Founder of Hizbullah, a reformer in Iran

Iran's political struggle is usually summed up as a contest between democratic reformers and conservative clerics. Except that it's not so simple.

Take Ali Akbar Mohtashemi. Like Iran's president, Mohammed Khatami, Mr. Mohtashemi is both a reformer and a Shiite cleric. And like a lot of other reformers, Mohtashemi has long been an insider in Iran's post-revolutionary politics.

A conversation with Mohtashemi illustrates one of the central paradoxes of Iranian politics: Some of the reformers are the movers and shakers of the very system they are trying to reform.

A top aide to the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Mohtashemi is a founder of Lebanon's Hizbullah movement, a militant organization and political party best known for its long and ultimately successful struggle against Israeli occupation.

Mohtashemi may have played a role in the 1983 bombing of the US Marine base in Beirut, which killed 241 American servicemen. He says this allegation is "a lie," but there is no denying that his work made him some enemies. In 1984, while serving as Iran's ambassador to Syria, he opened a package that had been delivered to his office.

An explosion tore off his right hand and part of his left. Mohtashemi says "experts" attributed the bomb to Israel's Mossad intelligence agency and possibly the CIA.

Since then, he has become the publisher of a now-closed reformist newspaper and a leading figure in the reform movement. He was until recently the reformists' faction leader in parliament.

He has refused four summonses to appear before the Special Court for Clergy - considered a conservative bastion - because he considers the court's actions in his case to be "illegal." He has also criticized the court's conviction of another cleric, Hassan Yousefi Eshkevari, for political activities.

One Tehran businessman, who discussed Mohtashemi on condition of anonymity, says the lack of retribution for these refusals demonstrates that the cleric is an "untouchable" - one of a few dozen people in Iran powerful enough to get away with disregarding the clerical court.

Nonetheless, says Mohtashemi, "I believe in democracy and the people and the rule of law. And I have made steps toward those goals."

A soft-spoken man with a salt-and-pepper beard, Mohtashemi wears the elegant but simple robes of the Shiite clergy. On his head is the black turban that signifies he is a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

But for all his reformist credentials, at times he seems like an unreconstructed Iranian hardliner. The organizer of an April conference in support of the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, Mohtashemi yet again issued one of the trademark slogans of the Iranian revolution: "Death to America."

"Bear in mind," he says, "that when we say 'death to America,' we never mean the people." The target of the exhortation is "those who have made America and its government hated by so many people around the world."

Mohtashemi is upbeat about Mr. Khatami, who was overwhelmingly re-elected to a second four-year term on June 8. Many Iranians feel that Iran's system of government - in which a popularly elected president and parliament must share power with a clerical supreme leader and several councils that are the province of the clergy - must change, but Mohtashemi apparently isn't one of them. "I feel that with the amount of power the president has, given the right conditions, he can reach the goals he has in his sight," he says.

Even so, Iranian reformists are frustrated with the slow pace of change and with Khatami's insistence on gradualism. The most ardent reformers have called for a more democratic system, in which the clergy has less access to political power.

His critics say the president was put forward by the clergy in order to preserve their rule; less conspiritorial observers insist that Khatami represents a process of change that will ultimately diminish the power of the clerics.

Khatami himself is not much of a "death to America" man; he seems to desist from such slogans as part of his effort to present a moderate face of Iran. Mohtashemi, on the other hand, is unrepetant when it comes to certain aspects of Iran's foreign policy. The US in particular has long criticized Iran for its support of Hizbullah and other militant groups, saying that the aid amounts to state sponsorship of terrorism. These groups are the enemies of Israel, which is, of course, America's closest ally in the Middle East.

A federal grand jury this month indicted 13 Saudis and an unnamed Lebanese on charges related to the 1996 bombing of a housing complex for US military personnel in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 people and injured hundreds. The US Justice Department says some of those indicted were part of a Saudi group backed by Iran, but Iranian officials deny any role in the attack.

Perhaps to dampen the US criticism - one of several factors that have kept the two nations at odds with each other - Iranian officials have said for years that they offer only moral and humanitarian support to such groups. "We just pray for them to succeed," notes Sadegh Kharrazi, a deputy foreign minister.

But Mohtashemi, who is head of an official committee to support the Palestinians, is less coy on such matters. "I'm not talking about what the Islamic Republic is doing," he says, referring to Iran, "but as far as I'm concerned any help that can be given to the Palestinian people is legitimate."

Referring to continued Iranian support for Hizbullah, Mohtashemi indicates that "humanitarian" aid might not necessarily exclude arms. "Let's say a group of people are being attacked by wild animals," he proposes. "If you give them weapons to defend themselves, is that humanitarian or not?"

"What is it when America and Europe send military aid and interfere in the Balkans," he asks. "We will call it the same thing when we are helping the underdogs of Palestine and Lebanon or anywhere else."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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