Even Americans who think engagement with the Islamic Republic could be useful tend to focus on areas where the two countries’ security interests may overlap, such as over Afghanistan and Iraq. They see the upcoming P5+1 talks with Iran, at best, as a possible venue for the United States and the Islamic Republic to trade concessions over a security issue. Absent from the American debate is any interest in discussing, let alone coming to agreement on “principles”. This is something Samareh Hashemi focused on in his recent interview with the Washington Post; the Wikileaks cables reveal that the Chinese advised the Obama Administration to focus its diplomatic engagement with Iran on “principles.”
“Principles” were also part of the approach that the United States followed with Iran in the dialogue we had over Afghanistan from 2001-2003. In the wake of 9/11 and the removal of the Taliban from power, U.S. and Iranian diplomats worked together to develop an approach to Afghanistan that was based on preventing Afghanistan from being used to launch terrorist attacks and constructing a representative political order in Afghanistan based on a written constitution. These two ideas for Afghanistan—that it become a representative constitutional political order and that it not be used to launch terrorist attacks—were suggested by Iranian diplomats, not merely acceded to by them.
But President Bush’s designation of Iran in the “axis of evil” (in part due to Bush’s dismissal of Iran’s political system as authoritarian), the difficulty of building representative political orders in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the deeply negative American perceptions of Iran’s current president and political life there, have prevented most Americans from seeing the utility of engaging the Islamic Republic over principles. Most Americans have come to think that the Islamic Republic’s approach to democracy and governance is fundamentally at odds with the American approach and, therefore, the two countries could never genuinely agree on foreign policy.
Last week, in an interview with Charlie Rose, Dr. Mohammad Javad-Larijani, head of the Human Rights Commission of the Islamic Republic and an adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, tried to provide Americans a glimpse of how important supporters of the Islamic Republic regard the rule of law as a governing principle of their political order. The interview is worth watching in its entirety, see here, but we highlight below the discussion of the principles animating Iranian politics.
CHARLIE ROSE: …The West tries to understand Islam. What is it we don’t understand? And where is Iran in Islam? And how is Iranian and Shiite Islam different from Sunni and Saudi Arabia Islam?
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Well, from the time of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, there were two biggest schools, even at his life. Two biggest schools generated in the conception of Islam. One was called Sunni, the other Shia. The main difference is that in the Shia Islam, we believe that our social life and the political order also should be constructed in view of Islam. Islam is not detached in the theoretical base. For example, just a concrete example. We as a Muslim, always we should have sensitivity about the legitimacy of the government that we are working and living in it. We should not ignore that question. So, you see that we believe that Islam has, in the sense that it can generate in any situation a proper type of polity, social and political order.
For example, our system in the Iran is a representative democracy. We incorporated, we learned a lot of things from the experience of the West. For example, our system of presidency, we took it from American system … two four [year] terms. Our parliamentary, our separation of power is from the French tradition. But we cooked all of them in hot pot of Islamic rationality, and we created a kind of good, which is best suitable right now, at this time for us.
CHARLIE ROSE: Is it a theocracy?
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Oh, this is a good question. This is the greatest thing which leads to…misconception of our system. Theocracy means the state of church should be supreme to the state, political state.
We don’t have for church an institution. In Shia Islam, there is no institution in terms of having rank and file in the church. Church means in our school of thought, an academic structure which people who knows Islam — not more than that. A state should have [its] own erection based on the legal thing.
For example, in our system of governance, we have three main posts of powers. One is the leadership. The leadership is by itself is an institution, a social political institution, and the leader is elected by a council of nobles it’s called — Council of Experts. And this Council of
Experts of 67 people are elected by the people for five years, and  they elect the leader and they can detach him from leadership. For example, my brother Ayatollah Sadeq is a member of this council elected by a province. Each year, they extend the mandate of the leader. Look to his way of that is delivering and then they will mandate it.
Then we have the institution of presidency, which is generally all the executive branch is under his order, his auspices. He is elected directly by the people. The third one is the parliament, which is directly elected by the people. I was myself for year’s member of the parliament from Tehran.
CHARLIE ROSE: Is anybody challenging the leader in Iran?
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Oh, definitely yes. Definitely. I mean, nobody is immune from challenge. The thing which is sacred in our law, nobody should offend Islam…
CHARLIE ROSE: Yes. But see, that is part of the problem right there. Because you define what it is to assault and offend Islam. And therefore you can, if there is a lawyer you don’t like, you put him in jail because – and you charge him or her, her with offending Islam. Correct?
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: No, it is not correct. Lawyers, as far as the professional act is considered, as far as they are pursuing the support and defense of their client, nobody will put them in jail for that purpose. Offending Islam is another issue.
CHARLIE ROSE: A significant number or — it is said, lawyers who have been put in jail because they were defending clients who were not popular. One lawyer who was defending a popular well-known international client fled to Norway.
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: The lawyer who fled to Norway, in fact, this is a very good example. It was supposed that this lawyer should always commute in the corridors of the court to help Sakineh Mohammadi…the poor lady which is indicted over there for capital punishment … But this guy never spent any moment in the corridor of the court. He flew to — he is flying from one capital to another to make interviews.
CHARLIE ROSE: He must have been flying away in fear.
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Well, this is what he claims. But even the client never met  him. He never signed anything to support as a lawyer, he has a case in the jail. So this is misusing the title of lawyer and misusing the oath of the lawyer for this profession.
I want to tell you exactly that nobody is in jail because he is a lawyer defending anybody. If a lawyer is defending one person, definitely that person should be accused of some crime. So defending a person to be popular or not doesn’t matter. A lawyer could defend a high –  very notorious criminal person as well. So this is not a bad thing for a lawyer. But offending Islam, being a lawyer, being a peasant, being everybody, it has punishment according to our law. And offending .
CHARLIE ROSE: Please define offending .
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Well, OK. The offense of Islam is .
CHARLIE ROSE: Is talking to the foreign media .
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Everybody is talking to the foreign media. And this is not the problem. The problem is that when you undermine, you say, for example, this sacred part of Islam is something rotten, forget about it. This is offense of Islam, yes.
CHARLIE ROSE: The U.N. resolution calls for Iran to end stoning.
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Well, it is true. I mean,this resolution is asking Iran a lot of unjust, unfair.
CHARLIE ROSE: Why is it unjust to ask a nation to end stoning? Why is stoning a just punishment?
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Well, these are two questions. Suppose there is a law in a country which considered by others unjust. You cannot condemn that country because they have a law which others consider unjust.
CHARLIE ROSE: Some people may consider hanging unjust or whatever it might be.
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Yes, that’s quite true. Let me make it clear that stoning, judges in Iran rarely, in two, three years, sometimes give this judgment on a stoning. But adultery in the nation of 70 million obviously is — cannot be confined to two or three per couple of years. So obviously, adultery automatically does not get a stoning.
But there is another main argument, which I think this is very important to look the differences. In the eye of the Western media or legal experts, any bodily punishment is unjust. Imprisonment is the most human punishment. This is a presumption in all Western, accepted in all western community. The previous head of judiciary, he was a very well-known scholar, Shahroudi. He raised an argument that this may not be always true. He compared, for example, a man condemned to 10 lashes because of a robbery or there is a choice — or six months in prison. He compared these two. Ten lashes will be in confinement of the police, nobody is aware of that. And after half an hour, he will go home. Perhaps only his wife will be aware of that. But put him in jail for six months, everybody will be aware of the case .
CHARLIE ROSE: There will be social ostracism.
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Plus the family will be deprived. So he raised this argument that this presumption that imprisonment is always the best punishment is not warranted.
CHARLIE ROSE: Ashtiani — what is going to happen to her?
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: See, capital punishment in Iran should go through the first court, the second court, and the high court, and since it is capital punishment, it needs authentication process. It means that the head of judiciary should have the option to revise the whole case. This is number one. Number two, Mrs. Ashtiani, the main crime was killing her husband.
CHARLIE ROSE: And has she admitted that or not?
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Oh yes, well, I’m not going to say that she did it or not. I don’t know. This was the judge ruling that…
CHARLIE ROSE: But has she said that she did or has she said – has she denied it?
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: She did not deny it as far as we reviewed the case of her.
CHARLIE ROSE: But did she admit it?
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Well, admitting is only one part. I think the police …
CHARLIE ROSE: And were there extenuating circumstances if she was involved?
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Yes, I mean, let us leave that to the judge because I don’t want myself to indict the person…
CHARLIE ROSE: But you have said — you’re trying to say — is your commission, your human rights commission trying to save her life?
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Yes.
CHARLIE ROSE: And what are you doing to try to save her life?
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Very good. The capital punishment in Iran, 65 percent of that is not a public responsibility. It is private responsibility. What it means? It means that when the judge rules that this person should get capital punishment, it is left to the first degree family. If they forgive her or him, then he will be saved. If not, not. So this is the place that we as the Council of Human Rights, we will enter the game. We go to the first degree family, we say look, your son has been killed by his wife. But there is no reason that you ask for the life of this woman. We tried to get their consent. Sometimes we raise funds to give to them. In a lot of good cases, we are successful. If it is done that we, I hope it will be done soon, then I think her whole life will be saved. But it should — the first degree family should accept that.
CHARLIE ROSE: Her life may be saved, but she will not be stoned.
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: No, no, she won’t be stoned in that case.
CHARLIE ROSE: But she won’t be stoned in any case, will she?
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: I don’t think so.
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: One thing I just want to mention. That if you look to Iran through the media coverage in the West, you are losing a lot of sight.
CHARLIE ROSE: What are we losing?
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Well, the reality over there.
CHARLIE ROSE: What is the reality?
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: The reality is that Iran is a dynamic society. People may have difference — different ideas on women. On the women issue, there are more than 2,000 NGOs, women educated, more than 64 percent of university (inaudible). So this is the reality.
CHARLIE ROSE: Here’s also said to be the reality too, that you cannot communicate freely in Iran over the Internet and through other modern means of technology. That you restrict that. And that there, this is — this is part of what the human rights indictment against Iran by the United Nations resolution was about.
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Well, first of all, this resolution should not be the base of judgment about Iran. This resolution…
CHARLIE ROSE: The United Nations — it wasn’t one country.
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Well, we should not be naive. United Nations is a place that — it is in which countries like the United States, a number of western countries, they could use this system for their end. In the same committee that the draft was set over there, strong voices was supporting Iran. Very strong voices.
CHARLIE ROSE: Political freedom. If I came to Iran, could I interview Mr. Mousavi and Mr. Karroubi?
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Oh, definitely. Definitely.
CHARLIE ROSE: No question?
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Why not? No question.
CHARLIE ROSE: So if I came to Tehran, I could see them, talk to them, they would have full opportunity to express…
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Definitely, I mean there are always talking to the western media through a lot of means.
CHARLIE ROSE: I haven’t seen an interview with Mr. Mousavi by the western media in a while.
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Well, there is — just look to the BBC Persian and other Persian-oriented. They are, the western — I mean the non-Persian language western media, they are not any more interested in him. Otherwise they were covering his interviews. And about Internet, I’m the person who brought Internet to the country about 18 years ago.
CHARLIE ROSE: Why do you ban it, what are you frightened of?
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: We are not frightened, it is [not] banned by law. For example …
CHARLIE ROSE: But why ban it? What’s — that’s the idea of a free society.
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Well, I think.
CHARLIE ROSE: Not to ban.
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Well, there is no absolute free society in the world. I mean, recently the United States, they passed a law that they can stop the whole Internet in the country if it is considered necessary by the president. Just signed the bill. So they cite the security. We cite the law. For example, pornography, defamation about Islam materials, things like that should be banned. It is against the law.
[And, for the run-up to resumed nuclear talks on Monday, we excerpt below Dr. Larijani’s comments on the nuclear issue.]
CHARLIE ROSE: Let me — Let me move to … the nuclear issue today. Here is a quote, [from] Admiral Blair, who was a former director of National Intelligence, the man who used to be, who briefed the president every day and was the person who brought in the CIA intelligence and NSA intelligence and briefed the president every day was on this program recently. He’s since left that position. Here is what he said about Iran and the nuclear weapon. [Rose cuts to video of his interview with Blair.]
ADMIRAL DENNIS BLAIR: If I had that one choice, but I wouldn’t bet my national policy on that. I would make a national policy if I — if I were still in government that had the breadth to cover both possibilities. Because as I said, Iran hasn’t made up its mind. We don’t know who will win in this argument so we have to be ready either way.
CHARLIE ROSE: Iran has not made up its mind.
DENNIS BLAIR: Iran has not made up its mind. The Supreme Leader has not yet spoken. (END VIDEO)
CHARLIE ROSE: Here is the man who was in charge of reporting to the President and American intelligence, saying Iran has not made up its mind about whether it wants nuclear weapons and there are opposing arguments. And that the Supreme Leader will decide. Is that accurate?
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Well, I’m sorry for the President for this bad advice. We made our mind very, very clearly and very rigorously. We do not want armament, nuclear armament. This is definite. We made our mind, we want the most advanced nuclear technology for a lot of peaceful use.
CHARLIE ROSE: If the argument is made that if in fact that’s all you wanted, you could easily convince the world, but you don’t try to convince the world of that. Instead, because you think you have the right to do it, you know, even though you are a signatory, you do not try to convince the world. Because you block efforts to learn more. You have acknowledged concealment.
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: No, the point is that the United States is saying that we are suspicious of Iran’s intention. Fine. They are suspicious of us. We are suspicious of their intention as well. But look — what we…
CHARLIE ROSE: It’s more than that, I mean it’s not the United States, it is the IAEA, not the United States.
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Well, let us be concrete…
CHARLIE ROSE: An American does not head the IAEA, as you know.
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Well, this is flag-leaded by the United States and supported by a number of prominent European members. This is a reality. So they are suspicious of us, fine. How we should handle this suspicion? The United States is saying OK, we are suspicious of you. Halt everything. Deprive yourself from any access and development of nuclear technology. Wait until we get out of suspicion. This is the most naive recommendation and request from Iran. But what we say, we say OK, you are suspicious. You are obliged to ask the legal body for more transparency. That’s fine. We are ready for absolute transparency. But parallel to that, should be using all the possibilities of NPT on the buying the fuel for our nuclear plant and buying the equipment and getting technical help. It’s not possible that we’re put in the suspicious chair and people say OK, wait until we get sure of you. This is the worst argument. This is the case in Iran.
CHARLIE ROSE: In terms of the acquisition of nuclear technology for peaceful uses, you should be proud of that.
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: This is exactly we are proud of that.
CHARLIE ROSE: But why don’t you act as if that is your only objective?
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Well, I said the formula is …
CHARLIE ROSE: And it’s not —
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: …is transparency. No more than that.
CHARLIE ROSE: But there has not been transparency.
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: We are …
CHARLIE ROSE: That’s the point. And so therefore, you …
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Well, our record on transparency supersedes even Europeans.
CHARLIE ROSE: Europeans, listen, the sanctions have been voted on by Europeans.
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: I know. But …
CHARLIE ROSE: It’s not Americans. It’s Europeans.
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Well, I want to say …
CHARLIE ROSE: It’s Russians.
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: We have transparency …
CHARLIE ROSE: It is the Chinese.
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: If transparency is the point, our record is very good. But they don’t accept the logic of transparency. Their logic is deprivation. They say Iran should not have the capability. Even George Bush said that openly. They said this nation should not be having even capability.
CHARLIE ROSE: So there you go. What you really want is the capability to have nuclear weapons.
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Well, no.
CHARLIE ROSE: That’s exactly what you are saying.
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: No, capability …
CHARLIE ROSE: You want the capability to have nuclear weapons?
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: No, not nuclear weapons. You said — if we get advancement in nuclear science, the capability is obvious. If you want to go to that — it’s like any other capability. You cannot say to person you shouldn’t buy knife to cut the cheese, because if you get the knife, you may kill a person. So you should cut the knife — the cheese by spoon. This is the wrong logic.
CHARLIE ROSE: So you want the knife to cut the cheese.
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Yes, exactly. Saying — let me be frank on that. We don’t have trust in United States and western countries. And they don’t have trust in us, as they claim. I believe Obama’s intelligence .
CHARLIE ROSE: But to trust you — you know, Ronald Reagan had a famous saying, which you know, do you know about it?
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: What was that?
CHARLIE ROSE: Trust but verify.
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: Well, it is good. Let’s be on that.
CHARLIE ROSE: Trust but verify.
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: OK. The allegation against us, if they don’t have trust, let’s go on the way of verification. Why we don’t have trust?
CHARLIE ROSE: Because you don’t let them verify.
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: No, we don’t have trust in the west.
CHARLIE ROSE: But it’s not about the west, it is about what your intentions are.
MOHAMMAD-JAVAD LARIJANI: The trust — the trust is a two-way story. It’s not a one-way story.