The Green Movement Still Terrifies Iran's Leaders

Mousavi and Karroubi remain under house arrest for one simple reason: Khamenei is petrified of them.

Since February 2011 the leaders of Iran’s Green Movement, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and his wife Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, and former Speaker of the Majles [parliament] Mehdi Karroubi have lived under strict house arrest, ordered by Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC).

It is not completely clear why the trio were put under house arrest, and Iranian officials have given three different reasons at various times. The first is that the post-election demonstrations in 2009 were intended to topple the Iranian regime, and resulted in 35 deaths, 16 of whom were hardline Basij militia members.

Another reason given recently is that when the trio called for large-scale demonstrations in support of the Arab Spring in February 2011, they actually were seeking to foment similar revolutions in Iran.

Finally, it has been said that if the trio do not admit that they were wrong about the 2009 elections being rigged, they will continue to make these charges if they are released.

Pitting Political Factions against Each Other

Iran’s reformists and supporters of the Green Movement have been demanding the release of the trio. As a presidential candidate, for example, Hassan Rouhani promised the trio’s release as a way to court reformist voters.

In office, he has faced stiff opposition on this issue from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, senior Revolutionary Guards, and the clerics and hardliners who support Khamenei. This should not be surprising. After all, from the beginning Khamenei labeled the Green Movement a “sedition” and claimed that only truly “insightful” officials could understand the depth of the threat that the movement posed against the regime.

Although President Rouhani Chairs the SNSC, the majority of its members are conservatives and hardliners who prevent him from releasing the three leaders. Indeed, as the national debate about the release of the trio gathered steam in recent months, the judiciary chief made it clear that if the three leaders are released from house arrest, they will be put on trial for “corruption on earth,” a charge that is punishable by death. Further impeding Rouhani on this front, all the resolutions approved by the SNSC must ultimately be approved by Khamenei.

A Conservative against Khamenei and Other Conservatives

One influential conservative pushing for the trio’s release is Ali Motahhari, a Majles deputy and the son of Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari (1918-1979), was one of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s most influential proteges, who was assassinated only 80 day after the victory of Iranian revolution in February 1979.  

Despite being regarded as a conservative, Motahhari has been defending the rights of the critics and opposition members, and has been more effective in this regard than the entire minority reformist faction in the Majles.

In the middle of June 2014, Motahhari and several other deputies had a private session with Khamenei, in which they asked the Supreme Leader to release the Green Movement leadership. Khamenei reportedly responded to this request by stating:

“I have already spoken about this, and how we should not deviate from the path of our martyrs. Their [the trio’s] crime is grave, and if the Imam [Khomeini] were alive, he would have published them more severely. If they are put on trial, their sentence will be very severe which will not make you happy. We have been merciful to them.”

Similarly, in a meeting with Rouhani’s cabinet in August 2014, he reminded the ministers that: “The issue of sedition and the seditionist is highly important and one of [our] red lines, which you [the cabinet] should be committed to, as you promised the day you received vote of confidence [from the Majles].”

When Khamenei’s views became public, the hardliners went on the offensive. In a nationally-televised program last October, conservative cleric Ahmad Jannati, the powerful secretary-general of the Guardian Council, compared Mousavi and Karroubi with the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini. Like Mussolini, Jannai explained, the two men need no trial and must be executed, because “their crime was trying to topple the regime under the pretext of election cheating.” But, Jannati added, the state has been merciful to them by putting them under house arrest.