Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Top clerics challenge Iran regime as vote nears

Two of Iran's most senior dissident pro-reform Shiite clerics have hit out at the Islamic regime ahead of next month's presidential election, accusing hardliners of failing to deliver on revolutionary promises of fundamental freedoms.

In interviews with AFP, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri and Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei also voiced pessimism over the prospect for a free and fair poll on June 17. READ MORE

"My point of view, and I cannot say more than this, is that things are not going in the right direction," said Montazeri, who is in his mid 80s and is one of the Islamic republic's most prominent dissidents.

"At the beginning of the revolution the late Imam (Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini) and I gave promises of liberty, and these promises have not been lived up to," he said in a rare interview at his home in Qom, Iran's clerical capital just south of Tehran.

Once tapped as the successor to revolutionary leader Khomeini, Montazeri fell from grace after he became too openly critical of political and cultural restrictions.

In January 2003 he was freed from five years of house arrest on health grounds, but his activities are still subject to tight controls.

He said disdainfully: "I have no opinion regarding the elections. I have stopped giving my opinion, because every time I have given my point of view the reverse seems to happen."

Looking frail but cheerful and dressed simply in a loose-fitting white shirt and trousers, Montazeri complained he was still the victim of tough regime controls.

"I am no longer under house arrest but the way they are treating me is not correct," he said. "My offices in Mashhad and in Isfahan have been closed by the special clerics court. I am only able to give small lectures in my home twice a week."

The entrance to his narrow, dusty street also remains under close watch.

His Qom lecture hall, situated next to his home, has also been sealed off for close to a decade. The centre sports huge portraits of Khomeini and his successor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- serving as a reminder of who is now in charge.

In a neighbouring street, Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei -- a prominent pro-reform cleric and one of around a dozen grand ayatollahs in Qom -- also had reserved harsh words for regime hardliners.

"We cannot foresee the future. We do not know if we can trust the candidates to deliver on their promises and to what extent the rights of the people will be preserved and how much choice they will have," he said.

The issue of choice has emerged as a contentious issue in Iranian elections, with the hardline-controlled Guardians Council -- an unelected political watchdog -- brandishing the power to screen all candidates for public office.

Ahead of the February 2004 parliament elections, the council disqualified thousands of candidates, most of them political moderates, handing certain victory to religious right-wingers.

"There should not be guardianship. In an election guardians are not needed, it is contrary to human liberty," declared Saanei, who is in his late 70s and was also one of the earliest followers of Khomenei.

Saanei, who shares the reservations of many clerics in Qom over the often tricky mix of religion and the micromanagement of the country, now largely keeps out of politics. ...