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Keeping Faith in Reform, and Islam, in Iran

As Secular Movement Crumbles, Defiant Cleric Spreads Blame With a Smile

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 15, 2004; Page A20

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.

Hashem Aghajari, left, a history professor who was twice condemned to death by Iranian authorities for blasphemy but ultimately sentenced to three years in jail, welcomed Mohsen Kadivar, a leading reformist cleric, to his home in Tehran after he was freed on bail in July. (Vahid Salemi -- AP)

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.

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