Is there any hope for positive political developments and move toward democracy in Iran, or the hardliners have shut all the doors for the foreseeable future? Perhaps the fate of the leaders of Iran's Green Movement - former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and his wife Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, and former Speaker of the Majles [parliament] Mehdi Karroubi - can provide some clues to this important question.
They have been under strict house arrest since February 2011. All are in their 70s, with Karroubi approaching 80. Their release from house arrest has been a national demand, with President Hassan Rouhani and Majles deputies adding their voice to the demand. During his campaign for president in 2013 Rouhani had promised to try to release them.
Only Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei makes the decision for releasing the trio, and he has made it clear that he opposes it. In fact, he has repeatedly stated that the "sedition" - the name he gave to the Green Movement - is the "redline" of his regime. For example, in a meeting with Rouhani and his cabinet in 2014 Khamenei said, "The problem of the sedition and the seditionists is a critical issue and a redline that you gentlemen [the cabinet] must keep in mind and keep your distance from it, just as you promised when you received vote of confidence [from the Majles]." Most recently, Mohammad Reza Toyserkaani, Khamenei's representative to the Basij paramilitary force said on December 5, "The Supreme Leader wants [continuation of] the house arrest [of the trio]. If they repent, they will be treated kindly and pardoned. But without repenting it would be unwise to pardon them."
Ali Motahhari, Deputy Speaker of the Majles who has courageously pursued the release of the trio said recently, "Because the Supreme Leader wants to continue the house arrest, other officials do not discuss the issue [with him]." Since his election in 2013, President Rouhani has pursued release of the three leaders from house arrest, but has always been opposed by Khamenei, the IRGC high command, and some senior clerics close to Khamenei. Motahhari has also stated that Rouhani has spoken to Khamenei about releasing the three leaders from house arrest, as well as lifting the ban on the press publishing pictures of former Reformist President Mohammad Khatami, but has not been able to convince Khamenei to do so.
The 10th Majles that was elected in February 2016 represented a small step forward in that, many of the elected deputies want the three leaders to gain their freedom, but only few of them dare to speak about it publicly. The current Majles is also much more moderate than the last one that was controlled by the extremists. But, pressure on Khamenei is mounting, prompting cleric Ahmad Alam-olhoda, Khamenei's ally and his representative to the Khorasan Razavi province (in northeastern Iran) to declare on December 30 that the three leaders have become agents of the United States to topple the Islamic Republic, and "from a most scared organ of the Islamic Republic, the Majles, whispers are heard in support of the "sedition." Knowingly or unknowingly, they [the Majles deputies] are sending signals to the United States that if it begins a new "sedition," they will act as the U.S. agents."
Khamenei's Desired "Bipolar" Political Environment
The third step toward moderation, after electing Rouhani in 2013 and the 10th Majles last year will be taken in the next five months. Iran's next presidential elections will be held on 19 May 2017. Khamenei, his appointed clerics, and senior military and intelligence officials have been fiercely attacking Rouhani for negotiating the nuclear agreement with P5+1, claiming that he made a grave mistake, with some even declaring that Rouhani committed treason. Their goal is to either defeat him in the upcoming elections, or weaken him strongly, rendering him useless to the moderates and reformists.,
The hardliners have been trying to create a bipolar political environment based on dividing the people into "revolutionary" and "counter-revolutionary."
The "revolutionaries" are those who oppose the U.S. and negotiating with it to resolve the disputes; support the "axis of resistance" in the Middle East - Iran, Syria, the Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas - against Israel; support the "resistance economy", a vague notion proposed by Khamenei to help the poor, and profess continued loyalty to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Khamenei.
On the other hand, Khamenei and other hardliners believe that the "counter-revolutionaries" are those who support negotiations with the U.S. and are creating an even worse "sedition" by presenting the "criminal and imperialist" United States as a nation that can help Iran solve its problems: do not shout any slogan against Israel and do not support the "resistance axis;" advocate a neoliberal economy for Iran that will make the rich richer, and those who want to transform the Islamic Republic to a liberal democracy.
December 31 is the 7th anniversary of the day that the hardliners claim the "Iranian nation" put down the Green Movement for good. Thus, using it as an excuse, the hardliners have been once again attacking fiercely the Green Movement's leaders, claiming that their house arrest is the "most merciful act" by Khamenei. Otherwise, they say, the trio must be put on trial with their least punishment being execution for committing treason, trying to stage a coup, starting a "colored revolution," and other "treasonous" acts.
Khamenei and his supporters are well aware that they cannot put the trio on trial, as it will leader to large-scale demonstrations throughout the country. Their goal in talking about executing the three is preventing further debates on their release from house arrest. Karroubi has repeatedly demanded to be put on trial, but the hardliners have refused.
Yousef Tabatabaei, Khamenei's representative to the Isfahan province in central Iran said the other day, "As a judge of the Supreme Court I know that if they [the Green Movement's leaders] are put on trial, their punishment will undoubtedly be execution. Due to the interests of the nation, the Supreme Leader and other Marjas [grand ayatollahs and source of emulation for the Shiite masses] can sometimes reduce their punishment, which is what has happened here."
Another hardline cleric, Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, has also stated multiple times that the execution is the appropriate punishment for the three leaders, but due to the interests of the nation, they have not been hanged on the order by Khamenei.
Democratic Groups' Desired Bipolar political Environment
As Iran's presidential elections are approached, the state usually allows more freedom of expression and the press in order to encourage people to participate in the electoral process. This provides the people with the opportunity to talk about their demands and aspirations. Although the hardliners try to present themselves as the true revolutionaries, and their opponents as the counter-revolutionaries, they do not like an open political environment, and support a society that is closed to the outside world, socially, economically, politically, and culturally. Their "anti-foreigners" tendencies are along the same lines as those of other right wingers worldwide, such as those in Europe and the United States.
Of course, Iran's true revolutionaries are the critics of the present state-of-affairs. They want peaceful revolution - reforms - to change the system for the better. In particular, the release from prison of all political prisoners, including the Green Movement's leaders, is one of their prime demands. Thus, the main fissures in Iran are those that separate dictatorship from democracy. Democratic groups, which respect fundamental rights of the citizens, are standing against the groups that support the religious dictatorship. It is in this way that the democrats try to create a bipolar political environment in Iran. Given the current balance of power in the country and the conditions in the regions, the democratic groups have modest goals, but they are trying to eliminate the military and radical right from the political arena through democratic means.
The Iranian people have witnessed the catastrophic results of the military interventions of the West and its allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, which have resulted in total destruction, over a million dead, and millions of refugees, not to mention the possibility of disintegration of these nations. They do not wish a similar fate for their nation.
But, due to its dictatorial nature, the Islamic Republic has, on the one hand, institutionalized ethnic, religious, and gender discriminations and, on the other hand, due to its confrontation with Saudi Arabia and Israel is being presented as a nation far more powerful than its actual strength, in order to demonize it so that it could have the same fate as Syria and Iraq.
Thus the threat to Iran is grave. Under such conditions, wisdom and Iran's national interests call for caution. If Iran, a nation of 80 million people, has the same fate as Syria, millions will be killed and millions more will be refugees, the consequences of which will be catastrophic for the entire world. Thus, opposing the dictatorship of the Islamic Republic cannot be synonymous with opposing Iran as a nation and its people. The only way to move forward is through a peaceful transition to democracy and respect for human rights.
Iran and the Incoming Trump Administration
Polls indicate that a large majority of the American people also oppose military intervention in other countries. During his campaign for president Donald Trump repeatedly declared his opposition to "regime change" that the neoconservatives have favored. But, given the national security team that he has selected so far, the Iranian people cannot be sure about the direction that the Trump administration will take regarding their country. Many members of President-Elect Trump are fiercely anti-Iran. In the past, some in the GOP have called for bombing Iran. Sheldon Adelson, a major backer of Trump, even called for nuclear attack on Iran.
Iranian reformists and moderates, and the Green Movement's leaders want better relations with Western nations and the United States. They are worried that the Trump administration will take a course action that will only benefit Iran's hardliners, leading to the elimination of the moderates from power. Trying to scrap the nuclear agreement with Iran, or imposing new sanctions will only benefit the hardliners, but hurt the moderates.
Iran and the United States have many common interests in the Middle East. Good relations between the two countries will contribute to Iran transitioning to a democratic state. On the other hand, external pressure will be used by the hardliners to further their repression of the Iranian people.
If the reformists and moderates can defeat the hardliners in the upcoming elections by a wide margin, President Rouhani will be able to form a more effective cabinet. The defeat of Iran's extreme right is a major defeat for Khamenei. The democratic groups have no choice but supporting the moderates, so that the peaceful transition to democracy becomes possible.
The threats that Khamenei and IRGC commanders make for executing the Green Movement's leaders and further tightening the restrictions against Khatami indicate, more than anything else, that they are terrified by the four leaders, and that the Green Movement has a powerful social base. Leaders of the Green Movement are Iran's national asset who can help their nation and their peaceful movement for a democratic state. The world should pressure Khamenei to release the three leaders.
Iran is different from the rest of the world. In Iran Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari proclaims that the Quran is not a direct revelation from God. He also proposes that the religious jurisprudence and its masters, the influential "Sources of Imitation" in Qum theological seminary are the Shi'a equivalents of ISIS. Finally, he publically challenges and invites him to a debate to prove him wrong. The former have introduced proxies for this debate, but he has refused and stipulated that he would only face the highest authorities, if they dare to confront him. In Iran it is possible to deny the truth of revelation and to equate the ruling religious doctrine and the rank and file of the clerical hierarchy with their mortal and highly despised enemy: ISIS. What other Islamic country would tolerate that?
This article was translated by Ali N. Babaei