TEHRAN – Ibrahim Yazdi was the man who convinced Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to wear a bulletproof jacket on the chartered Air France flight that took the imam from Paris to Tehran to consolidate the triumph of the Islamic revolution in January 1979. He was one of the Westernized, Islamic non-turbaned princes of the revolution himself. He was the man who “translated” Khomeini to the international media.

Then he became foreign minister in the first, post-revolutionary Mehdi Bazargan government. He fell out with the system after Khomeini’s death and was inevitably branded a counter-revolutionary. As the leader of the liberal, secular Iran Freedom Movement, Yazdi saw his party banned and party candidates routinely excluded from standing for office. He was even dismissed himself for not holding a higher education degree – when in fact he’s a PhD. His latest disqualification – by the Council of Guardians – was for the June presidential elections. He has been repeatedly thrown in jail – facing accusations like “attempting to convert the velaii [jurisprudence] rule into a democratic rule.”

Yazdi, arguably Iran’s top dissident politician, received Asia Times Online at his residence in the comfortable middle-class neighborhood of Valiasr to deliver a devastating indictment of the regime. Yazdi is the quintessential Islamic republic version of a “leftist.” Iranian “leftists” are in favor of total freedom of speech, liberal democracy, deregulated economy, a strong role for private enterprise and foreign investment, a strong voice for women and a strong civil society. In sum, post-modernist Islam.

Yazdi divides the new government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejadin into three groups. The first group “are those in charge of economic matters, qualified, with a proven record. They know what they want – a market economy, support for the private sector, reducing the size of government.” The second group, bundled as security/intelligence/culture, “represents extreme, repressive forces, displays a disbelief in human rights and advocates harsh treatment” of any dissent. The third group is composed of technocrats, in ministries like health or communication, “individuals with good academic records, but not a management record. A good professor is not necessarily a good minister.”

Yazdi sees a glaring internal contradiction in this new cabinet. The first group, pushing for privatization, knows that capital only flows to places under political stability, “They cannot help the privatization drive while confronting the suppressive group. If the hardliners – in the ministries of information, interior, culture and Islamic guidance – want to continue in their harsh ways, capital will flow elsewhere.” The total amount of Iranian capital flight may now exceed US$600 billion.

Lessons from the Middle Kingdom

Yazdi deconstructs the idea exposed by many “rightists” of Iran rising to become the new, Muslim China. “There are three components – economic development, social freedom and political expression. The Iranian authorities are only equipped for suppression. Social freedoms in China – like freedom for boys and girls to get together – are no problem in China, as long as they don’t involve anything political. The dress code was never an issue. The Iranian government, on the other hand, keeps hammering an Islamization of social behavior. Even novels are censored – there is no kissing in novels published in this country.”

Yazdi appreciates how “the Chinese divorced themselves from the Cultural Revolution. They put Mao’s [Zedong’s] widow and her cohorts in prison. They released liberals, and invited them to government. The Communist Party decided to remove any ideology. Only nationalism remained. Can Iranian authorities divorce themselves from Islam? No. They do have a problem.” He adds, “The Chinese understand the world superbly, how to explore all international opportunities in favor of implementing their goals. They have extended their economic relationship with the US.” He compares it with Iran’s Kish Island, a free zone in the Persian Gulf shores that is “a separate entity, and was not supported enough to set an example.”

Yazdi says that from the beginning the revolution has evolved a variation of the same theme: “They [the conservatives] were insisting they should have total power. We always said this is very dangerous.” This has led to what Yazdi considers the crucial problem, the isolation of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “During the revolution, the slogan was ‘we are all together’. After the revolution , the slogan was switched to ‘all with me’. This phenomenon gradually eliminated everyone, one way or another. Those dedicated to the cause of the revolution gradually left. ‘All with me’ has been the slogan all the way up to this last election.”

Yazdi points out that even Khamenei’s closest associates, such as former speaker of the parliament Mehdi Karrubi, were sidelined (Karrubi, who maintains that the June 17 elections were stolen, has started a new political party). “This means that the leader is alone. None of the old comrades are with him anymore. So we have reached a critical point. The history of Iran offers several examples of the caliph surrounded by squabbling groups. At the moment Khamenei feels that he has total power. But lessons from our own history show how dangerous this could be.”

Montazeri rules

It all comes back to the holy of holies, the problem of Khamenei’s legitimacy. Yazdi is extremely attentive when he learns about the official list of eight marja’as – sources of imitation – according to the clerical establishment in Qom. “So Montazeri is not on the list? But he’s the most influential of them all.” Yazdi remembers how, five years ago, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri literally opposed the Supreme Leader, saying, “You are not qualified to issue a religious verdict.” On top of it, Montazeri always insisted that the Supreme Leader must be a spiritual guide, and that control of the police, state security, armed forces and state media is certainly not part of his attributes.

Montazeri – who was Khomeini’s most prized colleague and political confidante – remains a giant thorn in the side of the regime. He was to be Khomeini’s successor – as designated by the imam himself, and confirmed in 1984 by the Council of Experts. But three years later he was already enmeshed in a web of revolutionary intrigue branding him a “liberal,” ie, counter-revolutionary, just like Bazargan and Yazdi.

When Khomeini died in 1989 there was what secular Iranians call nothing less than a coup d’etat: a triumvirate composed of Khamenei, Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ahmad Khomeini, the imam’s son, changed the constitution. From now on, one would not necessarily have to be a marja’a to assume the functions of the velayat-e-faqih (the ruling of the jurisprudent). So a sort of junior cleric, Hojjatoleslam Ali Khamenei, became the new leader, while he was not even an ayatollah, much less a revered marja’a.

Montazeri happens to be one of the world’s leading authorities on velayat-e-faqih – a doctrine that is the Shi’ite theological version of Plato’s philosopher-king. He was the president of the assembly of experts that drafted the constitution of the Islamic republic. And the constitution was explicit: the faqih must be a marja’a.

As Supreme Leader, Khamenei has centralized total religious and political power. To doubt it is to risk a Shi’ite inquisition. Yazdi says, “For Khamenei’s supporters, he is the leader of all Muslims. At most, he is the leader of the Shi’ites.” And he adds to the chorus pointing out that “many Shi’ites object to it as well. Fadllulah [the Lebanese ayatollah] objects to it openly. Khomeini has been an ayatollah long before becoming a political leader. Others recognized his title as a genuine gift. Khamenei on the other hand got this title as an ‘honorary degree’ by the Council of Experts.” Yazdi stresses the example of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Iraq. “He does not believe in velayat-e-faqih. This is how he earned the power to bring together Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds. It’s completely different from the Iranian authorities.”

The dilemma of the ruling class

So now, for Yazdi, as far as the regime is concerned, ” They say ‘we are the ruling class, and we are equal to Islam.’ To stay in power is more important than the daily life of Iranians. But now that they have full power, how can they keep it? In the Japan of the Meiji emperor, the conservatives had full power. To keep it, they made changes.” But however hard the struggle, he remains an optimist: “Intellectual power in Iran is strong. We are the youngest nation in the world, 70% of the population is younger than 30. In Iranian university classes, women account for 80% of the students. Women are active in all walks of life. They don’t believe in this regime. And the government is helpless to do anything about them. They may try something harsh, but will have to retreat.”

As a former foreign minister educated in the US, Yazdi sees the non-stop Iran-US diplomatic conflagration centered on two themes: nuclear activity and human rights. “Iran has no other choice but to accept IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] resolutions. Many Iranians believe we should stop uranium enrichment and solve the crisis.” That’s not exactly the feeling one gets in the mosque, in the bazaar or in the teashop, where Iran’s nuclear program is viewed as an assertion of national will.

On human rights, Yazdi is convinced “there’s no way out of the global village. This is not an American design. America is also trying to adjust. Even the US cannot compete if it has a backward government. Some Iranian authorities blame it all on American democracy. There is no such thing. Even if Iran succeeds in its nuclear program, the human rights question will remain. That’s why the rightists cannot do whatever they want.” Or can they? One may ask the collective leadership in Beijing. But the only one with a definitive answer may well be the Supreme Leader himself.