Two elderly, ailing politicians under house arrest pose a tougher test of President Hassan Rouhani’s ability to change Iran than half a dozen world leaders in Geneva.
Rouhani’s diplomats have been lauded for last month’s nuclear deal to ease sanctions, helping the president meet one of the pledges that propelled him to a surprise election win in June. The tougher part of his agenda remains, with little progress on the promises of greater liberties for Iranians in their own country, where the fate of Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi remains a litmus test.
The two politicians, who led protests against what they said was a rigged presidential vote in 2009, have been in detention for almost three years and are rarely mentioned by the Islamic Republic’s television channels and newspapers. Their supporters helped elect Rouhani, yet there’s no sign of a change in their conditions under the new president, who needs the backing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for major policy shifts.
“Rouhani has to navigate different power structures,” Richard Dalton, a former U.K. ambassador to Iran who is an associate fellow at the Chatham House research institute, said in a phone interview from London last month. “He has to feel his way, find out what the limits are.”
It’s not just dissident politicians who are learning the limits of change under Rouhani.
Iran’s morality police arrested Amir Tataloo, a popular underground singer whose songs authorities deemed inappropriate, Etemaad newspaper reported last week. The Bahar newspaper, a reformist daily, was shut down and its editor arrested for publishing an article that implied political power could only be bestowed by popular mandate.
Rouhani campaigned on promises of social changes including greater press freedoms and the release of political prisoners, in an appeal to followers of the Green Movement led by Mousavi and Karrubi.
Yet the president has little influence over the security services. Officials heading the Revolutionary Guards, justice and intelligence ministries and the military report to Khamenei.
Asked about further reforms in an interview with the Financial Times days after the Nov. 24 nuclear accord in Geneva, Rouhani hinted at the complex power structure he must navigate.
“Some issues in this country need consensus of other branches and officials,” he told the U.K. newspaper.
Nine politicians and activists wrote an open letter to Rouhani Dec. 10 urging him to lift the house arrest of Mousavi and Karrubi for the sake of “national unity.” The letter was published on the front page of Etemaad.
In an apparent reference to Mousavi and Karrubi, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who heads the Guardian Council, a body with power to vet candidates and veto legislation, said Nov. 22 there could be no question of more compassionate treatment for those guilty of sedition and who were unwilling “to repent.”
Both men are in their 70s and, according to relatives who asked not to be identified as they fear reprisals for talking to the international media, are in poor health. Mousavi underwent tests on his heart in August after suffering chest pains, one family member said in a phone interview. Karrubi suffers from arthritis and also has heart problems.
The protests they led in 2009 marked “a serious moment of instability and raised questions about the future of the Islamic Republic,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Once Mousavi and Karrubi were removed, the movement was decapitated and it became easy to dismantle the rest.”
Demonstrations recurred sporadically for almost two years before Mousavi and Karrubi were detained in February 2011, after a rally in solidarity with the wave of Middle East uprisings that year.
Rouhani, a 65-year-old cleric whose friendship with Khamenei spans more than three decades, has to move cautiously, said Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her work to promote democracy and human rights.
Mousavi, his wife Zahra Rahnavard, and Karrubi remain “under arbitrary detention,” said Ebadi, a former judge and a critic of clerical rule who has lived in self-imposed exile since 2009. “Their situation is worse than that of other political prisoners,” she said, without elaborating.
In a posting on Facebook, Mousavi’s two daughters, Nargess and Zahra, described a visit to their father in October during which they said guards attempted to carry out a strip search and then physically abused both women.
“My father has been held for more than 1,000 days without any charges brought against him,” Taghi Karrubi, the former presidential candidate’s son, said in a telephone interview from London. “There has been no judicial process.”
To gain their freedom, the two men would have to quit politics, and that is “something they will not accept,” said Mojtaba Vahedi, a former chief of staff and adviser to Karrubi who is now a political analyst in Washington.
There have been some signs of restrictions easing since Rouhani’s June election win. Political prisoners have been released, among them lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh who has represented opposition activists and human rights workers including Ebadi.
That may not be enough to meet expectations that “had been raised very high” by Rouhani’s election victory, said Ali Ansari, director of the Institute of Iranian Studies at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland and the author of six books on Iran’s politics. The president’s priority is “to address the sanctions and to alleviate the pain on the economy,” not domestic reform, he said.
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