The Iranian regime is a regime in trouble. The leading opposition figures will not be silenced, and the young dissidents in the streets just will not go away.
The leading opposition figures are not marginal or opportunistic operators – they are key figures in the Islamic Revolution. Consider who they are:
Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who died at his home in Qom on 19 December at the age of 87, was the architect of the novel constitutional principal of velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurisprudent) which was introduced by Ayatollah Khomeini. Although he was central to the establishment of the velayat-e faqih, Montazeri’s position was that clerics should play an advisory role rather than rule directly, a point on which he seems to have fallen out with Khomeini.
Montazeri was nominated to succeed Khomeini as Supreme Leader, but became an increasingly controversial figure. He spoke out against the sudden execution of thousands of dissidents in 1988, and became an opponent of the export of the revolution. Of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie he said "People in the world are getting the idea that our business in Iran is just murdering people."
In 1997 he was placed under house arrest after calling for a sharp reduction in the powers of the Leader, saying that the occupant of this position should “supervise, not rule”, and that Khamene’i was not competent to issue religious rulings – telling commentary because Montazeri was so much more senior a cleric than Khamane’i, whose supporters were never able to get him elected to grand ayatollah level. He was released from house arrest in 1993.
He continued to be a thorn in the flesh of the regime right up to his death, speaking out about human rights including women’s rights, insisting that legitimacy flows from the people to the government and not the other way around, and always arguing from deep religious principles. After the June election he issued a statement that the Islamic republic is neither Islamic nor a republic.
In death he will probably be more of a problem for the regime than he was in life. Hundreds of thousands of mourners turned out for his funeral on 21 December, and the funeral became the occasion of both a mass protest against the regime and efforts on the part of Basiji militia to prevent reformist figures such as Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi from reaching Montazeri’s house .
Mir Hossein Moussavi, Prime Minister of Iran from 1981-89, a term which was almost completely coextensive with the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. He is well regarded for his management of Iran during that very difficult period.
Moussavi is the candidate from whom the June election was stolen. During the campaign he campaigned for a freer information environment, an end to discrimination against women, and for law enforcement agencies to be made responsible to the elected President rather than the unelected supreme leader. A reformist and member of the Islamic Left, he is nevertheless a rather conservative figure, and has been a member of the Expediency Council, which resolves disputes between the clerics and the legislature, since 1989.
Dr Mohammad Khatami, President of Iran from 1997-2005. Dr Khatami is one of Iran’s leading reformists. He had been a member of Mir Hossein Moussavi’s cabinet, and stood in 1997 when Moussavi declined to do so. He ran on a platform of liberalisation and reform, and won a landslide victory with 70 per cent of the vote. During his two terms as president, Khatami advocated freedom of expression, tolerance and civil society, constructive diplomatic relations with other states, and an economic policy that supported a free market and foreign investment.
Having completed two terms he was not eligible to stand again, and was succeeded by surprise victor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He indicated an intention to stand in the 2009 election, but in March when Moussavi announced his intention to run Dr Khatami withdrew in order not to split the reformist vote.
Mehdi Karroubi, Chairman of the National Trust Party, which he founded in 2005. He was speaker of the Iranian Parliament (Majlis) from 1989-92 and from 2000-04. He is a supporter of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to whom he was an adviser and who appointed him to the Expediency Discernment Council, but is a critic of the Guardian Council, the most influential body in the Iranian political system.
In his first term as speaker Karroubi identified himself with the radical faction which pursued populist policies and favoured state control of the economy. In 1989 he headed an association of radical clerics but he left that group to found the National Trust Party. He continues to favour a strong role for the state in the planning of the economy, but has been a strong advocate for the human rights of Iranian citizens, including improvements in the rights of women and the rights of religious and tribal minorities.
In August Karroubi claimed that some of his supporters had been tortured to death while being held in detention following large scale post-election protests. He also called for an investigation into allegations that both male and female detainees were sexually assaulted and raped in prison.
Karroubi is in many ways the regime’s most problematic critic. A conservative cleric, like Montazeri he argues from religious principles and accordingly challenges the regime on its home ground. He refuses to be silenced, and as he was jailed nine times by the Shah he is clearly a difficult man to intimidate.
Although the regime initially denied Karroubi’s charges, on 19 December CNN reported (here) that three Iranian prison officials had been charged with premeditated murder and nine others indicted on unspecified charges relating to the abuse of detainees.
As for the street demonstrations, they simply refuse to die, and every public occasion connected with a reformist or dissident figure, such as Ayatollah Montazeri’s funeral, simply becomes another occasion for public protest.
In recent days things have only gone from bad to worse. On 26 December Government forces shut down a speech by Mohammad Khatami. About 50 vigilantes armed with chains, batons and pepper spray disrupted a speech by Mr. Khatami at Jamaran Mosque in Tehran, the home mosque of Ayatollah Khomeini. The mosque sits next door to the house of Ayatollah Khomeini, many of whose relatives have sided with the opposition in this conflict. This year, for the first time, the government canceled the Shiite mourning ceremonies at Ayatollah Khomeini’s shrine, which were to have taken place in conjunction with the holidays on Saturday and Sunday.
After a day of protests and violent crack-down, the regime has arrested former Foreign Minister Mohammad Yazdi and three close aides of Mir Hossein Moussavi. His nephew, Ali Moussavi, was assassinated, reportedly by five men who first ran him down and then jumped out of their car and shot him. His body subsequently disappeared from the hospital to which he had been taken, in an apparent attempt to prevent his funeral from becoming the occasion for yet another protest.
The violent crackdown on Ashura, the holiest day of the Shiite calendar, brought yet another attack on the regime from Mehdi Karroubi. Noting that even the Shah had honoured the holiday’s ban on violence, he said in a statement:
What has happened to this religious system that it orders the killing of innocent people during the holy day of Ashura?
On Saturday this gentle 72 years old cleric was attacked by plain clothes security men, and other attackers smashed the windscreen of his car.
The recent actions of the regime and its supporters do not appear to be the actions of a regime that is confident, smart, or in control of its own supporters. A regime that is reduced to spiriting bodies away is in deep trouble. All the more reason for Western countries to stand back and let events take their course.