Hardliners in Iran have long voiced frustration towards Tehran MP Ali Motahari. On December 9, when attacking Green Movement leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Kourrabi and former president Mohammad Khatami, Fars province Revolutionary Guards commander Gholamhossein Gheybparva said Motahari “moved in the same direction” as enemies of the regime.
Motahari is considered by many to be somewhat of a maverick, dubbed a “loose cannon” by Mashhad’s Leader of Friday Prayers: he has spoken out on corruption and openly criticized President Ahmadinejad when he was in office, after having initially praising him; he has been openly critical of both former President Hashemi Rafsanjani and the current president, Hassan Rouhani; he has called Keyhan editor-in-chief Hossein Shariatmadari the “foolish friend” of the Supreme Leader.
But when it comes to culture and morals — particularly the hejab issue — Motahari is much of a hardliner as Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, the hardliners’ idol. When Ahmadinejad pushed to ease restrictions on women being allowed into sports stadiums, Motahari taunted him, joking that next he would be calling for cabaret performances to be allowed. More recently, he accused President Rouhani of following the same cultural policies as Ahmadinejad.
Another recent attack on Motahari came on November 25, in an open session in parliament to vote in a new candidate for the role of minister of science. Hardliner politician Elias Naderian addressed the floor, offering a modern allegory on the themes of power and wilfulness — an obvious nod to Motahari, who had recently accused parliamentarians of wheeling and dealing over the ministry job and other important matters. It was not the most subtle dig — but it was polite compared to the criticism he has received in recent months.
All in the Family
Motahari infuriates hardliners, who accuse him of using his family connections — his father was one of the founders and great thinkers behind the Islamic Republic, Morteza Motahari — to rattle the regime and cosy up to its adversaries, including reformist and “Sedition” leader Mehdi Karroubi, currently under house arrest. Karroubi recently gave Motahari power of attorney, clear evidence that the two are close.
In the Islamic Republic, family connections count for a lot. Ali Motahari’s father, the famous Morteza Motahari, was assassinated by a radical Islamic group just a few months after the revolution. He was well respected by the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, who referred to him as the apple of his eye. And today, when the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, celebrates one of his most ardent and loyal supporters, Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, he refers to him as the “Motahari of our time”. Hardliners never tire of quoting the martyred Motahari, and his books are part of the canon in Revolutionary Guards’ ideology classes.
But Motahari’s family connections do not stop with his father. Ali Larijani, Speaker of the Parliament, is married to Ali Motahari’s sister, Fereshteh. The Larijanis are one of Iranian politics most influential families: Ali Larijani commands considerable power, as do his brothers Sadegh, who holds the title of Chief Justice of Iran, and MP Mohammad-Javad Larijani.
In recent years Ali Larijani has been one of Motahari’s major political supporters, although Larijani has gone his own way on a number of sensitive issues: he did not agree with Motahari when he commented on the intervention of the Revolutionary Guards in the 2009 presidential election, or when he attacked former President Ahmadinejad’s candidate for the role of oil minister. Motahari has also gone head to head with other Larijani brothers — including with Sadegh Larijani — but, for the most part, the ties between them have remained strong.
Rebel Motahari’s Attacks on the Powerful
As time goes on, Ali Motahari has become more outspoken. His anger towards Ahmadinejad and his Chief of Staff, Rahim Mashaei, has deep roots. For him, the two men headed up a deviant trend, not unlike the group that assassinated his father. In the aftermath of the 2009 election, he turned his sights on Hossein Taeb, the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence unit, referring to him as a “friend of the club” who lacked a brain. He criticized Ahmad Jannati, Chairman of the powerful Guardian Council, and prominent figures of the Assembly of Experts who, theoretically at least, supervise the Supreme Leader. He spoke up for the rights of Green Movement leaders and protesters.
At the same the time that he launched attacks on former President Rafsanjani, he staged a sit-in at his office in a bid to persuade the head of the Expediency Council to approve his candidacy for parliament. Iranian citizens attend his office to lodge complaints that their human rights have been violated so regularly that there are rumors that the office is bugged.
But most shocking is the fact that Motahari has taken on the Supreme Leader himself. He has said in the past that, were it not for his father’s murder, Ayatollah Khamenei would not have been chosen to be the Supreme Leader. He not only voiced relative support for the Green Movement while Khamenei was present, he questioned Khamenei’s response to the movement. Addressing a crowd in Mashhad, he said Khamenei’s actions were unjust and not in line with the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.
Days after audio footage of his controversial remarks was released, Khamenei indirectly responded to Motahari, calling the Green Movement the “Sedition” of 2009 and emphasizing the need to practice “foresight”. As usual, his indirect admonitions were taken up by the faithful, and turned into more direct attacks and mockery — MP Naderian’s comments in parliament are a case in point.
Motahari has criticised President Rouhani for his failure to extricate the corrupt influence of the Revolutionary Guards on the country’s economy, but he has also encouraged him to demonstrate bravery when confronting hardliners. He believes Karroubi should be tried in an open court so that Iranian citizens are aware of the regime’s actions when it comes to Green Movement leaders. He has called for Ahmadinejad to be put on trial.
In recent years Motahari has tried to form his own faction in parliament at critical points, including during the 2012 parliamentary elections and in 2013 to show support for President Rouhani’s administration. So far he has not been successful: there are not enough sympathetic MPs to make his wish a reality. He knows, too, that the regime would not allow him to be the central figure of a newly-created political party.
So how long will the regime put up with Ali Motahari? What options does it have?
Remove him from Parliament
The Guardian Council could decide not to approve Motahari’s candidacy for the next parliamentary elections, to be held in 2016. Nobody expects Motahari to be quiet: he will continue speaking out, and, although he has an occasional tendency to show anger towards some of Iran’s less powerful politicians, press and officials, for the most part, he will continue doing what he’s been doing, calmly and without losing his temper.
Some hardliners might be inclined to organize protests against him, as the paramilitary Basij forces wanted to do in Mashhad following his remarks about Khamenei. They later abandoned the idea, though had they gone through with it, it would have been to Motahari’s own political advantage.
Influential hardliners could file complaints against him, as the Revolutionary Guards wanted to do in 2009 in retaliation against what they described as Motahari’s interference in the election. The Guards decided not to proceed with their official complaint then, but there is no guarantee a similar complaint would not be followed out today.
The regime could put him under house arrest, as it has done with the leaders of the Green Movement — to “clip his wings” as Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati has put it. Though many hardliners would love to silence him in this way, it is unlikely to happen. In some ways, hardliners are still paying for some of their most extreme measures — including the assassination of Saeed Hajjarian, an advisor to former president Khatami who was reported to have helped uncover the “Chain Murders” of the 1990s, when more than 80 journalists, intellectual and political figures were assassinated.
Statement from the Supreme Leader
The Supreme Leader could himself take a public position. Motahari has repeatedly said that if the regime issues a verdict he would remain silent. Yet when Khamenei told Motahari that the leaders of the Green Movement deserved a harsher punishment than house arrest and the regime had shown leniency towards them, Motahari replied that it was just Khamenei’s view, and he could not agree with it. As a result, there is a fear among hardliners that even a public statement from Khamenei would not solve the Motahari problem — not least because Khamenei often makes public gestures that reassert his own political advantage rather than directly benefit the regime.
The last option is the one presented by Motahari himself: a public trial. Karroubi has called for one; Motahari wants Ahmadinejad to stand trial at the same time. A public trial, even if ends with death sentences for the leaders of the Green Movement, would be costly for the Islamic Republic and undoubtedly trigger other acts of “sedition”.
Even so, it could be the only way to silence Ali Motahari.
Given the options, it is no surprise the hardliners are miffed. Morteza Motahari was the apple of Khomeini’s eye, and Ali Motahari is a thorn in Khamenei’s side. Like his father, what happens to him says much about the current state of affairs in Iran. And, in an environment where speaking out can lead to severe punishment, Motahari’s determination to expose the truth suggests the silence around the Green Movement and its legacy will not last for long.