian democrats ... so the word 'republic' has the same flexibility
for us. This is a guided republic. You should not compare the Islamic Republic
with western republics," he said.
"The reality is that our parliament is elected by the people. The
president is elected by the people. The supreme leader is appointed by
a body of experts who are elected by the people. The nature of our system
requires supervision so it does not deviate from the Islamic framework.
This supervision is given to the Guardian Council."
The council consists of six conservative clerics and six Islamic jurists.
Their job is to decide whether legislation conforms to Islamic law. In
recent years they have been accused of exceeding their constitutional power
and becoming an alternative parliament.
Hojatolislam Hosseinian and a group of conservatives around him have
been demonised by reformers for an alleged connection to political violence.
They are accused of inspiring the murders of secular intellectuals in the
1990s. But they say they had no part in the murder plots.
Sitting in the institution he runs, the Documentation Centre of the
Islamic Revolution, Hojatolislam Hosseinian hardly fits the cardboard image
that reformers have tried to attach to him. An educated cleric well-versed
in Shi'ite theology, he presents reasoned arguments for his beliefs and
those of the conservative establishment.
He blasts the reformers for what he calls their absolutism and refusal
to engage in constructive debate with conservatives. "The reformers
won't let people speak their minds. I am not afraid and I speak my mind,
but many of my friends are too afraid to do so."
For the first time in several years, the conservatives have taken clear
control of their reformist rivals by exercising the vast power they hold
in major institutions.
The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the symbol of the conservative
movement, took the unprecedented action earlier this month of ordering
parliament to kill a bill which would have gone a long way toward reviving
His intervention was a shock to reformers, but was consistent with his
pattern of direct intervention in political crises in the past several
A series of similar manoeuvres by the conservatives has put them on
top. The reform movement has been silenced in the parliament.
President Khatami, the leader of reform, acknowledged two weeks ago
in a two-part television address that his powers were limited. In the most
revealing remarks of his three years in office, he vowed to fulfill his
promises of political and social liberalisation but admitted that the conservatives
had tied his hands.
The reformers accuse the conservative clerics of trying to hold a monopoly
on religious interpretation. They argue that this tendency departs from
the purpose of Shi'ite Islam, which historically has tried to exist in
a constant state of re-interpretation.
Hojatolislam Hosseinian accuses the two intellectuals stopped at the
Kharamabad airport, Abdolkarim Soroush and Mohsen Kadivar, of stretching
the limits of interpretation to the point of apostasy.
"What we reject today are religious intellectuals. These people
see the truth in terms of western ideas and try to justify religion on
the basis of western ideas. We don't feel threatened by them, but we have
"We believe Islam is an historical religion which can be adapted
to all periods of time. But this ability toward innovation must come from
within the faith. We consider it a miracle that Islam has the power to
guide humans in all periods of time."
The conservative establishment was determined not to allow the west
to dictate Iran's future, he said.
"We do have a grudge against the west, and that is that they have
never taken a scholarly approach to Islam and Shi'ite Islam, especially
after the revolution. If they did, many issues would become clear to them."