PARIS — To the official Iranian press, former Iranian President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr is "a criminal hiding out in Europe." His testimony in a Berlin court this month helped establish the involvement of the Iranian regime in the murder of political dissidents in Europe. But to many Iranian exiles living in Paris, he is a voice of conscience.
The soft-spoken statesman and scholar has spent most of his life living in exile in France. He fled here after being imprisoned for involvement in riots against the Shah's regime in 1963, and later helped fellow Iranian exile Ayatollah Khomeini plan the 1978-79 Iranian revolution. He served as the first elected president of the Islamic Republic in 1980, before falling afoul of Iran's Muslim clergy and fleeing again to France in 1981.
His house on the outskirts of Paris is heavily guarded by French security forces, and security has been stepped up since renewed death threats after the Berlin verdict. He rarely ventures outside.
The following are excerpts from a two-hour interview in his home:
On why German courts tackled this recent case so aggressively:
Public opinion throughout Europe has become very sensitive to corruption, especially after the corruption investigations in Italy. This has given European judges much more independence to stand up against pressure from their governments. That said, the German courts deserve special credit for their courage.
On the impact of the case on the Iranian regime:
The verdict proves that Iran is a terrorist state. None of this is consistent with the teachings of Islam. This regime has shown itself to be deeply anti-Islam.
On how the West should deal with Iran:
I am calling for a new policy of "active neutrality." The West should maintain diplomatic relations with Iran and insist on human rights. But Iranians should be left alone to battle this regime on their own terms and in their own time.
On strengthening an embargo on Iran:
Don't put any more pressure on the Iranian people. The economic boycott against Iraq has only strengthened the regime.
On arms sales:
Instead of the arms race, there needs to be a development race in the region.
On the "clash of cultures" between Islam and the West:
It's a lie and a contradiction to say that cultures clash. Civilization is dialogue, and instead of a war of civilizations, we need a peace of civilizations.
On liberty, despite being exiled in a house in Paris:
I have liberty even in this house, because every man has the possibility of rejecting limits. Not even a terrorist state can take away a man's liberty, because liberty comes from a man's relationship to God.