TEHRAN — Mohsen Kadivar is a lonely voice in Iran these days.
A charismatic cleric with a salt-and-pepper beard and a spirited smile, Kadivar became a hero to Iranian youth during his 1999 trial for challenging Iran’s rigid theocracy.
But the once-robust reform movement he symbolized virtually evaporated this year. Its political groups are in disarray. The last of 110 dissident newspapers or magazines have been shut down. Democracy advocates in parliament were barred from running again in elections last February, and student activists have been jailed or harassed.
These days, Kadivar, 45, is increasingly on his own — and he is criticizing both conservatives and reformers.
He still stirs controversy with his scathing criticism of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the symbol of Iran’s political system. Kadivar warns that Khamenei’s position is growing even more powerful as reformers are marginalized.
“The supreme leader is increasing his powers . . . but not his authority. Authority you can see in the street from the people. Power you get from soldiers and security forces,” said Kadivar, still defiant after spending 18 months in solitary confinement in Tehran’s Evin prison for “disseminating lies” and “defaming Islam.”
Interviewed in his modest, book-lined office, Kadivar said ordinary Iranians were “not satisfied” with Khamenei. “If they see him on TV, they change the channel,” he said.
Kadivar said the supreme leader’s absolute veto power over legislation, presidential decisions, judicial verdicts and candidates for public office has made Iran a “religious dictatorship” as unjust and illegitimate as the monarchy ousted in 1979.
“No one should be above the constitution. Most Iranians believe this but are afraid to say it,” he added. “The supreme leader doesn’t come from God.”
By contemporary Middle Eastern standards, Iran has an unusual variety of activists and thinkers. Shirin Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for her human rights campaign. Abdul Karim Soroush, a philosopher who now teaches abroad, is often called the Martin Luther of Islam for his ideas on reforming the faith.
Kadivar’s younger sister, Jamileh, was a leading reform member of parliament until the Council of Guardians barred her from running again this year. Her husband, Ataollah Mohajerani, was a cabinet minister and a leading advocate of a freer press until he was squeezed out.
But as the leverage of secular reformers ebbs, Kadivar is among the few who remain a serious threat to the religious leadership because he, too, wears a white clerical turban.
“As a cleric, he speaks with more authority to the community of believers. He also reflects the split within the clerical community that is the repository of power in Iran,” said Shaul Bakhash, author of “The Reign of the Ayatollahs,” who teaches at George Mason University.
Other U.S.-based analysts said prospects for reform in Iran will depend heavily on younger dissident clerics challenging the original revolutionaries, who are now in their sixties and seventies.
“The clergy has been talking about these issues among themselves, but Kadivar has taken the discourse into the public domain, so he’s more threatening,” said Hadi Semati, a political scientist at Tehran University who is now a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Semati said Kadivar’s greatest success has been in raising such ideas as “a redefinition of Islam compatible with democracy, and a more appropriate relationship between mosque and state.”
Even within the Shiite clergy, he said, there is an appetite for alternative visions. “At least 95 percent of the clergy have not been beneficiaries of the revolution,” Semati said. “Some got money and prestige, but the overwhelming majority are poor and have not been part of the power structure.”
Kadivar quotes liberally from both the Koran and the 19th-century French writer Alexis de Tocqueville, as well as other Western thinkers, as he builds the case for blending Islam and democracy.
“Without respecting individuality and freedom of choice, human dignity cannot be respected,” he wrote in a paper presented in Brussels last month. “Any exercise of force and compulsion on people in the name of religion is forbidden.”
Kadivar asserts that the conservatives’ agenda is destructive for both Iran and Islam. “Our job as religious people is not politics,” he said. “They are taking Iran backward, not toward the future.”
But he is also hard on reformers, saying they have failed to promote their ideas aggressively. “They don’t have a practical map. They were not strong. . . . They have only the appearance of parties,” he said.
Kadivar said President Mohammad Khatami, a lame-duck reformist whose final term ends in mid-2005, “thought when he made a good speech, that was enough.” But he added, “If you want to change society, it requires resisting. . . . Khatami didn’t do this.”
Kadivar’s family is from Shiraz, a former Iranian capital noted for its roses, poets and good humor. A broad smile often breaks across Kadivar’s face, even as he lambastes his fellow clerics — and muses about his own vulnerability.
Kadivar, the author of 12 books, has been unable to get new manuscripts published since he was released from prison in 2000. He now relies on a Web site, in English and Farsi, to publicize his writings.
Officials have threatened to send him back to prison several times, Kadivar said, adding that for him, “It almost doesn’t matter. I came out of a small prison to a big prison, because when I can’t say my thoughts, I still live in a prison.” “