In a SPIEGEL interview, Iranian Ayatollah Mohsen Kadivar, currently a visiting research professor at America’s Duke University, discusses the recent death of opposition leader Hossein Ali Montazeri, the frustrations Iranians have with their regime, the future of the green movement and the prospect of an escalation.
SPIEGEL: Ayatollah Kadivar, what did Hossein Ali Montazeri mean to you, and what role did he play for the Iranian people?
Kadivar: He was my teacher, my spiritual guide, my father — the most important person in my life. I studied as a young man under him when he was the Revolutionary Leader’s deputy. I admired the way he fought along side Khomeini, but then also for his candid criticism of him. I cried when Khomeini repudiated him. For Iran, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri was a true beacon of light and, in the end, a spiritual leader for the green opposition.
SPIEGEL: The authorities prevented independent media coverage of his funeral. People spoke of a provocation and rioting. What really happened last Monday in Qom?
Kadivar: My relatives were part of the funeral procession, which included hundreds of thousands of people, including a nephew of Khomeini’s. From them I know that the Basij militias attempted to provoke peaceful mourners to commit violence. They didn’t do them this favor. But they did shout out slogans that had never been heard before in Qom, Iran’s most conservative city: “Death to the dictator! Our leader is our shame!” On that day, the people were particularly angry at supreme religious leader Ali Khamenei.
Kadivar: Khamenei said in his message of mourning that Montazeri had failed at a crucial point in his life. Everyone knew that he meant Montazeri’s confrontation with Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. Khamenei did not speak in the “I” form, but rather in the “we” form, as if he were the voice of Allah on forgiving Montazeri’s mistake in the hereafter. That upset people. After all, the mourners said, only God can decide who failed and at which turning point in the Islamic Republic. Khamenei is not God.
SPIEGEL: Montazeri succeeded in recent months in uniting the religious and secular wings of the opposition. Has his death weakened the dissident movement?
Kadivar: The exact opposite is true. The mourning will actually strengthen the opposition’s determination. The Shiite Ashura (a religious holiday to take place on Sunday), which is symbolically about justice, will provide a further boost for the protest. The authorities are not able to ban this ceremony, which coincides with the seventh day after Montazeri’s death.
SPIEGEL: Do you expect a further escalation of state repression? Will the government dare to arrest the opposition politicians Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi?
Kadivar: You cannot rule out the possibility; at the same time, the rulers also fear any kind of escalation — and rightly so. The next level could be open rebellion. But things have not gotten that far yet. There is still a chance for a peaceful reform of the state.
SPIEGEL: Really? You don’t think that Iran has already long been on the path to becoming a religiously tinged military dictatorship?
Kadivar: You are right that the Shiite theocracy in its present form has failed — a fact that few have expressed as clearly as my teacher in the last few months. Incidentally, when Grand Ayatollah Montazeri had his falling out with Khomeini, three months before the supreme religious leader’s death in 1989, he said: This state is so different from the one we dreamed of and worked to create. Still, it is not Islam which has failed, but rather a particular interpretation of Islam. I also want to express that there hasn’t been a revolution in Iran yet. The opposition is becoming increasingly clear in the formulation of its objectives and more daring. Still, we need to remain patient. I do not know when, exactly, but I am convinced that the regime will collapse.
SPIEGEL: Can the West do anything to support a democratic reform process?
Kadivar: The tightening of sanctions is not the right path ahead. They affect the people more than the government. A military attack is something I categorically reject. Perhaps Western countries should stop treating Ahmadinejad’s government as the legitimate government of Iran. Otherwise, I think the reforms must be pushed forward from inside the country.
SPIEGEL: Do you still keep a picture of Khomeini on the wall in your apartment in Iran?
Kadivar: I took the Khomeini portrait down a long time ago, and neither have I put up a photo of my mentor, Montazeri. It has been replaced with a Koran verse: God is greater than anything.
Interview conducted by Erich Follath