Tehran, Asharq Al-Awsat- Hujjat al Islam Mehdi Karroubi sent two letters to Iran’s Guardian Jurist and Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei that changed his life forever. Karroubi who was parliamentary [majlis] speaker from 1989-1992 and 2000-20004 resigned from his post on June 19th, 2005. In those two letters, he renounced his positions as the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s advisor and as a member of the State Expediency Council and began his life as an oppositional reformist.
The first letter was a ‘complaint’ and accusations against what he called a network, comprised of mosques, elements from the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Basijis [Tehran University’s Basij volunteer group] who were interfering on the behalf of the conservative then-candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the first round of the presidential elections. Hashemi Rafsanjani led the race with a total of 21 percent of the votes, while Ahmadinejad came in second with 19.48 percent followed by Karroubi in third place with 19.3 percent of the votes.
In his first letter Karroubi named Mojtaba Khamenei, Ali Khamenei’s son, as one of those implicated in the network supporting Ahmadinejad, moreover calling upon the Supreme Leader to order an investigation into the transgressions. Khamenei’s answer came back in a letter in which he said that these accusations were below Karroubi, warning him that it could give turn into a political crisis in Iran and that he would not allow for that to happen. The next day, Karroubi called on his supporters to confront what he said was electoral rigging and to “defend the nation from the symbol of dictatorship” in reference to Ahmadinejad who had pledged that his victory would signify the transformation of Iran into a new ‘Taliban’ state in the region. Karroubi described the elections as, “the blackest page in the history of ideological struggle” in Iran between the different trends.
Karroubi responded by an open letter that he sent to the Guardian Jurist of which he also sent copies to the Iranian press. It contained his resignation and a call for intervention to prevent further bitterness that was already borne by the reformist trend because of the interferences that were taking place in the elections. “I ask of you to intervene to stop some of the IRGC forces and officials’ unlawful interference in the elections… You must not allow further bitterness to be added on to the old…” it said. Some newspapers published the letter, such as Aftab-e-Yazd and Etemad – they were banned from distribution on that day. It was also said that Karroubi was placed under house arrest the very next day.
Since that day, Karroubi, 68 years old, has joined the oppositional reformist movement in Iran, or rather the ‘pragmatic reformist’ movement as it should be described. Among the guiding rules of the trend is participation and involvement in the political game, which is why Karroubi voiced his criticism to Asharq Al-Awsat regarding the reformists who had decided to boycott the elections and of the large number of candidates who nominated themselves in the elections, all of which has led to the dispersion and loss of votes for the reformists.
Karroubi positions himself in the middle ground between the Iranian reformist trends; he does not resort to the radical approach that would make him appear an enemy to the country’s official institutions, such as the Supreme Jurist, the Assembly of Experts or the Guardian Council. Like former president Mohammad Khatami, Karroubi prefers that the reformists maneuver with an awareness and calm so that they may not lose the positions they have garnered.
The leader of Etemad-e-Melli party [National Trust Party], Karroubi founded the reformist party approximately a year ago, in addition to being the editor-in-chief of the daily paper of the same name, which is considered one of Iran’s best newspapers by virtue of its candor and criticism of the government – particularly in its coverage of the economy. The moderate reformers, represented through Karroubi, diverge from the conservatives who are led by Ahmadinjad over almost all the internal issues; the most prominent of which is the management of the economy and the nuclear issue. However the reformists support the conservative positions on an external level on the majority of issues including Iraq and relations with neighboring countries.
Asharq Al-Awsat met with Mehdi Karroubi in his Tehran office. Following is the text of the interview:
Q: Is the reformist movement in Iran subdued today as a result of the aftershock of the conservatives’ victory in the parliamentary and presidential elections?
A: It is normal for a group that has failed or been removed from power to be calm, however it is a different matter for Etemad-e-Melli. From the first day following the election results and the defeat of the reformists, we got to work and established our party. Since then, we convene, discuss issues, write letters and hold interviews on a regular basis. We have our own party and newspaper. However, it is only natural for the movement that loses the seat of power to move quietly. Regarding the defeat of the reformists in the elections, the matter was not that grave since part of the reformists’ loss was a miscalculation from their side – meaning that the conservatives did not win but it was rather that the reformists lost. The reformists are responsible for their defeat in the elections.
Q: How can the reformists be responsible for their loss?
A: The reason is that the reformists created differences among their ranks. During the parliamentary elections some reformists boycotted the elections while others participated. It’s only natural when a faction within an oppositional group, such as the reformist movement decides to boycott the elections that the repercussions will affect the whole reformist trend – in fact it would even impact the oppositional conservative trend. Many of the reformists did not participate in the elections, which was a result of the failure of former president Khatami’s government in some points. These are the main causes for the failure of the reformist movement. As for the presidential elections, the reformists did not win because the Iranian public did not show an interest in them, which resulted in creating rifts in the unity of the reformist movement. Instead of one candidate, there were four and so the votes were distributed among four people. Moreover, the reformists did not trust one another and it was evident that these policies were wrong. However in the local elections and those of the Assembly of Experts that were held last December, the reformists participated and their attempts for unity succeeded.
Q: Is the reformist movement still divided to this day or has it united because of the pressure of the conservative trend?
A: First of all, the majority of Iranians are inclined towards the reformist trend. The situation for the reformists in Iran is not bad, there is unity among them and although some of them have committed the aforementioned mistakes and did not cooperate with others, still, unity within the main force of the movement exists. It was only a small faction that did not participate but generally we are in good shape.
Second, in terms of the pressure from the conservative side, I say: There is no pressure. However, there has been an automatic transfer of the means of power and facilitation on their side while the reformists are now far removed from the sources of power. For example, when the last parliamentary elections were held the reformists controlled the government and they could have exerted pressure or raised objections when the reformists were not allowed to run as candidates [the Guardian Council rejected many of their key candidates in the first round of elections]. In the last presidential elections we had executive power but unfortunately we did not win because Khatami was in his last days. Circumstances are more difficult now but there is no pressure.
Q: Is it true that there are nine Iranian reformist parties currently working to form a large coalition that includes participation as one body in the forthcoming presidential elections, and is it true that you refused to join them?
A: I haven’t heard anything about this coalition; this is the first time I hear of it. Etemad-e-Melli was only formed a year and a half ago but we are very active nonetheless. We have a lot of offices throughout Iran, we have our plans and our own think tanks – we do what needs to be done. We still have a long road ahead of us but thus far, things are going according to plan. In the last elections, the local municipalities and the Assembly of Experts’ we participated in a number of cities and the outcome was good. We were the only reformist party to participate in both. We have excellent relations and cooperation with like-minded factions. We also have problems but our future is good. Our newspaper is only a year old but according to what people are saying it is one of the best, if not the best, newspaper in Iran.
Q: What is the difference between Etemad-e-Melli and other reformist parties such as al Musharaka party [Islamic Iran Participation Front] and how do you regard the future of reform in Iran?
A: We have announced our political program but we have not declared the differences between us and the rest of the reform parties in Iran – that is for the people to judge. They need to look at the different parties and decide what the differences are between them. We are a party that embraces all the classes within society: students, workers, professionals and the clergy. Our party operates within the general framework of the Iranian republic’s constitution, which means it adheres to the ‘republic’ and the ‘Islamic’ elements in it. For it to be a republic means that all the political institutions must be elected by the people and to be Islamic means that it must comply with the rules of Islam.
Our approach relies upon Imam Khamenei’s example (Khatt al Imam – followers of the line of the Imams). We try to compete with a strong presence in all of the elections, we are doing this now so that we may reach power and service the people. With the exception of Israel, we believe that Iran should have good relations with all the countries – even the United States. Our policy is to alleviate the tensions between Iran and the rest of the world, and to negotiate and succeed in unity. It is only natural for us to strive towards having good relations with the Islamic world and the countries in the region. However it must be said that the US was very harsh with Iran. In Iranian historical memory we remember how the US overthrew the government of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh in the 1950s [democratically elected in Iran, Mossadegh was removed following a coup that was orchestrated by the CIA in collaboration with Mohammad Reza Pahlavi] and exiled Imam Khomeini to Iraq for 15 years. America must rebuild the trust – these are my thoughts. We can negotiate and discuss issues with the US but it must be on a fair and equal basis, it cannot feel superior to us or exercise preferential treatment on our behalf.
Q: So would you say that the troubled relations between Iran and the US are specific to this administration?
A: Mr. Bush is extreme but the Democratic Party is more rational. I visited the US during Clinton’s presidency to attend a conference between the Iranian parliamentary leadership and the US Congress and I spoke with various members of the Congress, however this Congress is completely irrational. John Kerry, for example, said that the Bush administration has isolated Washington from the rest of the world.
Q: Would you rather wait until the end of Bush’s term to try and repair relations with the new administration?
A: This is a matter for Iranian diplomacy; however the general idea is that we cannot deal with this administration. We also have elections next year sometime in February or March.
Q: Are you concerned that Iran might be subjected to the threat of American military action during the year before the end of Bush’s term?
A: We are against the occupation and believe that the US must transfer full sovereignty to the Iraqi government as soon as possible. We are absolutely against foreign presence in Iraq however that presence does not pose a threat to us. They might try to create problems within Iran and turn the people against us, but we do not fear their presence. The real threat is against the Islamic world, it [the US] is trying to fragment the unity of the Muslim world, especially on a sectarian level between the Sunnis and the Shia. Its threat to us is less serious than what it is for the unity of the Sunnis and Shia in the region. They can achieve this in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere but here in Iran – they cannot do anything. We are not worried but their presence in general may lead to negative results when it comes to Iran’s interests.
Q: Are there tensions in the relationship between Iran and Iraq, particularly following the increase of attacks on Iranian interests in Iraq?
A: The Iraqi president who is Sunni and the Iraqi prime minister who is Shia have announced on more than one occasion that the relationship between the Iran and Iraq is very good – in fact, they said that Iran has been aiding Iraq since Saddam Hussein’s era when Iran agreed to accept members of the Iraqi opposition for political asylum in the country. Talk of the tensions between Iraqis and Iranians is American talk and the Iraqis do not accept such talk. This trick did not work. We have strong relations both on an official and on a popular level and also by virtue of the pilgrimages to the sacred sites of Imam Hussein and Imam al Rida, among others.
Q: But there are accusations made that you are trying to export the concept of the Iranian revolution?
A: We do not propagate the revolution; it is made of a set of ideas and viewpoints that could have an influence on people. During the Shah’s time, leftist ideas were sweeping through the world and these ideas diffused worldwide and even reached Iran in spite of the constraints, prohibitions and the limitations on the media as opposed to its dissemination today. The relationship between the Shah and Gamal Abdel Nasser was very bad but still, we were seeking knowledge and the Shah could not prevent the transmission of ideas from the nationalist movement to Iran. You cannot prevent the transmission of ideas by military force. Ideas are unstoppable. We do to seek to propagate the ideas of the revolution but we cannot stop them from spreading and influencing the Islamic world.
Q: But some accuse Iran of exploiting the ‘Shia factor’ in its foreign policy – with Lebanon and Iraq as examples, what do you think?
A: If Iran is exploiting the ‘Shia factor’ in its foreign policy then it is wrong. But I believe this to be untrue. I visited Lebanon five or six years ago when I was parliamentary speaker during Khatami’s era and we exerted all efforts in preserving the unity between the Sunnis and Shia. Across the Islamic world there were conferences, dialogue and discussion tables between Sunni and Shia scholars in all of the regions countries. They used to come to Iran and we used to visit their countries and go to Islamic states – we had good relations then.
The Lebanese in particular are very committed to preserving the unity between the Sunnis and the Shia. When we hosted Hezbollah leaders in Iran there would be Christians among their delegation. Often simple matters are blown out of proportion by some parties to achieve certain goals. Consider how Grand Ayotollah al Sistani deals in Iraq for example, he leads the Shia but he has an excellent relationship with Iraq’s Sunnis – a matter he is most careful about.
Q: Do you have a balanced relationship with Iraq’s Sunnis and Shia?
A: The Iranian policy in Iraq is openness towards all sects and to establish cooperative relations with the government. Perhaps some of the hardliner Shias do not do that, even amongst their clergy there are those who act wrong but this does not reflect Iranian policies and neither does it guide the main force. But the opposite can happen as well, when I was Imam Khomeini’s envoy in charge of the Hajj affairs in Mecca I saw a group of Sunni clergy who were saying wrong things, however they were an exception and it cannot be said that they represent the regime or reflect the official position. The situation is the same in Iran. This can happen in some places and over some issues.
Q: Some Iranians believe that the financial backing given to Hezbollah, Hamas and others is detrimental to the economy and ask: what have we to gain?
A: This is normal, all nations in the world have financial commitments and expenditure in accordance with the national interest but it’s equally natural for people to have different views on the subject. Some Iranians are for it and others are against it but in general the majority of Iranians are for it and support the government’s backing of Hezbollah and Palestine. We have previously backed Afghanistan and Iraq, and again, some were for it and others against it.
Q: What concerns you more: the financial difficulties in the country, or the fear of American bombs falling on Iran and the increasing problems in Iran’s foreign relations, especially with traditional allies such as China and Russia?
A: Actually, our relations with China and Russian are very good. Internally, the Iranians are united in their support of the regime and the revolution. The demonstrations that took place last February 11th marking the anniversary of the revolution are proof of that. Last December’s elections saw a broad participation despite being local elections and the Assembly of Experts’ elections, which come in third in terms of importance after the presidential and parliamentary elections, respectively. We have internal and external pressures; the former are normal as the Iranians have a lot of complaints and criticisms for Iran’s internal problems. However, we must exert all efforts to discuss and resolve these problems – particularly unemployment and general freedoms. In terms of the nuclear issue, Iran is facing external pressure from the US and the Zionist regime – in addition to some false statements that were declared in Iran and that were not premeditated, which have led to increased pressures. However, I am confident we will get past this crisis.
Q: You have tried for a long time to change the electoral laws in Iran but you have failed, what are the forces that pose obstacles?
A: There were problems in the electoral law that has been amended – but we still face problems with the Assembly of Experts. There is a misunderstanding between us over the interpretation of the constitution. The Assembly of Experts monitored the elections. We concede that the Assembly of Experts should ‘monitor’ the elections so as to ensure transparency, however it upholds that it ‘has the authority’ to prevent the nomination of some of the candidates, which is the point of contention. Furthermore, some parties within the reformist movement have fanned the flames of this conflict higher, which has caused us a great deal of harm. We could have been able to convince the Assembly of Experts with our view were it not for these interferences, which have unfortunately prevented that from happening.
Q: What is the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s position on that matter?
A: The Supreme Leader’s adopted a positive stance and in some cases intervened himself to resolve the problem but when the problem escalated he no longer intervened and distanced himself. But we also have a different kind of problem and that is that the Assembly of Experts is the body entitled with the interpretation of the constitution; it is thus at once the problem and its solution. In all cases in the political world it is necessary to cooperate with others, and if that does not happen the problems only become deeper.
Q: Etemad-e-Melli newspaper speaks frankly about the government and criticizes the management of the economy, for example – what is your view of the economic situation in Iran?
A: we criticize the government– that is our job and what we must do. We highlight our views regarding the government’s policies and inform people of the developments. Regarding my assessment of the government’s management of the economy I do not wish to get into details not because I was a candidate for the presidency but because the economic problems are very grave and they include unemployment, inflation and problems with housing. The government’s budget for the new fiscal year is being discussed in parliament these days and as such, the situation will become clearer regarding the budget and confronting the problematic economic situation.
But there are problems relating to the government’s management as in the case when it announced that the price of a barrel of oil would be US $33.7. The head of the parliamentary economic commission, Dr. Ahmed Tavakoli who is a conservative economist said that the real figure was US $50 per barrel, which means that the figure the government announced and printed in the press was false. In any case, we hope that the government and parliament can set a good budget for this year. Fortunately, the parliamentary debates are broadcast live on the radio every day. This is one of the benefits of the revolution whereby it was constitutionally decided that all parliamentary debates would broadcast unedited and live in accordance with the instructions of Imam al Khomeini.
Q: Finally, why is there no unified press law in Iran?
A: We have problems in the press law in Iran that need amending but the conservatives have stood in the way of the reformists. There were meant to be changes but some have interfered in a way that has not helped us.