March 1, 2003 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 125

Iranian Intellectuals Against Khamenei - Dr. Qassem Sa'adi: 'Your Regime Is Illegitimate, Your Foreign and Domestic Policies Are Failing and Despotic'

March 1, 2003 | By A. Savyon*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 125

In recent months, Iran has seen an increase in public protests by intellectuals and clerics against the regime of Iran's Supreme Leader 'Ali Khamenei. To date, the protestors have included: Muhammad Mohsen Sazgara, who wrote an article in April 2002[1] criticizing Khamenei's rule by tyranny; Dr. Hashem Aghajari, who delivered a scathing address calling for "Islamic Protestantism" and was subsequently sentenced to death;[2]and Ayatollah Taheri, who in July 2002 published a letter declaring his resignation from his post as the official Friday preacher in Isfahan.[3]

Recently, Iranian academic and former politician Dr. Qassem Sho'le-Ye Sa'adi also came out against Khamenei's regime. In December 2002, in an open letter to Khamenei, Sa'adi declared him unfit and illegitimate by religious law, the Iranian constitution, and by moral standards to lead Iran.[4] Furthermore, Sa'adi wrote that Khamenei is damaging Islam and ruining the principles of the Islamic regime, and he criticized Khamenei's judgment in directing Iran's foreign affairs. He particularly faulted the Supreme Leader's perpetuation of Iran's hostility towards the U.S. Similarly damaging to Iran, according to Sa'adi, is the "Palestinization" of Iranian national interests. Sa'adi condemned Khamenei's domestic policy and accused him of repressing the Iranian people who seek to change the regime through democratic elections. According to Sa'adi, Khamenei and his supporters – the Guardian Council, the Experts Council, the Expediency Council, the Judiciary, and the conservative security apparatuses – maintain a reign of terror over the people, particularly students, the reform movement, and the reformist parliament, with imprisonment, torture, and murder of opponents of the regime.

The following are excerpts from Sa'adi's letter:

I. Khamenei's Rule is Illegitimate

Sa'adi addressed 'Ali Khamenei by the religious title Hujjat Al-Islam his rank before being appointed to his current position as Supreme Leader, succeeding Ayatollah Khomeini. Khamenei, who had been appointed Ayatollah even though he had not acquired the proper religious training, failed to meet the two main requirements stipulated by Iran's constitution for the position of spiritual leader of Iran – "first, the qualifications of a Marja'iyat [the highest religious authority], and second, recognition by most of the people that he is suited for the position of the highest religious authority in the land."[5]

Sa'adi acknowledged that Ayatollah Khomeini had sought to reexamine the constitution regarding this matter so as to facilitate Khamenei's appointment. However, he had died before doing so, leaving the constitution unchanged and its clauses untouched – and still binding. Sa'adi explained, "There is no doubt that on the day of [Khomeini's] death and the [day] you were appointed [Supreme] Leader by the Experts [Council], you did not meet the requirements for Marja'iyat." Sa'adi also ridiculed Khamenei and the conservative institutions for later legitimizing his status as Marja'iyat, mentioning that even Ayatollah Khomeini had addressed Khamenei by the title of Hujjat Al-Islam, not by the senior title of Ayatollah.[6]

II. Khamenei's Foreign Policy Harms Iran's Interests

Khamenei Rules Out Dealings With the U.S. While the Iranian People Want Engagement

Sa'adi claimed that by preventing dialogue with the U.S. and not renewing contact with it, even though U.S. leaders had admitted that in the past the U.S. made mistakes regarding Iran, Khamenei is harming Iran's national interests. He also accused Khamenei of hypocrisy, as Khamenei ignores America but seeks to improve relations with Britain:

"Many members of the regime advised you, particularly on matters connected to international and U.S. affairs. For example, in a letter given to you in my presence by [Majlis member] Dr. Rajaii-Horasani… [Rajaii-Horasani] stated that [now] you could set the conditions for talks and for renewing relations with the U.S… [while] if you fail to exploit this opportunity, the U.S. will set the conditions (later)."

Sa'adi said most Iranians want to improve Iran-U.S. relations: "[According to public opinion polls by Iranian public institutions], 75% of the Iranian people are opposed to Khamenei's policy [towards] the U.S. and support talks with it. In your opinion, three-quarters of the Iranian people are either politically illiterate or have no honor. [While] the people of the world praise the Iranians' political insight and national honor, you, who seized the administration of this nation, consider them devoid of political [understanding] and/or devoid of honor. How can you consider three quarters of the nation to be devoid of honor or politically [ignorant], yet at the same time continue to lead [such a] people?"

"In addition to 30 years of political life and work, I hold advanced degrees in politics… My entire existence… is saturated with the honor of Hussein.[7] Therefore, despite the tremendous dangers in store [for me, following your possible reaction to this letter] – which is likely to lead to my beheading by [your] gangs of thugs – my honor will not permit me to hold my tongue… So, despite these risks, I declare that… I am completely opposed to your policy…"

Khamenei Considers War a Virtue, and Stirs Up the Masses In Favor Of It

Sa'adi continued, sharply criticizing Khamenei's worldview regarding military matters: "Of course, I do not expect that your opinions would be similar to mine on the subject of war, because I know only the A-B-C of politics while Your Eminence is a leading scholar. I do not see any war as worthy, not even the war forced upon Iran by Iraq, a war [that even] according to [Hashemi] Rafsanjani caused [Iran] '$1,000 billion in damage,' with inestimable non-material damages – and we are still finding and burying thousands upon thousands of precious martyrs… If today millions of men and women [in Iran] live a life of degeneration, poverty, and loss, then it is due, at least in part, to this war and its ramifications. Thus, I consider war no virtue… [and] there is no need to consider fighting in a war a virtue."

Sa'adi also criticized the way in which he believes Khamenei and the conservatives have encouraged the people to favor a war against the U.S. He also called on Khamenei to bear the economic, political, and moral responsibility for the outcome of such a war, instead of merely preaching to the people that war is justified and sacred.[8]

Iran's leaders have on occasion been forced to back down from extreme political positions they espoused – for example, regarding the signing of a ceasefire with Saddam Hussein, Iran's sworn enemy. Sa'adi called on Khamenei not to take an extreme stance regarding the U.S., because ultimately he too would have to back down from it.[9]

Iran Errs in Espousing the Palestinian Cause

The linking of Iran's interests to the Palestinian cause was criticized by Sa'adi who deemed Iran's position as hypocritical in light of the fact that it does not support other Muslims, such as those in Chechnya or India.

"Must this [Palestinian cause] be linked so closely to our nation's fate? Is there a difference between Muslims in Chechnya or India and the Muslims of Palestine? Doesn't Russia's Red Army repress the Chechen Muslims? Why do [Iran's] ideological interests not demand that we support them [as well]?"

Russia and Syria Are No Allies of Iran

Sa'adi went on to question the traditional view that Russia and Syria are Iran's allies: "Hasn't the time come for rethinking our choice of strategic allies? As far as we know… the governments of Syria, Russia, Lebanon, and Sudan are considered our strategic allies. I will not now discuss Lebanon and Sudan, which owe Iran $400 million and evidently have no intention of paying up. I want to ask only about Syria and Russia. Since the beginning of the [Islamic] Revolution, Syria has benefited from Iran's broad support, materially, spiritually, and politically. [Nevertheless], in international conferences, it usually takes an anti-Iran position. At the recent Beirut summit, not only did it express support for the UAE Council's demand regarding the three Iranian islands in the Persian Gulf,[10] but also expressed opposition to the American attack on an Arab country [i.e. Iraq], but not on a Muslim country [i.e. leaving Iran open to attack]. [That is, Syria] implicitly supported an American attack on Iran instead of Iraq. And Russia too is not living up to its commitments regarding the reactor in Bushehr, and thus wins concessions both from the West [so it won't finish constructing the reactor] and from Iran [for promising to finish it.]. In the Caspian Sea [issue],[11] [Russia] even disclosed bilateral agreements [with littoral countries] abolishing Iran's portion of the Caspian Sea, and, by declaring military maneuvers, in effect proved that Russia has the last word in [the Caspian] region. With strategic allies like these, do we need enemies?"[12]

III. Khamenei's Domestic Policy Is Dictatorial

Khamenei Sets Himself Above the Law

Sa'adi also accused Khamenei of acting in violation of Articles 110 and 159 of the Iranian constitution by establishing the Special Attorney General's Office and the Court of Justice for Clerics. Sa'adi wrote:

"Did you know that the obedient Justice Ministry considers your opinions law – and not mere law but penal law, while it sees those who disagree with your opinions as guilty and threatens to bring them to court?"

"…[According to] the Justice Ministry's announcement of May 25, 2002... anyone who speaks about [Iran-]U.S. [relations] talks as a criminal who may be tried as such, based on Article 500 of the Islamic penal code. Yet according to the footnote of the constitution's Article 107, your legal status is the same as that of others in the country. That is, not only are you not above the constitution, and not only are you not above ordinary law; you are subject to the law like anyone else in this country…"

Khamenei Undermines the Majlis

Sa'adi charged Khamenei with systematically undermining the Majlis' authority and its decisions, and of forcing the Guardian Council, which oversees it, to confirm the appointments of those who will follow his wishes. In the election of Guardian Council jurists, when the Majlis members cast blank ballots, they were actually casting a vote of no confidence in Khamenei:

"…Isn't your interference in legislative matters the main cause of the Majlis's enfeeblement? By what constitutional article did you prevent Majlis members from passing the law regarding the press? Do you know that the Guardian Council considers Your Eminence to be the criterion for the law, and abolishes laws approved by the Majlis because they run counter to your views? Must you and your opinions really be the criterion for the law? By what law did Your Eminence intervene in the election of Guardian Council jurists?… The Expediency Council [headed by Hashemi Rafsanjani], at a sign from you, passed a series of regulations in order to control the laws that the Majlis approves. Isn't the Council giving the death blow to the Majlis? Isn't it emptying it of all content? [Is this way] compatible with the way, the character, and the goals of the Imam [Khomeini]?"

No One Oversees Khamenei; He Appoints His Own Checks and Balances "You certainly know that because of the complete absence of free, democratic elections to the Experts Council, and because [you] appoint the Guardian Council's jurisprudents – and because most Friday preachers and most of Your Eminence's representatives are members of the various apparatuses [of the regime] and thus in your pay, they cannot maintain genuine oversight of you, your qualifications, and your continued [unconstitutional] rule. Apparently, Your Eminence also prevented them from overseeing political and military matters…?"[13]

Khamenei Is Directly Responsible for the Imprisonment, Expulsion, and Murder of Opponents of the Regime

Calling on Khamenei to admit his responsibility for the 1998 series of murders of Iranian intellectuals, committed by Intelligence Ministry agents Sa'adi wrote:

"Is it too much to expect [that you extend] your condolences to the families of the martyrs of the series of murders carried out by agents of the Islamic Republic's official institutions, which are ultimately under your responsibility? Wouldn't such condolences put an end to the rumors regarding your personal order of these loathsome murders?"

He also protested Khamenei's human rights violations in arresting individuals solely because of their opinions,[14] particularly the house arrest of Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazari,[15] a high-ranking jurisprudent who was once Ayatollah Khomeini's designated heir, because he criticized Khamenei and his leadership capability.

"You really don't know that according to Article 39 of the constitution, every violation of the honor of people… who are imprisoned or expelled is utterly forbidden, and is punishable, not to mention [the violation of the rights] of those who love their country and have no aim but to defend its national interests."

Khamenei Represses Freedom of Expression

Sa'adi criticized what he deems as Khamenei's systematic repression of freedom of speech, in the form of massive newspaper closures and repression of the student movement:

"…You called the free press an enemy base. The Justice Ministry, which obeys [you], saw itself obligated to support your view and closed down many newspapers… You declared you would 'act like Hussein' towards the student movement… which comprises 40% of the warriors of Islam, and among whom a high percentage have honorable families and decent sons. Are these Yazids[16] towards whom you must act like Hussein [i.e. fight them]? You also brought the reformist Majlis to the lowest possible point, in addition to the obstacles you have set in the way of legislation and in addition to revoking parliamentary immunity, deposing, condemning, and imprisoning some Majlis members…"

Dictatorship Versus Letting the People Choose

Sa'adi contrasted the elected institutions of the regime with Khamenei, who, in his view, had illegitimately seized power and thus set himself against the people:

"Aren't the president and the Majlis members directly elected by most of the Iranian people? Aren't they the true representatives of the Iranian people? And [since this is so], isn't your hostility towards them like confrontation with the nation[?]… Is this the reward for a people that never abandoned the ranks of Jihad and patient [forbearance]? Is this what 'religious democracy' means? Is this what 'freedom' in the [Islamic Revolution] motto 'Independence, Freedom, the Islamic Republic' means?"

"Don't you agree that the [presidential] vote for Khatami [May 23, 1997] was more of a 'no' to you than a 'yes' for him? In contrast to your view that three quarters of the Iranian people are either cowards or political ignoramuses, the intelligent nation of Iran elected Mr. Khatami even though it knew you supported another candidate – and repeated this vote on other occasions, clearly and significantly."

He further called on Khamenei to do what the Imam Ali, Shi'ite Islam's exemplary model, did - turn to the people and have them decide by referendum:

"Assuming that your taking up the position of leadership of this country in 1989 was in accordance with the law, as early as 1997 the Iranian people have voted no confidence in you and in the policy of your [conservative] faction every time they had to take a stand – the most recent of which was the last poll regarding the U.S., not to mention another poll according to which you and your method of administration gained the support of only 6%, while the other 94% demanded radical [regime] changes."[17]

Sa'adi maintained that the continuation of Khamenei's rule even runs counter to the path of Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic. In Khomeini's view as well, it was the will of the people that legitimized the regime and its representative, the Majlis:

"Your Eminence repeatedly says that the way of the Imam [Khomeini] is your way. Didn't the Imam use to say that the criterion is the people's opinion? Didn't he use to say that the Majlis was the center of all powers and all laws?… Is this how you continue the path of the Imam and ensure his goals?…"

If Khamenei Keeps Up His Dictatorial Methods, a Secular Regime Will Result

Warning Khamenei that his days as ruler were numbered, and that his religious dictatorship would ultimately lead to the establishment of a secular regime Sa'adi wrote:

"Didn't the Imam [Khomeini] use to say that he would prefer being called 'servant' than 'leader'? But when it comes to you, Your Eminence uses the term 'leadership' over and over, with pleasure. During your administration [of the country], a feeling arose that [the principle] of the Rule of the Jurisprudent [Vilayate Faqih] and Islam [itself] are [no longer] defensible… This false image of Islam and of [the principle] of Rule [of the Jurisprudent] is one reason why the youth flee the religion."

"Because of this great disaster I… ask… whether your insults [directed] at the people aren't reminiscent of how landowners behaved towards peasants during feudalism – even how slave merchants behaved towards their slaves… In any event, the natural and logical result of such behavior [on your part] and of such a poor image of the religious regime (because of which there is a sense that your religious regime in Iran has failed) is that the end will [bring about] not only the fall of the religious regime but, ultimately, the establishment of a secular regime in the form of a genuine republic."

*Ayelet Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project.

[1] See MEMRI Iranian Dissident to Khamenei: 'You Are An Evil Ruler' , May 26, 2002,

[2] See MEMRI High Ranking Iranian Conservative Cleric Resigns Over Regime's Failures , August 6, 2002,

[3] See MEMRI The Call for Islamic Protestantism: Dr. Hashem Aghajari's Speech and Subsequent Death Sentence , December 2, 2002,

[4] The complete version of the letter can be found at

[5] In his letter, Sa'adi continues: "Articles 5, 107, and 109 [of the constitution] state that 'the individual recognized by most of the people as having the religious authority and [status] of leadership will take upon himself the responsibility [to be] the leader. In the event that no jurisprudent earns the recognition of the majority, the [Council of] Experts, elected from among the people, will choose the members of the Leadership Council, or the leader himself, from among the Maraje [high-ranking jurisprudents considered to be sources of imitation]… according to the above conditions. Based on this, the [spiritual] leader must first of all possess the qualification of Marjai'yat [the highest religious authority]; second of all, [he must be] the individual recognized by most of the people for the position of Marjai'yat and leadership, and the one chosen [by the people]. Only in the event that such a majority is unattainable can the [Council of] Experts choose the members of the Leadership Council or the leader from among the Maraje and the qualified individuals set out in Articles 5, 107, and 109."

[6] Sa'adi wrote: "…Attaining the level of Marjai'yat demands years of study and research – yet on the other hand, because of Your Eminence's previous sensitive, important and great affairs, you have had no opportunity to obtain such a [religious] rank." Sa'adi also asked whether Khamenei could name even a few learned scholars who "have had the honor of being among your pupils after 1989," the year in which it was decided that Khamenei was an Ayatollah.

[7] Hussein, the third Imam of Shia, or Shi'ite Islam, and the son of the first Imam, 'Ali, lost his life in the battle of Karbala in 680, fighting for his regime and his honor against the Sunni Muslim leader Yazid, who is today considered by Shia to be the embodiment of evil and corruption and to have taken over the regime by force. Although his army was small, Hussein went to his death imbued with his own right and the right of Islam.

[8] Sa'adi, who lost his brother in the Iran-Iraq war, reminded Khamenei that while he had supported the war against Iraq, his own sister had defected and gained asylum there.

[9] Sa'adi wrote: "There are dozens of these [incidents], in which changes in the regime's position insulted the nation. For example, it was customary to say that any agreement with Saddam Hussein was completely out of the question, to the point where if Saddam touched the [Persian] Gulf, the sea would become polluted … [But] in the end, we made peace with Saddam. Or in the case of the Mecca incident [involving thousands of Iranian pilgrims and the Saudi authorities, which resulted in many casualties. The Saudis decided to ban Iranians from pilgrimage sites in Saudi Arabia for several years, during which Iran-Saudi relations were hostile], we said we would never forgive the [House of] Saud, but later Saudi Arabia became the 'wing of Islam.'" Sa'adi also needled Iranian leaders who are considered reformist and moderate, such as President Mohammad Khatami, who during the 1991 Gulf War "couldn't stand Iran's neutrality at that time [and] had supported Iranian involvement against the U.S. along with Iraq."

[10] Three islands in the Persian Gulf are claimed by both Iran and the UAE.

[11] Iran maintains ongoing contacts with its Caspian neighbors – Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan – in the matter of dividing Caspian Sea resources. Until the dismantling of the U.S.S.R., 1921-1940 Iran-U.S.S.R agreements determining rights to the resources remained in force. Iran claims that these agreements are still valid; additionally, it insists that each country receive 20% of the sea's resources.

[12] Sa'adi also protested Khamenei's failure to gain international support for Iran's claim to the three Persian Gulf islands (see Footnote 10) and in the matter of oil and gas pipelines, none of which pass through Iran – meaning that Iran loses out on substantial revenues.

[13] Sa'adi also accused Khamenei of instituting norms of financial corruption even as he calls regularly on the regime's bodies, particularly the reformists, to act against it: "Don't you know that the source of this [financial] corruption is the system you created?… And don't you know what 'the sons of' have done to the economy of this country – based on the jobs of their fathers, who occupy important positions in the Guardians Council, the Experts Council, the Judiciary, the Expediency Council, and so on? And do you know that some of these 'sons of' are no less [corrupt] than their fathers… You yourself spend hundreds of billions annually from the revenues of public funds, such as… the Oppressed of the Earth Organization, with no oversight whatsoever by the Majlis or by the government, and without reporting to the people. Does the order you wrote in your reply to Ayatollah Taheri, that everyone must fight corruption, beginning with him and his immediate family, not apply to you? And wouldn't it be better if you submitted a full accounting of [your] income and expenses, for the information of the Iranian people?" Sa'adi also mentioned the affair of Rafiq-Doust, suspected of embezzling 123 billion Tuman, and said that Khamenei's intervention in his trial "is interpreted as [Khamenei's] defense of him and as a green light to this kind of affair…"

[14] Sa'adi was evidently referring also to the affair of the arrests of top officials on November 4, 2002, in connection with the publication of polls on renewing relations with the U.S. Among the officials arrested were Abbas Abdi, a leader of the students who took over the American Embassy in 1979 and who is considered an Iranian patriot; Abdi was held in solitary confinement and in early February 2003 was sentenced to seven years in prison. The difficult conditions of his imprisonment and his confession to "making mistakes" sparked a wave of reformist protests against the violation of human rights of political prisoners in Iran.

[15] Montazari was released from house arrest in late January 2003, following continuing public protest.

[16] See Footnote 7.

[17] Sa'adi considers Ali's actions a model for how every ruler should behave: "Can't you confirm that [Imam] Ali, although he was the most worthy man in the history of mankind and although [his] appointment was divine, obeyed the vote when he lost the majority [by deceit]… and dropped the reins of leadership… in favor of the sweetness of giving preference to the people's decision… so that the banner of democracy and freedom would wave for all times and all generations."

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