Q&A: Karrubi on Iran's Organized Reformers

Mehdi Karrubi is the Al Gore of Iran. According to him, but for vote-rigging he would have been the president and not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The cleric is leader of the National Trust Party, founded after his 2005 defeat, and was a speaker of Iran's Parliament, or Majlis. Even though he is a reformist, he believes that President Mohammad Khatami allowed radicalism to tank the reform movement. In his first interview with the western media, Karrubi, 69, talked with NEWSWEEK'S Maziar Bahari about this week's Majlis elections. Excerpts:

BAHARI: A few days ago the headline of your party's newspaper was KARRUBI IS WORRIED. Why were you worried?
A large number of very good people who could be Majlis candidates were disqualified [by the Council of Guardians and the Ministry of Interior]. Nonetheless, we have lobbied high-ranking officials and different parts of the government and the situation has improved.

So you are not worried anymore?
I'm worried but less so.

When the Guardians can veto bills, what gain is even a powerful Majlis minority?
The Council of Guardians has a responsibility to make sure that the Majlis bills are in accordance with the teachings of Islam. Of course, at times we have suffered from a narrow-minded approach, but they are not as narrow-minded as some people think. And you can solve most problems by lobbying the members of the Council and other high-ranking officials of the Islamic Republic.

Is democracy in Iran only possible within the constraints of traditional methods, like lobbying and backroom negotiations?
Democracy means different things in different societies. We don't have the same situation as in Germany. There are people, like me, who know where they live and how to adapt democracy to their own country. There are others who, as soon as they have an opportunity, start abusing this freedom. Like those people who ridicule religion as soon as they can. These people give an excuse to the reactionaries who make an all-out assault against anyone who talks about democracy.

What are your main criticisms of the reformist movement during Khatami's era?
The most important of all was their destructionist approach. They questioned the "Islamic" component of the Islamic Republic. The Islamic Republic is a government chosen by people in a country where the majority of people are Muslim. On the other hand, these days there are people who are questioning the "Republic" aspect of our system of government and don't respect people's votes.

And of Ahmadinejad's government?
Because of the anomalies during the 2005 presidential elections, I don't want to comment on this government. But I wish them success because their economic and foreign-policy failures would hurt our people.

Don't you think those who rigged the last vote can do it again?
That is one of my worries. But this time the candidates have been allowed to assign their own supervisors at the polls. People are more sensitive to anomalies. Also, our previous government [Khatami's] was not strong enough to protect people's votes. Even when Mr. Khatami was supposed to present a report about the problems with elections, he was reluctant to do so. I didn't raise hell at the time because I liked and respected Mr. Khatami. This time, if there are problems we can express our complaints publicly.

Do you favor resuming relations with the United States?
America doesn't have a good history in Iran, but I am in favor of resuming relations now. Even the late Imam Khomeini said that if the American government changes its behavior, we can resume relations with it. He didn't mean that the Americans should convert to Islam. It's just that the Americans should accept us as equals and respect our independence.

And then?
There are other issues, such as releasing frozen Iranian assets in America and stopping support of anti-Iranian terrorist groups.

What should the future American president do vis-à-vis Iran?
There are candidates now who talk about starting negotiations with Iran without any preconditions. Naturally, I'd like those candidates to be successful.

For example, someone like Barack Obama?
Yes. Or whoever who can play a positive role in the Middle East as a whole.

Will you support former president Khatami if he becomes a presidential candidate, in order not to split the reformist votes?
We will have a member of our party as the candidate. It wouldn't necessarily be me but someone who is a member of our party.

Would you have a good chance to win?
Someone from our party will have a good chance. Even though last time I entered the race without a party, I was the No. 1 candidate in many provinces. So next year our supporters will still vote for us and will be even more organized.

So this interview might have been with the future president of Iran.
[Laughs] I don't want to even think about that now. You asked me your questions and I gave you my answers.