When Green Movement leader Mehdi Karroubi wrote an open letter to President Hassan Rouhani on April 9, he added his voice to Iran’s long tradition of dissenters who challenge the dominant political and social atmosphere, taking risks to ensure their argument is heard. The letter, the authenticity of which was verified by Karroubi’s son, was published on the Saham News website, and also appeared on the BBC Persian and Voice of America websites.
To get a sense of the tradition Karroubi is invoking, consider the precedents:
On February 5, 1981, the writer and political activist Ali-Asghar Haj Seyed Javadi wrote an open letter to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. In the letter, he predicted a dark and dreadful future for the Islamic Revolution.
On October 4, 1988, Mehdi Bazargan, who led the interim government after the revolution, also wrote to Khomeini, warning him about “domestic tyranny.”
And on January 29, 1989, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who at the time was Khomeini's heir apparent, took the supreme leader to task in an open letter over the 1988 mass execution of political prisoners. The letter created an irreversible rupture between the two men and led to Montazeri's house arrest.
These public statements are significant in Iran’s political history not because opponents of despotism in Iran agree with every point set out in them, or because they provide possible solutions to the problems they address. They are important because the writers refused to give in to the prevailing mood in the country at the time, and because they did not support the dominant discourse, even though that was the easiest path to take. They were not among those who claimed to have seen Khomeini’s face in the moon on the eve of his return to Iran from exile in 1979. Or, as Mehdi Bazargan put it, they did not yield to “the imperial tradition of following His Majesty’s wishes.”
“It is a very bold letter and shows that Mr. Karroubi has not retreated one iota,” says Sadegh Zibakalam, a political analyst, and professor of political science at Tehran University. “The same spirit that led to his house arrest has not only not diminished, it is perhaps even stronger. He has not been demoralized. He is standing by his position.”
In the letter Karroubi, who was placed under house arrest at the same time as Mir Hossein Mousavi and Zahra Rahnavard in February 2011, appeals to his “Esteemed Brother Hassan Rouhani,” asking him to arrange for his case to be tried in public. He states that he will accept whatever verdict is reached and has no intention of launching an appeal.
The letter is the first addressed to the president by any of the Green Movement leaders, but the intended recipient is actually Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Karroubi implicitly addresses Khamenei 15 times, holding him responsible for a number of events that have shaped the current atmosphere in Iranian politics and society. They include:
— supporting the dismal and kleptocratic presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
— intentionally ensnaring Iran in the trap of sanctions
— squandering Iranian assets in regional conflicts
— nuclear adventurism, with detrimental consequences
— interfering with elections, including condoning fraud in the 2005 presidential election, and manipulation of the outcome of the 2009 presidential election
— branding the political opposition “dishonorable”, and effectively eliminating the opposition, including by using a network of thugs to terrorize opposition figures
— being responsible for the electoral defeats of hardliner favorites Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi and Mohammad Yazdi
— turning the Guardian Council into a political tool
— draining the Islamic Republic of values true to both the concept of Islam and those of a republic
— attempting to establish a “single-voice” sovereignty
— misguided finger-pointing about Western “infiltration”
Karroubi’s letter has been seen as a reaction to a recent speech Khamenei gave and media reports that followed. On March 10, Khamenei addressed members of the Assembly of Experts, and described the behavior of certain individuals during the 2009 presidential election as “dishonorable.” Following the speech, the newspaper Javan, which is affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, quoted a hardline MP who praised the comments, saying it was “the most respectful” description “seditionists” could expect.
Karroubi’s letter has also been seen as an important retaliation against recent spin surrounding the fact that he had voted in the parliamentary elections of February 26. “The End of 10 Years of Lies and Deception,” one Fars News Agency headline read around election time. Nabi Habibi, Secretary-General of the hardliner Islamic Coalition Party, said that Karroubi’s vote was “a step’” toward making up for the unforgivable sin he had committed. Hamid Rasaee, an outgoing MP and a supporter of former President Ahmadinejad, said the fact that Karroubi had voted amounted to a victory for the Supreme Leader.
Can Rouhani do anything about the house arrest?
Karroubi’s letter also referred to Rouhani’s “best interest” policy, an important plank in the president’s so-called agenda of “moderation.” Releasing the Green Movement leaders from house arrest had been a key part of this agenda, but Rouhani, of late, has talked very little of such a scenario.
But does the president have any authority when it comes to the house arrest? Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, head of Khamenei’s Inspection Office, has said he does not, and some hardliners say that the issue has worked against Rouhani and his administration. Political analyst Sadegh Zibakalam says that, because it is not clear who authorized the decision to begin with, it is impossible to know whether there are any legal grounds for intervention from Rouhani. It would be one thing, he said, if the decision had been taken in the aftermath of the 2009 election, when there were mass protests on the street. But, by February 2011, when Karroubi and the other leaders were placed under house arrest, the country had more or less returned to normal. “The decision could not have been based on security considerations,” Zibakalam says. “If the house arrests were the will of the government then that must be subject to the law. Since the Constitutional Revolution [of 1906] the struggle has been about the rule of law and not about the subjugation of the country and its people to the will of the government.”
A number of opposition analysts have recommended a policy of reconciliation and bringing an end to cases emerging out of the 2009 presidential election. They claim this action would be in the best interest of the reformists, but Karroubi’s letter, with its protest against despotism and injustice, suggests he thinks otherwise.
Zibakalam also believes the issue has to be resolved through cooperation. “The judiciary chief, the president, and others can sit down and find a solution step by step and gradually. For example, as the first step, they could allow close relatives to visit them whenever they want. A few months later more distant relatives should be allowed to visit them. Political figures can follow suit until the problem is solved little by little.”
The Iranian public can expect wide-ranging responses to Karroubi’s letter of April 9. His appeal for a public trial has already been seen as the letter’s most important thrust. Zibakalam says Karroubi, Mousavi and Rahnavard have called for a trial “so that people will see what the indictment is and hear what they have to say about the charges brought against them. People will not forget about it.”
Zibakalam also says the public also want something to be done about corruption, which has “inundated the country” since the eight-year presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “The letter raises questions that need to be answered and they will not go away.”
Zibakalam also says the regime failed to think through its decision to place the Green Movement “seditionists” under house arrest. “It has cost the regime heavily. Let us assume they are released. Thousands of people would want to visit them. If thousands of people gather in front of Mr. Mousavi and Mr. Karroubi’s homes, then they must come out and wave and greet them. You can’t hide them from the world, can you? Then they will say that photographers and reporters are banned. The consequences of ending the house arrests would be much more numerous than continuing them.
So-called "principlists" — those who regard themselves as upholders of the original values emanating from the 1979 Islamic Revolution — have repeatedly said that a public trial would not be in the best interests of the country, and that the outcome is certain to be a death sentence, a belief that the Supreme Leader tacitly confirmed when the rogue MP Ali Motahari called for the house arrests to come to an end. In his response, Ayatollah Khamenei said the regime had been merciful to the Green Movement leaders, and that they must repent for what they had done. But now it seems obvious that Karroubi has no intention of repenting. And he is willing to pay the price for his stand.