The Green Movement Stirs and Rouhani Responds

Mir Hossein Mousavi, Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi

by LobeLog’s Tehran correspondent

On February 14, Iran’s Green Movement leaders will enter their fifth year of house arrest. Despite his implicit campaign promise, President Hassan Rouhani has been unable to gain the release of former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, his wife Zahra Rahnavard, and former speaker of parliament Mehdi Karroubi. As recent events indicate, however, supporters of the Green Movement are still demanding the release of these opposition leaders and insisting that Rouhani’s office implement democratic reform.

Ali Motahari, the only conservative MP who supports Rouhani’s moderate political positions, openly criticized the ongoing house arrests and demanded the release of the Green Movement leaders in a parliamentary speech on January 11. “The continuation of the house arrests of Mousavi, Karroubi, and Rahnavard after the end of street disturbance and without judicial verdict violates many principles of the constitution,” said Motahari, the son of Ayatollah Morteza Motahari, one of the Islamic Republic’s leading ideologues after 1979 revolution. “I consider it harmful (to the country),” he added.

Hard-line parliament members attacked the MP, tore up his papers, and did not allow him to continue his speech.

Although the reformist newspapers in Iran have been unable to address the house arrest issue, Motahari’s speech and the scuffle that ensued allowed newspapers to dedicate their front-page headlines to the senior conservative MP’s positions and his support for the release of the former presidential candidates. The newspaper Etemad chose the ironic title of “Motahar Speech” as the front-page headline. Motahar means “holy” in Persian.

After this wave of media attention, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati took a firm stance against those demanding the release of the leaders of the Green Movement. “If four jerks started talking about this subject, does it represent the opinion of 75 million Iranians?” Jannati is the head of the Guardian Council that vets the candidates for presidential, parliamentary, and Assembly of Experts elections. His comment created another wave of reaction from Green Movement supporters, this time not in the newspapers but in social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Thousands of users posted “I am a jerk, too” in announcing their support for the release of Mousavi and Karroubi.

Rouhani Gets Involved

In a May 13, 2013 question-and-answer session during Rouhani’s campaign, Sharif University of Technology students questioned the candidate about his views on the house arrests. “I think it’s possible to bring about a situation, over the next year, in which not only those under house arrestm but also those who have been imprisoned after the 2009 election, will be released,” he replied.

Since his election, however, Rouhani hasn’t made any further statements about the case or indicated any involvement. However, the Saham News website, which is close to Karroubi’s National Trust party, reported that during a National Security Council meeting last month, the president requested the documents related to the Mousavi and Karroubi case for review during the Council’s next session in mid-February. The Council includes the head of the judiciary, the speaker of parliament, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the commander of the army, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as the president himself, who chairs its deliberations.

In this session, Rouhani reportedly said that “the National Security Council has not been the decision maker regarding this matter, but it has been demonstrated publicly that the Council is responsible for house arrests, while the judiciary is trying to shirk its responsibility in this arena.” Rouhani was apparently trying to say that the Mousavi and Karoubi case is only related to the judiciary and that legally the courts must hold their trial as soon as possible. In recent years, judiciary officials had claimed that the case of the Green Movement leaders is in the hands of the National Security Council. Rouhani’s statement is also important because it was his first position on the Green Movement case since he became president in June 2013.

In another development, the Association of Combatant Clergymen, one of the oldest and most important reformist groups, urged Rouhani to request Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s support in ending the house arrests of Karoubi and Mousavi. (Karoubi has been associated with the reformist association over the years, and former reformist President Mohammad Khatami is now the chairman of the association’s central council.)

The Continuing Impact of the 2013 Elections

During the 2013 presidential campaign, Rouhani was given the least chance to win, according to polls taken at the outset of the race. But, accompanied by a wave of support from the Green Movement’s social networks—both in public and on line—and supported by senior reformist figures, including Khatami, he managed to defeat his conservative rivals in the first round.

This surprising but decisive victory in 2013 showed the influence of Green Movement supporters on the political equation in Iran. In the last 18 months, these supporters have tried to contain their hopes for domestic reforms due to conservative pressure on the nuclear talks. Yet the continuous support from Green Movement leaders and their rapid response to the comments about Mousavi and Karroubi in the last two months suggest that they want to remind the political forces inside the government—such as Rouhani—that they have not forgotten their demands for political change, particularly the ones they brought up after 2009.

In a March 2014 article, Morad Saqafi, the editor of the quarterly intellectual journal Goft-E-Goo compared the current situation in Iran to a fire smoldering beneath the ashes. “The large majority of people have held their breaths to let executive officials deliver the desired result,” he wrote. He believes that after the results of the nuclear talks are clear, proponents of reform “will follow up on their demands.”

Saeed Hajjarin, the “reform theoretician” who served as Khatami’s adviser during his presidency, takes these democratic demands seriously. But he has also pointed to the dire economic situation stemming from the international sanctions and the nuclear talks. In an interview with Andishe-Pouya magazine, he said that “the current situation is like a house on fire, and first of all we need to put the fire out. I do not mean that democracy is a fantasy. It is a serious demand. But before addressing the democratic demands, the current problems must be solved.”

The nuclear talks have kept the lid on the pot of Iranian domestic politics. With the end of the negotiations, the real excitement—and the real political and social tensions—is bound to rise again. At that time, Rouhani’s approach to the political demands of the Green Movement will demonstrate exactly how long the president and social forces can maintain their implicit alliance.

Photo of Mir Hossein Mousavi, Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi

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