On April 29th, former presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi was rushed to hospital amid reports that he was suffering from an “urgent” heart condition. Since February 2010, the leader of the 2009 Green Movement, his wife, activist Zahra Rahnavard, and opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi have all been held under extra-judicial house arrest.
Despite Iran’s mainstream media being banned from reporting on events, millions of Iranians spread the news of Mousavi’s deteriorating physical condition and hospitalization via social media.
When President Rouhani appeared on Iranian state television the next day, he said nothing of the ordeal, speaking instead about the country’s improved economic situation and continuing nuclear negotiations.
While the negotiations continue to dominate Iran’s international political agenda, the continuing house arrest of the three prominent political leaders is still Iran’s most critical—and overlooked—domestic issue.
Rouhani’s silence on Mousavi, and on the wider question of political prisoners and house arrests, met with huge criticism online, even from those who have previously been supportive of him. For many, he has failed to address the matter, much less honor his campaign promise of “ upholding the rights of all Iranian citizens.”
In response to this public frustration, a day after Rouhani’s TV appearance, government spokesman Mohammad Bager Nobakh told reporters that the administration was following developments closely. He said the media had not been informed because the government was the “sole authority” on the matter and took full responsibility for it. He also said that talking to journalists would not necessarily help any “follow up” on the cases.
Since 2010, Mousavi, Rahnavard and Karroubi have been held without due process. They have been denied a trial and no charges have been brought against them. The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran Ahmed Shaheed and a number of other human rights advocates have repeatedly called for the Iranian government to bring an end to arbitrary detention and house arrests.
Rouhani’s Debt to Mousavi Supporters
When President Rouhani came to power in August 2013, he promised resolutions on the nuclear issue, economic sanctions and the plight of political prisoners. Nearly a year later, Rouhani has gone some way towards addressing the country’s nuclear concerns, but remains alarmingly silent on human rights.
The nuclear crisis has undoubtedly been disastrous for Iran, not only in terms of the economy but also because it has brought political upheaval and deep divisions among the country’s most senior officials. So it’s not surprising that the Rouhani administration has made it a priority to bring about a resolution on the matter: Iran and the P5+1 countries’ “Joint Plan of Action” has established a solid framework for future nuclear negotiations. Of course it remains to be seen what July 20th, the “target date” set for a comprehensive agreement, will bring. Yet no date been set for discussions on political prisoners. Because the administration seems unwilling to apply equal energy to releasing political prisoners as it does towards reaching a nuclear agreement, frustration and polarization continue to mount.
In recent months, authorities have been clear on how decisions are reached when it comes to political prisoners. In December 2013, Iran’s Chief of Police, General Ahmadi Moghaddam, told the hardliner newspaper Kayhan that after the 2009 election, police had planned to arrest 40 influential protesters. But it was Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who made the final decision, preventing Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi from being arrested and assuming responsibility for their punitive fates.
Regardless of the Supreme Leader’s influence, it is Rouhani who promised a resolution, attracting support from millions of Mousavi supporters at the ballot box during the 2013 presidential elections. In fact, Rouhani owes an enormous amount to Mousavi and Karroubi supporters. For this section of society, Rouhani’s failure to secure their release shows a lack of interest—or, worse, a lack of power to change the situation.
Many have argued that President Rouhani is keen to put an end to Iran’s nuclear crisis first and deal with domestic issues, including house arrests and other human rights issues, later. In theory, following the success of nuclear talks and the ease on international sanctions, Rouhani will be in a better position politically to fulfil these promises.
The trouble is that time is against him. Reports of the poor health of both Mousavi and Karroubi are perhaps the clearest indicator of this time constraint. If their conditions continue to deteriorate, even resulting in a fatality, Rouhani’s reputation among his traditional supporters—the middle class—will suffer dramatically. It’s vital that he take steps to address the situation now. He must multiply his efforts and tend to what is fast becoming a human tragedy. If he fails, he may well be remembered for his negligence and inability to act.