Eight years after the bloody aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election, leaders and officials of the Islamic Republic are still trying to justify their brutal crackdown on protesters and the subsequent house arrests of Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. Recently, it was the turn of the Revolutionary Guards General Hossein Nejat, who is now the deputy head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Corps. In a speech, the text of which was published on September 13 [Persian link], he set out the argument that what took place was just, proper and necessary. In an obvious effort to use the events of 2009 to maintain the Guards' power, he also said that they were ready to combat any new threats posed by reformists.
Addressing members of the paramilitary Student Basij organization, Nejat’s speech bore a striking resemblance to a previous public address delivered by “Commander Moshfegh” in the autumn of 2009.
When an audio file of the commander’s speech was published [Persian link] in September 2010, it led to protests from a group of clergymen, who complained that Moshfegh had libeled them. It turned out later that “Moshfegh” was a pseudonym for Commander Abdollah Zeighami, who was then head of the Revolutionary Guards’ psychological warfare unit.
The fact that Nejat's speech echoes the controversial one delivered in 2009 is important for one reason: It shows that, despite the passage of time, the Islamic Republic regime has not been able to come up with a convincing rationale to justify its actions of eight years ago. Commander Nejat himself admitted that it hadn't been easy. “In the past we had to deal with foreign enemies or the hypocrites [referring to the People’s Mojahedin Organization ],” he said, “but also, for example, we saw that a religious family demonstrated in support of Mousavi.”
The Reformists Were Under Surveillance
Nejat had other confessions too. In various parts of his speech he confessed that the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Corps had surveilled the meetings of reformist and moderate politicians, both before and after the election, including “at least 10” meetings in which former president Mohammad Khatami was present. In his 2009 speech, “Commander Moshfegh” had said that Guards’ officials had collected information about the private meetings of seven reformist parties, about meetings attended by Mehdi Hashemi, the son of the late president Hashemi Rafsanjani, and about the meetings of 13 reformist figures. He was very specific about the meetings during the speech, referring to “Monday meetings” and “morning meetings.” It was not clear whether his claims were true, or even whether all these meetings actually took place, but it is reminiscent of what the reformist activist Behzad Nabavi once said to describe such surveillance: “God is everywhere!”
In this speech, Commander Nejat said that according to Guards’ Intelligence information, the Sedition — the term the Islamic Republic uses for the Green Movement — had formed think tanks that worked on the theory that “if we win the elections and our supporters show up in streets, then we can announce our other demands.” If nothing else, these statements show that even before the election, the Revolutionary Guards were planning how to deal with the aftermath of the election.
Commander Moshfegh’s speech made the same point. “On the night before the election, between 8pm and midnight we disrupted [the activities of] three [groups] and prevented them from meddling in the election the way they wanted to…Do you remember how they cried out when instant messaging was cut off? If we had not controlled this software used by Mehdi Hashemi [and others]…then they would have paralyzed the election and would not have allowed the election to finish.”
How Many Demonstrators Were There?
Contrary to the usual narrative presented by Iran’s conservatives and security officials, Commander Nejat confessed that on June 15, 2009, three days after the election, “a major part of demonstrators were Tehran’s ordinary people,” and that they numbered between 400,000 and 500,000. In an interview in 2014, Nejat himself had claimed that the demonstrators numbered between 200,000 and 300,000.
After eight years, various official sources have yet to agree on how many people actually did participate in demonstrations in Tehran against the official results of the election, which declared Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the winner. At one point, Ramz-e Obour, a publication with close links to the security establishment, had cited the number as one million. The media quoted Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, then Tehran’s mayor, as saying that 3 million people had come out on the streets. Hardliner media have disputed this figure.
Commander Nejat also revealed the role played by Supreme National Security Council’s secretariat headed by Saeed Jalili, President Ahmadinejad’s associate and former chief nuclear negotiator, in the events of December 27, 2009, which ended in violence. At the time Commander Nejat was working for Jalili and was responsible for political and social affairs. “I myself was in disguise and witnessed the events,” he said. “I was even injured…I contacted Mr. Haddadian [a religious eulogist favored by Ayatollah Khamenei] and he dispatched his people to Enghelab Avenue as a religious procession. When so many people appeared in the square and Seditioners and counter-revolutionary elements saw them, they left the scene.”
They Wanted to Turn Iran into Another Syria
Commander Nejat then tried to justify the house arrests of the Green Movement leaders by claiming that Mousavi and Karroubi wanted to turn Iran into another Syria. In saying this, he was essentially repeating an accusation made by Saeed Jalili in 2014 during a speech at Mashhad University. “They [the reformists] announced that they wanted to make a revolution like those in Tunisia and Egypt [during the so-called Arab Spring in 2011],” said Jalili. “This was a new sedition, which led to their house arrest.”
What is interesting, however, is Commander Nejat’s description of how the house arrests came about. “The number of [protesters] on June 20 was one-tenth of the number on June 15,” he said, and added that on February 14, 2011, Mousavi and Karroubi succeeded in bringing only 3,500 protesters to the streets. He then said that after the demonstrations on December 30, 2010, opinion polls showed that Mousavi’s popularity had sunk to a meager nine percent of the population. His next point was the point resembling Jalili’s: That Mousavi and Karroubi were put under house arrest because they wanted to turn Iran into another Syria or Egypt or Tunisia.
So how, after a year and half of effort, could the politicians whose support, according to Commander Nejat, had fallen from 500,000 to a mere 3,500, be able to incite enough unrest to turn Iran into another Syria or another Tunisia? If these assertions about declining popularity are true, couldn’t officials have given Mousavi and Karroubi a few more months, so that their support would dwindle to something like 35 people, including themselves and members of their families?
During his recent speech, Commander Nejat also repeated the usual claim that “the Supreme Leader did not, and has not, intervened in the house arrest,” and that it was the Iranian judiciary that took the decision. There are conflicting reports about the role of Ayatollah Khamenei concerning the house arrests, but Ali Motahari, Deputy Speaker of the Parliament, has stated that the Supreme Leader wants the arrests to continue. Some conservative principlists have said that the judiciary wanted to be harder on Mousavi and Karroubi and try them in court, but that Khamenei wanted the judiciary to go easy on them — hence the house arrest.
The Case Remains Open
Commander Nejat emphasized that even if the Supreme National Security Council reaches a new decision regarding the house arrests, “the judiciary still has the right to put them on trial because the criminal cases against these three [including Mousavi’s wife Zahra Rahnavard] are still open.”
Hardliners have often repeated the argument that the cases remain open. It is beneficial for the Revolutionary Guards and other hardliners if reverberations of the events of 2009 continue. From this point of view, Commander Nejat’s most important confession was the revelation that the Revolutionary Guards have plans to deal with some reformists who, according to him, “have extensive plans for the next few months” to “renew the Sedition,” employing the help of both domestic and foreign media. The regime, he warned, “has their illegal activities under surveillance and, if need be, will cooperate with the judiciary to deal with them.”
So it’s obvious that the case of the Green Movement leaders’ incarceration remains open. And, as President Rouhani continues to face calls to do what he can to free them, the battle between reformists and hardliners rages on, fuelled by the events of 2009 and the competing narratives about what happened.