Mehdi Karroubi is a political opposition leader who came to prominence in the ill-fated 2009 presidential elections where he teamed up with fellow political opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi. The elections ended with widespread protests fueled by accusations that the regime had rigged the elections in order for hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to win against the liberal/reformist/moderate candidates. Mousavi and Karroubi were branded by the regime as “seditionists” who had plotted a move “against national interests and national security” and were dealt with “completely within the framework of the law”. For two years, the regime skirted the issue of what to do with these leaders, but in 2011, following the Arab Spring, both were placed under house arrest without even going to trial for calling for more demonstrations. They were swiftly placed under house arrest without a trial, losing both their freedom to a legal hearing as well their freedom to leave their houses.
During his presidential campaign, Hassan Rouhani promised to free these political prisoners from their house arrests but unfortunately for them, Rouhani was more focused on signing the nuclear deal and lifting sanctions. Last week, Karroubi published an open letter to Rouhani, requesting that he be given his day in court in an effort to clear his name. Rouhani was stuck between a rock and a hard place: he couldn’t accept Karroubi’s request for a trial because this would be against the orders of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei but on the other hand, he could not refuse Karroubi’s request because he would look weak to his base of voters. So he chose a third alternative: ignore Karroubi.
And that’s where it stands today: Karroubi and Mousavi are stuck in legal limbo, de facto imprisoned without being formally charged and without a legal trial but Rouhani will not be able to escape this injustice forever especially with upcoming presidential elections in 2017 which Rouhani plans to win.
Karroubi stuck in Catch-22
In his satirical novel Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s protagonist, Captain John Yossaria wants to get discharged from the army for being mentally unfit but an army by-law, Catch-22, paradoxically states that mentally unfit soldiers should be discharged but not at their request since mentally unfit soldiers could not know that they are mentally unfit.
Karroubi is stuck in a Catch-22 of his own: If he stays under house arrest, he can continue to do so indefinitely but if he does go to court, he might be sentenced to death as Khamenei made it clear in July 2014: “Their offence is too big. If Imam (Khomeini) were alive, he would treat them more severely. If they were prosecuted, their sentence would be too heavy and for sure it would not please you. We have treated them with kindness“. Khamenei went further to claim that Mousavi and Karroubi had lost their rights for “hurting Iran” and for not “apologizing” but then added that “even if these people repented, their repentance was not acceptable“.
But Karroubi is thinking beyond his own personal welfare: He wants his day in court not only to free himself from his house arrest but as a political statement which could galvanize the support of all moderate and reformist voters.
Rouhani stuck in Catch 22
There is no doubt that Rouhani would like to see Mousavi and Karroubi released. The problem is that any efforts on his part to do so would pit him not only against the hardliners who are already trying to trip him up but against Khamenei himself which is always a dangerous proposal. At the time, he compared the issue of the house arrests as “unripe fruit” which could not be touched but which, on the other hand, could “not drag on indefinitely”. On the other hand, Rouhani’s powers in regards to Mousavi and Karroubi are legally limited: “The administration does not have any authority in this area, they can only create the conditions. If the conditions calm down and we distance [ourselves] from the political atmosphere, if the atmosphere becomes normal and calm, it may be possible that the administration can reach this promise“. On the other hand, as reformist MP Ali Motahari made it clear that “Its (house arrest) continuation without a judicial decree does not have legal, Shari’a, and moral legitimacy and is against the third chapter of the constitution. It is like sentencing someone to life imprisonment without a trial“.
In this context, if and when Rouhani uses his presidency to either allow them a trial or to free them, it will be a political move and not a legal one.
Iran stuck in Catch 22
The heads of the regime might find it simpler to let Mousavi and Karroubi to rot under house arrest far from the preying eyes of the Iranian media but every once in a while, it becomes harder to hide the injustice. Activists and journalists continue to pester Rouhani and other leaders in regards to the house arrests and every time one of these men get sick or miss a family wedding, the rumble of dissatisfaction can be heard in Tehran.
But Rouhani is playing it safe for now: “Everything must be done on its own time with its own appropriate speed“. But Rouhani cannot remain neutral on this issue for long. The next presidential elections are taking place in June 2017 which really isn’t that far away and if he wants to win, he will have to show that he is a man who will fulfil his promises, however daunting they may seem to be.
His biggest problem is that he is already clashing with hardliners and with Khamenei on issues regarding the JCPoA and despite the relative win of moderates in the elections to the parliament and Assembly of Experts, he is too weak to take on Khamenei. He might have been able to get away with signing a nuclear deal which compromised some of Khamenei’s “red lines” and which is bogged down by other US sanctions but saving Mousavi and Karroubi would openly pit him against the regime since opposing the regime in any way is considered a sin which can carry a death sentence.
Meanwhile, the Iranian people will have to wait until the clash between Khamenei and Rouhani clears up.