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.
In November, cleric Ahmad Alam al-Hoda, a member of the Assembly of Experts and the Friday prayer Imam of Mashhad, also referred to Mousavi and Karroubi as Mohaareb – people who fight with God – and claimed that Mousavi wanted to bring people to the streets to confront the Supreme Leader and limit his power. He also said that Mousavi is responsible for the death of 23 people who had been killed in the demonstrations in June 2009, and thus must be put on trial. Like Jannati, al-Hoda argued that “putting them under house arrest is the greatest leniency.”
Despite the hardliners’ ceaseless attack on the trio, Motahhari has continued demanding their release from house arrest, which he argues is legal, or at least giving them a fair and open trial. In response, cleric Sadegh Larijani, the judiciary chief said at the end of December that the house arrest is legal because it has been approved by the SNSC, and that even if the SNSC releases the trio from house arrest, the judiciary will put them on trial. He added that the trio do not care about their trials, and only wish to use them for “propaganda.”
“There have been explicit statements,” Larijani said, “by some seditionists that they do not care about the outcome of the trials, and that they only want to use them to state their views. I must point out that a trial is not the place to speak with the people and complain about things, rather they must defend themselves, as they face many charges.”
In an open letter on January 3, Motahhari responded to Larijani, stating that, first, the SNSC is not an arm of the judiciary to issue such orders and put people under house arrest; second, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (who chaired the SNSC at the time) did not even sign the order for the house arrest, and in fact pleaded twice for their release; and third, any accused has the right to speak to the people about what he has been charged with, particularly the trio who have not had their chance for four years, while they have been accused of many crimes.
Two days later the judiciary denied that Ahmadinejad had written two letters pleading for the release of the three leaders. It also repeated the claim that what the SNSC had done was legal because, “the house arrest of the sedition leaders is a defensive act to protect the nation,” and emphasized that if and when the trio are put on trial, it will be closed to the public because “the judiciary’s mission is to hold trials, not provide a tribunal for the accused to speak to the people.”
The next day Motahhari reminded Larijani that he had told the Majles about Ahmadinejad’s letters and that his statements had been recorded. But, he delivered his main response in a session of the Majles on January 10 when he declared that according to Islamic teachings, so long as the opposition members are not armed [and do not resort to violence], they are free and their rights must be protected and respected. He also said that the house arrest has been a more severe punishment than imprisonment for the three leaders. “Even Prophet Muhammad cannot issue a verdict without hearing what the accused have to say, let alone the SNSC,” Motahhari declared, adding that the three leaders must either be freed, or be put on trial together with Ahmadinejad.
The speech angered the hardliners, who interrupted his speech. Motahhari claimed that that the attack on him had been planned and encouraged by the Deputy Speaker of the Majles, Hassan Aboutorabi. Even after the Majles restarted its session behind closed doors, the hardliners did not allow Motahhari to finish his speech.
Rouhani’s Approach to Ending the House Arrest
Behind the scenes Rouhani has tried to resolve the issue, but publicly he has spoken only in general terms. He has, for example, said repeatedly that the nation must forget the past, personal enmities must be set aside, and that the entire nation must work together in order to move the country forward. But, each time he has stated these things, it has provoked a harsh reaction from the hardliners.
In a meeting with Khamenei on the occasion of the anniversary of the birth of Prophet Muhammad on January 8, Rouhani echoed Motahhari in saying that the Prophet was “the prophet of mercy, not revenge.” He added:
“The Prophet’s moral masterpiece was taking Mecca over and issuing a general clemency. The Prophet did not even punish the murderer of Hamza, his beloved uncle. Our path, as the Supreme Leader has said repeatedly, must be attracting the maximum number of people, and repealing the minimum.”
Thus, Rouhani was telling Khamenei that just as the Prophet forgave his enemies, he too should do the same with the Green Movement leaders Not surprisingly, the conservatives responded immediately in arguing that Hamza’s murderer was a slave who had only carried out his master’s order. In addition, they pointed out that the slave apologized to the Prophet, but Mousavi and Karroubi have refused to apologize to Khamenei. Moreover, the conservatives contended, that slave had converted to Islam while Mousavi and Karroubi are still “imperialism’s puppets.”