As the June 2013 presidential election in Iran draws near, it appears there is an effort underway to rekindle a national debate about the regime’s legitimacy. This effort, led by senior opposition figures pushing for clarification on the legal status of Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Zahra Rahnavard, under house arrest since February of 2011, has prompted a series of harsh reactions from regime officials. These reactions have, in effect, been a redrawing of the regime’s political redlines and a reemphasis of the fact that the world of Iranian politics has been closed permanently to the Green Movement. If the Green Movement’s supporters are, indeed, able to refocus the public’s attention on the national trauma that was the 2009 protests, this simmering conflict has the potential to undermine the perceived legitimacy of the 2013 election. However, the regime has moved quickly to stifle the opposition’s efforts, and it is yet unclear the extent to which the Green Movement is willing or able to reengage their obstinate opponent.
The opposition launched this recent effort in earnest in early December 2012. Fatemeh Karroubi, wife of Green Movement leader Mehdi Karroubi, told a reporter on December 10, “it is not clear whether [Karroubi, Mousavi, and Rahnavard] are prisoners, detainees or under house arrest.” She then called on the regime to “clarify their situation” and bring their case before a court “so that we can know how long our prisoners will remain [in detention].” That same day former president and outspoken reformist Mohammad Khatami expressed his concern for the health of these three individuals, and said, “We trust that we will soon witness their release, as well as an opening in [the country’s] economic, political, and cultural space, which is to the benefit of all; the government, the people, and all those who love the nation and the revolution.” Khatami’s remarks take on added significance when one considers that some had speculated he may be allowed to return to politics and, perhaps, to even run for president. His statement, therefore, is more than just a call for the release of political prisoners, in itself a bold move; it is a clarification of his current political orientation, and he very clearly aligned himself with the Green Movement. Also worth noting, as it was surely noted by the regime, is that Karroubi and Khatami both made their statements on Iran’s Student Day, an annual event commemorating the death of three students during anti-American protests in 1953, and a day on which anti-government protests have occurred previously.
The regime’s response to the opposition was decisive and unequivocal. Their first order of business was to preempt any debate on the possibility of the Green Movement’s reentry into politics. Hossein Shariatmadari, the supreme leader’s representative to, and editor in chief of, Kayhan, a publication widely seen as Khamenei’s unofficial organ, published an editorial on December 22 in which he harshly criticized the “sedition” (a term used to refer to the Green Movement and its supporters) and rejected the possibility of their return to politics:
Those who were active in the American-Israeli sedition of , or who supported the seditionists…have no doubt that their participation in the upcoming elections, or any other election, is impossible. This is because they openly committed treason and crimes as the ‘fifth column’ in service of the American, British, and Israeli triangle…. Why is it that those who claim reform, but clearly know that there is not even the slightest possibility for their nomination in the eleventh presidential election, are setting conditions for their participation in, or boycott of, elections?