No one knows who dubbed Dr Soroush the Martin Luther of Iran, but when the 52-year-old professor of ethics scuttled through the entrance of the Tehran Academy of Philosophy yesterday morning you could almost see him hammering his theses to the heavy wooden door. The clergy, he believes, do not have a God-given right to rule. They are not above criticism. He wants democracy, human rights, academic freedom.
Dr Soroush arrived late for our meeting. Only last month, he was prevented from lecturing in Tehran by crowds from the Ansar-e-Hezbollah - the Partisans of the Party of God - who screamed abuse at him before attacking his car. "I managed to escape and later gave my speech over the telephone," he said with just a hint of a nervous smile. "My voice was re-broadcast through loudspeakers. It was quite an innovation. They might even prevent me doing that next time. It was only a 15-minute speech. All this showed me that the authorities are not prepared to open our society."
Dr Soroush looks an unlikely martyr. A small, bearded man with tinted spectacles and little hair. A graduate of London University, where he studied the philosophy of science; he talks like a machine gun and rarely stops to reload, in a voice that combines passion and frustration in equal measure. He is certain that President Khatami's enemies - the conservative clerics defeated in last May's election who have gathered around Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic - are hoping for an outbreak of violence to crush the newly-elected president.
The professor's sin was to question the velayat-e-faqih - the "leadership of wise men" that gives Ayatollah Khamanei such enormous though unelected power in Iran - and to have demanded a society based upon rights rather than duties. No wonder he is now banned from teaching at his university. No wonder newspapers are no longer permitted to publish his words. "Sometimes they have the courage to print my name," he said. His passport was briefly confiscated and he still does not know if he will be allowed to travel to London for an Academy of Arts lecture next year.
While the world fondly believes that the liberal and academically distinguished President Khatami - an old personal friend of Dr Soroush - is building a new Iran, the professor displays no such optimism. He observed the vitriolic attacks on Ayatollah Hossein Montazeri - Khatami's electoral supporter who last month dared to accuse Supreme Leader Khamanei of setting up a parallel unelected government - with grave concern.
"Khatami's enemies are very determined to topple him before his term finishes. Some people believe the attacks on Montazeri are directed at the president - in order to prove there can be no security under Khatami's rule. I have nothing explicitly against the velayat-e-faqih , but the [religious] men who are in charge should not be above criticism. There is nothing in Islam that prevents us from criticising the highest in the country, whether they be religious or secular," he said.
So will President Khatami make a stand against Khamanei and defend his old theological colleague? "Khatami does not want to enter into a conflict with the religious authorities," Dr Soroush replied. "He has avoided debate in order to stabilise his position - which he wants people to see as impartial. The authorities expected him to take action and attack them ... but violence is not in Khatami's interest. Once people are in the street, no one can guarantee there will be no violence."
But the president's pacificity draws Dr Soroush's irritation, if not scorn. "Mr Khatami has to take matters into his own hands ... he has got to allow intellectuals and university men to discuss their ideas about civil society and religion openly - otherwise civil society is pointless, " he said.
The professor's point is simple: only an elected government can secure human rights and freedom of expression for Iranians. To do this, it is necessary to solve the contradiction created by the late Ayatollah Khomeini - an Islamic republic which contains both democracy and religious dictatorship. And only Khatami can provide that solution.Reuse content