Prof. Scott Lucas
Britain’s Financial Times has published a lengthy interview with Mehdi Karroubi. The full interview, covering Karroubi’s political involvement from 1979 to the present, is well worth a read, but these extracts get to the heart of Karroubi’s current move for reform and his challenge to the Ahmadinejad Government.
The cleric’s comments appear to provide clarity on his proposed resolution, after his statement on Monday put him back in the centre of events: 1) once again, the call is for unity between “conservatives” and “reformists”, working within the Iranian system to remedy injustices and to ensure that the Constitution is upheld; 2) Ahmadinejad must go; 3) the man who needs to ensure this is the Supreme Leader.
“Conservatives” like Ali Larijani, what say you? Ayatollah Khamenei, your response and agreement, please?
FT: How do you feel now when you see your opponents call for your prosecution or try to put you back in Evin, the same jail you were in before the revolution?
MK: I have mixed feelings. One is that of sorrow. I feel sad to see some of those in jail now are the children of the revolution and had spent years in the Shah’s prisons. They have served the Islamic establishment for years.
I wonder what has happened to the revolution? It was supposed to spread its umbrella and attract even its opponents. The revolutionary circle was not supposed to be this tight that even its children are not tolerated. This makes me sad.
I believe in reform, which means to have the Islamic republic we promised during the revolution. I am committed to the promises of providing independence and freedom and establishing the Islamic Republic.
MK: We do not want to make another revolution and do not seek to overthrow the regime. We are attached to the real Islamic republic, the one we promised to people which was approved by 98 per cent of the people [in a 1979 referendum].
You can see republicanism within Islam and you can see Islam within republicanism. I have put my young-hood, life and motivations to this belief. If one day the Islamic republic is taken away from me, I would feel emptied.
One cannot spend decades for a cause and then conclude it was a waste of time. So, the Islamic revolution and the Islamic republic are the principles. Of course, this doesn’t mean we are denying weaknesses and shortcomings.
FT: What has happened that the children of the Islamic society who founded it are now accused of trying to destroy it?
MK: It is because neither the Islamic part of the Islamic republic has been paid the attention it deserved, nor the Republican part.
The republicanism necessitated free elections in which the criteria had to be people’s votes. In other words, people are the final decision-makers. Islamic republic means state organisations and military bodies should not interfere in elections to damage the republicanism side of the regime as is happening now.
On the other hand, Islamism of the system has been hurt. It means Islamic is presented in a very superficial way in discussions while superstitious and illusionary beliefs are spread.
Islam is not restricted to prayer and fasting. Respecting people, not humiliating them, and observing their rights are other major parts of Islam to attract followers not to dispel them.
We say a political current has been created which is weakening republicanism on one side because it doesn’t believe in votes and is undermining Islam.
FT: How could they become so strong and sweep to power?
MK: In sum, some power centres helped them to take control of some economic, political and cultural centres.
Those who believed in putting Islam in a tight framework have swept to power and have expanded their belief to republicanism. How they managed to do so cannot be discussed now.
Some immature acts in the first decade of the revolution – a period we are proud of – could be justified for a newly established system which had just got out of the Shah’s corrupt system and was struggling with a war with Iraq.
But even at the time Imam Khomeini believed security forces should not search for drugs if they go to an opponent’s house to confiscate his weapons. Now, family albums are searched.
Imam Khomeini believed some rogue acts in foreign policies, judicial matters and financial issues like confiscations of people’s properties had to stop after a certain period.
FT: How much do you blame Mr Ahmadi-Nejad himself for the recent political turmoil?
MK: Both Mr Ahmadi-Nejad himself and the political current behind him are very guilty for recent developments. Mr Ahmadi-Nejad is surely not alone. There is a group behind him who have a lot of influence on him.
The group working with him is neither left nor right. Traditional lefties and righties believe in serious competition while keeping friendship. But this trend doesn’t believe in this kind of relationship.
FT: Do you see Mr Ahmadi-Nejad and his backers as a risk to the Islamic republic?
MK: They are not a risk in a sense that they are hand-in-hand with foreigners. I would not say that, because it needs to be proved.
But isolating associations, thoughts, students, academics and the reform-minded clergy is really worrisome. Look at how [badly] the press, students, prisoners and students and even the senior clergy are treated.
FT: Are you worried that such behaviour could cause the collapse of the Islamic republic?
MK: These behaviours have made damages and will strike more blows but would not lead to the overthrow of the regime.
I believe the Islamic revolution has strong roots. It is true that the Islamic regime has opponents, but the roots of Islam, the revolution and the Islamic republic are deep. I also believe there are still many power centres, including political, non-political and religious institutions, which can stop the trend of radicalism.
Many senior clerics are unhappy with the current situation. They would not tolerate when they see serious damages are being made. They will surely stop it.
FT: Do you think the government of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad can finish its four-year term? Is there any chance it might be dismissed?
MK: When similar comments were made about the first four-year term of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad, I never agreed and insisted he would finish his term. It happened.
Considering the political and economic problems plus a controversial foreign policy, I personally believe Mr Ahmadi-Nejad would not be able to finish his term.
Look at the way he runs the country. He presented the budget to the parliament only yesterday [Jan 17] which is too late.
I want to say that from cultural, foreign policy, economic, management and security points of view, the government has serious problems. Taking all these problems into consideration, I think the government cannot survive.
FT: How much have the street protests against the government added to your doubts about the government’s survival?
MK: This is one of the problems. The government was unable to act logically, hold healthy elections and set up a group to study protests over the election. If the government were far-sighted, these problems would not have been created.
FT: Are the moderate forces of both sides getting close to each other to save the Islamic republic? And do they believe that one solution could be to dismiss the government?
MK: This week, Mr [Akbar] Hashemi-Rafsanjani [former president] once again said that moderate forces from both sides should get together and find a solution. He rightly said the best person who could help this happen is the supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei]. I agree with him.
The forces from both sides who care about the Islamic system will join forces when they see, God forbid, the revolution, the system and the Islamic republic are at stake. This will happen quite soon.
FT: How soon?
MK: I don’t know how long it will take, but I think it won’t take too long. Look at certain indices: inflation, stagnation of the economy, closure of economic centres, in particular industrial units, which are working with 20 or 40 per cent of their capacities, increasing unemployment, poverty line standing at 7m rials ($700) which means above 40 per cent of people are poor.
The continuation of this situation will create problems. The government is unable to tackle the problems and does not have the capability [to]. Look how many times the government changed its interior and economy ministers.
FT: If such a meeting of moderate forces is convened in the not-too-distant future as you say, what would be your vote? Would you insist that Mr Ahmadi-Nejad should go? Or will you compromise and give legitimacy to his government?
MK: It will all depend on what kind of discussions and options are raised. One option would be to reshuffle the cabinet by which not all the cabinet members but those who are inefficient are changed and [the president’s] interferences in ministries are stopped.
Mr Ahmadi-Nejad says one thing every day and creates problems for the country. What I’m seeking is an efficient government.
But knowing this man, I believe he would not change his behaviour.
FT: So, you recognise the government and have retreated from your earlier position that this government is not legitimate?
MK: Whatever I said about the election is still valid and, I repeat, it was not a healthy poll.
But the truth is that the parliament has voted for him and he was sworn in. But I assure you the same parliamentarians who won the election because over 2,000 reformists were disqualified by the Guardian Council [the constitutional watchdog], are ready to remove Mr Ahmadi-Nejad in one month if they put aside some considerations and cautiousness.
FT: You used to say this government was illegal and illegitimate. Now you want to make the cabinet more efficient or restrict Mr Ahmadi-Nejad?
MK: What I said is that if a group sits together, which was your question, they will decide whether Mr Ahmadi-Nejad should go or stay. I cannot decide on my own what should happen to him.
If the majority in such a meeting says he should stay and change his behaviour, I cannot oppose this. But I personally say this man does not have the capacity to continue. The oil revenues Iran earned under his presidency – about $350bn – were extraordinary.
FT: What you are saying now is quite similar to what Mr Moussavi and Mr Khatami said recently. Does this mean the opposition leaders have decided to make a compromise because they see the future of Islamic republic at stake?
MK: My personal view is that the government is incapable and does not have the votes of the people. But it is the government with which we have problems. I think the government should go, but if others don’t say so, I cannot push for it.
The country’s problems will get worse and no choice will be left [for the regime] but to find a solution.
But the truth is there is no news yet that the other side seeks a solution. The other side still thinks the post-election event was “sedition”. They believe things are going back to normal and the so-called sedition is being put off.
FT: As I said, this was not your position before, that the government could go through some changes?
MK: What did I say before? That the Islamic republic should go?
FT: No. But you were refusing to recognise the government. Now you say the parliament has sworn him in.
MK: You say what is the solution and I say it’s not only with me. We should first accept to sit together and talk.
FT: The factors you cited that the government would not survive all existed in the first four- year term of the government as well. It survived last time. Why shouldn’t the government finish its term this time?
MK: You have a strong body but you can be weakened following incidents and illnesses. The Islamic republic has paid enormously for these four or five years of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad. It does not have further strength.
What happened in the presidential election [in June] had happened in the previous presidential election [in 2005] and the last two parliamentary polls. But the pent-up anger showed itself in an explosion this time. Such things don’t happen overnight.
The hefty oil revenues have been a good cover so far. Now, the banks’ overdue payments have exceeded $40bn. It is similar to a strong body which could bear hardships for a limited period. That body is weak now.
FT: Demonstrators first targeted Mr Ahmadi-Nejad in their street protests after the election. But as you know that it’s been quite some time that the whole system and the supreme leader have been targets. People now call for a secular state. What do you think?
MK: I think these slogans are 100 per cent wrong and won’t bear any fruits. I am even suspicious of such slogans and don’t know if it’s truly by the youth who are emotional and immature or by certain [power] centres try to make people over-react and then use it as an excuse for suppression.
Our slogans are within this system and this constitution. Our constitution has some weaknesses but has lots of [democratic] capacities.
FT: Why don’t you tell your supporters not to chant the slogans?
MK: I do tell them. A small number of people chanted “Neither Gaza, nor Lebanon, My life is for Iran”. You saw how much it was misused by the other side. Some wise people believed the slogan should have been “Both Gaza and Lebanon, My life is for Iran”.
FT: What’s your position on the supreme leader?
MK: I accept velayat-e faghih [the rule of supreme jurisprudent envisaged in the constitution]. I accept the Islamic republic and I accept the constitution. I don’t agree with slogans that call for changing power structures.
FT: Your allies are arrested. Your office and newspaper were shut down. What are your plans now?
MK: As far as it’s been possible, I have continued. But I feel sad that many of my friends are in jail. My pride is hurt that the Islamic republic has reached a point that it arrests its ministers, lawyers, vice-presidents, deputy ministers, governor generals and journalists. These people served the revolution for many years and were in jail under the Shah.
As for the limitations on me, I feel under semi-house arrest. The [state] policy is not to pay the price for putting me under an official house arrest. But in the meantime as soon as I have some kind of meeting somewhere, a group of basijis are dispatched to disrupt the gatherings.
I release statements and have some meetings with families of political prisoners. I do work to some extent. But these limitations are behind the radicalisation of slogans which I don’t agree with. Too much pressure backfires. When you hurt people, they chant radical slogans.
FT: Aren’t you worried that the gap between you and people might be widened now that you say their slogans are wrong?
MK: I back people but don’t want to cheat them. I tell them that we have reforms and believe in your freedom.
I have said repeatedly that people are their own leader. I’ve said many times that we are not leading the movement. People are protesting against the way they are treated. They feel humiliated. Iranians don’t accept to be dictated. They might tolerate for some time, but then they explode.
The most important factor behind Imam Khomeini’s success was that he valued people and respected their votes.
Yes, people are ahead of me. Being ahead means they are more determined and more prepared to achieve their rights without having any personal ambitions. Look at how women demonstrate sacrifice.
My agreement or disagreement with the regime wouldn’t have much impact on these people. The regime should be wise to find a solution and clear the mess to prevent further radicalisation.
People would take it positively if their demands are addressed and if free political debates are held in press.
FT: Do you think people now want to overthrow the regime?
MK: A majority of people do not want to overthrow the regime. In fact, anyone who cares about the future of this country is not after toppling the regime because it is not clear what would come out of it. If it was not thanks to the extraordinary leadership skills of Imam Khomeini, God knows what would have happened to Iran with the 1979 revolution.
We have to try to protect this system and the Islamic republic that we had promised should come into reality. In that case, the majority of people would be happy. We have to sit and see where the loopholes are and correct them.
FT: But your opponents say this is in fact an act of overthrowing the system.
MK: They wrongly say it is because they say that the US and Britain support us ,therefore we are wrong. And that the BBC supports us. BBC did the same during the 1979 revolution [backing the revolution].
We are neither after overthrowing the regime, not are its opponents. We are against monopolies, dictatorship and short-mindedness which would discredit Islam.
FT: Do you see Mr Moussavi regularly?
MK: Yes. We exchange views quite regularly.
FT: Do you co-ordinate policies?
MK: Yes and no. Mr Moussavi and his allies have certain views. The same is with me and my allies.
FT: Do you agree with his suggestions to end the political crisis?
MK: Yes, largely.
FT: Is there any sign that those suggestions are taken seriously by the regime?
MK: There is no sign yet.
FT: What about Mr Khatami?
MK: I see him less than Mr Moussavi.
MK: That’s the way it is now. Mr Khatami does not release statements as we do.
FT: How about Mr Rafsanjani? How do you assess his role now?
MK: He should be assessed within his own framework. The favour he has done to us is that he has not condemned us even though he has been under a lot of pressure to do so.
He will have a significant role if there is supposed to be consensus one day. No one else could play his role between reformists and fundamentalists because of his background in the revolution and the role he played in choosing the supreme leader. He also holds two important positions at the Experts Assembly and the Expediency Council. He is able to do things that none of the elites in either sides can do.
FT: Is Mr Rafsanjani still waiting for the right time to come to intervene?
MK: I think he is under a lot of pressure and attacks in the media not to play any mediating role. The radicals know he can do certain things that we are not able to do.
Mr Rafsanjani threw his weight behind Mr Khatami [in 1997 presidential election] and Mr Moussavi [in June election].
FT: Will you attend the February 11 rally [to commemorate the revolution victory]?
FT: You might be attacked. Your car was only recently shot.
MK: I was not scared at all. I was so calm. Thank God, my spirit is so high. I even welcome any risks to my life. I love to live like every human being and when you get older you feel more attached to your family and grandchildren.
This, however, does not stop me to go into the middle of crowd and travel around with sometimes a crappy car, as my wife complains [laughing].
FT: It is not always a question of risk to your life. As you know the nephew of Mir-Hossein Moussavi [the top opposition leader] was killed recently. Do you have any fears for your family?
MK: Without any exaggeration, I can say I have no fears. This is because I strongly believe in my ideas. My sons are now old and have white beards [laughing]. The youngest son is 31 years old. What can I do? Let them kill anyone they like?
FT: Last question: you created a storm by raising rape and torture in prisons and you came under a lot of pressure. Did that make any difference?
MK: Prisoners say their situation has improved a lot. I have no regrets for raising it, because I didn’t say the regime was systematically doing it. But there was some carelessness that I wanted to stop.
27 January 2010