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?
Armed forces general staff spokesman and brigadier general in the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), Massoud Jazayeri, delivered a similar message in an address to military personnel on December 27: “One should not be deceived by the change in the image of those who had a role in managing the sedition and have today changed their color…. The red line for the principlist current [conservatives], and all those who wish to be known within this framework, is to avoid any cooperation with seditionist reformists and to acknowledge the unsuitability of this current.” That this message was delivered by an unofficial spokesman of the supreme leader and an official spokesman of the IRGC and armed forces was likely intended to signal that these are not debatable issues; rather, these are red lines not to be crossed.
After permanently closing the door on Green Movement political participation, the regime set out to clarify the legal status of Mousavi, Karroubi, and Rahnavard. In doing so, it was revealed for the first time that Khamenei played a direct role in managing the regime’s response to the 2009 uprising. The commander of Iran’s law enforcement forces, Brigadier General Esmail Ahmadi Moghaddam, in an interview with Kayhan, published December 24, said, “We [the security forces] would have dealt with them much more severely but agha [Khamenei] would not allow it…. He said ‘leave these individuals [Mousavi and Karroubi] to me’ … We hope they understand the magnitude of this benevolence.” The intention of this revelation appears to be two-fold: to portray Khamenei as a benevolent leader who prevented his security forces from handing down a much more severe punishment to Green Movement participants, and to clarify, once and for all, that the supreme leader is personally responsible for the indefinite house arrest of Mousavi, Karroubi, and Rahnavard, making the legality of their detention unassailable and ending all debate on the matter. Member of Parliament, father in law to Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba, and potential 2013 presidential candidate, Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, further emphasized this latter point when responding to reporter on January 3 who had asked whether Mousavi and Karroubi would stand trial, and could they stand for election in 2013: “This is a wrong thing to say. They have already been put on trial by the nation and there is no need to try them in a court. The decision not to put them on trial at a court has been a wise decision.” Case closed.
Or is it? That senior figures allied with the Green Movement chose to raise these issues, seemingly in concert, suggests that the Iranian opposition views this time before the June 2013 election as an opportunity to exert pressure on the regime. Whether the goal of this mobilization is to undermine the regime’s credibility, to open a space for reformist political participation, to begin organizing for another uprising, or simply to convince officials to release political prisoners is yet unclear. Nor is it certain that the opposition is capable of organizing under current conditions in the Islamic Republic. The regime has repeatedly stressed that it will not tolerate a repetition of the 2009 contested election, and their public response to the opposition’s initial efforts to push back against their isolation and persecution – to say nothing of the IRGC’s massive urban defense exercise staged October 2012 in Tehran, aimed at preparing for “soft, cyber, and security threats, both armed and unarmed” – indicates that they intend to stand by their word. Despite the regime’s threatening posture, some opposition figures remain unmoved. Dissident cleric and assembly of experts member Ayatollah Ali Mohammad Dastgheib said on January 2 that the detention of Mousavi, Karroubi, and Rahnavard is “against Sharia law,” and those responsible are “guilty of committing a crime.” This issue will, no doubt, continue to percolate in the months leading up to the election, but it is still too soon to know whether the opposition has the capacity, or the desire, to bring it to a boil.
Will Fulton is an Iran analyst with AEI's Critical Threats Project.