The spirit of Thomas Jefferson is alive and well and living in Iran. Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, one of the most senior Iranian clerics, published a fatwa on July 11 that reads as though he had been perusing the works of America’s Founding Fathers. The document is a revolutionary call for action against a government in Tehran that has forfeited its right to rule.
The grand ayatollah believes that government is instituted by man as a social contract, with rights and responsibilities on both the part of the people and the government. “The state belongs to the people,” he said. “It is neither my property or yours.” Compare this to our Declaration of Independence, which states that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.”
This contract is revocable, something that Mr. Montazeri says is grounded in “both religious law and common sense,” or as Jefferson said, the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” When the government behaves in a way that contravenes the people’s rights, it forfeits its legitimacy and may be dissolved. “In the event of a breach of any article of the contract between the two sides,” Mr. Montazeri writes, “namely that between the position holder and the people, who appointed him — the people may remove the position holder from his post.” Or as Jefferson put it in 1776: “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”
The collapse of legitimate government authority is automatic, according to Mr. Montazeri, and once the regime has sufficiently transgressed the people’s rights, it brings about “the de facto collapse” of both the civil government, led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the religious superstructure that oversees it, headed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Kameini. Afterward, all decrees from these authorities are rendered “null and void.”
Mr. Montazeri offers his own bill of particulars, including using clubs, oppression, injustice, rigged elections, murder, arrests, “medieval or Stalinesque” torture, press censorship, imprisoning intellectuals and elected leaders based on false allegations or forced confessions. He writes that a government that behaves this way “is despicable and has no religious merit.” This sounds an awful lot like John Locke, the English philosopher whose social contract theory inspired our Declaration of Independence. In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke, in 1690, wrote that a government that “uses force without right … puts himself into a state of war with those against whom he so uses it, and in that state all former ties are cancelled, all other rights cease, and every one has a right to defend himself, and to resist the aggressor.”
Mr. Montazeri believes that resistance is not simply a right but an obligation. “It is the responsibility of everyone to act in the face of injustice and in the face of the trampling of the people’s rights,” he writes. “[T]his is a duty incumbent upon all … and none may evade it under any pretext.” Many Iranian clerics agree with him. The week before Mr. Monazeri’s fatwa was published, the influential Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qom — the epicenter of Shi’ite religious authority — denounced last month’s rigged presidential election and declared the new government illegitimate. Their declaration was dated July 4.