A successful transition to democracy in Iraq would increase pressure for change in Iran, a leading Iranian clerical dissident said on Wednesday.

Mohsen Kadivar, whose views have earned him time in jail, also urged Iraq not to follow the Iranian model of granting ultimate power to a senior cleric.

“I think the Iraqis can make what we wanted to create but were unsuccessful: a real Islamic Republic,” he said in an interview. “By that I mean a republic with Islamic values, democracy with Islamic values … (where) the clergy has no special rights.”

“If they have a good government with Islamic democracy and without any special or divine rights for the clergy, the Iranian government won’t be able to justify its situation to the Iranian citizens,” the 45-year-old philosophy professor added.

His views echoed those of Iran’s leading clerical dissident Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who told Reuters last month that Iraq should learn from Iran’s experience and not allow clerics to take a political role for which they are unqualified.

After the Islamic revolution toppled the U.S.-backed Shah in 1979 Iran erred by adopting the system of velayat-e faqih, or “rule of the Islamic jurisprudent”, whereby a senior cleric, or Supreme Leader, was accorded ultimate power over all state matters, Kadivar said. “We replaced a kingdom with an Islamic kingdom,” he said.

LEADER TO WATCH?

Such views landed Kadivar — identified by Newsweek magazine last month as one of nine global “leaders to watch in 2005” — in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison for 18 months six years ago. But he remains unrepentant. “It is my right to have my interpretation of my religion,” he said, smiling gently despite the tough language.

Iran’s theocratic political system has turned people away from Islam in droves, he said, arguing that young people in Iran’s secular neighbour Turkey were more religious than those in the Islamic Republic of Iran. “This shows that religion is voluntary. Forcing it on society has the opposite effect,” said Kadivar, whose views have won him the adoration of students.

Kadivar blames President Mohammad Khatami, whose second and final term ends in August, for failing to capitalise on his huge popularity when first elected in 1997 to push through reforms to overhaul the Islamic state’s political system. “He’s a cultural man, not a political man … He changed the dialogue of Iranian society but he couldn’t change the system and the people thought he would,” he said.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, lacking the charisma and religious authority of the late founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, increasingly “relies on the judiciary, the security forces, to fill that gap”, he added.

But Kadivar remains an optimist, arguing that change from within is occurring, albeit slowly. “Today is better than yesterday, but it’s very little by little,” he said.