Tehran, Asharq Al-Awsat- “He reached the sky with his perfection…he dispersed darkness with his splendor… graceful are all his traits,” was the verse from an Arabic poem hanging on the reception wall in his house; he is Ebrahim Yazdi, among the leadership of the liberal, secular Iran Freedom Movement. Although the party has been banned for over 20 years, it is nonetheless actively working in the open without any hindrances.
Knowledgeable and well versed in Arab history, ancient culture and ideologies, Yazdi always makes references to events and figures when making comparisons or to prove a point. The 67-year-old exercises on a regular basis to the present day, including mountain climbing, which he sees as “an adventure for the sake of truth”. Not afraid to discuss his ideas, he does not take consequences into account nor does he regret the approach he adopted that ended up distancing him from Iran’s reform movement over the past years. Yazdi is content to be on the sidelines.
From the start he was always the voice of dissent and despite the fact that he was one of the Iranian revolution’s (1979) supporters, he was against the detention of the American diplomats at the US embassy in Tehran – a stance that cost him much in the way of accusations and betrayal from colleagues. Accused of being an American loyalist, Yazdi was opposed to the principle of exporting [the ideology of] the Iranian revolution, and thus together with some colleagues they sent a letter to Ayatollah Khomeini that objected to his idea of ending strife in the land by means of the spreading the ideas of the revolution.
However the most critical issue on which Yazdi deviates from the dominant mainstream is over the Iran-Iraq war. From early on he was calling for the acceptance of an early resolution with Iraq, moreover condemning the mistreatment of Iraqi civilians in the same manner Saddam Hussein was subjecting the Iranian civilians. Yazdi stated that it was against the teachings of Islam, furthermore objecting to the concept of Wilayat-e-Faqih [Guardianship of the Jurist]. Resultant of his positions, Yazdi was pigeonholed into the banned opposition: the Iran Freedom Movement party is not permitted to operate legitimately; consequently it continues to operate but away from governmental institutions.
But all this started to change two years ago – after many reformers were apprehensive in the face of his opinions and criticisms of the leader of the Iranian revolution Ayatollah Khomeini and the Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei, they have now decided to join efforts in a coalition for democracy and humans rights. Comprised of nine reform parties, amongst which is the Islamic Iran Solidarity Party, which is the largest of the reform parties, the coalition also includes 35 major Iranian intellectuals including Hujjat al Islam Mohsen Kadivar.
Asharq Al-Awsat interviewed Ebrahim Yazdi at his home in one of the affluent suburbs in northern Tehran where he revealed that the reformers led by Mohammad Khatami had alienated other reform movements when they were in power for fear of evoking the Supreme Guide’s anger.
Following is the text of the interview:
Q: Twenty-eight years after the Iranian revolution – are some in Iran still unsatisfied with what has been achieved?
A: The goals that the Iranian people have always been struggling to achieve are two-fold: firstly, to attain basic rights and secure freedoms for the people, and secondly, to achieve independence. Many scholars in sociology refer to the 20th Century as ‘the people’s century’ because of the numerous revolutions that took place in the century; the first and last of which occurred in Iran. In 1905 the first revolution broke out, the Iranian Constitutional Revolution, and the last one at the end of the century was the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
As such, the Iranians have been struggling for a long time but we have yet to reach what we can consider acceptable and relatively satisfactory – which is why our struggle continues. The 1979 revolution aimed to bring about freedom and independence, the Iranians raised slogans bearing these words. We have achieved the second goal, our country is now independent and no foreign countries can dictate the moves to the Iranian authorities, which is completely contrary to the Shah’s time he used to obey the British and American ambassadors’ commands. However the situation is different now, Western countries exert some pressures but they can’t tell us what to do – and those are two different matters.
In terms of freedom we have yet to achieve this goal. Relatively speaking we do not have freedom; we have the freedom where you can come talk to me and I would not be afraid to tell you what I think, but this is not what we are fighting for. In Iran we still have restrictions on freedom of expression, which applies to journalists, political activists, women, students and lawyers. Everyone is subject to pressures when it comes to freedom of expression, especially with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s
administration under which Iran is experiencing pressures and censorship. For example, I have a number of books still awaiting permission from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, one of which is entitled “The Islamic Elite and the New Challenges”. In Iran the elite is split into two types: the secular elite and the Islamic elite. I belong to the latter and it is characterized by a completely different understanding of the Quran, the prophetic Sunnah, religious rituals and the legacies of the imams than what is held by clerics and traditional clerics.
The problem is that after 20 years of governance in the name of Islam many of the Iranian youth are no longer interested in Islam. As part of the Islamic elite, this poses for us what are major challenges, which is the subject I have attempted to address in my book. However, we are not Muslims in the same way our fathers were. The questions that concerned your father and grandfather are different from today’s questions, and so are the answers. One cannot answer the questions posed by present-day youth in the same way we learned it from our fathers. Life has changed and globalization is responsible for changing the face of the world in the same manner that the industrial revolution before it did. Today we live in a global village; no one can ignore what is taking place in Sudan, Somalia and on the streets of Los Angeles, or London. Globalization has changed the world, and as such the questions have changed and we must prepare ourselves to answer these questions and challenges.
There is a question in Iran surrounding the agreeability between Islam and democracy and that is a big challenge. There are some, such as the members of Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front [Front Islamique du Salut – FIS] who uphold that democracy and the public’s opinion are not important. In Iran there are some who share the same view and maintain that people have no rights – only duties. What I want to say is that these are times that impose challenges on us all and we must confront them. Democracy is not something that can be purchased and installed, it is a learning process and surely democracy cannot be achieved at the hands of the American soldiers. This is why the Iranians are fighting for their own democracy.
Q: You speak enthusiastically about the endeavors towards democracy whilst the voice of the reformists is very subdued these days?
A: I have always reiterated that democracy is a learning process: Liberals, reformists, and conservatives must all undergo that process in order for democracy to prevail in Iran. This will not be achieved through the liberal and reformist efforts only, but also through the involvement of conservatives too who must realize that they can work and maneuver better under a democratic system. Consider France, for example; 10 years ago the socialists were in power and now the Gaullists have taken over [The political movement supporting General Charles de Gaulle]. This does not mean that the majority of the French have turned their back on the socialists, it just means that they believes that the socialists could achieve what they aspired for, and now they think the conservatives can.
The same thing happened in Iran, but years ago when Mohammad Khatami came to power and the reformists had the upper hand, they immediately divided the forces that supported democracy into categories and groups. Some were close to the system and its institutions while others remained distant. They deemed themselves closely associated and considered the Iran Freedom Movement party to be distant and thus excluded us. The reformists claim that Iran is for all Iranians while simultaneously making divisions such as these. However in these last elections; presidential, parliamentary and the local ones, the reformists learned the pitfalls of such divisions. Firstly, in order for democracy to triumph we must initially accept pluralism and the diversity of viewpoints and opinions amongst the people. The Quran says that people were created to be different and that judgment depends on difference and as such, we must be tolerant when it comes to such differences – because God will be the judge of that. Therefore, the first element required for democracy is accepting the natural diversity of society, since it is God’s design. Secondly, when we accept this social diversity it follows that we must be tolerant, as there is no democracy without tolerance. Thirdly, after accepting moderate settlements one must have the ability to propose concessions so as to ensure longevity. I must accept and respect you as well as arrive at reasonable arrangements with you; these are the elements of democracy.
The reformists did not accept us during Khatami’s era – now they are in the same position. The conservatives are now in power and many of President Ahmadinejad’s administration is comprised of members from security institutions, the army, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – people who are not tolerant to anyone. This means that not only are they intolerant to the reformists, they’re also equally intolerant to parties from within the conservative stream itself, such as Secretary-General of the Islamic Coalition party Nabih Habibi, for example. However, the reformists have now learned from experience the dangers of exclusion and are attempting to regroup. What I want to say is that democracy provides a learning experience for all political trends.
But there is another factor at play in democracy being a learning process: During Khatami’s era, to weaken him, the conservatives raised the standards on people’s economic expectations so that Ahmadinejad greatly emphasized that dimension in his campaign. Ordinary people on the Iranian street are fed up with religious clerics, and Ahmadinejad is not a cleric but is rather from the revolutionary guard so when he spoke about the economy, he was luckier. That is because Rafsanjani is not only a cleric but also a symbol of the rule of the clergy for over 25 years. Many people held him responsible for what was happening in Iran, and the lack of freedom in the press in the country rendered people shallow in their judgment. This is why they voted for Ahmadinejad without truly knowing him – and now after a year and a half everybody is disappointed because the illusion is over.
Q: In your opinion what are the real differences between the pragmatic conservative trend led by Hashemi Rafsanjani and the ultra-conservatives led by Misbah Yazdi?
A: Hashemi Rafsanjani has been in power for over 20 years; he is not the same man he once was years ago. He is a pragmatist who would do anything in politics and is fully aware that the present day requirements have changed and that people are not behaving in the same manner they did a century ago. For example, Misbah Yazdi does not possess this experience; perhaps in matters of fiqh both men have similar ideas but Misbah Yazdi lacks the experience of managing a society – which is a critical thing. The difference between Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad is the same: Ahmadinejad has no experience and has a very simplistic concept of politics such as, ‘let’s put all the oil revenues on the Iranian people’s tables’ for instance, which is a nice slogan. But the question is: how can this be? Ideologically speaking, both men are conservative but Hashemi Rafsanjani has 20 years of political experience and knows what to say, how to say it and what to do. Contrastingly, Misbah Yazdi does not have that knowledge and if he were to enter politics he would find out that actions are different from words.
Q: Is Wilayat-e-Faqih the entity that unites the conservative trends and divides the reformists – based on the fact that conservatives are in favor of the principle while the reformists are against it?
A: From a religious or theoretical point of view I do not believe in the concept of Wilayat-e-Faqih. There is no mention of it in the Quran. During Imam Khomeini’s era when he wrote about the absolute guardianship granted to the Guardian Jurist, we at the Iran Freedom Movement wrote a small book in which we cited the Quran and hadith as references and concluded that the concept of Wilayat-e-Faqih is not part of the fundamentals of Islam.
Regarding Wilayat-e-Faqih, Khomeini himself said that “there are accounts that could indicate it”. When I held a ministerial post during the time of the interim government following the revolution there was no mention of Wilayat-e-Faqih in the first draft of the constitution that was signed by Khomeini. Iran’s constitution was one for a democratic state in every sense of the word. This means that a constitution without the notion of Wilayat-e-Faqih is a valid one, and for that reason constitutional changes are necessary because within the Iranian constitution there exist discrepancies between elected institutions and the non-elected ones.
For example, the constitution accepts the idea of the sovereignty of the people and yet notwithstanding that, many clerics in Iran maintain that the Supreme Guide is appointed by God, which is a blatant contradiction. The constitution states that the Assembly of Experts supervises over the Supreme Guide’s performance – but if he were indeed appointed by God then how can a political institution monitor him? Generally speaking, so long as Wilayat-e-Faqih is part of the constitution, we must act within the framework of the law and any changes that occur should be gradual not sudden.
Presently Khamenei is the Guardian Jurist; in the event of illness or resignation for example there has been talk of a council comprised of various ayatollahs, not just an individual, to form a council wherein three or five ayatollahs can assume governance of the Wilaya. But this is not the point – I think in time people will realize that regardless of the Supreme Guide’s identity that the concept of Wilayat-e-Faqih conflicts with the progress of Iran. We elect our president every four years; we also elect our foreign affairs minister and an elected parliament. In accordance with the constitution we also have the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) like all the countries worldwide. The Supreme Guide heads the council and has representatives in it. The foreign relations and their respective regulations must be set by the council and then passed on to the Guardian Jurist for approval. Within the council all the political parties are present, which in my opinion is good whether or not we have a Wilayat-e-Faqih. We need a council like that.
When foreign policies are being decided, the foreign minister is the authority that should examine their implementation, but things are different in Iran. We have the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the Security Council, headed by Ali Larijani, and yet despite all that the Supreme Guide sent his advisor, Ali Akbar Wilayati on a visit to Moscow. Everyone does everything – which shows that the system cannot work. If the president is popularly elected and the Supreme Guide supports him and the parliament is elected after the Guardian Council screens the candidates, which means that on a basic level all members of the parliament can be trusted. The foreign affairs minister has the parliament’s confidence so handling foreign issues should be in the hands of the foreign affairs ministry but that does not happen and no one can ask the Supreme Guide, “Why are you doing this?”
This is why I believe that democracy is a learning process; I think many people have an ideal concept of Wilayat-e-Faqih with the Wali being the representative of God on earth. Fine, we’ll accept that but scientifically speaking the Guardian Jurist is a fallible human who is subject the shortcomings of humans – so how can he have unlimited power without any supervision or an institution to hold him accountable? Twenty years ago several parties maintained that the concept of Wilayat-e-Faqih was not the problem – but let’s move away from that: Now, they have reached the conclusion that it is in fact the problem. There is talk behind closed doors but they will soon speak out in the open. I do not know what the future holds, but practically speaking we are moving towards a decisive point or a crossroads wherein the conservatives, liberals, and reformists will realize that this system is no longer functioning and must be modified. How? I do not know.
Q: Where do reformists fit into this debate?
A: The reformists are subdued because they are in a state of shock – they had the presidency and the parliament in their hands and they lost them. The question is: Why did that happen? They are shell-shocked, but they are currently in a healing reflective state in attempt to understand the turn of events, which is important. They are posing difficult and harsh questions about Khatami’s performance who is an exceedingly nice person – but not brave. He was incapable of even implementing his policies. The reformists are currently meditating in an attempt to understand the situation.
Furthermore, the reformists in power divided the reform movement into ‘reformists within the system’ and ‘reformists outside of the system’. We belong to one of the trends that are outside of it. The reformists in power relied heavily on the fact that they were part of the system and did everything within their capacity to remain a part of that circle. They moved away from us and stated that the Supreme Guide would not tolerate this. Now, after they were ousted from power they cooperate with us. After the presidential elections of 2005 we held several meetings with them and are trying to reach an agreement with regards to an agenda, and to form a coalition for democracy and human rights comprised of the reform parties in Iran. [They are] nine reform parties, among them Iran Freedom Movement, al Musharaka party [Islamic Iran Participation Front]. Also, the national religious organizations have signed the agreement, in addition to 35 political activists including Mohsen Kadivar and various MPs. Etemad-e-Meli party did not agree to join us because Mehdi Karroubi still wants to work with Hashemi Rafsanjani and Khamenei within the system; he got close to us at some point but I think Khamenei pressured him to detach himself from us.
Q: Why is it that some among the reformist circles consider the Iran Freedom movement too radical?
A: They do not view us as too radical but rather as honest in our words, without fear. Back in 1979 when some of the members of the Iranian revolution detained the American diplomats in the US embassy for 444 days we were the only party to criticize that openly. They accused us of being American loyalists at the time. We said we weren’t and that we were defending the national interests in Iran and that holding hostages was not in that interest. Moreover, during the Iran-Iraq war when Iran succeeded in its military advancement Saddam offered a form of truce at the beginning and we supported that and wrote an open letter to the Supreme Guide, Ayatollah Khomeini and the SNSC in which we said that this war was not in Iran’s best interest and that it must be stopped. We criticized the principle of ‘eye for an eye’ and said that it went against the Quran, meaning that if the Iraqis send elements into Iran who end up killing innocent people that the Iranians cannot reciprocate in same in the name of Islam and send people into Iraq to kill the innocent. We said retaliate by sending people to Saddam Hussein’s house but do not send in people to kill children and pregnant women – this is not the Islamic understanding of treating others as you would want to be treated. We said that we do not serve the interests of Saddam Hussein but those of Iran. Finally, and after years of war, the Iranian leadership accepted a ceasefire in accordance with Resolution 598. Our position was weak and disadvantaged – and what did we gain from the decision? Nothing.
Also during Khomeini’s rule, we addressed an open letter to him saying that we were against exporting [the ideologies of] the Iranian revolution. Khomeini used to say, “War… War until the world is rid of sedition”, we said to him that the root of sedition according to the holy Quran is the Devil and that he has been in existence since the being of time and will be around forever – do you want to fight him until the world is rid of sedition? This is absurd; how can you think like that?
During the last Assembly of Experts elections, we openly said: Why do people have to vote? If the Supreme Guide is appointed by God, why do the public participate in the elections of the Assembly of Experts – which theoretically is commissioned with facilitating the work of the Supreme Guide? Can these members in the Assembly of Experts tell us about the nature of their work; what the budget and expenses of the Supreme Guide are, for example? We published these thoughts in newspapers and on Internet websites. We are not radical; we only express our opinions freely with candor and without fear. Now among the reformist circles they say that we cross the red lines because we criticize and address questions to the Supreme Leader when no one else dares to.
Q: All the political movements in Iran are seeking to gain the support of the youth and the women, do these two groups have an interest in politics?
A: We are a nation of youth – 70 percent of Iran’s population is under the age of 30. And what does this mean? It means that 70 percent of the Iranian people today were born after the revolution; they know nothing of the Shah or of the revolution. These young people want to enjoy life, the vast majority of Iranian youth are females – it is important to stress that the Iranian revolution influenced women. In a traditional Islamic society like Iran the woman’s place is the home and she does not participate in public or social affairs. What happened during the revolution? Women came and stood side-by-side with the men in demonstrations on the streets of Tehran, calling out the slogans of the revolution. What does this mean? It means that women have become politicized and will not be content to stay at home to only be wives and mothers.
After the success of the revolution the main concern for the conservative leadership, those who ‘promote virtue and prevent vice’ among the people, was women’s hair and imposing the hijab. No matter if there was corruption or not, no one cared. No matter if there were political problems, still no one cared, but if a woman’s hair was exposed all hell broke in their opinion. This means that the conservatives have set their gaze on women and have started a confrontation with them. On the streets there are members of the Basij forces who would stop a girl and reproach her for revealing her hair so she goes home crying and who calms her down? Her mother, and mothers do not accept that. The manner in which the conservatives are exerting pressure on women’s rights, their appearance and hair, in addition to the way young people dress has resulted in poisoning a lot of Iranians.
The mothers are educated and no matter how religious they are they know how difficult it is for young men and women to accept this kind of treatment. Those mothers, who participated in the revolution 28 years ago, are the mothers of the generation of youth and despite their participation in the revolution their inclinations are against the conservatives – the shallow understanding of the religion is obvious. Those mothers brought up this new generation, a religious one, but in a different way that the conservatives do not approve of. For this reason the forces of change in Iran today are women and youth. Even traditional clerics cannot make their own children share their same views or act in the same manner as their fathers. They cannot prevent their children from surfing the Internet and viewing things they shouldn’t see. For reasons of oppression and political pressure, many of those young people are concealing their political interests and do not want to participate in political activities – which is the reason why these activities are ambiguous.
Another revolution in Iran is impossible… but gradual change… yes. This is why the Iranian women have opted for an open and legal approach in action. They are also struggling to improve their position – because this is the way.