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Iranian Grand Ayatollah Montazeri suggests Supreme Leader illegitimate, urges people to fight oppress;

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: On Saturday in Iran, Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, the most senior cleric living in Iran and one of the two top sources of religious emulation in Shiite Islam, issued a series of fatwas suggesting that the supreme leader could be illegitimate and saying that he could be working with the government against religion. Montazeri has called on people to take action against injustice, even if they have to pay a heavy price for it. Now joining us from Denver is Nader Hashemi. He teaches Middle Eastern and Islamic politics at the University of Denver. Thanks for joining us, Nader.


JAY: Nader, before you talk about Ayatollah’s statement, just give us a little bit of your own background and your connection to Iran.

HASHEMI: I’m the product of Iranian Muslim immigrant parents to Canada. My father in the early 1960s was active in the early pro-democracy movement in Iran, and he was very close with several people who ended up being leaders in the 1979 Islamic revolution. So there’s a long history in our family of pro-democracy activism. Our family actually moved back to the Iran after the 1979 revolution, where I was able to witness firsthand the early post-revolutionary era power struggle, political conflict, contestation, and human rights violations.

JAY: And tell people quickly the name of your new book.

HASHEMI: Yeah, and I’m the author of a new book, called Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy, published by Oxford University Press, that came out this year.

JAY: Okay. I’m going to read a section of the Ayatollah’s statement and then talk a bit about what you think the significance of it is. “Preserving the political system is not by itself an issue, particularly when the system becomes the same as a person [who rules the system and the people].” ( The Ayatollah went on to say, “A political system based on force, oppression, changing people’s votes, killing, closure [of organs of civil society], arresting [people] and using Stalinist and medieval torture, creating repression, censorship of newspapers, interruption of the means of mass communications, jailing the enlightened and the elite of society for false reasons, and forcing them to make false confessions in jail is condemned and illegitimate.” So, Nader, that’s pretty powerful words. He doesn’t in the statement directly accuse the supreme leader of doing it, but it’s pretty clear, the context within which he is saying it. So tell us who this ayatollah is and how important is this statement.

HASHEMI: Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri is one of Iran’s leading grand ayatollahs. There’s only about a dozen of them. He is one of the most senior, and he’s also one of the most politically active. He’s widely regarded to have been one of the leaders of the 1979 Islamic revolution, and for most of the first decade in Iran, he was the designated successor to Ayatollah Khomeini, in large part because of his activism against the pro-Western monarchy in Iran in 1979, where he was in jail, he was imprisoned, he was tortured. And he also ended up developing and devising some of the most important theological justifications for the current Islamic republican system. So he’s both a learned senior cleric who has a lot of moral authority in a religious society, he’s one of the founders of the Islamic Revolution, and he was the designated successor of Ayatollah Khomeini until he was forced to step down when he became vocal and outspoken in terms of the growing authoritarianism of Iran’s political system and the abuse of human rights. So he’s someone who has a lot of moral authority in Iranian society, both by virtue of the fact that he’s a grand senior ayatollah, but also because he’s a politicized ayatollah. He is someone who frequently comments on political affairs. He has been a thorn in the side of the regime for many years, dating back to the late 1980s when he started to speak out against growing corruption, human rights violations. And he’s really stuck to that position. It’s been a consistent pattern. And this latest statement or fatwa is really the most, I think, vociferous denunciation of the political status quo in Iran, the crisis of state and society undermining and questioning the very legitimacy of not only the supreme leader but the Islamic Republic of Iran as it manifests itself today in Iranian [society].

JAY: And a lot of the interviews we’ve been doing, we’ve been getting a picture of the Iranian elite, which we understand is a quite complicated class, but with two kind of primary camps right now: Rafsanjani, who has been backing Mousavi; and then the other camp: the supreme leader, the Revolutionary Guard, Ahmadinejad. And roughly we’ve been seeing this picture of two camps, both camps—certainly Rafsanjani and the Revolutionary guard—having deep economic interests, Rafsanjani a multibillionaire, the Revolutionary Guard controlling more and more of the economy. Is Ayatollah Montazeri allied with one of these camps? Or is he considered in sort of a clerical third force?

HASHEMI: Well, he’s not allied with any camp, because he doesn’t hold political power. The different groups that you mentioned—and, by the way, I would say that there’s more than simply two camps, but, you know, we can go into that later. But he is aloof from politics. I mean, he is really someone who stands—after he was deposed in 1988 as the successor to Khomeini, he basically went back to his religious teachings and his seminary in the holy city of Qom and focused his time and attention on his theological studies, but also became sort of a moral critic of the political system. So he’s not allied to any of these camps, but he has been a resource for reformists, for pro-democratic forces to draw upon, precisely by virtue of the moral authority and religious authority that he has. So they would appeal to him during moments of crisis such as this one for advice, for commentary.

JAY: So just how influential it is Montazeri? So, for example, he issues this statement. Do people of Tehran know about it? I assume state television isn’t going to carry it. But do imams read it? Do people in the countryside ever know that he issued this statement? How does this get out?

HASHEMI: Well, thanks to the wonders of globalization—there’s a lot of criticism of globalization, but there is a technological and telecommunications revolution that makes it very difficult for authoritarian regimes to prevent, despite their best efforts, access to information. So this gets circulated through a variety of means. And to those people who are interested, it does filter down and it does inform their political consciousness.

JAY: But the majority of people in Iran don’t have access to the Internet. I know there’s been a lot of talk about this being a Twitter revolution, but I would assume the majority of people that were in the streets probably don’t get on the Internet. So just how far—is there any way this filters out through the religious institutions itself? Or is it really dependent on the Internet and such?

HASHEMI: Most people do not have access to Internet, and this whole discussion of a Twitter revolution, I think, makes for great reporting, but it it doesn’t, I think, represent the political reality in Iran today. Religious clerics, people in the seminaries, political activists will know of this statement and they will, particularly those on the Democratic side of the debate, will gain a lot of succor and sustenance from this statement.

JAY: Ayatollah Montazeri’s been a critic of this regime, as you mentioned, for quite some time. Is there anything radically different about this statement? Or are people going to his say, well, he’s always been a critic, so there’s nothing really new here?

HASHEMI: I think this statement is to be distinguished from previous statements, because in many ways, I think, he accurately sort of captures the political status quo in terms of the growing repression of the regime, the growing clampdown on human rights, and the growing illegitimacy that many people feel, particularly those who are religiously minded. I mean, he’s speaking here to the—and his influence is among those who are pious, who are religious, and who form a large part of Iran’s political constituency. So I think that this statement will resonate. And what distinguishes it from previous statements [is] it is much more bolder. He’s actually drawing parallels with Stalinism, with communist and fascist regimes. And that’s a heavy indictment for this regime in Iran today.

JAY: Yeah. I’ll read one more segment of this. He says: “Iran belongs to the people, not to you and me, and they make the decisions, and the officials are their servants. People must be able to gather peacefully, and defend their rights both in writing and orally. When the Shah heard people’s revolutionary voice, it was too late. It is hoped that the officials will not allow the same situation to develop again, by being as flexible as possible about the people’s demands.” Comparing this situation to the overthrow of the Shah is quite radical. He’s talking about the system itself could be in jeopardy here. Is he in any danger saying these things? And to what extent does he reflect clerical opinion here?

HASHEMI: Well, he’s not in any danger, because he is in his 80s, he’s in very frail health. He was under house arrest for five years after he issued a very famous criticism of the supreme leader and the growing authoritarianism of the regime in 1997. So there’s not much the regime can do to him physically except try to silence his views and not allow them to be disseminated. And to what extent does his ideas—are they a reflection of clerical opinion? Well, it’s difficult to say, but my general reading of what’s taking place in Iran today is that there is an increasingly vast number of clerical members, younger, up-and-coming religious scholars, students, who are very sympathetic to Ayatollah Khomeini’s critique of the Islamic Republican system, in large part because the last 30 years has been a very educational experience for large numbers of Iranians in terms of the problems and the dangers of a close embrace between religion and politics. And people are realizing that, look, the status quo is no longer untenable [sic], and that in order to preserve religion’s integrity in society, its value, its respectability among the population, there has to be some reconsideration of the current political status quo. And so he’s basically offering a moral and ethical critique of the relationship between religion and politics, and making very courageous and bold sort of statements and comparisons, essentially saying that Iran is in a situation very similar to the situation just prior to the 1979 revolution. And he’s coming very close to saying that the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, is behaving like the former monarch, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

JAY: Thanks for joining us. And on the next segment of this interview, let’s talk about who’s been on the streets, what makes up that movement, and what is the role of Western policy, and perhaps, as some people have said, Western involvement, in what’s going on in Iran. Thanks for joining us on The Real News Network.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Nader Hashemi is the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He is the author of "Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies" and co-editor of "The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Democracy in Iran" and most recently "The Syria Dilemma".