A former Speaker of the Majlis, Mehdi Karroubi was the leading reformist contender in Iran's presidential election of 2005 but lost to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad under circumstances he considers improper. In an interview to The Hindu in Tehran, he discusses his political plans. Excerpts:
24 August 2006
Down but not out, leading reformist looks ahead
Siddharth Varadarajan and John Cherian
After the 2005 elections, you wrote an open letter questioning the results. Why do you feel they were unfair?
I don't want to enter into a discussion about that election because it is in the past. During the first round of voting, when 15 million votes had been counted, I had 28 per cent of the vote, Mr. [Hashemi] Rafsanjani around 22 per cent and Mr. [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad something between 17 and 18 per cent. But hours after the announcement of those trends, everything changed. I found myself in second place and hours later in third place! I believe the Guardian Council and government were responsible because the earlier trends could not have led to such a result. So there was something wrong with the counting but I don't want to enter into a discussion about it. I will add one last point. I wrote to the Supreme Leader [before the second round] and he told me he had given orders for a recount of some of the votes. But the government insisted the elections had been conducted properly and did not agree.
But at least your defeat has not made you withdraw from active politics! You have founded a new party. What are your political plans?
After the 2005 election, I had three ideas. First, to start the Ettemad-e-Milli party, then the Ettemad-e-Milli newspaper, and third, to launch a satellite TV channel. In the first and second goals, I have been successful. I have established my party and my newspaper is in print. I devote most of my energies towards the party. In about a year, we have opened offices in 30 provinces. So we are ready to play a role in the political arena and take part in elections — for which we are gearing up. This year, we have elections for the Majlis-e-Khobregan, which appoints the Supreme leader. And we will contest.
Has the government created obstacles for you?
No, we have not had any problems. The Interior Ministry has not made trouble but some newspapers have tried to create an atmosphere against me. Of course, some government officials don't like the work I'm doing but if we want democracy, we need parties in our country. In a speech I made at a recent seminar in Tehran, I said parties are the prerequisite for establishing democracy.
But you haven't managed to start your TV channel yet?
The Intelligence Ministry and the Supreme National Security Council [SNSC] oppose it. We wanted our reporters to go to different places, conduct interviews, but we wanted it to be legal. But these two institutions believe such activities would be a breach of the Constitution and that it would create problems. Because of their opposition, we have not been able to start this channel but we do not think it is illegal as far as the Constitution is concerned.
Persian channels broadcasting from California are popular here and yet there are no Iranian private channels.
The person most opposed to private channels is Mr. Ali Larijani of the SNSC, who used to be head of State radio and television. He has been opposed to the idea ever since. According to the government, any satellite channel is illegal. Well, it is illegal but it exists! They criticised me and said, `You were Speaker and according to the legislation of Parliament, having a satellite dish is illegal, so how can you now start a channel'? Actually, the Majlis passed that law before I became Speaker. One of the arguments we used was that this law cannot stop us from broadcasting to people outside Iran. There are many Persian-speaking people in the region and abroad. But they did not agree to this.
As democracy in Iran matures, is there some need to debate and discuss the role of the Vali-e-Faqih? Dr. Mohsen Kadivar argues the Supreme Leader should be under the Constitution and not above it.
I believe the same. Just as Ministers are chosen by Parliament, the Leader is elected by the khobregan, or experts, who are directly elected by the people. The Vali should be in the framework of the Constitution. In fact, everything has been put into the Constitution about this matter and we just want it to be followed.
Had you been elected President, how would your foreign and domestic policies have been different from those of Mr. Ahmadinejad?
Naturally, anyone who runs in an election will have methods, positions and ways of dealing with political issues that are different from others. I was Speaker of the 6th Parliament, and I had very good interaction with other heads of Parliament around the world. We invited many of them here and we made overseas trips — even the Speaker of India was invited here and we had interactions with him. That background will tell you something about what my foreign policies as President would have been.
Do you approve of the nuclear policy of the Ahmadinejad government?
On the nuclear issue, I experienced three phases. In the first phase, I was in Parliament, and was totally involved. I was present in the sessions where decisions were taken on this issue, and I was fully informed about the negotiations. After I left Parliament, I was still in touch with the government and though I was not directly involved in the discussions and decision-making, I approved of the group of negotiators like [Hasan] Rowhani, [Javad] Zarif, etc. But ever since the government changed [in 2005], I have not been so well informed. So I have only some general positions. I would say confidence building is the most important thing and diplomacy is a very important factor. We should avoid sanctions and should not do something to lead to sanctions. We have the right to peaceful nuclear energy and we should have this technology but we should not stop negotiating and building confidence.
President Ahmadinejad's statements on Israel are very controversial. What are your views on those?
I do not want to enter into a discussion about his statements. But on the whole, Iran wants a fair peace in the region. Every human being belongs to his country and so do the Palestinians. They were born there and belong to this land. They deserve to experience fair peace, to have an independent government, to have elections. This is our position about Palestine. We also believe the world should react against Israel's actions in Lebanon. Many civilians and innocent people were affected by Israel's attacks. These massacres, this violence will only make way for radicalism in the region.
In some parts of Tehran, we have seen posters saying Israel must be wiped off the map. Is it helpful to advocate such a position?
These posters are the positions of some groups and parties and should not be seen as the position of the government or the whole system. The land of Palestine belongs to Muslims, Jews and Christians and there should be elections in their land. In general, we should listen to what the Palestinian revolutionaries themselves say and want.
When Mohammad Khatami was President, he tried his best to improve relations with the West but did not succeed. Some Iranians say the U.S. is not sincere.
People in Iran do not have a very good impression about America because of the past experiences — the coup against Mossadegh, and the immunity granted to Americans by the Shah. Of course, we should negotiate according to our principles and in equality but this issue should be resolved. Sometimes, Iran has not encouraged negotiations and sometimes the U.S. has not been interested. America is sticking to its positions out of pride so there are difficulties. I believe in negotiations and dialogue but it should be on a fair and equal basis. Only then a solution can be found.