PARIS 3 Oct. (IPS) As the Islamic Republic faces growing international pressures over its controversial nuclear programs and the ruling clerics more delegitimized at home, mostly by the young generation, Grand Ayatollah Hoseynali Montazeri, Iran's leading dissident cleric urged ruling authorities to ease restrictions on a restless population.

Speaking with the British news agency Reuter's correspondent at his home on Wednesday, Mr. Montazeri, 81, said "If officials really want to solve the crisis and satisfy the people, they should put aside their strictness. People should be free to express their ideas", he said in a rare interview with a foreign journalist.

Ayatollah Montazeri also criticised the powerless President Mohammad Khatami for having failed to capitalize on the huge mandate he had won for reform.

Khatami, despite the large mandate he won in 1997 and 2001 elections, has been unable to overcome resistance to change from powerful unelected conservatives who control the judiciary, armed forces and veto-wielding constitutional watchdogs.

"Khatami made a lot of promises to the people, he had the backing of 22 million voters and people were hopeful, but he was not able to fulfil his promises and this has caused people's disappointment," Montazeri said.

Jailed and tortured under the former Shah for his close ties to Grand Ayatollah Roohollah Khomeini before the 1979 Islamic revolution, he spent five years under house arrest for criticizing Ayatollah Ali Khameneh'i, the present leader of the Islamic Republic.

Freed conditionally about two months ago, he nevertheless continue to express his criticism of the way the clerical leaders govern the country and urging them to be more careful to people's demands for greater freedom. 

"This country and the revolution belong to the people and the officials are their servants. If the officials review their behavior, everything will be fine", he said told Paul Hughes, seated in his study in the city of Qom, the center of religious studies in Iran and cradle of Shi'a militants.

Montazeri said the restrictive climate in Iran, where scores of liberal publications have been closed and dozens of writers, students and political activists jailed in the last four years, was forcing thousands of Iran's best minds to leave the country.

He highlighted the actions of the judiciary, where the Special Court for Clergy and Revolutionary Courts have jailed dozens of Khatami supporters in recent years, often after closed-door trials without a jury.

"We do not have Special Courts and Revolutionary Courts in our constitution, both have been invented. They should close these courts and stop the judiciary's harshness. Then many things could become better", pointed out the Grand Ayatollah who was instrumental in the writing of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic.

Montazeri, sidelined by Khomeini in 1988 for criticizing the mass execution of political prisoners, has recently returned to teaching after a bout of heart problems leading up to and following his release from house arrest in January.

Analysts say hard-line officials released Montazeri because of fears that his death while under arrest could become a lightning rod for protests against the political system.

Around 300 men, including many senior reformist clerics, packed into a simple classroom Wednesday to listen to Montazeri's message of tolerance and equality.

"My point is that all human beings, no matter whether they are believers or not, or whether they are Muslims or not, should be respected", he told the attentive audience.

Friends say they are not surprised Montazeri, who wears large black-rimmed glasses and sports a pointed white beard, has returned with vigor to teaching and making his opinions known.

"He cannot be changed, everyone knows that. He has never been scared of prison or exile or torture. They described him like that in the SAVAK files", said Ayatollah Hoseyn Mousavi-Tabrizi, referring to the Shah's feared secret police.

"If the situation continues like this, yes the turnout (in the February parliament vote) will be low," he said. ENDS MONTAZERI REUTERS INTERVIEW 31003

Editor's note: Highlights and some editing works and phonetisation of names are by IPS