When radical iranian students took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, a shadowy figure of revolutionary authority stood in the wings as gun-toting militants chanted "Death to America." Not even the 50 American diplomats seized as hostages knew his name, but Mohammed Mousavi Khoeiniha, a fiery mullah in dark robes, passed messages to the students from his boss, Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini. And as the crisis dragged on for 444 days, Khoeiniha's handiwork helped entrench radical Islamic rule.
Two decades later, however, it is Iran's religious establishment that is frightened by the likes of Khoeiniha. Aged 55, with a bushy gray beard, he has become one of the key strategists in the movement to democratize Iran, led by moderate President Mohammed Khatami. He can be found musing without a trace of irony on "removing tensions" with foreign countries and "establishing the required atmosphere for investment." If he delivers diatribes, they are directed at hard-liners who have shut liberal newspapers including his own daily, Salam, in 1999 and burned bookshops, attacked cinemas and even tried to assassinate one of Khatami's chief advisers.
What scares Iran's conservatives is the way Khoeiniha questions their authoritarian interpretation of Khomeini's doctrine of supreme clerical rule, known as velayat-e faqih literally "governance of the religious jurisprudent." Part of an outspoken movement of dissident clerics who are putting their lives and religious reputations on the line, Khoeiniha charges that the conservatives have used the late Ayatullah's ideas to turn the Islamic Republic into a dictatorship of mullahs. "The methods of the conservatives are wrong," Khoeiniha says in a rare interview at his office in Tehran. "They do not respond to the needs of the modern world."
Three years ago, Khoeiniha says, he went to Khatami to propose that the former philosophy professor, famous for detesting political fights, stand as the budding reform movement's candidate for President. Khatami became "angry, actually furious," that civic duty demanded his entry into power politics, according to Khoeiniha. He says Khatami later calmed down and agreed to run. Khoeiniha says he then turned his newspaper Salam's offices into a headquarters for Khatami's victorious campaign. Since winning, the President has promoted the republican side of the Islamic Republic, but his priorities may not be shared by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei: "There is a serious difference of opinion between them [on issues such as freedom]," Khoeiniha says.
Like Khatami himself, Khoeiniha has no intention of dismantling the Islamic Republic. Rather, he believes that the Islamic Revolution's goals of freedom have been thwarted by authoritarian conservatives hiding behind Khomeini's teachings. Clerical rule is not incompatible with democracy, he explains, so long as voters have the power to select and remove the leader invested with ruling powers. "The conservatives," he says, "advocate a system which has no compatibility with democracy: God chooses a person and people must obey that person who does not have to be accountable to the people, any institution, or anyone in general."
Conservatives feel threatened by this challenge to their long-standing grip over instruments of power, from the security forces and state-owned media to the Islamic courts. A behind-the-scenes debate has been simmering in the holy city of Qom ever since Khomeini came up with velayat-e faqih, with many traditional clerics arguing that divine right to govern makes public accountability unnecessary.
The dissident clerics' demand for an accountable, democratic velayat-e faqih is so taboo that conservatives have imprisoned or placed under house arrest 500 of them. Khoeiniha has escaped detention so far, but has been barred from newspaper work for five years, despite the fact that when authorities closed down his paper a year ago it triggered student protests that degenerated into nationwide riots.
As he maneuvers behind the scenes today, just as he did during the hostage crisis 20 years ago, Khoeiniha sees no contradictions in his work. He recalls how he rebuffed the students when they asked to see Khomeini, advising them to just "go ahead and capture the Nest of Spies." Afterward, he says, he rushed to the U.S. compound to lend their action the moral and symbolic support of an established Islamic revolutionary. But, as Khoeiniha tells it, the taking of the embassy was just part of the work of reforming Iran.
Skeptics might call him an opportunist, a latecomer to democracy. But his political reincarnation is stunning enough to give even cynical Iranians hope: if the new Iran can produce a mellower, more liberal Khoeiniha, then there is no limit to the possibilities.
With reporting by Scott MacLeod/Tehran