Iran 2009: Disagreements remain on country's direction since revolution

02/03/09 12:50PM By Steve Zind
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Steve Zind
Cleric Mohsen Gharavian
(Host)  Iran has a popularly elected president and parliament.  But candidates are chosen by clerics.  And the country's religious head - called the Supreme Leader - is an unelected cleric who has final say on all matters.

Today, 30 years after the revolution, there's debate in Iran about basic questions like democracy, freedom of speech and women's rights.

From a distance Iran's religious leaders may seem of one mind but they, too, are debating these issues - and each side claims to be  guided by the Islamic revolution's late founder - Ayatollah Khomeini.

On a recent trip to Iran, VPR's Steve Zind talked with two clerics who have differing views.

 (Zind) When they took power, Iran's religious leaders discovered that governing a country requires compromise on even small matters. For example, at one point daylight savings time was abandoned on religious grounds.  Then it was reinstated in order to save electricity.  

Even Ayatollah Khomeini said the interests of the Islamic state should trump the dictates of religious law.

Twenty years after his death, Khomeini still has a strong hold on Iran. His image is everywhere:  His face adorns the currency.  He stares from huge outdoor murals.  Signs on buildings bear his words.   

(Bird sounds)

(Zind)  Here at the small Tehran house where Khomeini lived, a man named Toorach told me he had a special reason to visit that day.

(Man in Farsi)

(Translator)  "I dreamt of him last night and in the dream he held my hand and then I woke up, so I came here to see this place for the first time."

(Zind)  Khomeini lived in Tehran at the end of his life.  But it was in the holy city of Qom  that he first rose to prominence.

(Music)

(Zind) It's here in this unremarkable city full of men in turbans and women in enveloping black chadors that debate - although muted - is taking place over Iran's Islamic system of government.

Mohsen Gharavian is a mid-level cleric and scholar whose views reflect the mainstream.  He says Iran's religious leaders have done a good job running the country - and they've won the respect of many people.

(Gharavian in Farsi)  

(English over)"Because before then they would say, ‘oh they just talk, they never help society.  But now they see the clerics are active in society and politics and they started to like them."

(Zind)  Gharavian says people are better off now than before the revolution, although that's a sentiment I found rare among Iranians I talked to. 

Gharavian acknowledges that religious views sometimes have to change.  

For example, he says, women are involved in public life in a way that earlier religious leaders wouldn't have permitted. But he says equality for women isn't the goal.

(Gharavian) (English over) "We don't use the word ‘equality'.  We think of proportionality."

(Zind)  Meaning it's not necessary for women to have the same rights as men as long as they have their own set of rights. 

Gharavian says Iran's system where candidates for office are chosen by non-elected clerics, is a democracy.

Steve Zind with Grand Ayatollah Saanei

There are clerics who are far more conservative than Gharavian; and those who are more liberal.    

 (Yusef Saanei enters)

(Zind) Like Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei.

The 81 year old Saanei was a protégé of Khomeini.

 (Saanei in Farsi)

(Zind) Saanei says Iran is not a democracy.  He says people have lost faith in an electoral process that isn't free and an economy that falters in spite of Iran's oil wealth.

 (Saanei in Farsi)

 (Translator) "Every year that goes by we see that people care less about the future of the country."

(Zind) Saanai says that - except in the matter of inheritance - women should have the same rights as men.  Even the Supreme Leader can be a woman, he told me.  

He says because of his criticism of the government, his views are being stifled. Even a Grand Ayatollah can get into trouble for speaking too bluntly.

(Saanei and translator) "We have done a lot of things that allow you to come here today.  Before, if a reporter had come to my house they would have arrested you and taken you in."

 (Zind)   Saanei believes in an Islamic government, but he says religious law and Iran's constitution are being misinterpreted by the nation's leaders. 

(music)

There are those, including some clerics who object to any role for religion in government, but the reality is that Iran's clerical elite, led by the Supreme Leader has a firm hold on power.

For the foreseeable future political reform will have to take place within the context of a government where religious leaders have the final say.

For VPR news, I'm Steve Zind.

(Note) Tomorrow, in the third part of his series, Steve takes us to the streets of Tehran - a city that illustrates the many challenges the country faces. You can also hear NPR's Steve Innskeep reporting from Iran this week on Morning Edition on VPR.

Top Photo: Cleric Mohsen Gharavian

Middle Photo: Steve Zind with Grand Ayatollah Saanei

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Related Links

Steve Zind'sIran Journal 2004 Iran 2009 Photo Gallery Iran Journal Photo Gallery Steve Zind's Report From Iran 2005 Steve Zind's January 2009 blog report from Iran Steve Zind's Iran Today 2006
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