Two hundred and thirty MPs have demanded a decision be reached regarding the fate of the Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. 

In a letter to the judiciary on Tuesday, January 6, parliamentarians responded to renewed calls for the two to be freed from house arrest. 

Maverick MP Ali Motahari has led the campaign for Mousavi and Karroubi to be released, demanding answers from the government, parliament, the judiciary and security and military institutions as to legal grounds for their continued incarceration. 

Motahari’s demands continue to agitate certain sections of the government: at the same time that a judiciary spokesman issued a statement that officials would address his concerns, there was also talk of bringing legal proceedings against the MP for his intransigence. 

Karroubi and Mousavi, both former presidential candidates, were placed under house arrest after millions of the people took to the streets to contest the results of the 2009 presidential election. 

The recent letter drawn up by MPs exposes the serious rifts at work in Iranian politics today: the continued house arrest of the two reformist leaders is a topic of heated debate not only within parliament, but also within the upper echelons of the Iranian regime. 

The dilemma has caused such a media storm that many hardliners have changed their tack when questioned on the matter. Until recently, they maintained that the Supreme Leader believed Mousavi and Karroubi should be tried in public, subjected to the will of the people. Pro-government rallies like the one held six months after the disputed election, on December 30, 2009, they argued, clearly demonstrated that the “Sedition” leaders had lost credibility among the majority of the Iranian public. Now many hardliners have called for the reformists to face trial in a less public, traditional court.  

 

House Arrest = “Islamic Kindness”

Going by recent statements from the Supreme Leader and Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the secretary of the constitutional watchdog the Guardian Council, the regime has changed its position on the Green Movement leaders: Instead of continuing under house arrest, they should face execution, exactly what most hardliners believe should have happened back in 2009. Recent comments by Basij commander Mohammad Reza Naghdi echo this: ending house arrest for Mousavi and Karroubi could signal the start of a court trial that could end with the two Green leaders being sentenced to death.

The Supreme Leader and his supporters believe the “Seditionists” deserved harsher punishment and that the regime had shown leniency towards them; the Supreme Leader said as much in a private meeting with Ali Motahari in July 2014.  In October, Ayatollah Jannati said in a television broadcast that the two were alive only because the regime had taken pity on them out of “Islamic kindness.” Anywhere else in the world, he said, “they would have been executed”.  

Jannati was, incidentally, the first person to announce the leaders of the Green Movement were going to be placed under house arrest. “What the judiciary can do is to cut the communication lines of the leaders of the Sedition to the outside and imprison them in their own homes,” he told a crowd gathered for the Friday Prayers in Tehran on February 18, 2011. “Their contacts shall be limited and the seditionists will not have access to phone or the internet to communicate with others or send messages.”

In those days the hardliner MP Ruhollah Hosseinian called for parliament to pass a bill making it legal to execute the Green Movement leaders. But there was considerable and heated opposition to the bill in parliament, leading him to tender his resignation — a move that led Ayatollah Khamenei to step in and persuade him to stay. “We were after a 10-day trial after which the God’s verdict would have been carried out quickly,” he told the news agency Tasnim in December 2013. According to one Tehran MP, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, many politicians believed that they could “hang them in public” without repercussions. 

The question at the moment is whether the hardliners can afford to follow such a course of action. Last week, judiciary chief Ayatollah Larijani stated that one of the reasons Mousavi and Karroubi had not been tried in court was to prevent them from gaining an ample forum for their pronouncements. Can the head of the judiciary really afford to issue a verdict for execution when he is afraid of what the accused might say in the courtroom?

 

Buying Time 

Rather than taking the risk of giving the reformists a platform, the regime’s more likely tactic is distraction. The consideration of a judicial trial can be seen as a temporary measure to quiet criticism.

Ali Motahari is now at the forefront of the critics. His most pressing demand is that the case of Mousavi and Karroubi be taken away from the Supreme National Security Council  and given to the judiciary. He has said that he would accept any verdict from a judicial process. Yet he has also set his own conditions, including a fair judicial process — and the addition of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a defendant. It is highly unlikely that the judiciary will pay much attention to his specific conditions, but, nonetheless, Motahari has been successful in generating debate around the issue. 

Revolutionary Guards officials have also weighed in, making it difficult for President Rouhani — who had promised to end the house arrests. Yet Rouhani may well be in a position to take advantage of the situation. If the Supreme National Security Council is forced to hand over the case to the judiciary, as the head of the council, the president can justify his failures to the public, albeit in an indirect way.

If Rouhani’s administration achieves real change in the case  of the Green Movement leaders, it will gain considerable social capital, putting it in good stead for forthcoming parliamentary elections, something hardliners know all too well. They want to buy time in the run up to elections, so generating discussion about the potential of Mousavi and Karroubi going on trial and raising the spector of their executions is key.

Hardliners have come out in force to support Ayatollah Khamenei, considered to be personally responsible for the case. In January 2013, Iran’s National Police Chief, Ahmadi Moghadam, reported that the Supreme Leader had informed him that he would “take responsibility” for the leaders of the Green Movement.  Although Ali Motahari MP is the only prominent figure standing up against Khamenei’s decision, his voice is powerful enough to induce considerable alarm within the regime’s hardline ranks. 

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