‘This Iranian Form of Theocracy Has Failed’

In a SPIEGEL interview, Iranian theologian and philosopher Mohsen Kadivar discusses Tehran’s path towards a military dictatorship, how the country’s religious leaders abuse Islam and opportunities for reform.


SPIEGEL: Ayatollah Kadivar, we are meeting you here at Duke University in the US State of North Carolina, 7,500 miles away from your home. Are you not needed more urgently in Iran now?

Kadivar:Believe me, in these dramatic hours I would much rather be in my homeland. Within the next two weeks, the future of Iran will be decided. Almost all my friends, 95 percent of them, are now in prison; and I am barely able to contact my family, the phones are almost dead.


SPIEGEL: You are said to be the co-author of the most recent declarations of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Kadivar: That is not right. Although I enjoyed his statements, they are not mine. I published my declarations separately, although I support Mousavi strongly. We have found means to communicate with each other. Via the Internet and via third parties, I am in constant contact with my homeland. Every day I receive about 100 messages.

SPIEGEL: Tehran appears quiet at the moment, at least compared with the mass protests of the week before last. Are we currently seeing the beginning of the end of the resistance — or the end of the Iranian regime?

Kadivar:This Iranian form of theocracy has failed. The rights of the Iranian peoples are trampled upon and my homeland is heading towards a military dictatorship. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad behaves like an Iranian Taliban. The supreme leader, Mr. Ali Khamenei, has tied his fate to that of Ahmadinejad, a great moral, but also political mistake.


SPIEGEL: What has your counsel been for opposition leader Mousavi in recent days? Is he truly the undisputed head of the movement?

Kadivar: Yes, he is the leader. All reformists now support Mousavi, my friend from our days at Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran. He was a professor of political science and I was professor of philosophy and theology. I believe he should insist on new elections and continue calling for non-violent protests …

SPIEGEL: … which would then be violently squashed by the security forces of the regime, the Basij and the Pasdaran.

Kadivar: In the long term, a regime can hardly oppose millions of peaceful protesters — unless it opts for a massacre and, in doing so, completely loses its legitimacy. We should again and again point to the rights granted by the Iranian constitution. In Article 27, it is clearly pointed out that every citizen has the right to protest. Our protest is non-violent, legal and “green” — thoroughly Islamic.

SPIEGEL: That’s what you say.

Kadivar: Article 56 of our constitution includes the right of God that is give to all Iranian citizens. The citizens then elect their leader, president and parliament. The constitution is very clear on that: The leader must be elected and not selected by those claiming to know God’s will.

SPIEGEL: The state doctrine of Welayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists) and its highest representative, Ali Khamenei, see it quite differently. They claim the protest movement is directed against the law and against religion.

Kadivar: The people call “Allahu Akbar” from the rooftops. They carry signs asking “Where has my vote gone?” The protesters don’t want to rebel against everything, but they do want justice and they do want fair elections. He who refuses those demands risks a civil war.

SPIEGEL: It is true that the protesters are using the color of Islam and chanting “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”). But have they not reached the point where they want more? They were also shouting, “Down with the Dictator!” Maybe the young people who are behind the movement want a democratic republic based on the Western model with separation of religion and state.

Kadivar: I admit that some young people are oriented towards the West. But one should not give too much weight to that. The majority of my compatriots would not want a complete separation of state and religion. Neither would I. Iran is a country with Islamic traditions and values. More than 90 percent of our citizens are Muslims.

SPIEGEL: Which values specifically are you referring to?

Kadivar: Above all, stands justice and the fulfillment of the will of the people. Under the rule of Ali, our first Shiite imam, there were no political prisoners, non-violent protests were permitted and critical comment even invited. One must not betray those values.

SPIEGEL: And Khamenei and Ahmadinejad did?

Kadivar: Yes. I plead for a truly Islamic and democratic state, a state that respects human dignity and does not refuse the rights of women, a state where people can freely elect their religious and secular leaders.

SPIEGEL: But now you are talking about a revolution — a completely new, different Iran.

Kadivar: I am speaking of a country where religious leaders do not have the right to determine how the country is led in opposition to the majority of the community, ostensibly according to the will of God. Such a right does not exist, neither in the Shiite tradition nor in other imperatives. I do not believe in any divine rights for clergy or believers.

SPIEGEL: In 1978, Ayatollah Khomeini said in a SPIEGEL interview: “Our future society will be a free society, and all the elements of oppression, cruelty and force will be destroyed.”

Kadivar: Revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini was a charismatic personage. At the beginning of his rule he had 95 percent and towards the end still over 75 percent of Iranians on his side. Mr. Khamenei is not that charismatic and he is currently in the process of destroying the tie of justice between the religious leaders and the people. When he, together with Ahmadinejad, speaks about foreign countries being behind the protests in Iran, he very much reminds me of the king (the Shah). He used the same arguments and could not recognize that he was witnessing a national and democratic protest movement of his own people. Towards the end, the shah only thought of holding up his regime. Today, Mr. Khamenei does not think any differently.

SPIEGEL: But while the shah was expelled from office by the revolution, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad seem to be firmly entrenched. Many important positions are filled with their people.

Kadivar: It seems that way. But Iran is no longer the country it was prior to the election protests. I can even imagine that Mr. Hashemi Rafsanjani as head of the Assembly of Experts might actually invite the religious leader to the assembly for a frank discussion. Theoretically, he could even dismiss Khamenei. Then Ahmadinejad would fall too.

SPIEGEL: But for that to happen, the majority of the grand ayatollahs would have to oppose the two.

Kadivar: Among the grand ayatollahs in Qum, the resentment towards Ahmadinejad’s arrogance is growing. Only one of the 12 has congratulated him so far. Several, including my most revered teacher Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who is greatly venerated in the whole country, spoke out sharply against the election fraud.

SPIEGEL: Can other countries do anything to aid the opposition?

Kadivar: No. This is a battle the Iranian people have to win by themselves. I think that so far, President Obama has acted very prudently and not given those looking for any reason to attack ammunition. Ahmadinejad’s insistence that Washington has fueled the unrest has no effect.

SPIEGEL: Obama compared Ahmadinejad and Mousavi and commented that the difference between the candidates is only minor. Is he correct?

Kadivar: This is correct, but then again, it is not correct. The differences regarding the nuclear question and the evaluation of Israeli politics are indeed minor. As for the right to uranium enrichment, you won’t find an Iranian politician who thinks differently. But on the question of democracy, the differences are formidable. Ahmadinejad takes an aggressive position, while Mousavi emphazises the adherence to laws and the constitution. I believe that the issue of democratization is presently the central problem. Everything else, including the nuclear question, is secondary.

SPIEGEL: Western politicians see it quite differently.

Kadivar:Whoever at this point in time moves the nuclear question to the forefront will not find an open ear in Iran. Blood is flowing in our streets and you keep asking me about nuclear energy.


SPIEGEL: Some in the West fear that things could get far worse — and they mean for the world — if Iran obtains nuclear weapons.

Kadivar: We are particularly concerned about Israel. This country has handed its nuclear energy to the military. Every Muslim — well, everyone — is afraid of Israel. Israel’s nuclear arsenal should be placed under the control of the United Nations and the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

SPIEGEL: Do we understand you right, that there will be no change on the nuclear question regardless of who wins the power struggle in Tehran?

Kadivar: Every Iranian government will claim the right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy …

SPIEGEL: … but that is not the issue. We are talking about the nuclear bomb.

Kadivar: America has it, Israel has it. What is said about my country is only potentiality not reality. If the nuclear bomb is evil, then it is evil everywhere — not only in those countries that oppose US policy. It is a double standard policy.

SPIEGEL: What would happen if Israel or the United States attacked nuclear plants in Iran?

Kadivar: That would be in contempt of all moral values. The Iranians would take up resistance, and they would do it together, regardless of political disposition and religion.

SPIEGEL: What will Iran look like five years from now?

Kadivar: I hope there will be a democratic Iran. My country has the inherent potential to become an exemplary democratic society.

SPIEGEL: And how do you see your role in this process?

Kadivar: I will go back to Iran, but not in the coming days. If I returned to Tehran now, I too would be imprisoned. The conditions there are miserable. My friend Dr. Saeed Hajarian urgently requires medication and health care — he should be in the hospital, not in jail. I have heard that my friends Mostafa Tajzadeh and Abdallah Ramezanzadeh have been tortured. Ramezanzadeh was the spokesman of President Mohammad Khatami and Tajzadeh his deputy interior minister.

SPIEGEL: You spent eighteen months in the infamous Evin prison in Tehran.

Kadivar: I will return to Iran and I am also prepared to go back to prison, but only after legal court proceedings.

SPIEGEL: Would you take a political office in a democratic Iran?

Kadivar: As a scholar, author and professor I have an important role to fulfull. And we have excellent political leaders in Iran — for example Mir Hossein Mousavi, whom I support.

SPIEGEL: Ayatollah Kadivar, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Erich Follath and Gabor Steingart.

Close this search box.