Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri , the highest ranking Iranian cleric, who led the Islamic Revolution along with Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini 25 years ago, gave a recent interview to the Italian daily Il Corriere della Sera . In the interview, he expressed his views on the conflict between reformists and conservatives in Iran, between the Majlis (Iranian parliament) and the Guardian Council , which recently rejected 3,600 of the 8,157 candidates for the coming election on February 20th.
Ayatollah Montazeri, a founding father of the first Constitution of Iran after the revolution, was designated by Khomeini as his successor. But he was marginalized and held under house arrest from 1997 to 2003, accused of having criticized the current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei . He is now free and lives in the holy Shi'ite city of Qum . "Outside his gate," writes Paolo Conti , the interviewer, "many worshipers line up to obtain Qur'anic interpretations from him. But many of his aids warn foreign visitors: 'Montazeri free? To tell you the truth, around here many apartments are occupied by people from the secret services that follow his every move.'" The following are excerpts from the interview: 
Question: " What do you think of the current conflict between the political and religious institutions in Iran?"
Ayatollah Montazeri: "At the beginning of the Islamic Revolution, we said regarding the elections: the Minister of the Interior and the Shah used to pick candidates to be voted, [but] now the election must be really free. We thought of a Council of Guardians to oversee the Ministry of the Interior, to make sure it did its work correctly, not to select the candidates… Then there was a revision of the Constitution, and I opposed it. They have manipulated it and put things upside down … all against our original intentions. Thus today, instead of free elections, we have a selection made by one faction of the electoral contest. All of this is illegal and anti-constitutional."
Question: " So the spirit of the Islamic Revolution has been betrayed?"
Montazeri: "[Acting] this way wounds the image of Iran, creating international qualms - and all this as a result of the illegal actions of a few. It is local experts from the cities that should evaluate the candidates; they are better informed of personalities and situations."
Question: " You have contested the various special tribunals that proliferate and suffocate the Iranian justice system."
Montazeri: "They do not exist in the Constitution, which delegates judicial affairs to the Ministry of Justice. All of this disappoints the people, who become disgusted with the system. Khomeini wanted the special tribunals for a short time. They were supposed to disappear. After his death, they were re-instituted. The sentences of these tribunals are illegal. Such abuses happened before the Revolution, which in fact took place in order to prevent their occurrence. Instead, the same things are going on. And the people are not free."
Question: " What do you think of the constant closure of reformist newspapers?"
Montazeri: "Today in Iran, there is no freedom of the press. They have closed more than a hundred publications; honest and knowledgeable people have been deprived of their jobs. They have reduced newspapers to self-censorship. For instance, they are forbidden to write about me. If they do, they [the editors] are immediately summoned. There is repression, as before the Revolution…"
Question: " You said: If this leadership does not change, the Islamic state itself is in danger. Do you think that the system may fall apart?"
Montazeri: "The peoples' consensus is the basis for everything. The Islamic Republic means popular government. If the people are disappointed, they will stop believing in the Revolution or in Islam. There is a lot of aggressiveness from the system. Yet, the Qur'an speaks continuously of a God of love, clemency, and mercy. If there is rage and violence there will be rejection…"
Question: "You do not have a good opinion of Khatami. Why?"
Montazeri: "He talks a lot, but in practice he does little. Let's take [for example] the sit-in of the MP's to protest against the Guardian Council members' rejection of candidacies. Khatami should already have organized it three years ago, when the Guardians themselves rejected the electoral law. Khatami has adopted a tactic of quietism; he has avoided angering 'others.' But in fact what were these reforms? They were the implementation of the promises made at the beginning of the Revolution. Nothing special."
Question: "You have also questioned Ali Khamenei's role…"
Montazeri: "The [Supreme] Leader [Khamenei] should only give directions; basically guide. Instead, he puts himself above the law that is no longer in the hands of the Majlis. The new Article 110 of the Constitution gives him all the power, which is followed by the word 'absolute,' including control over the police and army, without being accountable to anyone. I opposed it… This is also why they ousted me. On the other hand, the President has all of the responsibilities but no power. That is the problem."
Question: "How do you judge the repression of the student protests?"
Montazeri: "They attacked these youths. They threw them to the ground and beat them… They should not have done it! Regarding young people our religion tells us: 'We must be like fathers, good [and] merciful.' In prayer we say: 'Oh, Prophet, you are sweet and good to everyone, if you were cruel and aggressive everyone would abandon you.' It is a lesson for those who govern. However … the Guardians have rejected three times a Majlis law to abolish censorship. If they have rejected it, this means they prefer torture."
Question: " Recently you have also spoken against forbidding men and women to shake hands."
Montazeri: "It is not forbidden [by Islam]. I have written everything in an opinion paper requested by Muslims living in Europe. Islam insists on respecting the interlocutor. If the woman does not find the gesture contrary to her self-respect, then it is allowed. It should be done mainly with non-Muslim women that would interpret the lack of this gesture as impolite. As for Muslim [women], if it implies misconduct, then no, it is not allowed."
 Il Corriere della Sera (Italy), January 30, 2004.
 Il Corriere della Sera (Italy), January 30, 2004.